How Close is the End?
Each. Listener supported W NYC studios. Wonder when our world will become a ruin for archaeologists to explore. What will they make us? So far this year has brought an unusually abundant crop of apocalyptic omens most. Likely, global pandemic that's claimed half a million lives so far, but also fires raging across one of the coldest places on Earth Siberia due to the climate crisis Oh and a brief brush with the possibility of nuclear warfare back in January when the US ordered the killing of an Iranian general in fact, that's I I sat down with journalist and devoted amateur historian Dan Carlin creator of the compulsively listened to podcast hardcore history. He's the author of the new book. The end is always near apocalyptic moments from the bronze age collapse to nuclear near misses. I called him because I couldn't get one of those moments I I heard in his podcast out of my head. It was when xenophon the Greek encountered the disintegrating ruins of Great Assyrian. City. Gate that it's eight king mile fortifications, its walls one hundred feet high Niniveh possibly some two hundred years after its fall and imagining xenophon standing there. Wrap that it's impossible. Grand Grandeur xenophon was an ancient Greek general. In Persian civil war around the times of the classical Greek. So you know four hundreds BC, and while he's fleeing after the battle is over he and his men stumble upon cities that are just deteriorating in the dust but he can see from the walls and the height of everything that they're mammoth by comparison to what he knows about back home and he quizzes the locals and they blamed it on on the previous people who live nearby but a lot of people have always thought these are Syrian cities that a couple hundred years before had probably been the capital of the greatest empire. The world had yet known. You know the reason I think we find it compelling is because we? Can't imagine anything like that happening to us if you could go back and find the ruins of a civilization before yours and find stuff in it that cure cancer or that had medical technologies above and beyond our own, you wouldn't even know how to process it as a modern person because we've been on a five hundred to eight, hundred year John. If you think of human capabilities like a stock market, we've been on a stock market tear for since the renaissance at least there have been time periods in some places where growth has sort of gone backwards to rise up again so that xenophon account is wonderful. You likened it to that moment in the planet of the Apes. Damn us. The time traveller sees the Statue of Liberty's head in the dust and I've always loved that scene in that movie because of all, it says in the blink of an eye everybody at the same time in the theater has the same thought and realize the same thing at the same time, and it's this weird idea that xenophon was probably having. When he saw the Syrian cities, you pretty much start off your book with the end of the Bronze Age. I didn't realize how much was lost when it fell go back to our civilizational stock market idea it represents a real spike in. The modern areas of the Middle East, West Asia and the Mediterranean where all of a sudden you begin to have a highly sophisticated, highly literate for the time period massively interconnected society via things like trade and even communication. So letters between the various rulers of the various states which have survived in some cases. This is also the time by the way when our concept of ancient Egypt was at its height and when you read the histories of the period, it's really the first time that you look at it and you go gosh, you know I kind of from geopolitical standpoint I recognize this. If. We go back thousand years. We see an entirely different world. This bronze period lasted far longer than we can even imagine. And yet, it came down it could have been incursions of people from the C. Famine or climate change drought earthquakes, volcanoes, nominees plagues maybe Internet's and more fair or maybe a systems collapse maybe the first time you get such a sophisticated system. And the one thing you could say about the Bronze Age system compared to our own is it was a lot more brittle had a lot less redundancy in it. So if something did fail, the cascading effect might have affected them a lot more than affect us today like what? The trade system, for example, this was an era where the hittites were around when the Bronze Age ended they ended two. But when the hittites went down, they were sort of a center spoke of a wagon wheel in in the trade system in the in the area sort of at the crossroads between. West. Asia and the world of the Greeks I mean the Bronze Age was the first of the great eras of Greek civilization too. So if you're the hittites near the Great Trade middleman if all of a sudden, let's just say barbarian tribes takeover that region it's the equivalent of having the road cut. So I mean these are ways that the system itself if a local outage it happened might have cascaded like a bunch of Domino's what it systems collapsed. That did in the Roman Empire Oh boy it's a lot less excusable to not know why the Roman Empire than than the Bronze Age, you're talking about something that predates the Old Testament of the Bible. Longtime ago, comparatively speaking the Roman Empire's close to us and yet I don't know the last time I read there were two hundred and fifty or three hundred theories. But when the western Roman Empire went down, it's like a giant power station for that part of the world and when it went down a lot of other places where either on impulse power or totally in the dark and as you note, especially in connection with the fall of the Roman Empire, these falls might not be falls it all just changes in management this is one of the things I love about history. You know some people will sometimes make fun or get mad at revisions in history. That's revisionist history. Revisionist history is what historians do all the time as new information comes forward they react and synthesize it, and what it really does is over time you get a lot of different views and one of the ideas about the Roman Empire falling is that it didn't fall at all that what you have is a transition that's big these days that hard breaks or the end of Arizona whatever are more constructs by later historians and that for a lot of people in the air if I could transport you back there things might look reasonably the same, but you feel there's value in putting yourself back there to understand what humanity has come through so far. While at the same time understanding that it's it's sort of. Inconceivable. Historians have talked about this for years now about how it isn't possible to understand the past were to burdened by thing that we grew up with at the same time. This is why I like to get right into the human level because while we can't understand them culturally there are things that make people in any error, the same as people in any other era at a certain route level where all people and that's why those stories still resonate with us. In the book you talked about many towns where play took more than a quarter or in China, maybe ninety percent of the inhabitants what is due to the person? Do you attach yourself less children? Are you more brutal or casual about death US suggest that people in the time in certain fundamental ways maybe different from us right now, the last couple of years people on the coasts and in. Big. Cities may have felt a strain that they're not used to, and maybe the idea of pacalypse is in people's minds. Can we assume that what happens to us during one or two presidential administrations will change US forever can history turn on a dime? I would suggest that yes, history can turn on a dime but I I would also suggest that oftentimes when it appears to turn on a dime. The roots of that quick turn go back more deeply than maybe I appears I truly think someone were writing history book two hundred and fifty years from now and put our error right now into context that you could probably date this more towards the beginning of radio and then television, and then what we have now as almost an exponential growth in the power of communication and how that influences. Everything else, and so quickly that it is hard for systems to evolve at anywhere near the same speed. So I think you could already see the cracks forming in places that are more culturally repressive Iran China Russia where they're desperately trying to figure out how you control this de stabilizing power of communication. Now, they're the canaries in a coal mine will feel it too and we do feel it. Elections and foreign countries I mean when I was a kid Radio Free Europe is a big deal because you could be a signal across a border but think about how different is now everybody's on the same message boards together right? We are probably in the really early stages of this revolution I've done a bunch of shows. The hidden theme is this question about long-term progress that has to be paid for by a generation right if we're on our way to a better world, but there's going to be some creative destruction on the way to get there. Could we be the generation that has to pay the societal tab for that I actually debate this with myself sometimes about the practical value of thinking hard about these things because for example, I think you could make a logical case that we should all every single day be as concerned about the potential of nuclear war as people were while the Cuban missile crisis was happening but you quote Bertrand Russell saying you may reasonably expect a man to walk tight wrote safely for ten minutes it would be unreasonable to do so without accident for two hundred years. The basic question in that chapter is can humankind handle the ever increasing power of its own weapons systems. Can it evolve enough to keep up with its technology? This is the basic question between the two sides when atomic and nuclear weapons were young. You know the philosopher, the Bertrand Russell types and a lot of the people that worked on the early bombs saying we're going to have to grow into a higher level of greatness as human beings as a species willing to. Renounce war as policy and all these sorts of things, and then the people who did not have any faith in our collective ability to do that and thought if we can't figure out a higher level of greatness to grow into, we're going to have to use our human ingenuity and adaptability to create systems that allow us to live with the weapons and the power that they have. You say that part of the difficulty of imagining past apocalypse is has to do with this moment. Wherein the period of the long piece, a period in which we've developed weaponry that could conceivably destroy the world and we can't focus on it. That's the danger of the long piece I drew up next door to an air force colonel than he said once sometimes, it gets to be too long since you smelled the bodies, his point was he knew people that had walked through the concentration camps right after liberation and you know they made some of the locals who live nearby. Do, that too because it was something, you would never forget. But how many generations can you go since you had to live with a disaster like that too comes a television theme or a movie plot it's almost become banal. Oh, not another post Armageddon Nuclear War movie you know give me something new I don't have an answer but I almost feel like instead of making us more aware of the dangers that lurk right around the corner if we're not careful we're bored of Armegeddon. Tell me why you wrote the book. I'm interested in the extremes of human experience and these are backdrops where that comes to the fore. Yeah. But do you think we are approaching another extreme? We can dodge Ebola here a hemorrhagic fever there in avian flu somewhere else. But eventually, something's going to hit if only because if you consider that we may be around another ten thousand years I mean there's just so many things that can get you. WanNa play you a piece of tape. This is Bertrand Russell when you mentioned the kind of world order that you hope to see. Within the next twenty thirty years. What kind of world order do you think we can expect to see? Expect. Yes I expect you see nothing would cope she's. Quite simple. I think the human race boom truck last century. What do you think? I like to say the disclaimer if current trends continue if current trends continue, you're going to get to a point where the much slower evolving frameworks and systems that we have governments, for example, national entities, and all these things will not be able to coexist with with the level of change at the speed that it's happening when governments become destabilized maybe by social media or the impact of all these sorts of things that we may be our only beginning to see that could open up the door to things like war between the great powers, which seemed very far fetched today. So if current trends continue, I think we're heading deeper into this. Revolution that we live in and I think there's a decent possibility we might emerge on the other side into a better world, but we might be the generation that has to pick up the TAB for making that progress. Dan Thank you very much. Thank you for having me. Dan Carlin is creator of the groundbreaking podcast hardcore history and author of the end is always near apocalyptic moments from the bronze age collapse to nuclear near misses. Thanks for listening to this podcast extra. You can catch the big show on Friday, it's. Posted around dinnertime time and check out our newsletter for more on the media.