The Conceit of Linearity

In her essay “The Reveal,” Charlotte du Cann characterizes civilizations as “fixed systems within vast non-linear systems.”1 I’d say this description is accurate. At some point the mounds of Cahokia and citadels of Mohenjo-daro crossed the line from being integral, maintained facets of living communities to being mere ruins. What happened? We in fact know that Cahokia was abandoned due to deforestation-induced flooding, political infighting, and finally a massive earthquake,2 while the (probable) salinization of crop fields around Mohenjo-daro was accompanied by shifts in the course of the Indus River plus a series of earthquakes.3 In effect, the vast nonlinear systems of climate and geology confounded the linear assumptions of continued agricultural sustenance that engender cultures to become sedentary. So the ancients of the Mississippi and Indus valleys pulled up stakes and left. 

We’ve all gotten a taste lately of what it’s like when sedentary culture’s expectation of linearity runs up against the biophysical vicissitudes of Earth. COVID-19 has scrambled global supply chains, and what began as a run on hygiene products has rippled out to shortages of computer chips, manufacturing parts, food items, and other consumer goods as factories worldwide contend with rolling waves of covid-related closures.4 The grounding of the Ever Given container ship this spring in the Suez Canal seemed to be a metaphor for the breakdown of commercial normalcy while literally deepening the supply chain morass further.5 But beyond the material realm, COVID-19 has also undermined the ecosystem of human services we in the industrial world depend on. I can’t speak for other countries, but in the US a deficit of healthcare workers6 and childcare workers7 has grown to acute levels since the pandemic began. Even celebratory fixtures of modern life like the Olympic Games have not been spared. The “Tokyo 2020” graphics at this summer’s Olympiad served as an omnipresent reminder to TV viewers that one of our most vaunted gathering of nations was also waylaid by invisible lifeforms likely unleashed by disregard for wild animals and the nonhuman realm.8

Ever Given grounded in the Suez Canal (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I went deaf in my left ear at the age of 18. At the time I was already experiencing progressive hearing loss in my right ear, and I was making plans for my life that depended on me not experiencing anything as drastic as sudden hearing loss. I’ve also had to contend with other unexpected health complications. So I’m intimately familiar with the ways in which expectations of linearity become a conceit. This sustained exposure to disruption is why I don’t think the covid-related convulsions afflicting the world are temporary hiccups. Rather, they feel like dress rehearsals for the more significant discontinuities we will have to adjust to as the exponential processes of global warming ramp up. So it could be well advised to get used to disruption rather than long for a golden pre-covid era when the flows of labor, commerce, and our familiar modes of living were seemingly unimpeded.

This cognitive shift towards an expectation of further upheaval does not have to be prep for some sort of atavistic low-tech future. In conversation I’ve been referring to my experience of these years of cultural and personal transition as a ride, as in “I’m riding the tumult.” Only lately have I noticed how this choice of verb aligns my subjective experience with how a surfer regards the ocean. Surfers paddle towards one of the most recognizably nonlinear manifestations of nature—an ocean wave—with relatively little assurance that they will emerge unscathed. Yet if they do catch a swell and ride it in full, they can get exhilaration out of the process and find that, once the water has calmed, they are better for the experience. 

It all comes down to perception, which is an exercise of free will. Choosing to “ride” tumult does not deny instances of devastation or mass casualty (we are in the middle of a pandemic after all). But while the media goes into histrionics about the disintegration of normal and many people further broadcast this narrative of fear by demonizing something as trivial as a face mask, the rest of us can choose to transmute something frightening into a learning experience. When a critical mass of people turns the unknown into an opportunity for growth, then we are laying the groundwork for that longed-for societal metamorphosis process. 

The disintegration of predictability—our conceit of linearity—is not the end of the world. It’s the end of the world as we know it, where our institutions are okay with proceeding with business as usual while atmospheric carbon dioxide rises to its highest level in 3 million years9 and we careen further into the planet’s sixth mass extinction. Unlike the people of Cahokia or Mohenjo-daro, we know where environmental despoliation and political dysfunction is taking us. So treating our paradigm’s loss of predictability as a learning opportunity is a matter of societal survival. If we do in fact turn the current global tremors to our advatage, we may look back on these years as the invitation to the more beautiful world we ended up creating.



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