Isaac Asimov may have been the worst of the famous science fiction writers. His unsophisticated prose would have been dreadful if written by a teenager, let alone by somebody who made a living out of selling it. Shame on those of us who bought it. But every now and then he managed to express some ideas with a surprising degree of realism, so that they transcended his otherwise insufferable morass of words. One such case is that of the planet around a binary star system in a globular cluster, that provides the argument for Nightfall. Another one is that of Trantor, the planet-wide city in his Foundation novels, that was transparently modeled on Asimov’s adoptive mid-century New York. Now imagine an entire planet that looks like Manhattan, an entire planet paved and built over, with an unimaginably large human population. Leaving aside obvious problems, such as how is an oxygen-bearing atmosphere sustained in Trantor, where do the food, water and energy for the countless trillions of people come from and how is their waste disposed of, the mental image that this planet always brought to me was powerful, fascinating and repulsive. As Manhattan, Trantor fascinates you with its megalomaniac architecture and repels you with its overcrowding and with the unspoken impossibility of escaping it. But there is nothing in Trantor that hints at the banality, the easy but pointless affluence, the frivolity and massification, the appalling yet arrogant ignorance that define humanity in the early twenty first century.
We have reached a point where few places are remote and unknown enough that it is possible to spend a silent evening watching the sun go down without having crowds of egocentric individuals standing in one’s way and yelling with idiotic laughter. Where it is rare to be able to hike a trail without being interrupted by hordes of boorish loudmouths, or to visit a museum without having selfie sticks peremptorily thrust in one’s face. Where it is impossible to roam around some historical site without having to elbow one’s way past people who don’t know the meaning of the place, nor even why they are there in the first place, other than because Lonely Planet told them to go and they wanted their very own selfie in that place. And because it was possible to go thanks to airfares that are ridiculously inexpensive.
At the root of all of this is the confluence of overpopulation with a moment in history in which there is a larger fraction of humanity that has become more affluent more easily than ever before. Sociologists, political scientists, journalists and other “opinion makers” see this affluence as a positive development. But they almost always fail to see the catastrophic aspects of this confluence of overpopulation and affluence. One that should be immediately obvious is that a finite planet cannot sustain indefinite economic growth. I have written extensively on some aspects of this problem in a more formal setting, and will not repeat myself here. Rather, I wish to focus on a different and seldom acknowledged aspect: that the explosive increase in the number of affluent humans has brought with it a catastrophic decline in the intellectual quality of life. As humanity’s average wealth has increased, the proportion of the human species that has acquired a meaningful education, and the ability for rational critical thinking that comes with it, has gone down. Why? Because all that matters is to get some (largely meaningless) diploma as quickly and effortlessly as possible, and then enter the affluence race, where what matters is appearance, not substance. This is the essence of education today – indeed, the essence of life for much of the human species. I have been a University professor for the better part of three decades, and have witnessed the unfolding tragedy. One only needs to compare present-day educational curricula with those of half a century ago. And there are other cultural indicators as well. Take, for instance, music. If one were to judge by today’s standards one would have to conclude that popular music is tantamount to garbage. Sure, there was always plenty of garbage, but there were also elaborate masterpieces in the popular repertoire of not too long ago. Not any longer. Formal music? (“classical” is a misnomer). Stravinsky (d. 1971), Shostakovich (d. 1975) and a few of their quasi-contemporaries were the last great exponents of one of the two peak achievements of the human mind (mathematics is the other one). After them it has been a desert. The last great work of literary fiction? Buried under decades of “best-sellers” that are not worth the paper they are printed on. If there is a bright spot in this intellectual desolation it is in the physical and mathematical sciences. But their findings, the only absolute truths in the cosmos, are more often than not ignored, when not ridiculed, by a populace with no attention span, brought-up in the obscurantism of religion, obsessed with celebrity and instant gratification, and willing to believe whatever some ignorant and criminal demagogue tells them (I am thinking about the catastrophe that is currently unfolding in the USA, with its inevitable worldwide ramifications).
Thanks also to the abomination called “social media” everybody wants to do what everybody else is doing, and to share their exploits on a touch screen. Nobody gives an instant’s thought to why, other than “me too”. The thrill is fleeting – on to the next thing. Perhaps I will come up with something that my friends have not done, and then share it with them so that they are compelled to go ahead and do it too. The cycle feeds on itself. The destruction of remote places caused by the human flood is set in motion, and amplified by countless websites with names such as “The ten places to go this year”. With large consumption fueled by relatively easy affluence also comes economy of scale, which has led to a precipitous decline in the cost of travel, particularly air travel. I don’t have inflation adjusted values, but I do know that it costs the same amount of dollars, if not less, to fly just about anywhere today as it did thirty years ago. With inflation that probably means about a third in real value. Every time that I get on a plane I wish that we were still flying in noisy and slow Super Constellations or Britannias. At least there was something to look forward to, if anything because it was the sort of trip that one took only rarely, and that most people never got to take.
Is this intellectual elitism? Certainly. I will make no apologies for defending the rights to beauty, peace and quiet of a minority of us. To uphold our right to enjoy our intellects without being subject to the constant visual, auditory, cognitive – and not least physical – violence that pervades the “culture” of our time. I have a few refuges. Old books. Books on the history of other times. Music of decades and centuries past. Cats and, in fact, the love of and for all animals. Mathematics. And photography. But photography is becoming harder, as places that used to be little known are now overrun by forests of tripods and their “me too” owners, often accompanied by braggarts who call themselves “expert guides” or “instructors”, and who don’t give a second thought about destroying a meaningful place in order to make a profit or simply stoke their egos. I move on and find a quiet place. Perhaps the places that I tend to photograph are not as scenic as the most famous ones that have been forever ruined by the masses. But at least I have them to myself, until I am forced to move on again.