Our book club recently read A Canticle for Leibowitz, a 1960 collection of three related stories about a future that barely remembers our 1950s civilization. A Canticle for Leibowitz is set 600 years in the future after our civilization destroys itself in a nuclear war. The stories are about the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, where a future Catholic monastery works to preserve the relics of a Jewish electrical engineer named Isaac Edward Leibowitz. They do not know what the relics mean, and even illuminate one of Leibowitz’s engineering blueprints.
This got me to thinking about how many things I own might be preserved in the future. And how many things from the past I own. Making the cutoff date 1950, I quickly realized I have damn few relics from the past. All I can come up with are photographs, and a few knickknacks Susan and I have inherited from our parents. If I move the date up to 1960 I can add an old wooden radio cabinet, more photographs, some LPs, a handful of books, and our house, which was built in 1957. If I jump to 1970, we add many more photographs, a few more LPs, and a fair amount of household items.
None of my older possessions are particular durable. None will become antiques worth collecting. The items I find the most meaningful are photographs and twelve hardback Heinlein juveniles I bought in 1968 with my first paycheck when I was 16. I assume when I die my wife will give the books away to Goodwill and the photographs to my sister or her sons.
Our throw-away society doesn’t lend itself well to being remembered. However, the sense of wonder generated in A Canticle for Leibowitz is because civilization collapses so thoroughly that most everything is destroyed, and what’s left is cherished.
I don’t think I own a single thing that would be worth preserving 600 years, but if I did, what one thing do I own that I would like to represent me and the 20th century to future people? I would have to pick my hard back copy of Have Space Suit – Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. I used to own a very nice slide rule from the 1950s, and if I still had that, I might have chosen it. But the Heinlein book really does represent me well. But what would people a millennia from now think of such a story? Would their daily language even allow them to read it?
And if I’m honest, I know future people won’t give a damn about our junk. They won’t give a damn about what we think or believed. Some of our crap might make it to museums of the future, and a few eccentrics might collect 20th century doodads, but really, how many people in the year 3013 will even think about us? Just how much daily life from 1013 do we know about now? The Al-Hakim Mosque was finished about a 1,000 years ago.
Things that really last are usually buildings, artwork, monuments – works that people create to last. I’ve often wondered what the world would be like if we all built our houses with the intention they will last a very long time – so every home becomes a museum. Would that stifle innovation, or stimulate creativity? Most of the stuff we own ends up in landfill, so psychologically, doesn’t that mean we’re living with garbage and not art?
Imagine a world where the smallest house lot is one acre, and each house owner builds a home intended to last centuries, if not thousands of years. That everyone lives in the equivalent of an English mini-manor house. Picture manicured gardens outside, and beautiful art collections on the inside. How would society change? Would we still want cars and roads cluttering up the countryside? Or visible power lines, phone cables, satellite dishes? Would we design houses to withstand tornadoes and hurricanes? Could we design roofs that could go 500 years without maintenance?
Homo sapiens have been around for tens of thousands of years. History, not so long, say five thousand years. Unless we destroy ourselves, homo sapiens, and their descendants, AI robots, could be around for millions of years. How long will we continue to process the resources of the Earth into landfill? At some point we need to make things that will last, and yet, leave room for new art to evolve and be added.
If I was young I’d buy a plot of land and design a house to last. I’d furnish it with antique scientific equipment, beautiful electronics from the 20th century, and as much art as I could afford. I’d want it solar powered. I’d want enough land to make an interesting landscape.
It’s a shame I didn’t think of this sooner.
JWH – 10/14/13