I do not intend to die any time soon.
I have too much complaining left to do on this planet.
But I think a lot about death.
I think a lot about societal death.
I think about my own death which will certainly come about sometime in the next five or seventy years.
Recently I retired from Texas A & M University.
For me, this essentially means moving from an appointment that mixes research, teaching and administrative responsibilities to a 100 percent research position. No committee meetings. Tons and tons of reading sociology and writing sociology, with a decent amount of data analysis thrown in. This website will continue. So will the various books I am writing.
Retirement does mean you get to give a speech to your department. And it being a retirement speech, you get to say things you would not be able to say at other opportunities.
I spoke about Death.
This is what I said:
* * *
Aging means decay.
The decay associated with age can be identified in ourselves, in our universities, in our country and in the world.
Objectively, many things are going well with the world.
Steven Pinker writes about a lot of this stuff in Better Angels of Our Nature. The world has seen steady improvement in:
1. GDP per capita
2. Calories per capita
3. Infant Mortality
4. Crime Rates
5. Death from Wars and Violence
Today, people are richer than they have been in any previous period in history.
They are less likely to starve to death. Their babies are less likely to die.
They are less likely to be the victims of crime. They are less likely to die as casualties of war.
This is true despite COVID, the recent war in the Ukraine, the persistent civil wars in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the various gang wars that take place in the cities of the Global South.
In earlier periods, piracy and banditry were widespread.
People were captured and sold into slavery. Crops failed every three to four years.
Plagues were common and widespread.
The Bubonic Plague was a rare event; however, people died routinely of typhus and cholera.
We all know about the abominations of the present day.
We forget the abominations of the past.
* * *
However, just because the world has improved in many, many ways, does not mean we that we do not face very real dangers in the future. These are problems that are occurring in the United States. These are problems that are occurring globally.
We have increasing social acceptance of explicit racism and outright ethnic hatred.
We have a crisis in confidence in government. No one credits anyone in public office with either goodwill or competence.
There is a crisis of inadequate taxation. This is leading to a fiscal crisis. The most recent manifestation of this is the May 2023 debt ceiling crisis in congress. Without adequate revenues, variations of this drama will play out in the underfunded governments of the world.
Government incapacity, whether from popular de-legitimation or from fiscal insufficiency leads to undercutting of education, reduced research, and in the American case, military incapacity to protect our interests overseas.
Globally, there has also been a decrease in levels of social cooperation.
International cooperation has been hampered by increasing nationalism.
Nationalism is undercut by separatism.
Collective identity is fragmented by identity politics: Urban vs Rural // Rustbelt vs Yuppiebelt // Religious vs Scientific.
Ethnicity and Sexuality are now battlegrounds for attempts to re-establish Majoritarian Male Privilege and the exclusion of all challengers of this program.
We get a vote as to what the Brave New World will look like.
But we have to put in that vote before we die.
* * *
The themes I discuss here are discussed in a historical context in my All Societies Die: How To Keep Hope Alive. (Cornell, 2022).
That book discusses how no society/empire has lasted longer than 1000 years.
Declines such as that associated with the Fall of Rome, or the Rise of Warring States Periods in China, were associated with dramatic drops in GDP and the standard of living, declines in state effectiveness, increases in violence, raiding and personal insecurity, and technological stagnation and retrogression.
There are also milder cases where society just becomes stagnant rather than having a complete decline and fall. Stagnations are associated with long term depression, decreased government effectiveness, increased corruption and high crime. Latin America’s Lost Decade of the 1980’s looks much like that. Spain declined from being the richest nation in the world in 1550 to being a bona fide case of underdevelopment in 1900. This is stagnation in the long durée.
* * *
Never mind society aging.
What about me?
When I think about aging, I think about the Japanese philosopher, Daisaku Ikeda. He has written extensively on the subject.
There is No Retirement Age For Life - Daisaku Ikeda from Aging: the Third Stage of Life
Age is no guarantee against groceries needing to get bought, plumbing needing to be fixed and the nine million stupid aggravations that are the basic material of daily life.
Age also does not change the basic business of doing something with your days that is essentially valuable. It is hard to create something of value when you are fifteen. It is just as hard at twenty-five, thirty-five, forty-five and fifty-five. At age sixty-five when they hand you your gold watch, doing something valuable is just as miserable and difficult as it ever was. You do not let the sheer difficulty of it all overwhelm you when you are fifteen. You don’t let the sheer difficulty of it all overwhelm you at the older ages either.
Again from Aging: the Third Stage of Life …
In his last years, Tolstoy kept to a strict and rigorous schedule, writing every day from ten in the morning to three in the afternoon, even on holidays. … Before his death, he continued to seek the meaning of life and bring an end to the spiritual turmoil that wracked him. (p. 13.)
Most of us are not as good as Tolstoy. But we all churn with some sort of spiritual turmoil, and we all are seeking some sort of answers. You can keep doing that in a nursing home.
Old age does require some sort of sensible preparation for death. That includes the tired old question “What happens to you after you die?”
People make the “What happens to you after you die?” inquiry a lot harder than it needs to be.
Never mind whatever religion or un-religion you have teaches about heaven, hell or just disappearing.
There are some stupid physical properties about death that have implications for what you should do while you are alive.
This is a picture of your life and death.
During your life, you are walking around the top half of the picture. The grass is at your feet. You breathe the open air.
After you die, you go to the bottom half of the picture. It doesn’t matter if they bury you in a casket, they cremate you and spread your ashes, or you die out in the wild, and your body ends up in a crevasse or on the ocean floor.
Your elements combine with the dirt, or the water or the air around you … and the parts of you all work into something else.
This is reincarnation in the crudest sense.
You do not need to wait for death in order to reincarnate.
You have already done this thousands of times.
Every time you have a haircut …
Every time you cut your fingernails …
Every time you use a loofa …
Every time you have a sexual discharge …
Material that was part of you goes out into the world. It later chemically combines into other things. Most of those things will be insentient. A few of those things will be sentient creatures.
If you are a parent, you have certainly reincarnated yourself. You have reincarnated yourself in the form of your children.
What does all this mean for your behavior in your present life?
It means that “you” in your present life will actually be part of sentient creatures some time in the future, even if that is 300 or 600 or 900 years away.
You don’t get a vote on how many creatures you will be a part of, or who those creatures will be. There is certainly no relationship between you being good or bad and where those atoms end up.
But it DOES mean you will experience the long-term consequences of your actions.
If you were a slave owner in Virginia in 1815, you could be reborn as anyone in the United States today. That person could be black. That person could be white. Either way, you are born into a society of racial hostility and tension, because of the actions that you and people like you took in that earlier period.
You are more or less responsible for improving the world fifty years from now, or a hundred years from now or nine hundred years from now … because fifty or a hundred or nine hundred years from now, the person living in that world could be you.
* * *
So what can you do to make this better world?
There is one answer if you are an academic or a professor.
There is another answer if you are a real person.
However, real people sometimes get the chance to teach others.
And academics sometimes get to experience real life apart from their day jobs.
1. Teach about what unifies people rather than what divides them.
Too much of university teaching is about fighting over the spoils.
Yes, social justice is a real concern. The most significant forms of social progress have come from the weak mobilizing against the strong.
In a world without labor movements,
In a world without abolition or the civil rights movement,
In a world without wars of decolonialization,
In a world without feminist mobilization,
We would have a feudal slave system in which the few crush the many in perpetuity.
Factional conflict only accounts for a percentage of improvement in human welfare that people have experienced in the last 500 years.
Rising GDP, reduced mortality and increased personal safety came from
a. Plain old economic growth
b. Improvements in science
c. Improvements in sanitation
d. Improvements in education
e. Formalization of conflict adjudication.
Garden variety economic development and the advancement of technology made people richer and made people healthier. The imposition of law and order in a world filled with bandits, pirates and blood feuds reduced everybody’s risk of being attacked by enemies.
Furthermore, it is hard to envision any solution to our global ecological crisis that does not involve some form of widespread cooperation.
Getting people unified and working together is going to be essential to meeting our future threats.
2. Teach about the importance of education and science to society.
3. Teach about the importance of government to society.
Academics assume their students know already know about the importance of research, science, education and government in the world. Sadly, that is not true. Most are now coming in with a gratuitous sense of undeserved skepticism about these very points.
The skepticism can come from the mass media.
The skepticism can come from the internet.
The skepticism can come from political or religious organizations.
But often as not, the skepticism just comes from young people’s love of being shocking, cynical and independent. Thinking your teachers are totally worthless is actually, kind of fun, when you are initially spreading your wings.
The problem though is not limited to the young.
It comes from the fundamental motivation of people.
Freud thought the fundamental motivation of people was sexuality.
Sexuality is important.
Adam Smith thought the fundamental motivation of people was greed.
Greed is important.
But never underestimate the importance of ingratitude.
People love getting things without acknowledging where they came from, or who exerted effort to get the good stuff to them.
Ingrates fantasize the benefits came from their own efforts.
Ingrates fantasize the benefits came from their own talent.
Ingrates fantasize the benefits are their God-given right that they deserve just because they are human beings.
It does not remotely occur to ingrates that other people had to work hard and make sacrifices to see that benefits were provided.
We are all ingrates - but some people are worse than others.
People generally need reminding about who provided them with the things they value the most – and what would happen if those sources would lose the ability to provide the good things of life.
As educators, we can not teach enough about the importance of government, science and education itself, for creating the high quality of life that most students take for granted.
4. Teach survival strategies to your students – regardless of what discipline you teach in.
Hard times are coming. Students need to learn what they need to know to survive those hard times. One’s syllabus can not be merely preparing your students for some prelim in graduate school that they will never actually have to take. Every discipline teaches something that will help students in life. Pull that material out and make sure your class gets it.
1. Talk to all sorts of people. Not just people like yourself.
Our divisions comes from the compartmentalization of our social worlds where People of Type A only interact with other people of Type A. The gulf between red and blue in the United States comes from the fact that there are very few communities in the United States that are genuinely purple. Even in the two purple communities I know the best, Bryan-College Station Texas, and Round Rock Texas, the red and blue worlds are superimposed on each other … but there is not that much actual communication between the factions.
The splits between black and white communities in the US are not dissimilar.
College campuses are just as divided as anywhere else. There are many splits such as nerd vs greek. One of the biggest divides however is between students who were born in the United States and international students from other countries. They sit in the same classrooms, work out in the same gyms and eat pizza in the same pizza restaurants. But the Americans have American friends and the Nigerians have Nigerian friends.
Many of those foreign students are going to be enormously rich and powerful later in life. They often come from well placed families and have superb connections back home. When those international students are forty years old, most Americans would be lucky to get five minutes in those former students’ offices. On campus, in the present day, those international students are generally available for conversation. Few Americans make use of the opportunity.
Why does having conversations with a wide range of people make a difference?
Most ambitious projects require the mobilization of cooperation from a wide range of people. One needs the biggest social network possible. It is practically impossible to create a large effective social network from your own private desert island.
Unfortunately, talking to people involves listening to people.
I have always hated that part.
Over time, however, I have forced myself to do it.
2. Don’t Let Yourself Fall into Facile Fatalism
It is easy to imagine yourself to be a genius because you fully understand the causes that make everything go wrong.
Understanding what ($&@^%s things up is easy.
Understanding how to fix things is hard.
Smug pessimism is usually intellectual failure masquerading as insight.
3. In fixing the world, the first thing that needs fixing is yourself
What do you have to repair?
a. Your own cynicism,
b. Your own artificial helplessness,
c. Your own distraction with the affairs of daily life.
Without such repairs, it is too easy to fall into complete and total paralysis.
* * *
As Daisaku Ikeda says, on the subject of unblocking yourself …
HOPE IS A DECISION