“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Shelley’s poem gives us a stark image of hubris, laid low by the inexorable passage of time. History abounds with stories of pride and its inevitable fall: The sun did finally set on the British Empire. Hitler’s “Thousand Year Reich” ended within a decade. Khrushchev told the West, “We will bury you,” and a generation later the Soviet Union was no more. Now the “world’s only superpower” looks nervously over its shoulder at the growing economic and military power in Asia.
Empires rise and invariably they fall, but this inevitability is small comfort when we’re struggling to swim in the rapid currents of a changing world, unable to cling to the eroding banks of cherished traditions and institutions.
The American empire is only an infant compared to past empires. Egypt is heir to a cultural heritage that stretches back at least 5000 years. The Romans were in power for a millennium, and recently an unknown civilization was unearthed in northern Greece that lasted from 6000 BC to about 60 BC. Locally we find mounds, petroglyphs and artifacts that are remnants of the Mississippian culture which stretched from Minnesota to Texas to Georgia and lasted over 700 years. Arrowheads are found in Georgia that date back to the late Pleistocene period over 13000 years ago.
There is hardly a stone anywhere on the globe left unturned by a prior civilization. Every “native” population is the heir or the conqueror of a previous group of people. There are pyramids in Egypt, South America and China, stone henges all over Western Europe, crumbling cities, tombs and ruins all over the world. Layer upon layer of the disjecta membra of vanished civilizations points to one inescapable conclusion: The material world is forever changing. There is nothing new and nothing permanent under the sun.
We are not the first people and we will not be the last to fear change or to lament it. We are not the first, nor will we be the last, to expect the world to end any day. War, famine and pestilence come and go, and we continue. Tyrants rise and fall, and our humanity survives inhumanity. The climate changes and we adapt. Devolution precedes evolution, precedes devolution, but after every transition, enough of us survive to start over again. Global warming will increase the number of deaths due to heat – but it will also reduce the number of deaths due to cold. Deserts will grow in some places while in others, frozen land will become arable.
For some of the heirs of Ozymandias, change will be tragic. For others, it will be the adventure of a lifetime. Perhaps this is, after all, the key to surviving change – the willingness to adapt to it. Some will deny change and resist it – and they may perish, but the children of those who adapt will be around to read the inscriptions on our own crumbling monuments.