Starting From The End, 6: The Last City

(Starting From The End is usually a supporter-only series, but I’ve made this installment open to the public. To find out how to read other essays in this series or my other supporter-only works, see the link at the end of this essay)

Yesterday I woke up in a fog.

That happens sometimes, especially when I’ve not slept well, thought too much before sleep, thought too much while sleeping. But this felt a bit different–not merely lack of sleep, but lack of waking. Sometimes you wake and notice not all of you has woken, some part of you still lingering in that state before waking but after sleep, in the threshold realms, the liminal, the imaginal.

In such moments, I usually go back to sleep and wait for my soul to finish whatever it thought more pressing than the day, but this morning I didn’t. The fog wasn’t just in me, but also outside me, a thick grey mist swamping not only the city but all of the Ardennes. And I had a journey to make, an invite to accept, so more sleep wasn’t an option.

And anyway something felt good about letting that part still slumber. The rest of my body was otherwise awake, and perhaps even more awake than usual. Recent particularly hard gym-work still left all my muscles sore, but it was the soreness of intentional fatigue, a slow burn in the flesh of my legs, my chest, my shoulders and my back signalling that the extra weight I’d lifted has done what I’d wanted it to do. If anything, my body felt even more awake than usual, despite the absence of my dreaming soul.

My journey required a train, which besides my legs is my favorite mode of travel. Luxembourg is quite small (I dare say most can’t find it on an unlabeled map, nor really easily could I), covered in the thick forest of the Ardennes, gouged through with deep ravines and gorges, and littered with ruins. So the trains here follow peculiar routes, crossing multiple stone bridges under which ancient rivers still carve ever deeper the forested and settled stone canyons. In daylight, even in a thick fog, the views from the window of a train are fantastic, almost otherworldly.

As my train left the city proper (Luxembourg City is usually just called Luxembourg, though the entire duchy carries that name), it passed through a tunnel under one of the large plateaux upon which the city rests, and an echoing thought from sleep resounded back to my waking mind. It’s probably improper to even call it a thought, as I’m not sure the sleep-soul actually thinks at all. I think it just feels things, and speaks those feelings to the thinking parts of you which then usually muck up the translation with thoughts and words.

“Entering the underworld” was what it said without words. And I smiled, because it felt like that. And I’d normally correct myself on this, gently so as not to offend the more whimsical parts which actually feel. “Just a tunnel, but that’s a beautiful thought” I might have otherwise replied, but this time I didn’t see the point.

Besides, I was right (or that other I). Any tunnel into the earth is literally an entrance into the underworld, even if it’s just for transit and overlain with iron rails. To meet chthonic gods most easily, you enter caves, or pray by springs which issue forth from the world below. A man-made rail tunnel isn’t so ridiculous a meeting place either, no less efficacious than the myriad of shrines built to Black Virgins (and the chthonic goddesses who now merely wear those masks) under chapels across Europe.

The tunnel was short, though, too short for any lengthy meeting. But even after the train passed through to the other side, I wasn’t sure I had.

I met my guide at the train station and he drove me to a small village in the north of Luxemborg, not far from the borders of both Germany and Belgium. In the middle of the village is an ancient ruined castle, whose structure itself has not been significantly renovated. Instead, scaffolding and stairs were built within its two towers, with a steel bridge built to connect the secondary tower to the main one (the only way to access this second one is by means of that bridge). The ruins of a tiny chapel on the grounds of the castle remain only in outline, low walls rebuilt to demarcate its location as if someone had meant eventually to finish it. And underneath the entire complex, accessed by foot or by elevator, are the crypts where the dead and prisoners were kept, including the last accused witch of Luxembourg,

Standing at the top of the towers after sunset, I watched hundreds of ravens fly in murmuration from one large tree to another. I’d honestly never seen so many ravens, except in visions, never enough to witness them flock in the same eerie pattern which starlings make. I was already feeling intense vertigo (confession–I’m not so good with heights) and had been holding a central railing atop the tower for balance. Watching the ravens fly overhead made me dizzier, so I held tighter, feeling myself flying with them atop the ruins not just of this tower but of the rest of what humans have built. But it wasn’t me flying with them, or not the waking me. My sleeping soul joined them, because it hadn’t been slumbering at all. Rather, like a wise but uncoddling elder, it’d merely decided explaining anything to me wasn’t worth its time. I’d eventually figure out what I was there for on my own, and I guess I did.

I guess it’s been more than six years ago that I’d had a vision which has still never left me. I’ve written about it elsewhere, and referenced it a few times, but I’m certain the sense of the thing has never fully revealed itself to me. Or rather, it was just too awful for me ever to stare directly into its meaning.

The vision was this: I was on a cliff edge that overlooked a hill. A man was standing next to me, his face really familiar yet I didn’t know him. Together, we watched the hill in the distance, where there was a small village full of people. Time passed quickly, generations lived and died, built new homes for their families, and the village grew bigger.

Then it was destroyed. What destroyed it wasn’t clear, but it was something outside them which had been hostile to them. Houses burned, and with them the people who’d built and lived in them. Everything was ashes for a little while, and then I saw that those who’d survived began to build again. A bigger village arose after a time, more houses and other buildings: temples, public houses. A small wall was built around the village to keep out those who might want to harm them.

And again, it was all destroyed.

I watched this on that cliff edge with my companion, who was completely silent. I’d known he wanted me only to watch, so I looked further and saw the cycle repeat itself again. But this time the village was a small town, its structures more complex. I could see reflections of light this time, as the people had added glass window to their homes. It all felt hopeful, this new town.

And of course it was destroyed. More furiously this time, the stone they’d used to build with torn down with the great wooden beams. And again they rebuilt, and again it was destroyed, and I felt so sorry for them. But again, it was also hopeful. The surviving descendants of those who’d built each iteration of the village, or the town, or eventually the city, built again and again. Nothing would stop them, nor could it, because they were humans and they chose to live.

Then there was the last city. I knew it was the last city before it was destroyed, because it was the most beautiful city. Every aspect, every motif, every innovation of what their ancestors had ever built wove itself through this city. Light glistened everywhere from untold numbers of windows, reflected off ornate metal work. It felt “out of time,” impossible to place the architecture from any one familiar era. And I liked the place, though I didn’t live there, because it felt like those who did live there could live well. I didn’t know if there was poverty there, or racial strife, or prisons. I’m sure there was–it was a city, after all–but I couldn’t see all that from where I sat.

You know what came next. Destruction unimaginable, surpassing everything which had laid low every previous manifestation of the place. But this time something even more terrible happened: nothing arose in its place. I understood that nothing could return there, nothing else could be built.

The man I was with had asked me if I understood what I’d seen. I told him I did, and then he led me to the gates of the dead.

But I’d lied to him. I hadn’t understand what I’d seen, why it had been shown to me, and especially why nothing could come back in its place. Later, I’d tried hard to make sense of it, asking myself if it was because all the people who lived in the city died. But I hadn’t seen evidence either way, and I realise this was mistaken.

I understand now, though.

Consider the horrific fires raging across Australia. Since September, the conflagrations have released 400 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and they’re still burning. Besides the effects all that carbon dioxide will have on further warming (equivalent to the UK’s yearly output), there is another way that the fires will trigger the very thing which causes global climate change in the first place. So far, at least a thousand homes have been lost, a surprisingly small number for such massive destruction. But those homes will be rebuilt (in there original locations or elsewhere), because that’s what humans do: we rebuild.

Rebuilding those homes will require more resources, more wood, ores, and plastics. So, more trees will be felled, more mining done, and more petroleum extracted from the earth. Then, there is the oil that will be used to transport all those materials, the petrol and diesel used by the builders. And new roads will be built in some places, more forests cleared for new home locations. And everyone will get wages from all that activity, which they’ll use to drive more, to buy more, to build even bigger homes of their own or to travel by plane. Each of those things will then fuel other things, profits and wages, increased factory production and petroleum drilling, leading of course to more profits and consumption and, well, you get the point.

Every part of this chain of economic activity increases the carbon dioxide output and resource extraction of humans, which then increases the likelihood of more fires or other catastrophes related to climate change. Shift focus from the Australian fires to the countless cities on coastal areas subject to inevitable flooding from rising seas and we see the same problem. Flooded cities will need to be rebuilt elsewhere, newer homes replacing what was lost. More trees cut, more ores and petroleum extracted, more economic activity spurring more production, consumption, and destruction.

There will be many more fires everywhere, and more often. There will be much more flooding. And there will be much more heat, leading millions to use more energy to cool themselves in intolerable conditions. That increased energy use of course will increase the conditions which cause the increased heat, leading yet again to more energy use. The “positive feedback” loop of climate change has already started and likely can’t be stopped, and it will accelerate even faster as we humans continue to adapt to each new catastrophe. It’s precisely the most brilliant thing about being human that will lead to our collective slow (but quickening) species suicide. We’ll keep shoring up the ruins of our civilization, building and rebuilding in the face of all this destruction until one day, suddenly, we won’t be able to rebuild any longer.

As another example, we’re soon to start dredging the deepest parts of the sea for minerals, particularly those which power the lithium batteries upon which most “alternative energy” plans fully depend. That is, to “transition” away from one destructive energy source we’re destroying another area to get at its materials. But if you put it another way, like a crack-addict scraping their pipe, we’re literally scraping the bottom of the sea to get at the last bits of minerals we can find, because we’re running out.

On the matter of energy transition, it should be pretty clear that nothing being implemented anywhere in the world is intended to reduce the amount of energy humanity is using, only to slowly alter the sources. We’re not actually reducing the number of automobiles or planes or server farms in the world. In fact this is all increasing. The total amount of energy required for civilization keeps expanding; in many places, solar, wind, and other “cleaner” forms of energy production are merely just adding capacity, rather than replacing former sources.

It’s that part of the vision which I hadn’t understood. The people of that final city hadn’t rebuilt after that last calamity because there was nothing left to rebuild with. I’d never asked where all that wood came from, nor the steel from which was built its towers, nor the fuel which had warmed their homes and transported them within and without their beautiful, towering walls. I’d seen hundreds of generations take those things and transform them into human civilization, but had never asked how much was left, nor what it was really that destroyed the city.

And now I know, I guess, and there’s no wisdom here. The obvious answer is the most impossible one: we stop rebuilding after each destruction, stop adapting to each new condition, and stop trying to find strategies to accommodate the earth to our relentless growth. The solution isn’t just that we stop growing, but actually start shrinking, reducing our economic activity and expansion to negative levels.

But you know the truth as well as I do: we won’t. We can’t, actually. Few of us would ever dare say “we should stop rebuilding homes lost in fires,” let alone ever say “we should stop building homes and cities altogether.” We can’t stop doing this, or at least not by any of the current political, social, economic, and especially spiritual mechanisms by which we live our lives, individually or collectively.

We’re thus left with a position where only catastrophes so great as to wipe out huge swathes of humanity (the apocalyptic four horsemen of famine, plague, war, and pestilence) could stop this cycle. No one wants that, of course–neither the rich (who’d have too few to work their capital, protect their capital, or consume their products in such events) nor even the most misanthropic “anti-civ” sorts (who realistically wouldn’t be prepared even to deal with the diseases from all those rotting bodies, let alone survive in such events). But that’s where we are regardless, what is inevitable and inescapable, save for a possibility as fantastic and unrealistic as the tragic hopes in “consciousness-changing” or technological fixes.

Because let’s be clear: none of those who’ve lost homes in Australia need to have new homes built for them. As in every other wealthy industrialized country (no, Australia’s not really “the Global South,”), there are already enough homes built to accommodate the displaced. Not just enough homes, but (at least in the last reported census) 1000 times (a total of one million) as many vacant homes as needed. Even only figuring in second “holiday” homes that are left vacant while their owners live in their primary home, there are 237 times as many houses needed for the 1000 homes lost.

Similar figures exist in other countries. The United States had 1.5 million vacant homes in 2018, the United Kingdom had 216 thousand vacant homes at the beginning of 2019. And for the last year I could find data (2016), France had between 2 million and 2.9 million empty homes.

So nothing needs to be rebuilt, at least if we’d like to do the humanitarian thing and not turn people who lose homes to climate change out into the streets or sea. But by now you already see the problem: those homes belong to someone else, are being held as investment or holiday properties, or are left vacant because their introduction into the housing market would crash not just the home markets but the entire economy.

Of course, crashing the entire economy of a country is a very quick way to cut that nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. And crashing the economy of one nation is a quick way to de-stabilize and crash international markets as well, thus leading to a very quick solution to climate change with fewer corpses than epidemic plague, widespread famine, or global war.

We’ve already built enough, and don’t need to build any longer for quite some time. Not just for homes but for anything, Another figure: in April of 2019, there were 4.19 million unsold new automobiles in the United States. As with houses, this glut is created and maintained through over-production and price-manipulation: reducing the price would clear up that excess but again crash the market in automobiles (and thus other markets).

We humans have always already had more than what we need. We don’t need to tear down any more forests, raze anymore land, dig any more minerals, extract any more petroleum. We don’t need to build more homes (or cars, or server farms, or power plants, or roads, or malls, or factories, or really anything.) We can at any time just stop building, producing, and consuming more than we need, and thus avoid an end full of corpses.

Let’s be honest, though.There will corpses regardless. Countless, likely, because no one’s going to want to willingly give up their wealth, nor their capitalist-given democratic “right” to own more than they can use and profit from wealth they don’t need. Really, it’s just corpses all around: millions dead from famine and disease and war, or millions dead from riots and property seizures. Corpses either way, and more than even the most hardened theorists or politicians or revolutionaries care to countenance, let alone admit.

And while I’d prefer this latter path, I’ve little choice in the matter. Nor do you, or any of us. There’s no way to enact such a change “democratically.” If anything, democracy has sealed our fate by continuing to invest authority in leaders but to re-distribute responsibility to the masses. Back when we had gods and natural disasters struck, when the land itself seemed to turn against the people, we’d cut off the nipples of our leaders and drown them in bogs. Now without gods, we merely complain about them on social media, let them keep their nipples, and try to survive the catastrophic consequences of their actions.

We won’t survive those consequences though, or most of us won’t. We could, of course, stop this all, but no one’s got the stomach for what that would require. I don’t mean a worldwide “change of consciousness,” as that’s just as delusional a dream as all the techno-socialist visions that assert we could all have air conditioning while the planet roasts. And no, Greta Thunberg won’t save us either, unless she suddenly seizes political power to herself and calls for the violent murder of the elected leaders and the majority of the capitalist class of every industrialized nation. But to do that, she (or lots of shes like her, and also hes) would need to organize their followers into militant columns who would willingly fight and kill any (from above and below) who resisted an international de-industrialization movement.

A ridiculous scenario, of course, but besides global famine, disease, or other terrible catastrophes that could grind the engines of the world’s economies to a halt, it’s as close as we’ve got to a chance to stop this on our own.

I don’t think we will, though. And that’s what the ravens above me as I stood atop the ruined tower seemed to know, circling and weaving across the air in vast, hypnotic murmuration. Ravens and all their corvid kin, and dogs, wolves, rats, cats, and most insects are rather fond of corpses. They’ll do fine, resurge even, picking through the ruins to tear rotting flesh from the bones of all our striving, our growth, our adaptation, our brilliance. We’ll feed their survival. underwriting with our decay their species’ continuance.

Some humans will probably survive, picking through the ruins with them. But they won’t be building another civilization.This is our last one, our final world city. And what comes after its destruction is unseen, and either way we must first pass through the gates of the dead to get there.

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