I’m imagining that the year is 2347. My great-great-great-great granddaughter is Olivia Levy-Collins. She’s in her mid-thirties. After reading my only moderately successful manuscript on the history of American narcissism as a preteen, she becomes interested in the social sciences. A resident of Africa’s southern cone, Olivia does her undergrad at the University of Botswana, double majoring in Archaeology and Ecology. She goes off to the world-renown Universidade de São Paulo (University of São Paulo) in the Brazilian zone, where she earns her master’s degree in Western Civilization (with a focus on 20th and 21st-century American history), and a doctorate in cultural anthropology, with a focus on historical social psychology.
Olivia does her dissertation on the causes of the collapse of the Western world. This is not a new topic in the 24th-century world. Every one of the six billion people on the planet knows the broad story. How, after centuries of dominance, the economic and political structures of Western Europe and the United States underwent long-term decline in the midst of growing economic inequality, continued oppression of already vulnerable groups, undue influence of corporations on governance, and climate change beyond their abilities to comprehend. The proxy wars with terrorism and quasi-nation-states that later led to right-wing revolutions within Europe and the US. The full-blown civil wars and climate degradation that followed.
The US destroyed itself, as anarchists launched a cyberattack that took out the one-time superpower’s entire electrical grid. The groups once known as White supremacists retaliated, and used stolen nuclear weapons on six US cities, including the capital, Washington, DC, to take out the cyberterrorists, most of whom had been rumored to be Arab Muslim and Latina. The riots, famine, starvation, and consequences of climate change ensued, and ensured that the US would not be ever again. Europe also went through many of these convolutions. If it were not for the collective work of scientists in Brazil, India, China, Canada, and Southern Africa to remove the buildup of carbon dioxide and methane gases from the atmosphere and oceans, full-blown nuclear war may have occurred.
Olivia, though, like a new generation of her colleagues, wanted to understand what would cause people from the most powerful nations on the planet to collectively lose their minds. Why would they, after overwhelming success to subdue the earth, then turn on each other to kill the very things that gave them enormous power in the first place? My book from so many generations ago gave Olivia one possible clue. She found my book on the shelf of an ancient library in Walvis Bay, in the country that used to be Namibia. It was part of a school trip that Olivia was a part of while in primary school, to give students an appreciation for ancient attempts to preserve knowledge in depositories for books made of wood pulp, glue, and toner ink. She’d heard about the book from her great-grandmother, who had heard about it from her grandmother. The latter whom had read the book numerous times, as my son had moved his family from the US to South Africa as the occasional American unrests turned deadlier in the mid-21st century.
But, even after that field trip, even after getting her mother to get her a rare electronic copy of my book from the United Nations’ central archives in Aleppo, even after reading it, Olivia didn’t fully believe it. She couldn’t comprehend a culture that would waste vast quantities of natural resources, including human ones. She’s didn’t understand how a society in which everyone thought that becoming wealthy was their birthright could possibly function. She didn’t get how a nation as powerful as the US was always so fragile as an idea, not to mention in actuality.
Olivia’s dissertation work took her to the abandoned city of New York in 2347. With the exception of its crumbling skyscrapers, most of the city was covered by tens of meters of dirt (some of which remained radioactive). Other parts, like the area once known as Wall Street and Battery Park in Manhattan, or Park Slope in Brooklyn, were also partly underwater. She and her fellow group of two-dozen anthropologists, archaeologists, and other scientists, descended on the abandoned city, along with military commandos, all trained to expect the unexpected. In the case of the military, their training included scenarios for exploring exoplanets, which many saw as less dangerous than the exploration of a relatively recently dead civilization.
They went to two sites to conduct their studies. One, the New York Public Library on West 42nd Street and 5th Avenue. The other, two hundred meters away, was this recently excavated place in the old city, something the world once called Times Square. Olivia’s team explored the unearthed library, or at least, what was left of it. Fighting, flooding, dirt, and earth had left the main branch of one of the largest libraries in the Western world a shell of itself. It did have books and other collections still. Mostly self-help books, political memoirs, and recordings of one of the last US presidents, Donald J. Trump.
Olivia, though, unlike her younger counterparts, knew that as self-centered as the remaining collection appeared, it wasn’t the whole story. She knew from my book and from the other books of the 20th and 21st centuries that there were numerous intellectuals and writers who tried to warn the world that the facade of narcissism would lead billions to their deaths. That cannibalizing selfishness could even possibly destroy the world, certainly the Western world.
But she did find it interesting that after the fall of the West, in one of its greatest cities, only the most narcissistic of preserved materials remained. It told her one thing. The narcissism was real, that millions had fallen prey to it. That in an age in which the world didn’t have the technology to use energy-matter converters to replicate food, clothing, shelter, and medicine for 7.3 billion people, millions once lived as if there was no tomorrow, like life was one big party. To the point where these Westerners made significantly more copies of their homages to themselves than they did of anything else.
So Olivia took this knowledge, and the knowledge gained from the Times Square dig. She titled her dissertation, “How Western Civilization Cannibalized Itself: Reproduction, Capitalism, and Narcissism, 1750–2100.” That same year, Olivia turned it into a book, an interplanetary must-read, Runaway Narcissism and How the Sun Set on the Western World. It raised lots of questions about how humanity overcame its own narcissism, but at great cost. It would be one of the great books of the 24th century. That’s my Olivia!