Remember this picture?
Michael Schwartz Library at Cleveland State University
This is a picture of the Cuyahoga River, in Cleveland that Time put out in 1969.
Only thing is, it’s not a picture from 1969. It’s actually a picture from 1952. There are actually no pictures from the 1969 river fire on the Cuyahoga. The 1969 fire wasn’t the first, or even the worst fire on the river:
And industrial dumping was already improving by the time of the 1969 blaze. As the Post points out, “The reality is that the 1969 Cuyahoga fire was not a symbol of how bad conditions on the nation’s rivers could become, but how bad they had once been. The 1969 fire was not the first time an industrial river in the United States had caught on fire, but the last.”
Meta-narratives offer us one of the most important things that an idea can offer: solid ideological footing. We understand the world. We can move towards something, rather than aimlessly.
We know that today, decades later, these ideas at the heart of this speech are breaking, even though they are still very much alive in our minds. We know that Science isn’t perfect, and can’t tell us how to live. We know that the individual is small, weak, and often scared. Even Progress, the bedrock on which that speech rests, might not be what we think it is.
Logically, we know these things. But this speech still gets under the skin. It still calls to something ingrained in us, the bedrock of who we are as people. It calls to our meta-narratives.
Therefore, we can ask:
How can we possibly replace something like that, when it is so central to who we are?
Is it possible that, one day, our foundations will move beyond the meta-narratives we currently possess?
Will we move closer to the Truth, with a more complex understanding of the world, and still be able to make meaning out of our existence?
These are fundamental questions for our age.
And we are going to spend the next few centuries answering them.