The Greatest Show on Earth

THERE IS SOMETHING THAT IS BOTH RIDICULOUSLY COMICAL AND DEEPLY UNSETTLING about watching a group of well-intentioned senior athletes blend five-dollar hamburgers into mush within the discordant, frenzied cacophony of a high school auditorium. And not just hamburgers, but the cola and fries, too. And not just in any high school auditorium, but in a repurposed gym pulsating with music so deafeningly loud and yet so loudly silent. And even then, the athletes, who had done nothing wrong, would rightfully refuse to drink the bizarre concoction that they somehow had been persuaded to make. And even then, the crowd in the bleachers, as if in a sort of trance, cheered them on with a kind of mind-numbing drone that could nearly dig into your brain and make you do the same.

William Shakespeare was famous for many things. One of those things was the line, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” It’s a quote most commonly thrown around in English classrooms, where enterprising students and teachers alike dissect all thirteen of its words to somehow find, prove, and ascertain both its metaphorical charm and philosophical roots.

     There is a somewhat mystic allure to this act of analysis. In a way Shakespeare shows us that the world is like a stage; it is not exactly a stage, but it is similar in uncanny ways. Shakespeare shows us that the world is simultaneously meaningful and futile. For those on the stage—those out in the world, the vast array of appealing fictions presents an opportunity for escape. Fictions have meanings, where characters have redemptions and coincidences are destinies. The audience, meanwhile, turns to theatre for its suspension of disbelief. We look to fiction for an escape from reality. To find meaning in a universe that never had any in the first place. Shakespeare tells us that we are all actors, and that the world is all a stage.

     Is it not incredible how the human mind can make so much out of only thirteen words?

Driving through the tumbling snow of main street, after the sun has fallen and the only lights left are the neon shines of billboards and headlights, it’s impossible not to notice the superficialities of the situation. There is a certain calmness to the atmosphere, where the only real auditory sensations are muffled by the roar of the engine and the howl of the wind. It’s a place where you can be in your mind more than your mind can be in the world. A world, mind you, which we take for granted, and that surely takes us for granted, too.

     After all, there is something that is both ridiculously comical and deeply unsettling about the relentless flow of modern life. We drive in motorised bubbles, decorate our homes with acres of Kentucky bluegrass, and argue about ideas through virtual platforms. We cheer on people who toss manufactured balls into fictional nets, and we bicker over details about the worlds behind our screens. Meanwhile, we live in homes littered with things made by people who we will never meet. We burn coal. We guzzle gasoline. We cover the world with plastics that may not degrade for another thousand years. We throw things away. We throw everything away. We blend five-dollar hamburgers in high school auditoriums.

     So what if, just for a moment, we step out of this unrelenting river?

In recent years, the idea of the “Anthropocene” has become the core focus of many artists, activists, and anthropologists alike. The term was originally popularised at the dawn of the 21st century to refer to the modern geological epoch, in which humanity has become the supreme arbiter of everything that goes. People are no longer subservient to the Earth. Instead, the Earth is now subservient to the people. A changing climate, seas of plastics, and the continued eradication of the globe’s wild ecosystems are all testaments to this very idea.

     Of course, in the Anthropocene, people are still just as subservient to each other as the Earth is now to us. Institutions tell us what to do, and our opinions of ourselves are shaped by the opinions of others. We are beholden to the actions and stories of a benevolent few. Money is perhaps one of those things that is both simultaneously questioned and accepted the most in society. In his TED talk Why humans run the world, historian Yuval Noah Harari postulates that the true gift of humanity—and ultimately the Anthropocene—is not fire or logic or opposable thumbs. The true power of humanity comes in stories, and the ways that we can lie to ourselves. “Take a dollar bill, for example,” Harari says, “in itself. You cannot eat it, drink it or wear it. But now come along some master storytellers like the Chair of the Federal Reserve and the President of the United States, and convince us to believe that this green piece of paper is worth five bananas.” We are beholden to the world because we are beholden to stories. They are good stories, of course—they have allowed our species to survive and thrive. But the more you look, the more you realise that everything is fiction.

     When we step away from this menial rat race, we can see that Shakespeare’s remark was not just a metaphor, but a truth unto itself. Its “metaphor-ness” was the consequence of language, because metaphors are a distinctly human invention—a way to capture the nuance of the world in unwieldy words. The modern world is a stage, with both an audience and a show. By stepping out of the crowd, we can become critics. We can see the world as it has always been—a collection of alluring fictions that seem absurd and comical. Of course, we can laugh when the world laughs. We can cry when the world cries. But by stepping
outside of the magic circle, we can shield ourselves from the more piercing, more decadent strikes that the world would rather impart on us. We can see the Anthropocene for what it truly is.

     We can watch the Greatest Show on Earth.

In the introduction to his essay collection The Anthropocene Reviewed, John Green remarks, “In the Anthropocene, there are no disinterested observers; there are only participants.” I write in an attempt to observe; to catalogue the seemingly limitless absurdities of our time and of every other. Of course, in the Anthropocene, there are no disinterested observers; only participants. The Anthropocene is full of contradictions. There are hypocrisies waiting on every street corner; deceptions lying in every alleyway. We are powerful enough to alter the Earth, but we are not strong enough to save ourselves from it. Each one of us lies subservient to the whims of a world that somehow, we have created together. There is something that is both ridiculously comical and deeply unsettling about the human condition.

     We may not be able to watch the Anthropocene as observers, but we can always watch as humans, as we humans always have. Evan Puschak writes in his Ode to Public Benches, “The parade of humanity is endlessly fascinating.”

     So welcome to the Anthropocene.

     Enjoy the show.

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