Listening for the Echoes of Atlantis

Can you recall the sights and sounds of Atlantis? If you can, we would be interested in speaking with you.

Could the music be something like this? It certainly seems evocative, and I offer it as a possibility. Since the story of Atlantis as we know it today is almost entirely apocryphal, we can freely imagine that they created forms of music similar to trance. Enjoy.

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The Atlantis story comes to us today as the story of a lost civilization that ended when the island continent disappeared beneath the waves. Normally, islands don’t sink; rather the water rises around them. And since the oceans have varied in height by as much as 300-600 feet at different geological periods, it seems likely that the loss of Atlantis was the result of a (or the) “great flood,” which some experts believe may have occurred somewhere around 5000-7000 B.C.E.

That the lesson for us is about sea-level rise seems obvious these days, though it’s hard to imagine that the Atlanteans themselves could have been responsible for causing it (unless you believe that it was God’s punishment for sinful behavior). Today it’s clear that we are capable of causing it, and that even a sea-level rise of 6-10 feet, whether or not human-caused, would be catastrophic for as much as half of the world’s population.

Even if it were no more than this, the story of Atlantis could serve as a cautionary tale. There have been plenty of calamitous events (such as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which buried Pompeii) that were entirely natural disasters. This is no longer the case. The unnatural disasters that are occurring with ever-greater frequency today are clearly traceable to anthropogenic (“human-caused”) global warming. And it appears increasingly likely that this level of sea-level rise is already “baked-in” and therefore virtually inevitable. If we take this seriously, we will need to raise whole cities or move them to higher ground and abandon the old structures, including roads and tunnels, to the waves.

But is this even plausible, given the likelihood that modern civilization will (continue to) collapse, and with it the whole dream of high-tech modernity? A growing number of scientists and independent thinkers are beginning to suggest that some forms of civilizational collapse are now virtually inevitable and that we should plan accordingly. John Gowdy, Professor of Economics Emeritus at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, recently suggested that a return to a hunter-gatherer way of life is likely, given the increasing instability of the climate, which will make agriculture itself no longer a viable pursuit. [1]

Here’s the  essence of his argument:

  • The stable climate of the Holocene made agriculture and civilization possible. The unstable Pleistocene climate made it impossible before then.
  • Human societies after agriculture were characterized by overshoot and collapse. Climate change frequently drove these collapses.
  • Business-as-usual estimates indicate that the climate will warm by 3°C-4 °C by 2100 and by as much as 8°–10 °C after that.
  • Future climate change will return planet Earth to the unstable climatic conditions of the Pleistocene and agriculture will be impossible.
  • Human society will once again be characterized by hunting and gathering.

For most of human history, about 300,000 years, we lived as hunter gatherers in sustainable, egalitarian communities of a few dozen people. Human life on Earth, and our place within the planet’s biophysical systems, changed dramatically with the Holocene, a geological epoch that began about 12,000 years ago. An unprecedented combination of climate stability and warm temperatures made possible a greater dependence on wild grains in several parts of the world. Over the next several thousand years, this dependence led to agriculture and large-scale state societies.

If these conditions no longer hold, then most of our common assumptions about the future may need to be revised. On the other hand, what we now call the Anthropocene is completely unprecedented. Science and technology and the global financial system are now the dominant forces governing the world, and these institutions are unlikely to go down without a fight. Without denying the very real signs of collapse that we are already witnessing around us, it’s too early to discount human ingenuity. It seems likely that we will continue to fashion a future that is built upon transcending the past, not on simply returning to it.

Once again, the Atlantis story should warn us against the kind of hubris that stubbornly denies reality, but this does not mean that we cannot find or fashion creative solutions, solutions that allow evolution to continue from where it is today, without having to regress to the earlier stages that we’ve outgrown. We are already quite far along in the process of reimagining agriculture, and of recovering the values and insights of the many indigenous peoples whose ways of life persisted for thousands of years—until they came into contact with us. Relocalization may be accomplished more effectively through technological advancement than by dismantling it.

Perhaps, like the Atlanteans themselves, we may not be able to imagine a world that survives and thrives after we and our “civilization” are long gone. What the distant echoes of Atlantis may have to teach us is that indeed whole civilizations may disappear, but humans are tenacious and—driven by the memory of past crises overcome—we are likely to use all of the tools and resources at our disposal to reinvent ourselves once again.[2]


[1] “Our hunter-gatherer future: Climate change, agriculture and civilization,” Futures January 2020.

[2] DJ Lorn writes (citation below):

Atlantis. For some it is a myth, for others it is a mystery. It has a story. Like all ancient peoples, places and realms, it has a place in the heart of the present. Whether Atlantis existed or is pure analogy for some lost ancient time doesn’t diminish the power in what Atlantis represents.

Atlantis is first mentioned by the Greek philosopher Plato. Since his time much has been written on Atlantis both for and against the possibility it existed. A naval power lying in front of the Pillars of Hercules that conquered many parts of Western Europe and Africa 9,000 years before the time of Solon, or approximately 9,600 BC goes Plato’s description of Atlantis. Plato goes on to say, after a failed attempt to invade Athens, Atlantis sank into the ocean in a single day and night of misfortune.

Sunken Cities are to be found all over the world. Sometimes these were caused by local seismic, tectonic or volcanic events. A greater number were undoubtedly caused by the rising sea levels that followed the deglaciation at the end of the last Ice Age. The flooding of Atlantis, as recorded by Plato, continues to prompt writers to link any new discovery of submerged structures with this prehistoric catastrophe. Cuba, the Baltic Sea, Malta and Southern Spain, among others, have all been touted as Atlantis on this basis. Many more are yet to be discovered that will attract this same identification. There is also the possibility that a sunken structure from Atlantis will be discovered that will not be identified as such.

The most spectacular sunken city recently discovered is that of Thonis-Heracleion off the coast of modern Alexandria. A close second might be the city found in the Gulf of Cambay, India, for which claims have been made of extreme antiquity. The sunken town of Dunwich was once the 10th largest settlement in England and is frequently referred to as ‘Britain’s Atlantis’.

In 2009 the lost city of Bathonea was rediscovered just 20km from Istanbul. Evidence of human habitation in an area dated to earlier than 10,000 BC has been found. Millennia later a Greek settlement was established on the site and later expanded by the Romans. Excavation of the partially submerged city may take up to a century. The discovery of cities such as Bathonea understandably raise hopes that someday the remains of Atlantis may also be found.

It is fun to speculate on such things. History is useful to society but society must learn to view history as teachings rather then some distant primitive past. One could make an argument that our modern times are primitive in comparison to the ancients.

I dare say what most, if not all, modern historians miss in the account of Atlantis is the style in which it was written. Ancient times, before what would be considered recorded history, people knew what things in the natural world corresponded to in the spiritual world and hence wrote things in representations. The best example of this are Egyptian hieroglyphs. The story of Atlantis is written in this representative style. This doesn’t mean actual historical facts are untrue, they might very well be. The importance of the representative style is what something means. In this case, Atlantis is like many other stories across the world and religions that talk of utopian paradises which come to horrendous, catastrophic ends. These stories are about our inner lives. (2013)

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