Looking back on the Century of Division

Joe Cotton imagines how a studious alien race might look back on human history (written in the style of Doris Lessing’s novel “Shikasta”).

STUDY NOTES: On the global crisis of climate and the Shikastan young (from History of Shikasta vol 3016: “The Century of Division”)

I want to encourage a healthy amount of scepticism in you, dear student, with regard to the designation of the 21st Century as the “Century of Division”, for you might rightly note that the great majority of Shikastan history was taken up by warring and conflict. Many argue (Taufiq among them) that it was in the Shikastans very nature to be hostile and aggressive, particularly towards those outside of their interactive group. Hence one could say the whole history of Shikasta was one of division! But I want to draw your attention to a more nuanced understanding of this designation by the Archivists. Shikastans were a fickle sort and an enemy of one decade could become the strongest of allies in the next. These shifting allegiances suggested that divisions could always be overcome – if only by the creation of another division in the form of a new common enemy. The global crisis of climate, however, was unique in that rather than being resolvable through new division, what was required was a unification on a scale unprecedented in Shikastan history. Yet as you know, rather than uniting in the spirit of international solidarity (which you may know as Envoy Johor’s Sense-of-We Feeling), the Shikastans turned inwards to their own national groups, reinforced their borders, and forsook the rest of their kind. Consider the prophetic insights provided by Johor regarding the younger generation at the time:

…the young are, in their hordes, their gangs, their groups, their cults, their political parties, their sects, shouting slogans, infinitely divided, antagonistic to each other, always in the right, jostling for command. There they are – the future, and it is self-condemned” (Lessing 1981, 221).

Johor’s description of the Shikastan young is key to understanding the “Century of Division”. We can roughly categorise the young into two groups; apathetics and radicals, whereby the former were so disillusioned and lethargic as to renounce politics altogether, and the latter were effectively zealots of a particular ideology. Both groups, either through pessimism or narrow-mindedness, were quite unable to entertain the possibility that political divisions could ever be overcome. As the century progressed the radicals waged their ideological war, at first with words that increasingly took a parochial and nativist tone. Meanwhile the apathetics stood by – you may be familiar with the Shikastan saying that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [wo]men to do nothing” – the apathetics were, in their entirety, guilty of this. As the vitriol intensified, so international divisions between populations became insurmountable, and hateful words led to hateful deeds. It was this division that precluded an international resolution to the global crisis of climate, which in turn led the Shikastans to their end in the following Century of Extinction. Johor observed the sorry occasion:

The armies covered Shikasta. Meanwhile, the epidemics spread, among people, and among what was left of the animal population, among plant life. Meanwhile, the millions began to dwindle under the assault of famine. Meanwhile, the waters and the air filled with poisons and miasmas, and there was no place anywhere that was safe. Meanwhile, all kinds of imbalances created by their own manic hubris, caused every sort of natural disaster (Lessing 1981, 296).

STUDY POINT: You should notice that in both excepts, Johor describes the Shikastans’ problems as self-inflicted: they were “self-condemned…by their own manic hubris”. Reflect on this observation with reference to the “Century of Destruction” (characterised by the two intensive periods of global conflict), the “Century of Division” (characterised by the collapse of international structures) and the “Century of Extinction” (characterised by the effects of the Global Crisis of Climate). Remember: Following the extinction of the Shikastan population and the rebalancing of natural cycles, the colonisation of Shikasta shall begin anew. Be sure to emphasise lessons from Shikastan history that can inform future policies, so that previous mistakes can be learned from and our colonial effort might be more successful the second time around.


CottonJoe Cotton is a recent graduate of Leiden University College The Hague, at which he followed a Liberal Arts and Science programme and focused on politics and sustainability. Joe is further interested in philosophy, social justice, community engagement, education and climate change. At the moment, he is taking a gap year to consider graduate jobs and master’s programmes, as well as spend some time traveling. If you enjoyed the piece, please do get in contact.

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