Western civilization seems to be thrashing about like a feverish patient. Will it recover from civilizational decline, or is this the end of the road? Even with the best interventions by the money doctors, it might not return to its old self, patched up and ready for another go at it.
In opera they say it’s not over until the fat lady – i.e. the soprano with voice like a Stradivarius – sings. Has the fat lady of the industrial growth era had her last Aria? If we turn to Rome, we have images of Nero playing his violin while Rome burned. Is Bezos profiting in the billions from the pandemic the moral equivalent of oblivious aristocracies of old? In the former Soviet Union, the oligarchs moved in with suitcases of cash to take advantage of the fire sale on all properties of the ailing Communist Party. Is America’s glorious common wealth now going to the highest bidder?
Only the dour, the scientists or climate activists seriously consider that the end is near. Most people, though, are hoping for the best. Wall Street is making book on a V-shaped recovery. The market always roars back stronger. Everyone knows that. Who could have imagined way back on Black Monday in 1987, when the Dow dropped 23% in a day, down to 1740, that we’d hit the all-time high of 29,551 in February 2020? Those who could imagine something like it bought after it came off the bottom and rode it up, even through a couple of other mini crashes, to astronomical heights. Wall Street is resilient – like some vampire sucking the blood out of Main Street is resilient. It sheds failed companies like a snake sheds skin and embraces the opportunities that show up in every crash. Bargain basement funds get snapped up. Venture capital migrates to new enterprises that will prosper gloriously after the remains of failed industries are long gone, buried and forgotten.
All this may be true, and people with wealth will make out like bandits, but the stock market isn’t the economy. It is a betting system now, and brokers are bookies. It reflects the bottom line financially but not in terms of real value.
What happens when the economy fails the little guys, when the rich and powerful – kings, bankers, merchants – bail themselves out and leave the unfortunate poor poorer. A sentence or two cannot encompass centuries, but consider what happened between the fall of Rome and the rise of the Renaissance. It was dubbed the “Dark Ages” but in fact the many centers of culture, healing, science, education, philosophy and art persisted. Consider the monasteries, the Celts, the golden age of Moorish, Christian and Jewish cultures in Spain. Not all was Hobbsian “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Perhaps there were no white, male, European leaders who conquered their neighbors and built new empires, but culture went local. In the former Soviet Union, according to citizen diplomats who maintained connections after the break down, people with Dachas – small permitted homes with gardens in rural areas – had a basis for survival in the countryside.
This is the point I want to consider as a tiny virus continues to have its way with nearly eight billion of us, emptying our streets of people, sending us into a chrysalis of change with no assurance of butterfly on the other side. If this is part of a breakdown of the restless exploitation of the earth’s resources and expansion into every corner of nature, if this will knee-cap capitalism and consumerism, my chrysalis ball says that human communities will flourish away from the centers of finance, trade and technology.
While I don’t know whether or where these will be, nor how many humans will make it through nor how much of accumulated human culture and technology will be lost in translation, I believe these new centers will:
- Be female-lead
- Have limited accessibility – only a few roads in or out, or a moat (like an island), or rendered impassable by weather part of the year.
- Have indigenous peoples in communities nearby or indigenous families mixed in with the other races in the local populations.
- Not be so devastated by climate disruptions or toxins that it ceases to be able to support life.
- Have accessible food – from air, land or sea – and potable water.
- Possibly be able to generate enough electricity from wind, water, tides or solar for light, a pump and a radio (maybe that’s my preference, that these outposts stay connected).
- Have age diversity, with babies coming in and older people leaving gracefully.
This is not my hope. It’s my guess. I am certain an unraveling is in the cards. I don’t know if it will come fast or slow, in my lifetime or in a century. We don’t know which direction the cookie will crumble, though we now know that species decimation if not extinction has arrived at the door of humanity with Covid19.
Nor do we know whether by some miracle of choice, necessity or divine intervention we’ll have a real shot at much more than these basics. If we’ll have enough energy for internet, computers, refrigeration and travel by rail and sea. If we’ll have a global public works project to repair what we’ve broken, clean what we’ve despoiled and build the tracks for a more modest and less impactful human presence. I consider intergenerational justice a moral imperative, that we preserve all we can of the earth’s bounty, human ingenuity, and ancient wisdom for future generations to have a crack at a new beginning.
Before you scour the map to find these mini-lifeboat locations, consider this. Instead of pinpointing your best-guess safe haven, pulling together the money to buy land and moving to a community that may not (probably won’t) open its arms to you, draw a 200-mile radius around where you live. Can you invest your love, skills, sweat and, yes, resources in that circle and make it the best life-boat you can?
This pandemic is restoring interest in DIY skills. Seed companies have actually run out of seeds due to the expansion of home gardening. How long until we are skilled heirloom seed savers like our great great grandparents? People are dusting off their power drills and making things. How long until we are milling our own lumber, managing our own woodlots? DIY is an entry points to building the competency to be a good and useful community member wherever you are.
I wrote a story a dozen years ago for Hope Beneath our Feet, an anthology edited by Martin Keogh. It’s called Letter from the Future, and in it I imagine a post-collapse merry little future. Read it and see what you can do in the weeks and months ahead to make yourself and where you live into a lifeboat for yourself, your loved ones and the community that surrounds you. Worst case scenario and collapse comes in our lifetime, you’re set. Or other worst case scenario and we pull through meaning you’ve missed the biggest Wall Street rally ever – you’re still set for Life.