Saturday, 11 February 2017

Rise and fall

I’ve been giving these lessons to you a really long time, since you were little, and I haven’t just taught you anything – it’s been to fill the gaps, to teach what you won’t learn in any school. Sometimes we focus on the classics, on Greek and Roman mythology, ancient history, literature and philosophy – stories like the Iliad and Odyssey, the histories of Solon and Socrates. I wanted to teach you these things because they tell you how people worked out how to first do democracy or science, so that people can do them again.

Now, I said, I want to see how you can tie this all together. I drew a bell curve on paper and asked her what the shape represented.

“It’s a rise and fall,” she said with adolescent impatience. “I learned that when I was seven – it’s second nature to me now.”

Rise and fall of what? I asked.

“Well, if a species gets out of control, and grows exponentially, then it has a die-off, and the carrying capacity of the area goes down for a while.”

What does it look like for humans?

“Well, civilisations,” she said, “they rise and fall like that, which is kind of the same thing – populations go up when a civilisation rises, and go down when they fall.”

Where do you think we are on this curve? I asked.

“I think we’re near the top,” she said, “And things will start declining, if they haven’t already.” She said this casually, unperturbed by this. I’ve never told her these things; I just brought her up with a lot of lessons about how living systems work. She knew about resource use, carrying capacity and overshoot when she was still little, and those natural rhythms are as familiar to her as the change of the seasons.

What sorts of things often happen during a decline? I asked.

“Well, more people die, or fewer people are born, or both,” she said, “People get stupider than usual -- they do a lot of misguided things. You get a lot of political disruption, and sometimes anarchy.” Is anarchy the worst option? I asked.

“No -- well, it’s mixed,” she said, “Because it has disadvantages, but so does civilisation. I mean, it depends on what kind of anarchy or civilisation we’re talking about.”

I think you’re right, I said. In movies, when things get rough, people turn on each other – but in real life, they often get better. Old people around here tell me that Irish people got worse when people got more money – back when everyone had very little, you could count on people more. On the other hand, less civilisation means you can only count on your tribe – you can’t turn to higher authorities, because there aren’t any. Both can be very fulfilling, or deeply unfair.

“Right now I think we’re at a height of civilisation,” she said.

Possibly, I said – pointing at the bell curve line -- but what do you think this line represents?

“Population?” she asked.

It could be, or it could be energy use, or carbon dioxide emissions – they’ve all gone up together, and they’ll probably all go down together, along with other things like science and art. But I teach you these things in the hopes that you can disentangle the good things about civilisation and pass them on to your own children.

So, for example, the germ theory of disease – we now know that diseases are caused by germs and boiling water and antiseptic chemicals kill germs, and that knowledge saves a lot of lives. We only found that out recently, in the foothills of this curve, but it’s not tied to our annual energy waste – we could keep that knowledge even as things go down, and keep everyone healthy.

The same is true of vaccinations, or double-blind testing, or the rules of town-hall democracy; no matter what else gets shaky in the years ahead, we can keep alive the knowledge of how these things are supposed to work. If we disentangle the good from the bad, I told her, people could stay quite civilised during a decline and fall.

And just as a rising civilisation makes some things better and worse, a decline could also make things better and worse – we’re using words like “rise” and “decline,” but every rise in something is a decline in something else. The rise and fall could look like this, I said, turning the curve upside down. “In some ways, people’s humanity went down, and it will go up again,” she said.

Maybe, I said – the modern world takes some of our humanity away, but humanity isn’t all good either. Remember what Aristotle said? Goodness isn’t the opposite of evil, but a delicate balance between evils.

“I wish we could just keep the good things and keep society in one straight line indefinitely,” she said. That would be the ultimate K culture, I said, referring to our many lessons about R and K species. I think of something like The Shire from Lord of the Rings as a K culture.

“Isn’t that a good thing?” she said.

I would say mostly, I said – if I moved to the Shire, there are a few things I’d miss, but that’s a pretty civilised life. You can try to create that kind of world yourself, I told her, in a homestead or Benedict Option community, and set an example for others.

“The bad thing about a civilisation going downhill might not be the downhill part, but the going part,” she said. “Dark Ages aren’t that bad, but getting there is painful. If I could, I’d start working on a civilisation at its height, and make sure that everything went down as slowly as possible, so that no one could feel a change. Everyone would be like, ‘Oh, it’s always been this way,’ and the downhill slope would be too gentle to hurt anyone. That’s what I wish.”

That’s a noble ambition, I said – and if you’re right, and we’re at the height of a civilisation now, then you’re in a perfect position to try to make it happen.

“Oh, I don’t think anyone will listen to me,” she said diffidently.

Not everyone, I said – but if a few people do, that’s a few more than no one.

No comments: