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An Upcoming Apocalypse

Recently I have been contemplating the possibility of an upcoming apocalypse. Why is that, you may ask. Well, there are several factors: first, there is the current political situation in the world, where regressive and extreme politics seem to be becoming popular; second, I have recently re-read a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel called “Earth Abides”; and third, I just listened to a podcast about the collapse of bronze age civilisation.

By apocalypse I don’t mean anything religious or Biblical, or course, and I don’t mean the world will be totally destroyed, or the Universe will end, or anything that extreme. I just mean a major collapse of the current civilisation and, hopefully, it’s replacement with something better. So maybe apocalypses can actually be good.

There have certainly been situations in the past where dominant civilisations have fallen after a period of stagnation and regressive thinking. We might look around the world today and see similar changes towards more inward thinking and conservative policies. Maybe these are early signs of an approaching apocalypse.

In Earth Abides (a novel written in 1949, but still quite relevant even though it does show a few anachronisms and other signs of being dated) most humans are wiped out by a virus. The few survivors band together into small groups and try to survive in various ways. The story is told in the third person and involves the events experienced by the main protagonist, Isherwood Williams (known as “Ish” – a rather symbolic name).

Initially Ish tries to maintain the old civilisation by teaching the children to read, and by planning to have his most intelligent son, Joey, learn about the old world and its technologies. But the lessons become increasingly pointless and when Joey dies in an epidemic he has to abandon that path. Eventually, as the old technologies, such as power and water, fail the tribe reverts to a more primitive lifestyle and the most useful skill he teaches them is how to make a bow for hunting.

But it seems that the new, simpler culture might not be such a bad thing, because the new members of the tribe (those born after the great disaster) are arguably happier than most of the people were before.

It’s a work of fiction, of course, and not too much should be extrapolated from it, but it does provide a useful perspective on what the actual benefits of society really are.

Apocalypses have been common in the past, although they tended to be localised, simply because global interaction between regions wasn’t possible. So societal collapse has ranged from Rome to Maya to Angkor Wat. The Maya are an interesting parallel to the story in Earth Abides. They abandoned their great cities and returned to a village-based lifestyle after a huge population collapse. No one seems entirely sure why.

According to the podcast on the bronze age, the causes of that collapse were quite complex and probably included an excessively intricate and dependent trading network (especially for tin), major natural disasters (especially earthquakes and drought), and attacks by foreign invaders. It would probably have been possible to survive any one of these influences, but not them all.

So let’s put it all together. Clearly we have an excessively complex trading network today. If one part was interrupted (like oil from the Middle East) it would cause a major collapse in society as a whole. We have natural disasters becoming more devastating as a result of climate change. And attacks from “outside forces” could be from a number of sources, including terrorism, which is a more symbolic than real threat, but maybe even more influential because of that.

At the end of the Bronze Age the interruption of trading in tin caused alternatives to be considered. Tin was used to make bronze, so alternative materials, especially iron, had to be used instead. In fact iron was much better than bronze and the iron age resulted. So one collapse lead to something new and better. Unfortunately many societies suffered a dark age of several decades to centuries between the two.

Maybe it takes destruction and darkness before creation and light can result. We might hope that we are more aware of these factors today and that we can abandon our “bronze age” – which is paralleled by the carbon fuel (oil, coal, etc) age today – and move to an “iron age” – modern renewable energy sources. But there is increasing evidence that this might not actually happen.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. We could easily transform our society to a much better one any time we wanted to, but that probably won’t happen until the current one becomes totally unworkable. It’s just much easier to continue with the status quo. In Earth Abides the tribe just broke into an abandoned store and retrieved cans when they needed food. They didn’t need to do anything harder than that. But the cans couldn’t last forever. They never do.

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  1. April 10, 2017 at 5:00 pm

    I admit to having many of the same thoughts after having just (before you posted this) watched the video by Eric Cline on the collapse of the bronze age. I’ve been suggesting to friends for a couple years now that we appear to be on the verge of a major world-wide ‘apocalypse’, although what form that might take is unclear. The lesson from history would suggest that it won’t be any one thing, but a combination of many factors. Oil trade is just one of them. The political uncertainties in Europe and the U.S. bear consideration. The economic situation is even crazier. And it’s hard to discount the risk of terrorism. We could certainly see something much more significant than the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is interesting though how we come to different ideas as to what might cause a ‘crash’. You suggest “inward thinking and conservative policies”. I might suggest something completely different.

    One trend that has been interesting to watch is the immigration of refuges into Europe and the U.S. It’s presumably a strong force behind the rise of Trump and the Brexit. Many countries are feeling the strain. Apparently in Sweden, only 494 of 163,000 refugees that arrive in 2015 had by 2016 found jobs or contributed to the economy in some way (Sue Reid, Daily Mail). Immigrants that don’t assimilate are a problem. They will eventually demand concessions, which may lead to a state collapse or war. Think Rome, Palestine, the U.S.S.R., or even the natives/European conflict in colonial America. If they refuse to assimilate, you could deport them, ignore them, execute them, put them in camps, capitulate to them (give them legitimacy and/or sovereignty), pass laws to force assimilation, imprison them, etc. The popular approach, tolerance, is just slow capitulation.

    “We could easily transform our society to a much better one any time we wanted to, but that probably won’t happen until the current one becomes totally unworkable.”

    You are much more optimistic than I am. What do you think the chances are that a critical mass of people could agree on the correct path to a better society?

  2. OJB
    April 10, 2017 at 9:52 pm

    Nothing ever really changes. The mistakes, dark ages, and “renaissances” of the past will probably happen again. I guess the only real difference is that we have the technology now to change the planet as a whole – in the past these revolutions have only been local. I try to be neither optimistic nor pessimistic. I think I am realistic. On the other hand, no one is very good at accurately predicting the future.

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