One winter night among friends recently the unthinkable was spoken: it is quite possible the last 50 years or so in the West have been an anomaly in the history of humankind, not to be repeated in our or our children’s lifetimes. In other words, it’s been a long time since pinching pennies was a way of life with all its attendant squalor. It’s literally been ages since we didn’t take for granted pleasures like regular travel, trucked-in food and daily hot showers.
It wasn’t just the financial system breakdown that fed our thinking. The threat of climate change, violent clashes between cultures, natural disasters, poor leaders and our inability to rely on what have become ungovernable states were among other things to consider.
I have to admit to a subsequent high level of anxiety that had me up early in the morning pondering the imponderable. It didn’t help that the Haiti earthquake devastated the island and that here we were able to venture out in January without coats.
What are the historical precedents for life without the well being we’ve come to expect? They aren’t encouraging; lots of warfare, centuries of Dark Ages, most people trading some form of enslavement for security while remaining poor, dirty and hungry, minds trapped in an abysmal, debasing ignorance. But surely 20th century progress could not be breached to an extent that humans would relive the distant past to that extent? Maybe we’ll just be driving over more potholes and cutting back to basic cable service.
After all, we have the Internet, community has our back, the artisanal movement has made us more resourceful, the US has an intelligent President again, greed is over.
But the reality is that it is difficult for those of us so privileged to bring to mind what that life could really be like. Luckily there are enough people who have lived through collapse to advise us. One such collapse gurus is Dimitry Orlov, survivor of the demise of the Soviet Union. After hearing his account, I crossed a rubicon of the mind. Suddenly I could imagine life after a collapse a lot more clearly. You really don’t want to go there. But perhaps you must. For the first time in my life it occurred to me that I might want to buy a gun.
Some artists already have imagined this kind of scenario and beyond. This fictional diary by Helen Simpson is set in 2040 as ecological systems perish and people are left to fend for themselves. The protagonist describes each descent into a gradually deeper and deeper level of hell, until she is left irrevocably altered and traumatized, alone and wandering with no sense of tomorrow. Unlike some heroes of recent apocalyptic entertainment, she doesn’t have anyone to live for except herself and it may not be enough.
At times of change artists and intellectuals can act as bellwethers, freeing us to talk about ideas that remain under the surface, taboo, unspeakable. Witness the role of the early German expressionists prior to WWI. While statesmen were earnestly assuring citizens of Europe that war was not on the horizon, they seemed to know momentum existed for a devastating conflict. Can our advanced civilization write a new page for the history books?