Old Age and Societal Decline
January 18, 2018
People grow old and die. Civilizations eventually fail. For centuries amateur philosophers have used the former as a metaphor for the latter, leading to a few useful insights and just as many misleading generalizations. The comparison becomes more immediately interesting as our own civilization stumbles blindly toward collapse. While not the cheeriest of subjects, it’s worth exploring.
A metaphor is not an explanation.
First, it’s important to point out that serious contemporary researchers studying the phenomenon of societal collapse generally find little or no explanatory value in the metaphorical link with individual human mortality.
The reasons for individual decline and death have to do with genetics, disease, nutrition, and personal history (including accidents and habits such as smoking). We are all genetically programmed to age and die, though lifespans differ greatly.
Reasons for societal decline appear to have little or nothing to do with genetics. Some complex societies have failed due to invasion by foreign marauders (and sometimes the diseases they brought); others have succumbed to resource depletion, unforeseeable natural catastrophe, or class conflict. Anthropologist Joseph Tainter proposed what is perhaps the best general theory of collapse in his 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies, which argued that the development of societal complexity is a problem-solving strategy that’s subject to diminishing marginal returns. Once a civilization’s return on investment in complexity goes negative, that civilization becomes vulnerable to stresses of all sorts that it previously could have withstood.
There is a superficial similarity between individual aging, on one hand, and societal vulnerability once returns on investments in complexity have gone negative, on the other. In both cases, what would otherwise be survivable becomes deadly—whether it’s a fall on an uneven sidewalk or a barbarian invasion. But this similarity doesn’t provide explanatory value in either case. No physician or historian will be able to do her job better by use of the metaphor.
Nevertheless, as long as we don’t fall into the trap of seeing it as an explanation, the comparison may still be useful. Explanation isn’t everything. We naturally want to know how to deal mentally and emotionally with both personal and societal mortality, and it’s in this pursuit that we may find usefulness in the metaphor.
Is the world getting old, or is it just me?
In order to locate that usefulness it’s probably best to start by acknowledging our context. Our own civilization is circling the drain. I won’t bore readers already well versed in the literature by rehearsing evidence that modern industrial society is past its sell-by date. For those new to the discussion, perhaps the most concise text I can recommend is William Ophuls’s tiny book, Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail. Ophuls surveys the best previous writings on the subject and offers a summary of the stages through which every civilization seems to pass on its inexorable journey toward collapse. It’s up to the reader to decide at which stage our own civilization has arrived.
Those of us who have spent years or decades drinking from the well of ecological literature on climate change, resource depletion, species extinctions, and limits to growth need no reminder of the existential threats to our society. The global industrial civilization that currently supplies us with everything that is necessary for life is coming apart—politically, socially, economically, and ecologically. Our leaders are incapable of acknowledging, much less reversing, industrial society’s progress toward oblivion.
This realization can be as at least as devastating as that of our personal mortality, though only for those who actually pay attention to the warning signs and have a historical perspective regarding past instances of collapse. (We haven’t talked about a third level of death—the extinction of the human species. This is eventually inevitable, but it obviously hasn’t ensued from previous civilizational crises, and probably won’t do so this time around either. Very few people give this ultimate mortality any thought whatsoever.)
Personal mortality is harder to deny that societal or species mortality. It’s true that, when we’re young, we know theoretically that our lifespan will be limited, yet somehow that knowledge tends not to sink in. But then, as decades pass and as we see ourselves age, our parents die, and our friends disappear one by one, death gradually becomes a constant if unwelcome companion. If we’re practical, we make plans for old age and write a will. If not, we may persist in denial, living as though nothing will ever change. But even then, moments when denial is impossible become more frequent. And in those moments the awareness of mortality is an inescapable psychological burden. However happy, unhappy, fulfilled, unfulfilled, privileged, underprivileged, eventful, or boring our life is and has been, it is in any case fleeting. In a few years our personal window into the world will no longer exist.
If it is mostly older people who viscerally understand and grapple with mortality, it may also be the deeply mature who are more likely to contemplate societal decline. At environmental lectures it’s hard not to notice that the average age of audience members tends to be 50 and above. That’s not to say there are no young people who understand that our civilization is fragile and self-destructive. In fact, some of the most knowledgeable and dedicated environmental activists I know are in their twenties and thirties. Perhaps most in their age cohort are simply too busy just getting by to bother attending lectures.
Is there a natural tendency for old people to yearn for the good old days and to complain that the world is going to hell? Certainly it is possible to think of examples of the stereotype—from biblical prophets like Jeremiah to elderly contemporary environmental writers such as Paul Ehrlich. But the key authors of The Limits to Growth were in their twenties when the book was released, as was Bill McKibben when he penned his bombshell New Yorker articles about climate change, which became the bestselling book The End of Nature. And Paul Ehrlich was only 35 when The Population Bomb was published.
Further, in traditional societies the role of elders was not so much to foresee calamity as to offer guidance and encouragement to younger people, in return for which they earned respect. Perhaps it’s only in societies that are at risk of decline and collapse, and in which the traditional role of elders is largely unacknowledged and unfilled, that old codgers tend to turn prophetic.
It’s the end of the world but I feel . . . how?
Nevertheless, our relative personal age may tend to make us feel somewhat differently about the end of civilization.
Young people are naturally concerned with career, partnering, reproduction, and parenting. They are likely to regard information about dire environmental trends as a distraction from these genetically and socially driven interests. Their incentive for denial is strong. Optimism sells: it helps one get ahead in the job market and it’s attractive to potential mates. However, if denial is overcome for whatever reason, a young person is likely to feel that societal decline is something she or he will personally have to deal with. One response might be to engage in activism to counter trends leading toward collapse; another would be to spend time and effort developing skills that are likely to be useful in a society that is downsizing and simplifying.
Older people are naturally more concerned with personal maintenance (failing vision and hearing, failing joints, failing memory). They want to ensure that they have made some lasting contribution to community and extended family. Though there are plenty of elderly activists, on the whole the attitude of the aged toward societal decline tends to be more that of an observer: there is the belief that although the world is going to hell, I personally will be gone by the time that destination is reached. Nevertheless it’s my duty to tell everyone who will listen what I think is happening and why.
Often, when denial of societal decline is no longer tenable, young and old alike jump straight to cynicism. Here I am not referring the teachings of the ancient Cynic philosophers such as Diogenes, which had many good points, but to the modern meaning of the term—which refers to concern only with one’s own interests, and the belief that society is inherently corrupt and irredeemable. Cynicism offers some minimal psychological self-immunization to utter despair, but this comes at the expense of connection with others—which is an essential ongoing source of emotional vitality.
Those who get beyond denial and cynicism often arrive at an attitude of compassionate engagement. We may not be able to prevent collapse, but we can still make life better for ourselves and other potential survivors as events unfold. We can make our community more resilient, protect vulnerable people and other creatures, and devote ourselves to creating places and moments of beauty.
May we have a good death; civilization too.
We each wish to die painlessly and well, with dignity, with our faculties intact, and with loved ones close by. It often doesn’t work out that way. But there are things we can do to improve our odds, such as to eat carefully, exercise, and treat others with respect and generosity.
What would a good civilizational death look like? It would be relatively slow rather than sudden; the distance of the fall would be manageable (people would be able to adjust to the reduction in societal complexity); and the casualties would be few. In the best instance, the death of a civilization is merely the “release” phase of the adaptive cycle, clearing the way for new growth of more diverse, simpler human cultures.
Achieving a “good” civilizational death would entail minimizing damage to ecosystems and exhaustion of natural resources, so that human survivors would have the biophysical basis for recovery. It would also require minimizing human births prior to collapse so as both to conserve resources and reduce the sum total of human suffering during the decline and fall, since collapse always entails a reduction in carrying capacity.
Sadly, a good individual death is easier to achieve than a good civilizational death: personally, we have a wide range of behavioral choices, whereas great civilizations are denial machines that, at least in their latter stages of development, always reward excess and penalize modest sufficiency. Civilizations grow as big as they possibly can, given their energy sources, their technologies, and the available ecological bounty. And ours has grown the biggest of all as a result of having fossil fuels as energy supplies.
Nevertheless, our personal choices make a difference for ourselves and for those in widening circles around us, potentially expanding our survival and recovery options within a civilization whose overall trajectory toward dissolution is already set. By pursuing sufficiency in the face of excess, conservation of the natural world, and connection with others, we can have as good and meaningful a life as possible within a civilization that is both itself dying, and dealing death to creatures great and small.
These are not entirely new thoughts. Joanna Macy has for years sounded many of the themes explored above in her “Work that Reconnects.”
Carolyn Baker does the same in her book Collapsing Consciously: Transformative Truths for Turbulent Times. And The Dark Mountain Project pursues “uncivilization” as a collective creative project, having acknowledged that “It is . . . our civilisation’s turn to experience the inrush of the savage and the unseen; our turn to be brought up short by contact with untamed reality.” The effort to seek and provide hospice care for the inhabitants of a dying civilization is never likely to go viral on social media or spark a movement. But it makes as much sense as any other activity I can think of.
According to tradition, the Buddha’s awakening began with his realization that sickness, old age, and death are inevitable. Perhaps our own realization that civilization’s demise is just as certain can lead to still another level of awakening.
Here the metaphor may show its highest usefulness. Old age teaches us the preciousness of everything—friends, nature, and ordinary moments in ordinary days. Truly ancient people, aged 85 and above, often attain a level of happiness that belies their physical frailty.
Maybe a society that’s on the verge of collapse provides the perfect incubator for an experience of reassessment, reconnection, and renewal. Whatever time we have left is valuable beyond measure. Let’s make the most of it.