The Collapse of Society

This post has nothing to do with anthropologist-historian Jared Diamond's apparently great book Collapse, which I have not yet read. It does, however, likely deal with some of the topics that Diamond deals with. The other day we had a blackout here that lasted for about 5 1/2 hours. Blackouts have always been interesting to me, because they are a personal wakeup call for myself – as they should be for others. They demonstrate our reliance on technology, and factors such as electricity distribution, which are ultimately out of our control. We have developed a society that needs these barriers to survive and ensure its survival. I have especially always found it interesting that people don't know what to do with themselves in a long blackout. This is partially dependent on the fact that people are ill-equipped to do anything. The blackout occurred at night, so obviously light is the main factor here. It also affected some 45,000 people, so there was no avoiding its effects.

I was relayed the following story. At the local skating rink, quasi-panic ensued after the lights went off. Everyone immediately ran outside in a panic, got on their cell phones, and started calling everyone they knew to see if they had also had power. Of course, nobody in the area did. I especially had a laugh at hearing about a person who proclaimed to the whole mob: "They have power downtown!" Great. This changes everything!

A few questions arise here. There was a social panic when one main technological system failed. What would have happened had a second system failed as well – say the cellular network? Talk about mass hysteria. Terrorists! Nuclear war! Coup d'état!

Most people don't carry around backup sources of light, so they are essentially shit out of luck in a situation like this, helplessly using cell phone backlights to try and navigate. If you are properly equipped, then there's no reason that you can't challenge yourself to do alternative activities to pass the time. I was especially impressed when my mom proclaimed: "I can't believe that we're going to miss America's Next Top Model!" Really?!

I feel that these situations, while they are essentially minor, should serve as wake-up calls – though they clearly do not. We remain ill-prepared because we have good faith that the system just works. The residents of New Orleans had faith that the system would work, too. There is a danger in making such assumptions, and there are plenty of examples in which the system has failed in Western countries. For example, we associate famines with the Third World, but in the 1930s there was a widespread drought that resulted in famine, bankruptcies, and the displacement of tens of thousands of people from the American Midwest and the Canadian Prairies.

Ulrich Beck famously spoke of the risk society in which we live. He argued that, unlike risks in the past, we can no longer calculate or insure ourselves against the risks that society has created. Furthermore, these risks are entirely out of our control, and the consequences are more dramatic than ever before. How might one insure him or herself against nuclear war? The question is irrelevant because we would likely all be dead if such were the case. It's not far-fetched, either. During the Cold War, amongst other examples, there were a number of computer failures and false alarms that nearly started a full-blown nuclear war.

While they may not be useful in the case of nuclear war, survival skills appear to be brushed aside as irrelevant in today's "sheltered" world. Our basic needs, if I may refer to Maslow's hierarchy, are fulfilled in a way that is completely disconnected from our own actions. We assume that we will be able to buy food, breathe clear air, have shelter, etc. in an endless supply. Consequently, we have forgotten basic survival skills such as tool use, shelter construction, and food provision. I would further argue that most are unprepared to use the skills we have maintained in such domains.

As each subsequent generation passes and we improve our transparent safety net, I fear that we further degrade these abilities. We are a plague to the Earth. We have overpopulated it, and unsustainably raped and pillaged its resources. When other species have grown out of control in the past, their populations always manage to be brought back into check through natural processes. In our case, there's no reason to believe that we are invulnerable to natural disasters that could virtually wipe us out. Nor are we immune from inter-destroying ourselves. Who will be prepared?


At 7/4/07 2:28 PM, Anonymous ben said...

I, for one, am on a journey to the Great Valley. They say star-shaped leaves still grow over there.


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