In his Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question, while arguing for the re-introduction of slavery, Thomas Carlyle played on Nietzsche’s term, “the gay science,” and gave us the derogatory title of economics: “the dismal science.” Carlyle used that same term when writing about Malthus’ theories, calling them, “Dreary, stolid, dismal, without hope for this world or the next, is all that of the preventative check and the denial of the preventative check.” In The Collapse of Complex Societies, Tainter worried that his idea of complexity subject to diminishing marginal returns would make archaeology economics’ heir to the title. The idea that we are not in control of our own destiny is depressing to us. We rebel against determinism not because we can prove it is untrue, but because it frightens us to think of ourselves as mere cogs in a machine beyond our power. These theses may seem dismal in their predictions of inevitable collapse and a future created by deterministic, materialistic forces beyond our control. They should not be. This is, as another translation of Nietzsche’s original phrase would read, a “life-enhancing knowledge.” The greater moral of this story is not that our lives are bound by diminishing returns, but that the future will be what we make of it.
For millennia, civilizations have struggled to explain the misery their “superior” way of life creates, and across time and space that blame has been consistently heaped upon our flawed and sinful nature. In that view, our misery is not our fault; it is simply because we were made badly. This is a very dismal view. It is our nature to be miserable, and we cannot escape it. Yet, the many cultures that do live happily stand as a living testament against that excuse. They live well, and happily, and have for tens of thousands of years. Their mere existence proves that humans are not flawed. We are not damned to destruction, nor eternal unhappiness.
Collapse was not always inevitable. It is the consequence of agricultural life. When we decided to live in this way, only then did collapse become inevitable. The way we choose to live has consequences.
The first Inka’s father prophesied that after five kings, the ancestors would stop listening to his people, and their way of life would end. The Inka founded the empire in order to keep a flow of sacrifices, begging the ancestors to stop time, to cheat their fate. The fifth king—Atahualpa—was pulled from his litter at Cajamarca by Spanish conquistadors in 1532. Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, followed a brutal policy that began the Chinese tradition of alchemy, in pursuit of an elixir of life so that he could cheat his own death. The Egyptian pharoahs used pyramids and buried boats and mummification in hopes that they would live forever. Again and again, among the autochthonous civilizations, we see an explicit desire in their very foundations to cheat the natural cycle of life and death—to become the one thing in all of history that lived forever, that took without ever giving back. We see echoes of that same sentiment in our own civilization today. We look at the earth around us as a resource to be exploited; taking care of it is, at best, an act of charity. Even in death, as a final act of spite, we seal ourselves in boxes and poison our bodies with chemicals to hold off as long as possible the moment when we will be forced to give something back to the community of life that fed us, gave us water and air to breathe, and supported every endeavor we ever undertook.
Such attempts are not without their consequences. The cycles of life cannot be cheated forever. The longer we do manage to hold that moment off, the more dire the consequences. Collapse is a special case of overshoot—and the more we overshoot, the more drastic the consequences. But we are not bound to an eternal cycle of complexity and collapse. Ever-escalating complexity must always end in collapse—that is the consequence of such unsustainable madness. But we are not inherently mad—and no one forces us down the road of ever-escalating complexity.
In fact, as we saw in the previous thesis, that road will be all but cut off. Complexity may be subject to diminishing returns, but many other things are not. The forager spectrum spans from the Inuit, to the !Kung, to the Kwakiutl, to the Pygmies. How much more diverse might the foragers of the future be? Will there be Huns thundering across the plains of Kansas, or an Iroquois-like Confederacy practicing permaculture across upstate New York?
The future promises us lives as humans were meant to live them—free, respected as persons, respected as peers, subject to none. It promises us a true community—something most of us have never really experienced. It promises a mind-boggling diversity of belief, tradition, culture and lifestyle.
For ten thousand years, we have been caught in a positive feedback loop of ever-escalating complexity. Our lives have been created by the consequences of our ancestors’ actions, and we have had little choice but to find our way within the ever-constricting confines of that destiny. That was the dismal reality of our parents, and their parents, and that is the dismal reality that has shaped us and brought us to this moment.
But now, collapse is upon us. It has already begun. The choice is ours, whether we will remain true to that culture that bore us and die with it, or whether we will choose to create a new future—a new culture. With collapse, the long curse visited upon us by our Neolithic ancestors finally ends, and we will become the first generation in ten millennia to truly claim its own destiny. Collapse will be the most horrific crisis any animal has ever faced, but with it also comes a great opportunity to claim our own future. The possibilities are limitless; the diversity of the future that awaits us is infinite.
There is a strikingly widespread astrology amongst many American tribes. The Milky Way is associated with the axis mundi, the world tree, the same mythological archetype as the Norse Yggdrasil, the Slavic Oak, or the Hindu banyan. The area about the North Star is considered “the Heart of the Sky,” or the door to the underworld. When the sun rises in the Milky Way on the winter solstice, it is said to climb the World Tree, to open the door of heaven, and begin a new age of the world. It was this astrological interpretation that laid the framework of the Inka’s prophecy, and the basis of the Mayan calendar. Interestingly, the Mayans predicted the end of this fourth world, and the beginning of the next, fifth world at precisely such an astrological event—in 2012.
By 2012, if peak oil, global warming or mass extinction will have any role in civilization’s collapse, it will be well underway. By 2012, we will likely be embroiled in world-wide recession and constant warfare. By 2012, the collapse of our globalized civilization should be undeniable—and those of us who wish to find a new way to live should be able to find that the beginning of collapse has left enough space for us to do just that. By 2012, curiously enough, the door of heaven may well be open for anyone who wishes to pass through it and create the future.
What we do after that, is up to us.