End-of-Civilization Stories

I’ve always enjoyed end-of-civilization stories* whether they involve zombies, asteroids, aliens, nuclear war, or ecocide. There’s something primal about these stories, and we’ve been telling them since before Hebrews and Babylonians told of a Great Flood.

But too often, in modern times, the cliché moral of the story is, “Human beings are worse than the zombies.” In the dystopian aftermath, roving gangs become violent and (almost always) super-patriarchal. Any institutions that do survive are authoritarian and dehumanizing.

Cory Doctorow made a point several years ago, after seeing the Snowpocalypse in Birmingham: what if, in a disaster, your neighbors are more likely to show up at your door with a casserole rather than a shotgun?

I think the steady drip-drip-drip of these end-of-civilzation movies trains us to see the world in a particular way. That’s why some people, in the midst of this crisis, feel it necessary to go stock up on guns and ammo. They believe our natural state is nasty, brutish, and short. They believe in the old-fashioned understanding of evolution or Social Darwinism, “survival of the fittest” (where “fit” simply means “strong” instead of “appropriate”). They believe that, if left to our own devices and without government oversight, our society will become the worst aspects of ourselves, and they will either have to kill and take, or be victims.

(It’s odd that these are often the same folks who pontificate on how we should shrink government to the size we can drown it in a bathtub. But maybe not so odd when you consider how they fetishize and look forward to the collapse.)

But we know better, now. Evolution isn’t just about “survival of the fittest.” It’s also about who can cooperate with others and create the greatest flourishing. We know that altruism, even between and among different species, can be adaptive. “Survival of the fittest” applies to “fitted-ness” of systems, whole forests and biomes—not just to individuals. Organizations, not just organisms.

We certainly do face many existential crises in our future. This pandemic is only the first ripple of many to come, thanks to climate change and growing economic inequality. But I think we, as a species, have some choices on how we prepare for them. We can rehearse hatred and fear toward the rest of humanity, preparing ourselves for hell and the hell we will need to unleash on others; Or we can rehearse an alternative future.

Don’t get me wrong — I think there’s always a need to defend our communities; especially against people who express the hell in themselves by inflicting it upon others. But survival isn’t going to be about who has the biggest guns or the most homogenous tribe. Guns can get you meat and protect you against people, but you can’t eat them and they can’t make you well. And homogeneity isn’t safe, because you’ll be missing the critical strategy or perspective that allows you to survive in a rapidly-changing world.

Just for the record, my interest in this is more practical than spiritual: I think civilizations that rehearse cooperation and altruism will survive better than those civilizations that rehearse violence, xenophobia, and social Darwinism. We’ve been trying the hateful one for awhile, and it just ain’t working.

I guess we’ll find out!

—————–

*”End-of-civilization” is better than “post-apocalyptic,” because “apocalypse” just means “revelation.” And I think if we the true nature of reality was revealed, we’d find it more funny than terrifying.

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