Why Decline Matters

One of the most curious blind spots in the contemporary imagination, as I have suggested more than once in these essays, can be traced in the way that the concept of decline has vanished from our collective discourse about the future. What makes this blindness even more curious is that it is a very recent thing.

A century ago the possibility that the modern western world might reach a peak, and then retrace history’s familiar path down to the common fate of civilizations, was on many minds. The art of Aubrey Beardsley and the novels of Joséphin Péladan, to name only two leading figures of the Decadent movement, announced, and at times wallowed in, the approaching decline that Oswald Spengler detailed a few years later in his magisterial prose. The belief in decline was never universally held, or even a majority view – those who prophesied the imminence of Utopia through progress or violent revolution had at least as large an audience, and apocalyptic fantasies were never hard to find – but the idea was there, and commanded attention from serious thinkers.

Somewhere between the 1920s and the end of the Second World War, however, the entire concept of decline dropped out of the modern world’s collective imagination. Except for a brief reprise in the wake of the converging crises of the 1970s, and a few manifestations on the far edges of today’s fringe culture, it has yet to return. This odd shift in the shapes of our imagined futures demands attention from those of us who try to sense the shape of the future in advance, because if the future we get is one of decline, the results could be far more challenging than anything the more simplistic notion of sudden collapse can offer

Decline, after all, is not a linear process. Trace the decline of the dead civilizations of the past along the dimension of time, and much more often than not it follows a complex, stairstep curve that alternates periods of crisis with respites and partial recoveries. Compare the process to the sort of sudden apocalyptic collapse that occupies so much space in the collective imagination today, and a striking result emerges: the amount of population decline and cultural loss in any given generation may be much less than would result from a single sudden catastrophe, but the overall impact of decline is much greater, and the capacity for swift recovery much less.

This seems counterintuitive, but it can easily be demonstrated by historical evidence and logic alike. Consider the Black Death in Europe. As an example of dieoff, it’s hard to beat – the first terrible epidemic of 1346-1351 killed close to a third of the population of Europe, and recurring outbreaks that followed every decade or so took up to ten per cent of the survivors each time – and, in the form of the peasant revolts of the late 14th century, it even managed to produce some semblance of the marauding hordes that play so large a part in contemporary survivalist fantasies. Despite the horrific death rate, the widespread social disorder, and the huge cultural impacts of the Black Death, European civilization did not collapse, or lose cultural continuity. The survivors simply picked themselves up and went on with things much as before.

Imagine a similar dieoff, or even a much more extreme one, in America today and it’s not hard to see why. Let’s say the most extreme versions of the peak oil survivalist thesis turn out to be correct; some crisis or other causes petroleum markets to freeze up completely, and gasoline and diesel fuel become completely unavailable; panic and looting set in, governments somehow fail to do anything about the crisis, and society unravels in a general war of all against all, with marauding hordes spilling out of the cities into nearby rural regions in a desperate quest for food. Five horrific years later, the US population has plummeted by 95%. What happens next?

The single largest resource base available to the survivors, in such a case, would be the material culture and knowledge base of pre-collapse society. All over rural America, in areas more than a few hundred miles from big urban centers, small towns and villages would remain, and those in agricultural areas with steady water supplies would likely flourish; lacking gas for their cars, after all, refugees from Chicago or Los Angeles will not make it to North Dakota, or even Iowa. Libraries, schools, and local governments would either still exist, or could be readily rebuilt; abandoned buildings and technology could be dusted off and put back to use; where renewable energy sources exist, those could be reactivated if they stopped running in the first place. Almost everyone alive after the collapse will have grown up in the precollapse world, and a great many of them will have learned some of the skills needed to operate a modern society. Before very long, something very like today’s rural American culture would have reestablished itself, just as late medieval cultures across Europe reestablished themselves after the Black Death.

What makes so swift a recovery possible, though, is the short time span between collapse and aftermath. Consider the possibility of decline and a much less promising picture emerges. First, and most obviously, decline takes much longer. By the time the process is finished, the people who remember how an advanced civilization used to function are long in their graves, and anything perishable in the material culture they knew has long since perished. It’s one thing to break into an abandoned library five years after a sudden collapse, when most of the books will be dusty but readable; it’s another thing to do the same thing two hundred years after the beginning of decline, when those books not looted long ago have crumbled into sawdust because they were printed on high-acid paper, or rotted after the roof collapsed and the rains got in.

The stairstep process found in most historical examples of decline, though, is a far more potent force. Periods of crisis, in which urgent needs absorb all available resources, can go on for decades. During that time, anything not immediately relevant to the needs of the moment will likely go begging for maintenance and upkeep, if it isn’t stripped for spare parts, burned as heating fuel, or destroyed in war, rioting, or any of the other common disasters that punctuate the downward arc of a civilization’s lifespan. Periods of respite offer some recovery time, but then another period of crisis comes and another sorting process hits the surviving legacy of the civilization. Each period of crisis thus becomes a bottleneck through which only a fraction of a civilization’s material culture and knowledge base will survive. Repeat the process often enough and very little remains. Thus, if we admit the possibility of decline, we face the possibility of a future more difficult and impoverished than a future of sudden collapse, not less so.

The cultural conserver concept I have proposed in recent weeks on this blog attempts to address that possibility. Alongside the dismal record of cultural loss during ages of decline, history also shows that a motivated minority concerned with the long view can have a disproportionate impact on the survival of cultural heritage in hard times.

Consider the survival of the Jewish people and their cultural heritage after the destruction of the Third Temple in 70 CE, and the obliteration of most of the Jewish presence in Israel over the following century. Faced with the very real risk of cultural extinction, surviving religious leaders drew on memories of the Babylonian captivity to launch one of history’s most magnificently successful programs of cultural conservation. As rabbinic Judaism took shape, a very large percentage of its traditions focused explicitly on preserving Jewish religious and cultural continuity. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” asks the Passover ritual; the answer, freely interpreted, is that it embodies one of the distinctive historical experiences of the Jewish people, using potent tools of symbol and ceremony to counter the pressures toward assimilation and absorption.

Equally, the Catholic church after Rome’s fall set in motion a massive salvage program that kept much of classical culture alive right through the Dark Ages. Its motives differed from those that drove the founders of rabbinic Judaism; an expanding church needed clergy literate enough to know their way around scripture, the church fathers, canon law, and the philosophical theology the Church had borrowed from Greek Neoplatonism, and this mandated the survival of the Latin literary culture that informed so much early Christian literature in the West. Thus generations of Christian schoolboys learned Latin prosody from Vergil, and acquired a taste for learning that blossomed in the great age of Christian monasticism and preserved countless cultural treasures for the future.

There are plenty of other examples, from the Sanskrit academies of India to the bardic schools of early modern Scotland, but they share a crucial feature in common with these. For a cultural tradition to survive in an age of decline, it needs to find a constituency that values it enough to put the survival of the tradition ahead of more immediate needs. In traditional Judaism, keeping the commandments isn’t something to file away for future reference whenever times get hard; it comes first, even ahead of personal survival. Similarly, the Benedictine monks who spent their time copying manuscripts by hand in unheated scriptoria through the worst years of the Dark Ages could have led much easier lives outside the bare walls of their monasteries, if the glory of God had not, in their eyes, outshone all the treasures of the world.

Thus the survival of cultural heritage must draw on emotional drives potent enough to override the tyranny of immediate needs and drive the modest but unremitting daily efforts needed to keep cultural heritage intact. This is especially true of the traditions of elite culture, which typically lack any short term survival value and often require a sizeable investment of time and resources. It is above all true of modern elite culture, which has specialized in the mass production of information to such a degree that the ability to maintain adequate storage for all the knowledge our culture has amassed is already very much in doubt.

One of my readers thus responded to last week’s post by asking me how her field, mathematics, might preserve some of its knowledge base for the future. That’s a daunting question, for which I know no easy answers. Right now mathematicians in the more abstract and less practical branches of their field can draw a salary to pursue their researches only because a longstanding social habit encourages governments and donors to cover the costs. The same thing is true of many other branches of scholarship, and of those fine arts that haven’t quite finished the process of devolving into the manufacture of high-end collectibles for the rich. Outside of university mathematics departments, it’s hard to find anyone who has even heard of most of today’s hot topics in math, much less anyone who would be willing to study and teach them in their off hours, for no pay, out of the sheer love of the subject.

That sort of constituency will be hard for any part of today’s elite culture to find, and without it, there’s a minimal chance that anything more than fragments of that culture will reach the future. Still, there is a wild card in the deck, and its name is religion. Nearly all the classic examples of cultural conservation have drawn their motivating force from religious beliefs. Is it possible that some of today’s scientific and cultural heritage will find a welcome within the ambit of a present or future religious movement? Next week’s post will explore these options.