The End of Civilization

Those afflicted by hubris [immoderate greatness] become the agents of their own destruction. Like a tragic hero, a civilization comes to a ruinous end due to intrinsic flaws that are the shadow side of its very virtues….Indeed, civilization is a kind of Moloch whose demands for material and human sacrifice grow in proportion to its greatness.

New programs within the old paradigm will simply recreate the old problems in a new guise. Moreover, my analysis suggests that there is very little we can do. Most of the trends I identify are inexorable, and complex adaptive systems are ultimately unmanageable.

William Ophuls, Immoderate Greatness

 Civilization as I saw it ended recently, and I am relieved. Its demise brings an end to my judgments of it and I feel immeasurably lighter as a result.

I’ve just finished two great books written by William Ophuls, “Plato’s Revenge” and “Immoderate Greatness.” Ophuls, a brilliant observer and incisive thinker, has had a front row seat and broad view of humanity’s global progress since the 60’s.

In the first book he leaves open at least some bare hope and possibility for humanity’s rescue from itself, by itself. In the second, building upon what he learned and delineated so clearly in the first book, he arrives at a fully developed conclusion with an objective, dispassionate resignation to fact: a massive collapse of human civilization is imminent and unavoidable. It will likely not be an extinction level event, but it is definitely going to be unprecedented in human history.

If you want to disagree or argue the point, don’t take it up with me, take it up with Mr. Ophuls. I’m convinced, I do agree with him. My own observations, thoughts and experience ratify his conclusions. I suggest that before taking up an axe and bringing it to the grinding stone you read the books first.

We humans are motes. Hubris aside, we are motes in the juggernaut of life. We are motes of life surging in the veins of the universe. Yet we have become a current-caught crowd of motes of death, infecting the lives of each other and our planet. The tide has changed, as tides do. Humanity’s flow is done and the ebb begun. It is nature’s turn.

This feeling of relief is an odd thing, but I understand at least part of it.

When I was young I used to fight and revile and be depressed about the human ways and means proscribed by the civilization I was born into. What a mess, I would think, this cluster of complex, gluttonous, selfish delusions!

I asked my civilization how do I live, what do I do, what are my ways and means in this life to be? The answers were unsatisfactory to me. The great engine of my civilization followed a narrow track; my spirit did not conform to the arrangement. I found happiness in simple things, and my civilization offered me a complex labyrinth.

Ophuls’ analysis of what happens when human civilization veers away from the essence of humanity rings loud and true. When the mind becomes separated from that essence it develops hubris and wanders off from its place in creation on a self-managed misadventure. Mind disconnected from essence loses its balance and humility. It forgets what humans are, how they have evolved, what they are best at doing.

What are the good answers to give to the young person who asks the questions we all ask when we are young? Ophuls clearly delineates an essential trinity: Simplicity, Thriftiness, and Community.

When I was a child thriftiness was a happy thing to me, that simple frugality of life and love which requires no more than the beloved, the loaf of bread, the waters of earth, a warm comforter beneath an open window beneath a roof beneath the moon and stars, and work and play in all the fields of the earth with the people and animals there. My civilization offered me ways and means of profligacy and waste.

When I was a child community was a happy thing to me, I danced and played and sang there. Yet soon civilization informed me with its own confusions. I was to put away these childish things and seek faith, hope and love in a place where faith and hope and love were lost, a place where ideology and strife and competition were more important than spiritual commonality and peacefulness and cooperation.

Simplicity. Thriftiness. Community. Ophuls concludes the abandonment of these three guiding principle social virtues is the precursor to the fall of civilizations, in part because they are also spiritual virtues. Unmanageable complexity, wastefulness, and isolation are deadly to human society, just as they are deadly to the spirit. The very characteristics which humanity has evolved in order to survive – the abilities to adapt and manipulate – have within them a naturally self-adjusting seed of correction if they become separated from the essence which birthed them.

Humanity is part of nature and shares the path of all life on earth, back to the beginning of life. The ocean and sun and moon, the earth and air, the cycles of forces which interplay between them, it all imbues our substance down to the cellular level. We have evolved into the most complexly adaptive and manipulative organism present upon the earth, yet the ancient memory of our development – and our kinship with every form of life – remains with us.

Mind looks at life and categorizes according to difference; kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. What mind can lose sight of is what all life has in common. In order to think toward the unity of life, mind must allow itself to be informed by the essence in and of life.

The human cortical complex is useful but not special or exclusive or separate from other life. Consciousness, sentience, individuality – attributes humanity considers superior and exclusive to itself –  are present in nature now, and would be there even if humanity were not. We are natural beings, a form of life sharing life itself with every living thing.

Now, seeing from the perspective that what we have evolved in our civilization is a genetically mandated return to the garden of balanced humanity from whence we came and where we lived so happily, it all makes sense. Dissolution is natural and normal in these circumstances. There’s nothing to resist anymore. The only question left is, “How shall we conduct our lives amid this?”

We live in unmanageable complexity, waste too much, have become isolated from each other. The fall from grace is self evident. It seems likely the deluge is unavoidable, an oncoming global tsunami which will scourge human society. Yet as the wave, ever-rising and inevitable, approaches our shore, we still have a choice. We can continue to live as we are, or live as we are naturally conformed to live, reconciled to our circumstances, aware of our divinity. The choice may not matter to many who see the jaws of nature opening before them.

It matters to me.

2 Responses to The End of Civilization

  1. Louis W. says:

    Bob, you have been quite busy writing these past few days. It is all impressive, though I think I will choose this post to leave a comment because it seems the one having the most gravity. I must admit that although I have read about Ophuls’ ideas, I have not actually read his books. I am using that as an excuse not to comment on them – which is contrary to my usual practice of commenting on many things of which I know nothing.

    Because of what I see as the gravity of these concerns, I would first refer you to Jesse Winchester’s song, “Defying Gravity.” You can listen to it here:

    As I read you comments, I thought of an old poem by Gregory Corso. I can’t remember the name of the poem, but he spoke of listening to a young woman decry the end of civilization and he said something like “what good my telling her that the oldest existing piece of human writing begins with these words: ‘Things are not as they used to be.'”

    I also thought of e. e. Cummings poem: “pity this busy monster manunkind/not. Progress is a comfortable disease:/ . . . We doctors know/ a hopeless case if — listen: there’s a hell/of a good universe next door; let’s go.

    OK. I haven’t added anything to your observations and have not set forth any original thoughts, so I might as well leave with a quote from Forrest Gump: “That’s all I have to say about that.”

    • bobgriffith says:

      Hi Louis.

      Well, it’s not really writing, more the equivalent of a writer’s steam whistle pressure valve. If I knew better, I’d write better. I looked up the Jesse Winchester lyric and yes, there is a time for the high to be laid low, and per Cummings, yes I do hear the universe next door and spend as much time there as I can, usually dancing and laughing and being quiet and filled by turns in the great big open spaces there. Then I find myself back here again. I believe Buddhists call that Sakagadami. Oh well, I can take it on one more time. If my path here does take me to Anagamiship this time around there will have to either be some very unhappy events or a last-moments renunciation of all attachments, some of which I am very fond of and loath to let go of.

      Couldn’t find Corso’s poem with that particular sentiment, but “The American Way” is a pretty good rant if one’s inclined that way (and sometimes I am). Perhaps I belong on that ancient corner bemoaning how things ain’t what they used to be. Perhaps I’ve become an eccentric geezer with a sign on a stick, flailing passers by, proclaiming “The End is at Hand!” Perhaps I should be howling prophecy, unnoticed, on a soap box in a village square in New England, exercising the last inalienable right of the disenfranchised on their way to the far edge of the human margins – which to my way of thinking is the border of the universe next door. Sounds kinda fun to me.

      Writers are usually understood to be persons who write things that are good to read. I tried that, didn’t like it. Then there are the writers who basically just convert their thoughts to words on a page. Corso is like that, a bit too speed-fueled and stream-of-consciousness heavy for my tastes but comfortably schizoid in the sense that a sane person is crazy in the land of the insane. They get that way trying to figure out what the heck is going on.

      I’m a thoughts to words to page kind of guy. My expressions have become so personalized that they don’t always communicate very well. The thought I tried to get on the page was an anti-gravity sentiment, a lightening of the spirit occurring in an enlightening moment. It seems to me that releasing the grips our societal conditioning has on us frees the spirit from a massive body of egoistic misinformation and constitutes a giant step on our way to the One. Shifting the perspective from seeing what appears to be wrong to seeing it as not wrong but natural and normal under the circumstances is very freeing.

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