It doesn’t seem possible from our viewpoint right now, but the answer is yes, and the signs are not especially good. We don’t think about it enough, because it won’t happen quickly, and it won’t happen to us personally.
It might happen a century or two from now, or four. History has a long time frame, and our lives are brief by comparison, but right now we are setting the stage for whatever will follow.
The answer is yes, but not during our lives.
Young adults today were born in the computer age, and have no experience of what came before. When I was quite young we still had milk delivered daily by horse-drawn cart, the last gasp of the horse and buggy era. My mother rode a horse to school. With the passing of people who experienced these old things, nobody is left who remembers what they were like. Many can’t even identify common artifacts of older times, or understand how they were used.
If a society collapses and fades away, as did Rome, there become fewer and fewer ways to remember. Over a span of centuries many important things are simply forgotten by the entire culture as if they had never existed, especially if the young are not specifically taught about them. In China, the Ming dynasty purposely destroyed both the records and the artifacts of their extraordinary 13th and 14th century nautical expeditions. They raised the drawbridge and withdrew from the world, and everyone forgot what had come before, until researchers in recent years pieced it together. History is full of civilizations that simply vanished, many times along with their populations. What would happen if several large countries today simply withdrew from the rest of the world, as Ming China did?
Is this an unnecessarily gloomy question, or is it simply realistic? The answer is, maybe both. We have to consider the thought of Jane Jacobs, whose last book, Dark Age Ahead, was written during 2003, three years before she died, and four years before the devastating world market crash precipitated by Wall Street criminals. Her book was spot on about the events leading up to the crash. She even predicted it, although it occurred sooner than she had expected. She also predicted the semi-recovery we see today, involving only the rich, which she sees as one sign that we are on a track that could lead to a fading civilization. With that record of successful soothsaying, it surely behooves us to pay attention to what she had to say.
If a society collapses,
over centuries things
are simply forgotten.
Believers in “progress” tell us that all such dire predictions are unrealistic nonsense. Everything has been getting better and better for many centuries, and there is no reason we can’t solve all problems we will face in the future.
I cannot make myself believe this rosy scenario. It’s not entirely true, to begin with, and conditions we face now are unprecedented in all history, and based on a belief in infinite “progress” without limitations. Unfortunately, we live in a finite world with very definite natural limitations, and we will be forced to face that bald fact sooner or later. Among the unprecedented problems are global climate change, human population growth, and the depletion of natural resources, all of which are closely linked. It’s not a question of whether natural limits will be reached, but when. Or whether we can change to respect these natural limits before we reach them—which I doubt.
But this is not quite what Jacobs addressed in her book. She is not at all sanguine about humankind’s ability to recognize the gradual changes in our world that may well bring about a new Dark Age not unlike that following the fall of the Roman Empire. As she says, we would do well to remember that Rome was technologically advanced, influenced huge areas of the world for many centuries, and boasted civic achievements that were the most advanced of the time. Yet, over a period of centuries, Rome faded to black, and Europe descended into hundreds of years of illiterate superstition and bad health. Everything Rome had accomplished was forgotten. No one knew how to build an aqueduct. Almost no one in Europe was even aware there was a Roman empire, since most were uneducated.
It is possible that Western civilization
could go the way of Rome.
Is it possible that the US, and Western civilization in general, could go the way of Rome? Probably not in quite the same way, but Jacobs’ reason might surprise you. More than anything else, it is the arts and folkways that preserve a culture, she says, not the science and technology, and these belong to the people. In the US we have musics by the truckload, everything from slave work songs, through jazz, folk songs, and dozens of other types. We have stories and movies. We have foods and every sort of art. We have all these things that are not just placed in a museum, but are remembered and used by the people. Stories and songs, in particular, carry from generation to generation, and carry history, pride, and identification with them, which are very important to us. (San Francisco alone has several very popular festivals of non-commercial music every year, and various cultural festivals.)
Our technology is amazing, but by its very nature, technology is temporal. Remember Voyager I, the lonely little spacecraft launched in 1971 that just recently sailed out of the sun’s influence into interstellar space, communicating with us occasionally by means of an 8-track tape recorder and computer power roughly equal to what we can put into a toothbrush today? In a mere four decades, the “advanced” Voyager technology became so obsolete as to be quaint, almost giggle-worthy. People under 40 may have no idea what an 8-track is. Who will remember a couple hundred years from now, especially if there is no one to teach them about it?
It is not the wealthy educated
who preserve a culture,
it is all the people.
But many millions know or at least have heard “Yankee Doodle”, “Soldier, Soldier, Will You Marry Me?”, “Barbara Allen”, “Buffalo Gals”, “Turkey In the Straw”, “Dixie”, “Aura Lee” (Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender”) and countless other songs from Colonial America and other periods, many of which were already hundreds of years old in the colonial era. Although many Americans don’t realize it, American jazz is recognized worldwide as our most significant musical and artistic contribution, our only original contribution. Everyone knows the saying, “As American as apple pie” (which probably came about because of the ubiquity of apples, which in turn were greatly boosted by John Chapman, the Pennsylvania nurseryman better known as Johnny Appleseed, who planted many apple seeds in his westward walk). The all-American hamburger meal, with French fried potatoes, is known worldwide (for better or worse, IMHO). All these are preserved by the people, by the millions and millions of people, every day.
It is not the wealthy educated who preserve a culture, it is all the people. When the people forget and lose their culture, over time the wealthy will also forget.
Are we headed for a long era of amnesia, in which everything important will eventually be forgotten, ushering in a new Dark Age? Look at it this way: Everything in the future depends on education, any and all kinds of education. But we have a lengthening history of starving the educational system. Good ol’ Prop 13 has moved public education in California from #1 to #47, and nationally the achievements of our students are regularly found wanting. Across the country, public education is always battered by tides of funding that rarely rise high enough to float all boats even temporarily. Public collegiate institutions are likewise continually starved by politically motivated cuts, and the misguided move to make all education private has been ongoing for some time now. With the economic collapse we have been flirting with, it’s not at all inconceivable that education will become so expensive and rare that almost no one can afford it.
The future depends on education,
and we have a lengthening history
of worsening education.
Wealth inequality in the US has already become so extreme that we rank worst of all industrialized nations. It is very difficult for lower income families to pay even for publicly supported college, which is essential if their children are to rise from poverty. It is hard to imagine the collapse of higher education right now, but it is not difficult to see that we appear headed for an era in which only the rich can afford higher education. In time, a dearth of capable teachers at college level would be all but guaranteed. At some point this could also be true of lower levels of education. What then of the future?
The huge gap we see today between the very rich and everyone else will without doubt worsen unless there are major political changes to restore democracy and equality of opportunity. In time it could even take us backwards to the feudal era of landed gentry and peasants who support them, albeit with differences we cannot imagine today. Without a thriving democratic culture, the lives of the very wealthy will eventually be limited also, and we will be on our way to a new dark age.