Let’s be perfectly honest. Ruins are awesome. There is something utterly fascinating about the idea of a complete societal collapse. Half wild men and women eeking out a life amid violence, desperation and the decaying ruins of the great civilization that came before.
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Today’s popular culture is awash in dystopian, civilizational collapse thought experiments. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Marcel Theroux’s Far North, Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Lotus Blue by Cat Sparks, Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army and so many more. And that is just literature. The film industry is likewise cranking out post-apocalyptic films. The Day After Tomorrow, I am LegendThe Book of Eli, Snowpiercer, Mad Max and San Andreas come to mind. Over the years television has dedicated an incredible amount of time to the supposed collapse of the Mayans, Easter Island, Pompeii and Mesa Verde. Then there are shows like The 100 and Jericho. In 2001 Jared Diamond’s very faulted book “Collapse” popularized the idea of societies falling apart. Sadly, Collapse gained a lot of cultural traction despite its inaccuracies and bad information.
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I’m in on the game as well. My climate fiction short story Hanging, Just Outside the World was just last week published in the anthology Chaos of Hard Clay – a collection of stories about collapse. I’m also hammering away at a novel set in a slowly collapsing America beat to hell by climate change and poor environmental choices. My friend Frank is plugging away on a trilogy of Jack Reacher-type novels that take place in a post-nuclear war world.
transformation
The fascination of collapse – defined by anthropologist Joseph Tainter as a sudden simplification – pervades our society these days. Between climate change, poisoned water and air, over population, increasing economic inequality and nuclear weapons, We know we’ve messed up on a massive scale but we don’t quite know what to do about it. And that is frightening.
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The focus on the dystopian not the utopian in our cultural storytelling is both a result of a lack of imagination as well as artistic faint-heartedness. But it is also because….imagining a better future is just plain hard:
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From a creative point of view, this kind of negative art is predictable and timid. Criticising current society and then mapping its decline is easy because the detail already exists in people’s minds. You don’t have to invent new social, cultural or political structures, merely show the existing ones unravelling. On the other hand, imagining a new, better society is much more difficult because all these details have to be invented, and then they inevitably come across as impossible or unrealistic to people still immersed in the current story. That’s why there are so few works of utopian fiction: it’s damn hard to pull off. But to change the future, we must imagine it into existence.”
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Yet the lack of creativity and fear are not the only forces at play. Western society (and perhaps all cultures) have a fascination with a collapse. Think about wealthy young British and Americans making The Grand Tour of Roman and Greek ruins. Or of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague and his stunning prophetic work The Iron Heel. This fascination isn’t anything new. It even helped birth the science of archaeology. It’s what drove me to archaeology. I dreamed as a child and young man of living and working among the ruins of past greatness.
~
transformation
In September I published How Vulnerable are We to Collapse? in Sapiens, an online magazine dedicated to anthropological issues. At the time I intended to write a blog post as a follow up to the article to dive into some thoughts that didn’t make it into the article itself because of word count and editorial decisions. Mainly I wanted to explore the question: do societies even “collapse”?
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History is complicated. Environmental change is complicated. Culture is complicated. We often think of culture as a static THING rather than the PROCESS it is. Western civilization has a tendency to need a tight and clear narrative. We tell our stories with clear beginnings and clear endings. We tend to avoid complexity in our myths. The idea of collapse suits that need. A society begins, grows, reaches its apex and boom : falls apart. It’s all very clean and tidy and easy to understand.
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Except it just doesn’t happen that way. As Oscar Wilde said: “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” 
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This way of looking at history and culture also suits our own obsession with our own superiority – a current that runs deep in Western culture. We can look at past civilizations, point out where they went wrong, why they failed and where we went right. It also serves to absolve us of any guilt we might collectively have for the bloody genocide our recent ancestors perpetrated on indigenous peoples.
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As one anthropologist (I can’t recall who), said: it is as if we’ve created a beauty contest where we’ve set ourselves up as the very ideal of beauty and then declared ourselves the winner. The current dystopian schadenfreude we seem to be experiencing might however demonstrate that we are not as secure in our superiority as we once were.
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But in reality things aren’t so neat and tidy and the very definition of what makes a “successful” culture is itself culturally relevant. Not every culture desires to be like us. In my experience, most Americans find this thought pretty much impossible to believe, but it’s true.
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For the ancestral Puebloan people of the Mesa Verde region “collapse” became a chance to transform their society into something that worked better. Was it bloody and rough? Yes. It also meant that thousands of people had to move to a new place. But they did it. And they survive today, 800 years later.
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Likewise the Mayans didn’t collapse and disappear. Over centuries they transformed. Cities rose and fell, people moved, new religions came and went, borders changed. If you compare how European, Asian and Mayan worlds (borders, languages, kingdoms) shifted over the same time periods you’ll find striking similarities. And let’s keep in mind it was contact with the Europeans that ultimately tore apart the Mayans.
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It is the same with Easter Island and the Vikings of Greenland. Never mind Jared Diamond, it was the Europeans who did in the Rapa Nui and when Greenland got too cold, the Norse, after nearly 500 years of successful adaptation, simply moved away. “The old story is that the Norse were simply a maladaptive society,” says Andrew Dugmore, a physical geographer at the University of Edinburgh. “This idea that they weren’t adaptable is a very reassuring narrative because it allows us to feel superior. In fact, they were quite adaptable,” says Dugmore.
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Our current dystopian schadenfreude and the idea of “collapse” are all tied up together. I wonder if, because we as a culture tend to hang on to the neat and tidy narrative of societal arcs (beginning, middle and end) we struggle with the very idea of cultural transformation and adaptation and thus fail to imagine a better way to be on this planet. We think that we either must continue on with our economy and society as is OR we fall apart in a dramatic way. There doesn’t seem to be another option.
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transformation
But it doesn’t have to be like that. That kind of binary thinking just won’t cut it. Technology won’t save us. Capitalism won’t save us. Being stuck with the idea that “advancement” is inevitable and we will always just grow into something better while using the same rules is astoudingly silly.
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We need a new definition of what it means to be a successful society. We need a concept of transformation. Artists can rewrite the future.
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Both anthropology and art need to lead the way. We creative writers need to be brave enough to partner with anthropologists and utopian thinkers in order to step away from the brink that is dystopian literature.  We must instead imagine a societal, cultural and economic transformation for ourselves that will redefine civilizational “success” – and give us something to strive for.
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Ruins are beautiful. Ruins are fascinating. Dystopian fantasy is alluring. But our future shouldn’t rest in an imagined past. We can write our way to a better future.
 ##

10 comments

  1. Comment by Andy Strote

    Andy Strote Reply November 18, 2017 at 1:48 pm

    Hi Jim,

    I’m not sure how you got to your conclusion about contact with the Europeans as the downfall of the Mayan cultures. If you look at the timelines, many of the great Mayan cities, surely the apex of their civilization had collapsed centuries before the Europeans arrived. There are many overlapping theories (greed of the rulers, bad priorities, inadequate farming techniques, weather systems, etc), but the fact is there may have been only a few minor cities left when the Spaniards arrived. Tulum is commonly named as still in existence during the contact period, but Uxmal, Chichen Itza and most of the others had long been abandoned.

    Andy

    • Comment by Jim O'Donnell

      Jim O'Donnell Reply November 18, 2017 at 2:00 pm

      Andy, mostly I come to that conclusion from my years as an archaeologist and synthesizing years of study. Of course Mayan civilization went up and down over centuries and that is just my point. In 1697 the Spanish destroyed the last Mayan kingdom Itzas and took the ruler Ajaw Kan Ek as hostage. The Spanish went on a deliberate all out attempt to wipe out Mayan culture as it had remained so potent over the years that it continued to pose a threat to Spanish rule. The Mayans were still powerful. In this orgy of destruction the Spanish burnt thousands of Mayan books – including many of the most important Mayan records, religious texts and cultural texts thereby dealing a massive blow to the Mayans. The Spanish broke up the Mayan family systems, removed children from parents and systematically dismantled other aspects of the culture. And yet still today there are Mayan peoples. While I do understand what you are saying, your comment demonstrates that you either missed the very essence of my post OR I failed to communicate clearly enough.

  2. Comment by loved this post

    loved this post Reply November 19, 2017 at 2:35 am

    V

  3. Comment by Ron Hagg

    Ron Hagg Reply November 19, 2017 at 9:16 am

    Very insightful – Once again, thanks

  4. Comment by Karen Hoppes

    Karen Hoppes Reply November 19, 2017 at 11:08 am

    Interesting and thoughtful article. I will be thinking about this for a long time.

  5. Comment by Claire Datnow

    Claire Datnow Reply November 20, 2017 at 5:58 am

    “Ruins are beautiful. Ruins are fascinating. Dystopian fantasy is alluring. But our future shouldn’t rest in an imagined past. We can write our way to a better future.” Yes. Indeed! That is why I write an eco mystery series for grades 4-8 — to inspire future generations to take action to preserve our precious natural resources.

    • Comment by Jim O'Donnell

      Jim O'Donnell Reply November 20, 2017 at 8:46 am

      Claire, that is fantaastic! Can you please give us a link to where we can find these books?

  6. Comment by Eric C.

    Eric C. Reply December 22, 2017 at 4:45 pm

    Good article. I’ll be traveling more now since I have a membership. I’ll get a chance to learn about other countries culture.

  7. Comment by Claire Datnow

    Claire Datnow Reply March 6, 2018 at 5:45 am

    Hi Jim, you can find my eco mystery series, The Adventures of The Sizzling Six, on Amazon. For more info. visit: http://www.mediamint.net. Thank you.

    • Comment by Jim O'Donnell

      Jim O'Donnell Reply March 20, 2018 at 9:34 am

      Thank you, Claire! Will check it out.

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