…the approaching Long Descent of industrial civilization can be seen in the light of earlier examples of decline and fall, and the arrival of the successor civilizations that will build on the ruins of today’s proud towers can be sensed, if not yet seen, in the context of past equivalents. Still, the awareness of historical change has an even more precious gift to offer.
With a clear sense of the differences that separate one age and civilization from another, it’s possible to compare the many ways that cultures of the past have responded to their own declines. This sort of comparison does not reflect particularly well on industrial civilization’s claim to superior rationality, as many cultures of the past have done far better at managing their own declines than ours has accomplished so far. Yet the possibility of learning from the past, and using the resulting knowledge to prepare for an uncertain future, remains open — at least for the time being.
One much-repeated lesson history offers is that in the twilight years of a civilization, the shape of reality itself is open to question. The industrial world’s own fundamental certainties came to birth in the bitter cultural struggles of the Renaissance, marking the twilight of a medieval civilization with its own sharply different ways of looking at the world. Behind the medieval world, in turn, lay the cultural and spiritual chaos of the last years of classical Greco-Roman civilization. Trace that civilization back to its origins, in turn, and you’ll find another time of social disintegration in the terrible dark ages that followed the fall of Knossos and Mycenae in the 14th century BCE.
The choices we make in our turn, the insights we achieve, and the stories we choose to tell in the twilight of our own civilization have the potential to build foundations for the cultures of an age not yet born.
At this point in the trajectory of industrial society, as our resource base falters and our political, economic, and religious leaders keep on following the path of the least resistance toward a head-on collision with ecological reality, the chance to turn aside from the Long Descent lies back among the missed opportunities of past decades. Much can still be done, though, to cushion the way down, to preserve cultural and natural resources for the future, and to hand on to the builders of future societies the ideas and tools they will need to help build a more humane and sustainable world.
The hilltop view in Caernarfon, after all, held its own ambiguities. Standing in the sun and wind over the gray roofs of the town, I could see enough of the past to sense the fate waiting for the civilization that left its mark on the shores of the Menai Strait in the last few decades.
What remains hidden is the shape of the civilization that will replace it, turning old structures to new uses and leaving its own unique imprint on the world. When other travelers climb up to the same hilltop a thousand years from now, what will they see below? Our own actions here and now have the power to help shape the answer.
John Michael Greer, “The Long Descent”