Facing the Possibility of a Dark Age

The ‘developed’ nations have been widely regarded as previews of the future condition of the ‘underdeveloped’ countries. It would have been more accurate to reverse the picture. — William Catton, Jr., “Overshoot”, pg. 175, 1982

Industrial Apocalypse in China © 2009 Lu Guang

Americans are famous for thinking “It can’t happen here,” which is the tag line for American exceptionalism.  Sadly and ironically, this naïve assumption may be the very thing that not only keeps people from facing the possibility of collapse, but could actually bring it on – in the United States and in the political and economic negotiating summits of the world – by keeping people from taking the threats to civilization seriously and responding realistically to them.  We know about the fall of Rome and other civilizations, but we think that our civilization is exceptional.  For this reason, most people, apparently, can’t imagine that ours too could fall.

This may be due to the fact that most people don’t think about where food comes from and how it’s produced.  Unless a person is ecologically literate, which is usually a matter of choice, he or she may have no idea that the food on supermarket shelves has probably been shipped 1,200 miles and was grown using fertilizers and pesticides in intensive monocultures that are sown and harvested by machines.  All of the mechanical processes that deliver food to modern supermarkets involve the use of large amounts of petrochemicals whose raw materials are extracted from inside the Earth by machines that also require fossil fuels to run.  As well as being oblivious to the fact that the food we eat is largely dependent upon lavish amounts of cheap oil, the average shopper is probably also completely unaware that she is standing in a long line of people whose existence is also due to cheap, abundant oil, and that the swarms of people now on Earth have mushroomed far beyond the carrying capacity of the Earth to sustain us all.  What the average teenager takes to be ‘normal’ in the modern world – long lines, swarms of humans, cars, suburbia, computers, etc. – is the result of the boom times of oil, and he or she is unlikely to realize that the bust times are coming soon.  This lack of awareness is a problem.

One of the most cogent observations about our situation came from a comment on an article about depopulation by John Michael Greer:

I think in all previous collapses things weren’t so inflated, that is, we didn’t have so far to fall back to a sustainable level. . . .  Previous cultures that have collapsed have never been so far removed from the sustainable base of production as we are today. Roman methods of producing food were probably just as labour intensive at the beginning as they were at the end, so collapse would have had little impact on the day to day basis of providing food, as well as the technology for its distribution.

Ignorance that we have farther to fall is undoubtedly one of the largest blind spots in American culture:  most Americans caught in the myths of perpetual progress and exceptionalism can’t even see the ground — the ecological support systems that their high-flying lifestyles depend upon.  This is in spite of the fact that, in the last few years, more than a few people have written about the possible breakdown of global civilization due to environmental degradation and resource depletion, imperial overreach and corruption, and economic meltdown.  Peak oil educators, those who predict the consequences of fossil fuel declines, may be the most graphic in their descriptions of the unraveling of the American way of life.  But comparisons between the American and Roman empires are frequent these days, often implying that the American empire is already in decline.  Some declare that the Dark Age is already in sight.  It hardly needs to be stated that the common assumption is that ‘as goes America, so goes the world,’ whether up or down, forward or backward, rightly or wrongly.

Here are some titles, most of them recent, hyperlinked to the Amazon pages where you can find book descriptions, reader reviews, and up to twenty similar books. This can provide an idea of how many books (and readers) on the subject of collapse there really are – though obviously not yet enough.

The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond

Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire by Morris Berman

The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century by James Howard Kunstler

Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble by Lester R. Brown

One With Nineveh: Politics, Consumption, and the Human Future by Paul R. Ehrlich, Anne H. Ehrlich

Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (American Empire Project) by Chalmers Johnson

Financial  Armageddon: Protecting Your Future From Four Impending Catastrophes by Michael Panzner

Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines by Richard Heinberg

The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization by Thomas Homer-Dixon

What is civilization, and what does a ‘Dark Age’ signify?

A civilization, as we know it, is a highly developed and hierarchically organized society with cities, written language and arts, an educational system that passes knowledge and culture from one generation to the next, and enough technology to manage enough resources to support large numbers of people who are not engaged in food production.

civ·i·li·za·tion n*

1.  a society that has a high level of culture and social organization

2.  an advanced level of development in society that is marked by complex social and political organization, and material, scientific, and artistic progress

3.  all the societies at an advanced level of development considered collectively

4.  places where people live, rather than uninhabited areas

5.  the level of material comfort that somebody is used to

6.  the process of creating a high level of culture in a particular society or region

The disintegration of a civilization, whether technological or pre-technological, implies at best a loss of complexity and cohesiveness in a society and culture – and at the individual level, the loss of a sense of community, belonging, safety, and meaning.  A Dark Age is a period that follows the breakdown of a civilization.  It is dark because no written record of what occurred is left for future historians and archaeologists; therefore, little to nothing is known about how or why it happened. We know of several civilizations in which the inhabitants simply disappeared and we know nothing of what happened to them – such as the Mycenaeans of ancient Greece, the ones who destroyed Troy.  The fact that there have been many dark ages in human history is often overlooked, perhaps for obvious reasons—it scares us, and it contradicts the myth of perpetual progress.

Orphans in China © 2009 Lu Guang

In the West, most of our mythology about dark ages centers on the medieval so-called Dark Ages in Europe following the fall of Rome (476 – 1000 AD), though application of the term Dark Age to Europe’s medieval era has been questioned due to reconsiderations of medieval European history.  At the very least, a Dark Age seems to be a period when literacy, learning and education decline, traditions and history are lost, and social order and security break down.  At worst, people revert to an “every-man-for-himself mentality” in order to survive.  In the popular imagination, a Dark Age is a time of backwardness and superstition.  Our collective fear, fed by dystopian movies, seems to be that either anarchy and barbarism will arise, or totalitarianism, or both.

In a long essay titled “The End of the Amerikan Dream” – which is well documented, though somewhat hyperbolic – Chris Clugston describes the possibility in this century of “Apocalyptic Contraction,” which sounds like a Dark Age:

Should we take no meaningful preemptive action between now and the point at which we reach an ecological or economic limit, the lifestyle disruptions associated with the resulting contraction

will likely be severe and of long duration. Rapid and uncontrollable consumption-level and population-level reductions on the order of 50% to 80% are to be expected. Amerikan existence will become a freefall characterized by chaos, fear, and panic.

Since public awareness regarding the “possible” occurrence and appropriate mitigating actions associated with an apocalyptic contraction are essentially nonexistent, overreaction and imprudent action will be the order of the day. Our confidence in the rapidly deteriorating ecological and economic foundation upon which our Amerikan way of life is based will be quickly undermined, and the allocation of increasingly scarce resources will be determined primarily by conflict. While the specific scenario associated with an apocalyptic contraction cannot be known with certainty, it is safe to say that Amerikan life during and after the contraction will approximate a Hobbsian state of nature: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”  (p. 22)

Interestingly, in Tibetan Buddhism there are prophesies about a 500-year Dark Age, when the continued survival of the Buddhadharma, the 2,500-year-old tradition of enlightenment, is in question.  Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to get any Tibetan lama to specify exactly what dates the 500 years refer to.  But the meaning of a Dark Age in Buddhism is clear enough: it refers to a time when the ‘darkness’ of ignorance eclipses the ‘light’ of wisdom.  More specifically, it connotes an age of materialism in which spiritual values are debased, or when higher culture is lost and people revert to animal instinct.  It is an ‘evil’ time of conflict, feuding, war, and sickness.

Facing a century of declines

We are facing “a century of declines,” as Richard Heinberg puts it in Peak Everything.  This means we can expect scarcities of the essential resources to run our civilization – oil and natural gas being the primary ones, but also fresh water, fertile soils, forests, fish and grains.  Food shortages are predicted and resource wars are already happening.  Food and fuel shortages create the conditions in which we humans become susceptible to our internal darkness, to reacting in irrational (uncivilized) ways, and also susceptible to manipulation by people who want to take advantage of us, as Naomi Klein describes in The Shock Doctrine.

So, yes, the outlook for the 21st century seems bleak.  But when things seem bleak, is it really better not to know?  Is “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” going to do any good?  Is “hoping for the best” in the belief that “we create our own reality” going to change the larger realities of climate change and declining energy supplies, or of economic meltdown, and the effects of these on the societies we live in?  Are we really that powerless and unresourceful?

Remember: Clugston’s apocalyptic contraction is conditional upon an absence of “meaningful preemptive action,” which is still lacking at the level of national governments.  However, at the individual and community levels, people who recognize the dangers ahead have begun to prepare.  And there are lessons from the past that can guide us.

For example, the reason that I know about the Tibetan prophesy of a 500-year Dark Age is that some people saw what was coming, dedicated their lives to gathering up the highest dharma teachings, and risked their lives to get them out of Tibet before the Chinese took over their country.  The gathering of precious teachings and treasures took place over two or three generations, and then the Diaspora began.  Many who participated in preparing for the Diaspora died, either by staying or by leaving.  But my teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, made it out of Tibet through a hail of Chinese bullets with some of the treasures and most of the precious teachings of his lineages, which he left in the care of his American students to preserve and pass on for the benefit of future generations.  That took foresight and courage on the part of many people!

Jared Diamond, in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, tells the stories of societies that collapsed by not paying attention and also those that survived by adapting in time to avoid collapse. Although not all collapses have an environmental cause, ecological destruction is often the main catalyst, he argues, particularly when a society disregards signs of approaching disaster.

Writing about Diamond’s book, Lester R. Brown in “Learning from the Past” says,

Our twenty-first century global civilization is not the first to face the prospect of environmentally induced economic decline. The question is how we will respond. We do have one unique asset at our command – an archeological record that shows us what happened to earlier civilizations that got into environmental trouble and failed to respond.

Brown goes on to recount the story of the Icelanders who foresaw the danger of overgrazing and learned to manage their grasslands sustainably, thereby avoiding decline and collapse.  Humanity’s challenge now is to learn to manage the planet sustainably amidst climate chaos, species extinctions, ecosystem disintegration, resource scarcity, economic meltdown, and political intransigence and repression.  Is it possible for our species to adapt to the natural population and consumption limits that we are now facing?  What’s it going to take?

In “Facing the New Dark Age,” John Michael Greer takes a Dharmagaian approarch:

Most proposals for dealing with the approaching crisis of industrial civilization take a top-down approach, offering grandiose plans for huge programs to retool the entire industrial world at once. . . . [I]t is too late for that approach, even if the political will to accomplish it existed — which it clearly does not. But an alternative grassroots approach remains possible.

Findhorn Harvest Festival

What would a grassroots approach to the coming crisis look like? It would begin with individuals learning the skills needed to build a sustainable society within the shell of the collapsing industrial system. These people would revive the basic skills of postindustrial survival, learning how to light a fire, grow a garden, treat an illness, and fight off an assault without any help from the industrial system, using simple hand tools and the capacities of their own bodies and minds. These skills would be practiced and mastered, not merely learned intellectually, so they could be used and taught to others at a moment’s notice.

Greer does not foresee a sudden, catastrophic collapse, but a long period of breakdown, “a rolling collapse extended over decades,” which he bases on history.  In “The Long Road Down: Decline and the Deindustrial Future,” he says,

People try to sense the shape of the future for much the same reason that drivers watch the road ahead: it’s easier to manage crises and take advantage of opportunities if you have enough time to react….  A different future requires a different kind of thinking. The crucial needs that must be met in an age of decline are damage control, cultural survival, and the building of a new society amid the ruins of the old.

In Part 5 we will look at the awareness and actions arising from ‘below,’ and the opportunity that awaits us when we face danger head-on.

* Encarta® World English Dictionary © 1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. Developed for Microsoft by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

For a challenging argument on the risks of not acting, see

Naomi Klein on The Shock Doctrine 2/22/07 (6-part video)

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