Dealing with the Decline of Civilization

Reader Contribution by Christopher Nyerges

It has been a long time since I have heard advertisements
for “survival foods” for those folks who are worried about a world in which we
descend into chaos and anarchy.

As I listened to an ad on the radio recently, it reminded me
of my state of mind in the late 1960s and 1970s when I first began to study
ethnobotany and survival skills in general.

Back then, I was primarily motivated out of fear, and was
concerned about my own personal physical survival. It has been a long road to
today, and though I still encourage folks to store “survival foods,” I am no
longer motivated by fear. Today, I have a completely different mindset about
the very meaning of “survival.” 

I know that to some people the word “survival” connotes
images of some burly guy in a camo outfit and a gun who is just out for himself.
That’s survival, by the lowest definition. But what about your children, your
family, your pets? What about the survival of your community, your environment,
your city, your bank, your educational system? Real survival is vastly more
than keeping your own body alive.

Through the 1980s, I gave a series of lectures about the
many cultures and civilizations that have entirely vanished. Gone. My focus was
to look at what causes a culture to slip into decline, and even to vanish. Then,
more importantly, I attempted to see if we today in the U.S. are experiencing any of these
same causes that lead to decline and extinction. Of course, most members of my
audiences listened politely, but felt that “this would never happen to us.” In
other words, the predictable response was denial.

According to Morris Berman in the classic “The Twilight of
American Culture,” there are four factors that define a declining civilization.

The first is an accelerating social and economic inequality.
Then there are “declining marginal returns with regard to investment in
organizational solutions to socioeconomic problems.” Another factor is the
rapidly dropping levels of literacy, critical understanding, and general
intellectual awareness. As an example, the author shares with his readers some
of the responses to questions that Jay Leno received during his “Jay Walking”
routine. Then, there is something called “Spiritual death” – probably a major
factor in the decline of all civilization.

Interestingly, Berman adds that he doesn’t know if these
four factors are causes, or effects.

WHY CIVILIZATIONS FAIL

According to Jane Jacobs in her “Dark Ages Ahead,” there are
definable reasons

why civilizations fall. Among her nine major factors, she
lists resource depletion, catastrophes, insufficient response to circumstances,
intruders, mismanagement, economic issues, and “cult thinking.”

I believe the last two are particularly relevant to us
today, but they’re by no means our only concern. As Jacobs states,
“Civilizations are expensive to keep going and require increasing amounts of
labor and wealth to maintain themselves. As civilizations grow, the upper
classes grow – and so does their need for surplus wealth. The overall costs of
supporting the system with specialists, servants, soldiers, police, and so on
grow at an increasing rate. The increasing effort to maintain them produces
diminishing returns and leads to their collapse.”

As for cult thinking, that permeates each and every one of
us in every facet of our life. It is not just about religious things. Cult
thinking occurs whenever we blindly believe anyone. This is why I have always
strongly suggested you read Eric Hoffer’s “True Believer.”

THE ROMAN EMPIRE

Jane Jacobs suggests that we are following the same cultural
decline that occurred with the Roman Empire . She
identifies many of the weak spots in our contemporary lifestyle, such as:
taxes, family, community, education, science, technology, the lack of
self-policing, and moral/ethical insanity. These weak areas are the foundation
of all the other often-cited problems, such as the environment, crime, and the
discrepancy between rich and poor.

Modern families are “rigged to fail” due to rising housing
prices, the suburban sprawl (with a reduced sense of community), and the
automobile. Automobile is the chief destroyer of communities, and the idea of
community.

WHAT CAN WE DO?

The hopeful part of all of this is that dark ages are not
inevitable. For one thing, we all need to get involved, and be a part of the
solution. The millions of details of a complex, living culture are not
transmitted via writing or pictorially, but by 1) living examples and 2) by
word of mouth. We need to think! We need to model solutions (that is, given two
options, we should choose what is “higher and better” in our daily life). And
we need to teach, to lecture, and to write.

There is always hope and there are always actions we can
take. If you’re watching TV, choose an educational show, not Family Guy.
Constantly learn new skills and crafts, things that have intrinsic value, and
that you can do with others.

According to Boy Scout leader Francisco Loaiza, “Don’t make
entertainment such an important thing in your life. Spend time with others and
do things with people. Get away from the TV and get off the internet. Get to
know other people directly. We may have more knowledge today but we’ve become a
colder society.”  He adds that our
emotional intelligence has been lowered a few notches as well, and he cites as
an example that when  people sneeze
today, they rarely say “excuse me.”

These are just a few of the many ways in which we can become
a part of the solution and not be part of the decline of civilization. This is
why I wrote “Extreme Simplicity: Homesteading in the City,” and “How to Survive
Anywhere.” I include reading lists in those books which I feel are good for
your physical, mental, and spiritual health.  

Let me know if you have questions, or more suggestions.

Read more from Christopher Nyerges on hiswebsite.