“…And I Feel Fine”

Sunset over New York City - 1932
Are we in the sunset of Western civilization?

The “End of the World” is always an alluring subject.

I’m not referring to people’s religious convictions about a coming Apocalypse, Armageddon, or Ragnarök. I’m thinking of every survivalist out there and everyone who obsesses about earthquakes, global warming, tornadoes, invasion from China, and so forth. It’s not that these things couldn’t happen. It’s just that change — even massive, disruptive change — isn’t anything new.

Climate Science as Apocalypse

I’m not a climate-science denier. Yes, global warming is happening. Yes, it is going to terribly impact weather patterns, and thus food production and the frequency of “natural disasters.” And yes, policy-level decisions made at this time will work to ameliorate the impact some of these challenges. Otherwise, things will be messier than they need to be.

But that’s a far cry from the collapse of civilization, the death of Western culture, and a Mad Max-like future. The changes that will be necessitated are probably no more massive than the ones that were caused by the Industrial Revolution and the Digital Revolution.

Yes, we are right to worry about the disruption that man-made climate change will bring. But we’re not taking into account the fact that in a larger sense we’ve already lived through changes just as massive and just as terrible.

The Times, They Are A’Servin’

In Katrina's Wake
We can expect to see an increase in natural disasters.
We can also expect to see people adapting resiliently.

In the past 200 years, about three quarters of the people in Western culture have completely changed their lifeways. Two centuries ago, we were mostly small-field agrarians. Life changed, and people became factory workers. It changed again, and now many of us work in service industry jobs.

The true scope of the service industry is bigger than we usually think. It’s made up of everyone who doesn’t actually produce things we need, pass down culture, or protect our people and way of life.

You might think that you’re not in the service industry, but it’s wider than we usually acknowledge. If you’re a computer programmer and you make video games, you’re in the service industry every bit as much as your friend who works at Starbucks. The entertainment industry, to name one, is little more than a more-respected part of the service industry — at least in the hunter-gatherer sense.

Many of these “service” jobs are lucrative, from movie and sports stars to the founders of companies like “Facebook.” It’s not that these services aren’t real, it’s just that they aren’t usually connected to the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. They’re also not usually all that involved in the reproduction of culture — except incidentally.

Back in the “Real” World

At the same time, we’re pushing on the traditionally “productive” (in a cultural sense) professions in order to pay for more entertainment. We’re cutting pay for our teachers, disrespecting our priests, slicing benefits to factory workers, pressing farmers on crop prices, and frowning down upon our soldiers.* In fact, of the traditional professions, only medical doctors seem to be doing well.**

But the point is that we’ve been through massive changes, and we’re still going. On a cultural level, the changes that we face probably aren’t any worse than the ones we’ve already been through. Addressing these problems early and thoughtfully will help us make a smoother transition. But panicking that it’s the “end of the world” will not help us.

* If we put yellow ribbons on our cars, and then don’t react to the VA scandals, what does that say about us?

** As a side note, the respect given doctors can help us understand the power of unions — and by “unions” I mean specifically the American Medical Association.

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