The Perpetual Decline of Civilization?

Back in the day on an old online service (the Internet existed, but it had not yet really begun to take off) GEnie, there was a Science Fiction Roundtable. As a member of SFWA (I was once under the belief that membership might help my career. What can I say; we’re all young and stupid once.) I had a “freeflag” to this group.

So, in one discussion I pointed out that one of the things I didn’t care about in Tolkien was this idea that that the world was in perpetual decline. Yes, I’m aware of the mythic underpinnings of such a structure–classic myth with it’s Gold, Silver, and Iron ages, each progressively worse than the one before. Still, it didn’t fit my world view and that was a source of frustration with the world of Middle Earth and since the world is very much a character, in some ways the main character, well…

I got jumped on by a Special Snowflake who insisted that of course the world is in decline. We’re all worse off than our ancestors were.

Wait. What?

I pointed out that all Caesar’s wealth could not have bought him a single Tylenol(r) for his headache to be met with a response that the Romans had access to Opium.

Wait.  What?

The answer to a proxy for modern medicine even at the low end was that they had opium?  And I’ll give them Ethanol and, are willows native to Europe?  I don’t know, but in the absence of knowledge, let them have willow bark as well.

Against that we have the contents of my medicine cabinet.

But the kicker was when someone else told me that she (yes, it was a she) would have to get used to having slaves do all the stuff we do with machines today, but it would really be no worse than living today.

Wait. What?

First off, having machines rather than slaves to do menial chores is not in and of itself a major improvement on past society? Did she really mean that?

But the real question is, what unbridled hubris led her to think she would be the slave owner instead of the slave?

At that point I just gave up.  The person in question was all holier-than-thou “I’m not interested in trying to convince you.” (Good thing given that you’re so utterly, egregiously, wrong.)

The world has generally gotten better over the years, the decades, the centuries.  It may have its ups and downs.  There may be reversals from time to time, but in the long run the trend has been upward.

And, thus, while I will occasionally venture into some dark explorations, my futures tend to be upbeat and hopeful.  Problems are problems to overcome, not some inevitable collapse into everlasting hell.  This is the kind of fiction I like to write.  This is the kind of fiction I like to read.

I don’t think I’m alone.

14 thoughts on “The Perpetual Decline of Civilization?”

  1. David,
    You will no doubt find it amusing that my first thought on seeing your title was of the conceit of the old, that things have been trending steadily downhill in the world since they were young. “Things were better when I was a kid…”

    That said, however, I need to object to at least one of your arguments. The First World seems to have almost completely delegitimized slavery, but there are still plenty of examples of arrests for kidnapping and enslavement there. It's not on a scale anything like the era of U.S. chattel slavery that ended in 1865 (by at least three orders of magnitude, maybe four, and yes that's my own estimate) but still something to be guarded against.

    Meanwhile, modern examples of slavery outside the first world abound; the modern serfdom of the still-existing communist regimes, and slave labor conditions in backwoods India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Africa.

    It's still a lot better than Roman times, and starting with the Renaissance I think you can claim almost-continuous improvement in the West, but I don't want anyone thinking it's all rosy either. Slavery continues to be a problem.

    –Phil Sevetson


  2. Potable water is such enormous quantities that we flush our toilets with it.
    Light after dark without smelly and dangerous candles or oil lamps.
    Miracle drugs over the counter.
    Enormous quantities of books on every conceivable topic.

    There are a LOT of problems, but Life is Good and I'd hate to see anyone screw it up.


  3. There can be from certain perspectives. I consider the growth of government intrusion into people's lives a bad thing so a less intrusive government (even if only it was hard for a pre-industrialization government to be too intrusive over an entire continent).

    However, if you look at things on balance, the sum total of all the various ups and downs, things have gotten better. Given most of those “golden ages” some people gush over, I would be dead by now in most of them simply from the accumulation of accumulated medical issues (never mind the level of manual labor, the poor diet, the rampant disease, and so forth).

    Since I can't choose the future, I'll pick now, thank you very much.


  4. There are times when I would like get rid of video games, tablets, internet, and cable and tell the girls to “GO PLAY OUTSIDE!”
    My favorite place in the world has very little connectivity.


  5. Used to accuse one of my teachers at Furman of having the “Good Ol' Daze.”
    He seemed to think we were better off in the days of Dickens. Dunno what he was thinking, but he was an English prof, not a history prof, so that is probably a clue…


  6. I forgot to say that, even in my favorite place of very little connectivity, I have my Kindle – thousands of books on one tiny device.
    I might leave it behind to go the beach, but it is waiting for me, charging, when I get back…


  7. As for those electronic toys, I should note that one of my common comebacks to “jock” types is, “I have more friends than you do, they just don't happen to live here.”

    All that stuff provides an additional way to connect with more people and for people like me, who Sarah Hoyt describes as “odds” (she also describes herself as one, so that's fair), it allows us to find people of like nature and interests when there might not be any such close by.

    As for “the girls”, instead of telling them to go outside, how about taking them outside? Go out and play catch with them. Go fishing. Find your nearest State park or forest and look for edible plants together. That's been the approach I've been using. Mind you, it's a lot harder to start if you wait until they're older, but leading by example works wonders here.

    A cautionary tale:


  8. The zoo, the Children's Museum, various other museums. Then I keep Athena active in sports: swim team and tennis classes. (A couple of rules I have for her: 1) she will learn to swim and swim well [pretty much accomplished at this point] 2) she _will_ be involved in something athletic and competitive. I don't care if she's particularly good at it, although that would be nice, but I want her out there trying)


  9. Hell, my wife and I would both be dead, if we were born fifty years sooner. So would a lot of friends of ours. Modern medicine makes a huge difference.

    Too bad you couldn't shove that woman in a Time machine, take her back to Roman times, and see if she could make it through a year.



  10. In ‘The Tale of Genji,’ considered to be the world’s first novel, the opening describes what an ideal specimen Genji is, and how the people marvel that someone like that could be around “in these latter and degenerate days.”

    Also, I remember a rant from Spider Robinson about how, contrary to popular belief, things were getting better. The only specific I recall is the question, “… or were there always rape crisis centers?”


  11. Fifty years ago, I don't know what they could have done to help my wife. What was the meds & tech like to work on scoliosis? Probly a whole lot uglier than today's.


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