The Perpetual Decline of Civilization?

This is a somewhat updated “Blast from the Past.”

Back in the day on an old online service (the Internet existed, but it had not yet really begun to take off) GEnie (General Electric’s online service, thus the odd capitalization), 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.  I didn’t even bother asking of the person really thought that having machines rather than slaves was not an improvement after all.  What would be the point?  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.)

Some people have this strange idea that it’s “better” to live an agrarian lifestyle than to live in a modern technological and industrial civilization.  Almost invariably these people have never tried to live on a subsistence farm while completely cut off from modern industry, no access to modern medicine, no backups in case pest devour the crop or a drought withers it.  No modern weather forecasting to tell you to get that crop in before the hailstorm pounds it into the ground.  No modern storage and preserving techniques.  Nothing that a truly “agrarian” society wouldn’t have.

Hunter-gatherer societies have a lot of leisure time compared to modern society?  That’s nice.  What, exactly, are you going to do with that leisure time?  You know those societies tend to have high birthrates because, 1) their infant and child mortality rates are astronomical and 2) what else are they going to do with all that “leisure time”?  If carving decorations on your spear shaft is your thing, knock yourself out.  But, you know, it’s not for everybody.

People have a tendency to romanticize primitive lifestyles, usually when they’re far, far away from the realities of those lifestyles.  But Hobbes had it right:  “Life in the state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

The world has generally gotten better over the years, the decades, the centuries, and yes, the millenia.  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.  “The good old days” are a creation of selective memory, no more.

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.

5 thoughts on “The Perpetual Decline of Civilization?”

  1. Nice article. While I personally feel drawn to the “good old days”, as you put it, I can certainly understand your argument. In a perfect world, we could find that happy balance between technological advancements and a life that is harmonious with the natural world. Sadly, we’re far from that state. A profit driven economy, or more accurately, one in which profit is the sole purpose to our labours, creates a rot within society, driving us to consume far more than we need and disconnects us from nature.
    I’ve never been 100% off the grid, but I grew up on a farm, and I was late to be introduced to modern technology, like computers and such. Maybe just a deepened appreciation for nature, how our food is grown, harvested and made, etc, etc, would be a good start to grounding ourselves and finding balance in an imperfect world.


    1. Unfortunately, a lot of appeal of “good old days” is a matter of selective memory and “out of sight, out of mind.” It’s a natural human tendency over time to have the good parts of the past stick in ones mind and the bad parts retreat into the background. And when one tells the stories to a younger generation, it’s this distorted view that is spread.

      As for far more than we need, that, too, is a matter of perspective. A Roman matron might well mock your access to a washing machine. Who needs this extravagant mechanical device for washing clothes when you can simply have your slaves take them down to the river. And if you are the slave? Well, what more do you need than to be fed, clothed, and not beaten too often (that only for disobedience)? And your child needs glasses? Don’t be silly, a Spartan mother would say. Just expose him on a rock and have done. You can always make another. That is, until you lived to the ripe old age of “died in childbirth” as was the fate of a great many women throughout history.

      As for profit motive. Sanders in his economic ignorance said that it was wasteful to have so many varieties of deodorant while “People are starving”. And yet, societies that have the economic freedom to pursue profit that lead to that also do a better job of feeding their people than any planned economy ever. There is nothing that does more to lift the “common man” out of poverty than the power of the free enterprise system.

      You seem to list computers as one of these “modern technology” things we can do without. And yet here we are. Your IP address decodes to Germany and you are exchanging ideas with someone in Indiana in the United States. Even in my college days, you and I would never even have known the other existed. With a few simple taps of my fingers I can access very nearly the sum total of human knowledge. Whole bunch of misinformation too, but that’s part of the price we pay.

      That same “things we don’t need” allows me to bring back to life (for a moment) the Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Freidmann to describe why the free enterprise system with its freedom to pursue profit that has done more to benefit the common man than anything else:



      1. Great use of “Uncle Miltie” as many Libertarians referred to the Lib-supporting but Republican voting “Free to Choose” economist.

        Also good reply about the past thru rose-tinted glasses, selective memory. For most older people, there actually were ‘good old days’. When they were younger. When they had younger, stronger, bodies and more dreams of the future than memories of reality, mistakes, and missed chances. But normal life for normal Americans, and even OECD developed world workers with college, normal life is easier and objectively better.

        There is a moral decadence issue, like in Cabaret and the rise of tyranny in Germany, but that’s a different axis; and beyond the scope of this comment reply.


  2. If you view progress as a linear progression to some idealized state then yes we are in a state of perpetual decline. The opposite could as easily be argued. This line of reasoning doesn’t account for change and adaptation to one’s environment.


    1. I’m not following your reasoning here. If you make up something that had no connection to reality then the fact that it doesn’t match anything like reality then we are in a state of decline?

      You can argue anything if you get to make up stuff. In the real world, however, while there have been ups and downs (I never claimed the trend was monotonic) in general over time, things have gotten better for mankind both as a group and for individuals.

      Go back 150 years or so, and compare my middle class life with the richest people in the world. Cornelius Vanderbilt may have thought he had it good, but you couldn’t pay me enough to trade places with him. I have, for instance, all but five of my original teeth (wisdom teeth came in impacted and needed to be extracted and I lost an upper incisor to a bicycling accident when I was about 10). I might not have lost that one tooth–bicycles hadn’t been invented yet–but at least half of my remaining teeth would be gone–extracted with no anesthetic save ethanol–because crowns and root-canals did not exist. And that’s just one example of how all the money in the world could not have bought me what’s fairly routine today. Oh, and the gall bladder extraction? Good luck with that in mid 19th century. And the shoulder surgery?

      If I were even still alive I’d be a mess, in constant agony from the various issues that are straightforward to treat today.


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