Just as the scientists search for a "theory of everything," which will explain all physical phenomena in the universe, historians and sociologists have long attempted a theory of human decay, which will explain the rise and fall of all civilizations.
In Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, the mathematician Hari Seldon worked out formulas which allowed the accurate prediction of future history. Even Seldon's math, however, could not predict the random emergence of a Napoleonic genetic "sport", known as the Mule, who conquered most of the galazy before being brought low. Asimov's pat portrayal of a known, predictable future history raises the issue of whether it is better not to know. Just as there are technologies we are not ready for and had best not pick up, a more precise knowledge of the causes of decay, uncoupled from any desire to make changes in the human heart and do anything about it, may not be useful knowledge. Unfortunately, the politicians who run the world do not usually search the works of historians, let alone sociologists, for guidance.
There is an estimable, if academic, work available called The Collapse of Complex Societies, by Joseph Tainter (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), which analyzes the collapse of some thirty societies, from Ancient Rome to American Indian cities most of us have never heard of, looking for universal rules. Tainter, on the way to his own truths, reviews and dismisses the works of the best-known theorists, from Gibbon, Hegel, Spengler and Toynbee on down. Their theories range from the generic and believable, such as Gibbon's idea that religion, barbarism and bad management did in the Roman empire, to a theory which Tainter acknowledges as the strangest he found: world-changing men are born of frigid women, and in advanced societies frigid women are free to avoid marriage and child-birth, so civilization declines. There were economic analysts, agricultural and disaster specialists, class-warfare proponents, and mystics who resorted to biological metaphors in lieu of explanations.
In reading Tainter's summaries, I began to wonder if all the writers he cited, except perhaps the frigid-mother theorist, were not correct. Like the blind men examining the elephant, everyone had a piece of the truth. A common criticism of sociologists is that they conduct elaborate research and controlled experiments to prove things that everyone already knows; Tainter's scholars may be searching far afield for some truths that are intuitively obvious. We all have first hand experience of decay; not only do we each watch the splintering of our civilization, but we have more direct experience of smaller organizations, from families to school boards to the companies we work for, falling or even flying apart. The swirl of a galaxy and of the milk in your coffee represent the same physical forces at work; the dispute that tore two sides of your family apart obeys the same laws as the dispute that tore a country apart. It is not necessary to resort to numerology, statistics or archeological analyses of pollen and burning to construct a theory of decay. Here is mine.
In what follows, I describe the is, the condition which I believe exists, then immediately pass to the ought, a slim, hopeful proposition for organizaing ourselves against the is.
Time and the second law of thermodynamics. The "mass of time" behind and ahead of us means not only that there is almost unlimited time for development, as Charles Beard, J.G. Bury, and Teilhard de Chardin (among others) would have us believe. It also means that, across an ocean of time, that things will run down, that any structure we build will accumulate enough small hits that it can no longer stand. Over time, a circling satellite will be hit by many small meteorites; the second law says that sooner or later, if it survives these hits, its orbit will decay and it will fall to earth and be destroyed. De Chardin said that the universe, rather than being a grandiose abstraction, is recognizably like us:
And thus it is that this universe differentiates itself from purely abstract magnitudes and places itself among the realities which are born, which grow, and which die. From time it passes into duration; and finally escapes from geometry dramatically to become, in its totality as in its parts, an object of history.
The consciousness of the second law informs all human art and thought: my dream of the autumn leaf; the Scandinavian saying, "Trees never grow into heaven"; Robert Frost's "nothing gold can stay"; Thoreau's observation that to build the railroad, someone will be run over; Yeats' "Things fall apart, the center cannot hold." The second law is the is, but as soon as we live solely in the is, we also give up a significant part of our humanity, which, on a level of longing halfway between self-deception and social engineering, is always seeking the ought. De Chardin also said:
Having once known the taste of a universal and durable progress, we can never banish it from our minds any more than our intelligence can escape from the space-time perspective it once has glimpsed.
If progress is a myth, that is to say, if faced by the work involved we can say: "What's the good of it all?" our efforts will flag. With that the whole of evolution will come to a halt--because we are evolution....
Either nature is closed to our demands for futurity, in which case thought, the fruit of millions of years of effort, is stifled, still-born in a self-abortive and absurd universe. Or else an opening exists--that of the supersoul above our souls; but in that case the way out, if we are to agree to embark on it, must open out freely onto limitless psychic spaces in a universe to which we can unhesitatingly entrust ourselves.
In a footnote, he adds: "There is no such thing as the 'energy of despair' in spite of what is sometimes said. What these words really mean is a paroxysm of hope against hope."
Increasingly, I find myself counselling that we live an "as if" life--for example, to live as if free speech existed. I believe that it is a necessary element of our humanity to live as if the second law did not apply.
Self-deception. I have frequently quoted sociobiologist Robert Trivers' estimation that self-deception is a successful evolutionary strategy. T.S. Eliot said, "Humankind cannot bear very much reality"; Cabell had his druid tell Jurgen, "If Merlin had seen what you have seen, Merlin would have died, and Merlin would have died without regret, for Merlin receives facts reasonably." We all know of circumstances like the ones Conrad portrayed in his story Youth in which we survived or triumphed largely because we were too naive to understand the odds against us. Like all evolutionary factors, self-deception is deeply rooted in the human soul which has not changed much since the dawn of humanity. The problem, of course, is that a strategy that worked well for early hominids and then the first men is far more dangerous in an era when our technology is powerful enough to make our fantasies true. Where early man might have brandished a spear at the moon, modern man is close to being able to pull down the moon, with results disastrous for all life on this world. Today, self-deception has effects on the ozone layer, on the oceans, on human populations, that our children and grandchildren will confront, if we do not.
Self-deception has as one of its manifestations a stubbornness coupled with stupidity, a desire to keep performing the same actions forever, even after they have stopped working. (See also Inertia, below.) Political society is a compromise between the need for change and the desire that things stay as they were. The American constitution creates permanent institutions, but, by providing for its own amendment, creates a (minor and difficult) safety valve. Our increasing dread and dis-ease, conditions recognized as almost universal in the world in the last fifty years, represent a struggle between clarity and self-deception: we know things are not right; we do not think there is anything that needs to be changed.
It is, of course, better to live in clarity. Self-deception only works until it abruptly fails, and in the meantime we are too clouded to know when the line is crossed. Some will argue that clarity itself leads to inhumanity or its twin, despair; clarity may be the "Exterminate all the brutes" of Kurtz, the resigned cruelty of the superman. I believe, but can never prove to you, that these are the results of a greater self-deception, a deriving of a uniquely warped "ought" from a distressing is. However, having just advised that we all live "as if" certain realities did not exist, I could be more justly called to task for first calling for self-deception, then counselling against it. I am not doing so at all. When I suggest living "as if" certain things were true, I do not mean that we must believe in them. We can produce good results in our own lives, and nourish the people around us, by our actions, though the storm break around us. It is worth building a house that will last for now, even though we know that someday the second law will tear it down.
Betrayal and accomodation. I list these together because they represent the two poles of human interaction, the centrifugal and centripetal forces which seal and destroy the human bond. The Prisoner's Dilemma and the Tragedy of the Commons represent two metaphors for blind, intuitive human interaction. The second law dictates that we live in a world where we cannot both go free, where there is limited grazing space in the commons. How we deal with the objective fact of limited resources again implicates the core of our humanity. Cynical game theory predicts that we will betray each other whenever possible. What is less evident to most of us is that even the act of cooperation, game theory's vision of heaven, usually (again in accordance with the second law) cooperates to wear down our world. What game theory misses is the frequent immorality of cooperation. (Ironically, the Prisoner's Dilemma itself is named after a highly immoral situation, an exercise in which two suspects guilty of a crime must cooperate in order to evade long prison sentences.) If the result of democracy is that we all vote to add a sheep to the commons, we are accelerating the decay of our common resource. When the majority votes to end compassionate programs, people are cooperating, in good fellowship with one another, to betray the least fortunate. As Thoreau correctly perceived, the railroad is not built without running someone over.
We are the sum of all the choices we have made. Just as a satellite accumulates damage from space dust, our souls accumulate damage from a lifetime of accomodations and betrayals. Society, our collectivity, is the vessel of our collective pain and disgrace until it groans beneath the load and can no longer tolerate it. We have seen again and again, not only thousands of years ago but numerous times in our generation, that societies tire out and cannot continue, becoming the dead wood from which a new thing emerges.
I am trying to avoid saying that such cycles are inevitable, because this is the cynicism that represents the death of compassion and hope, therefore the death of humanity. The cycle of accomodation and betrayal, because it is the most fundamental human behavior, is profoundly hard to break. Yet our movies, which for the most part function on an excruciatingly primitive level, delight in scenes in which a man or woman is stretched too far by an immoral imperative and says no. Such scenes usually portray the protagonist standing up in silent opposition. The moral force of the stand is persuasive, and one by one we see others stand up as well. No is a small word, very hard to say, but is the only antidote to the poison of betrayal by collaboration.
Today we are watching the spectacle of our President and Congress, and many other influential figures in society, cooperating to betray our freedom of speech on the Internet. This shortsighted, complacent act of destruction is a prime example of decay: we cannot hold on to what we had. It illustrates the fact that, though cooperation, trading and accomodation are fundamental human activities which often promote peace, there are always certain valuable things--such as our freedom of speech--which must not be traded away. Before we even consider important abstractions, such as the freedom of speech, it would be commendable to agree that human beings themselves must never be used as bargaining chips--yet they are, every day.
De Chardin believed that we only find evolutionary salvation together. He was rigorously careful to make certain that his The Phenomenon of Man could never be used as a basis for social Darwinism: "No evolutionary future awaits man except in association with all other men." None are free until all are free.
Tricking the system. A human feature closely related to the cycle of accomodation and betrayal is the innate desire of all of us to trick the system--to leave the till with the extra change. But, again because of the second law, every time we do so, we are hurting someone--such as the keeper of the cash register, who must make good from her own pocket. Our self-justification, that someone else made a mistake which gave us our opportunity, and therefore deserves the consequences, is meaningless. We had what tort law calls "the last clear chance" to end it. Because we chose not to do so, we must take responsibility. It does not really matter who did what to whom; we have acted to run the system down.
I believe we must each take a daily balance of our actions to determine whether we can live with them. Each choice we make must be examined in a vacuum. We do not accumulate points which allow us one betrayal for every five good deeds. It is best to live "as if" each action of ours mattered in its effects on other people and the planet. This consciousness, which humans arrived at long ago, shines in the ethics of the Greeks and in the "do unto others" of the Bible. It is present in most if not all of the major human religions and it is a major flaw in the human material-- but completely explained by the continual play of selfish betrayal and accomodation--that there are so many "religious" people in the world who have no ear to hear what their creed and prophets tell them.
The worst. One of the most helpless dilemmas of human life is that evil exists and that accordingly we must build our houses and organize our lives so as to protect ourselves. The business of which I am the steward must be run with some attention paid to the likelihood that an employee will steal secrets--it has happened several times. Yet the energy that must then be put into security could so beneficially be turned to something else. The twin dilemmas posed by evil are that we will ourselves become evil, opposing it, or that we will be immobilized by fear. If we become murderers to fight murderers than we lose all that we are fighting to save; if we cower in a cave afraid to go out than we also cannot be human. Life is a daily exercise in seeking the balance: security without hatred and violence; prudence without paralysis.
Inertia. Throughout history, people have doubted their own ability to influence the world, and beyond that, a certain force within us, perhaps explainable in terms of a Freudian death wish, has kept us static. Immobility is a natural state for us. The Prisoner's Dilemma presupposes a situation with only four players-- two prisoners, two interrogators--where a choice makes an immediate and profound difference, but our daily version of this, the social dilemma, adds the element that our action--our vote--is drowned in the huge collectivity of others. Of course, there is a fallacy at work here, illustrated by Kant's imperative, that we should each act only as we would wish everyone else to. If we refrain from voting, because our vote is so miniscule as to make no difference, we should contemplate the possibility that everyone else also refrained. Looked at another way, failing to take action is either a form of despair or great arrogance. If I do not vote because I believe that the result of everyone voting is no better than the result of no-one voting, I am in such desperate circumstances that it can hardly be said I am alive, especially if I am applying this same analysis to the other choices in my life. If I do not vote because I believe that other people will vote in sufficient numbers to achieve a desirable result, I am betraying the collective based on a false perception that I am better than others and may lean back while they do the work.
The importance of my vote is that it is one water molecule in a wave. This is the minimum difference human beings can make. There is a possibility that I may make a difference disproportionate to my size, through fearless freedom of speech or by making a spectacle of myself in firm opposition to an immoral social imperative. Again, the environmental slogan, "Think globally, act locally," serves well here. Neil Postman claims that the information glut, particularly the knowledge that people are starving, suffering and dying all over the world, makes us inert and helpless. I know that I grew up with a perception that it was better to dream of grand deeds than perform small ones. I know now that this is a dangerous fallacy. Thoreau was correct that there is a power behind every man which can float the British Empire like a chip. If we use even ten percent of the force we are born with, each of us can change the world. We cannot all be Gorbachev or Havel, but if we shield the satellite from one grain of cosmic dust we will have done a good job. When you stop waiting for life to open up a really grand vista, you discover that it is rife with small opportunities for quiet heroism--one or more of which may open up a grand vista for you, after all.
My thought begins and ends, as I have said many times, with Gandhi's statement that "We must be the change we wish to see in the world." Not approve of the change, advocate it, or vote for it. Be it. There is no greater or more beautiful confrontation of the second law.