The Decline and Fall of the Human Empire

Jan 7, 06:57 by IROSF
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Jan 7, 08:32 by David Bratman
I've tended to feel dissatisfied with what feels like the overwhelming ennui with which Stewart's Ish and his fellows face the disappearance of the knowledge of civilization. But this article makes a good case for the integrity and believability of this approach.
Jan 7, 15:48 by Corie Ralston
Nice essay! I had the same reaction as dbratman when I read Earth Abides - it seemed the reason civilization can't be rebuilt is because the protag Ish is so amazingly lazy. He sits around thinking about how much smarter he is than everyone else and just lets everyone else do all the work for him - everything from child raising to making meals. At one point he gets off his butt and teaches everyone to use a bow and arrow, and that advances their society hundreds of years. Imagine if he had done something like that every day! But Gary Westfahl's essay was excellent and made me think about the book in a way I hadn't before. Thanks!
Corie
Jan 15, 19:43 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
Excellent article, but I find I disagree with the conclusion that it is more realistic and inevitable that mankind would abandon civilization altogether in the aftermath of a world wide catastrophe. Even if civilization is so decimated that mankind exists in a prolonged Dark Age, any survival of the human race itself will lead to a re-civilization.

If it were natural or inevitable that mankind desired a civilization free existence, then civilization would never have arisen. Since it already has, it is more than safe to assume that it would again. Civilization is more than the invention and application of technology. Civilization is the inevitable outcome of socialization. Man kind is a social animal; it is natural for us to congregate and organize. Technology arises from those few curious and intelligent humans who observe and discover the processes of natural phenomena. Technology is not a requirement of civilization, though it certainly helps.

Additionally, the definition of advanced civilization is vague. For instance, take running water. While the pressurized water system we rely on today are complicated, technologically sophisticated infrastructure, the principle of pressurized water is not. The Romans did quite well without diesel driven pumping stations, and Knossos had complex underground sewer systems 4000 years ago. Had Stewart's protagonist bothered to go to the library, he might have learned that. Even if civilization should break down to the point where we have completely lost all infrastructure and it has been a thousand years since the pumps last run, the principle of a pressurized water system is simple enough that even a relatively "stupid" carpenter could build one using only gravity and some easily made containers. Certainly, the recreation of a modern Hollywood sound-stage would be quite beyond our hypothetical carpenter. That, however, does not mean that the re-buiding of advanced civilization by the "stupid" is impossible. It all depends on your definition of advanced.

Natural human curiosity and inventiveness will lead to civilization after a catastrophe unless it is specifically suppressed (which would require an infrastructure of its own and thus a civilization). While Stewart's and Aldiss' characters may have decided to give up on civilization altogether, there will be others who will wonder what the lights in the sky are, or ponder of what use a waterfall could be.
Jan 18, 08:58 by Bluejack
The real question is, could a post-technological humanity persist in which people were either (A) so debased that they did not attempt to better themselves by full use of their problem-solving faculties, and thereby re-create some sort of civilization (albeit with a dramatically different social structure), or (B) so biologically impaired that the *cannot*! -- could either no-tech future come to pass and still be characterized by humanity as we know it, or, if so, would it even be worthy of story telling???

I realize that the no-tech, animalistic futures are certainly plausible within the context of a total environmental breakdown; but I have not personally encountered a compelling story in that milieu.

Perhaps, product of an earlier era, I'm more driven by the "Canticle for Leibowitz" paradigm.
Jan 19, 18:20 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
I suppose that both of those possibilities are within the realm of probability, but I would put my money on B being more likely. Then again, would B be considered human anymore? Are problem-solving and curiosity inherent in humanity, and would lack of those things mean we are no longer human?

I would have to answer that in both cases A and B that we would have to lack those very things that make us human to have a no-tech post-catastrophe future where humans would not be able to rebuild civilization.
Jan 21, 01:16 by Joe Prisco
I think what Stewart & Walter Miller demonstrate in their novels is well observable around us; few people actually do understand the technologies they use every day, and there's nothing subhuman about it. Stripped of these, few urban Westerners have anything like the ability to support themselves. The main forces *against* 'civilization' are inertia and greed. No-tech seems to me the *most* likely post-catastrophe outcome, as any real tech use requires some large-scale organized cooperation -- which in turn requires optimism, the least likely attitude following catastrophes. Hence no-tech being the rule for most of human existence; it's the lowest-common-denominator to which social levels fall -- the occasional, spectacular forward bursts being exceptions.
Jan 21, 16:20 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
Interesting point, but what do you mean by 'no-tech'? Do you mean no televisions, supermarkets and electric stoves, or do yo mean the absolute absence of technology? Humanity has never been without technology. Making fire is a technology, as is making a simple fire-hardened spear. Flint knapping is a technology.

You are right that most of the West have no idea how to support themselves without our cars, computers and electricity, but even if we are reduced to the most basic level of survival, we will have some sort of technology. A rudimentary bow and arrow will spur innovation to make a better bow and arrow since a better bow and arrow will favour more successful hunting and thus the survival of the individual or tribal group. Technological advance is thus self-perpetuating; given even the simplest technology, mankind will seek to develop that technology for more efficacious or easier use. Continued survival all but demands it.

Yes, advanced technology, such as our electrical or water supply infrastructure, does require large-scale organized co-operation. Technological advance from the Stone Age onward did not. If by 'no-tech' you mean some sort of Paleo-lithic level of development, then I am convinced that mankind will inevitably regain a more advanced level of technology (though it may take even longer the next time). If by 'no-tech' you mean the absolute absence of any technology, mankind would be reduced to a level on par with our most distant ancestors. In that case, would we remain human at all?
   

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