America is a nation besotted by the great myth of Progress. The American Dream is one where each generation will be healthier, more prosperous and better-educated than the last. America is a Land of Opportunity where everybody has a chance, where no accident of birth or circumstance can keep the truly determined from grabbing the brass ring. Of course we know conditions on the ground rarely match up to our vision. But just as our ethics guide our lives even when we fail them, dreams shape our future even when they don’t come true.
Progress sees the past as a series of obstacles we have overcome and the future as an endless series of triumphs. Progress fears superstition like Christianity fears sin and venerates reason like Christians honor faith. The science which put us on the moon will inevitably send us to the stars; the doctors who eliminated smallpox will one day cure aging; war and injustice will end once we all learn to behave rationally. The arc of human achievement bends ever upward and any setbacks along the way are merely speed bumps.
Like Christians, Progressians argue over the means by which we will achieve Utopia. Adam Smith Progressians support a free market which allows for survival of the fittest. Karl Marx Progressians believe that by redistributing wealth and power we will create a joyous new world where humanity is at last free. Each sect offers cogent criticisms of the absurdities and contradictions embraced by the other. Each is certain the other will be consigned to the dustbin of history and theirs will ultimately triumph.
Doubts about our Myth of Progress have crystalized around a complementary myth: the Great Collapse. We are given a choice between Star Trek and Mad Max. It is our fate either to cruise the galaxies bringing peace and harmony or to scrounge through ruins in search of dog food. Apocalyptic imagery serves Progressians as it does Christians. Flooded cities and ruined oceans become the only alternative to following the plan and trusting the scientists: the world as we know it will end should we fall prey to the other side’s heresy. Unfortunately, neither Jean-Luc Picard nor Max Rocknatansky are particularly useful role models for late aughties America.
We have grown used to the Federation’s comforts and assume that when all else fails the Big Ships With Freaking Laser Beams will come to save us. Yet our love affair with technology has left us vulnerable to resource scarcity and supply line issues. Our data-driven markets are filled with investors who privilege quarterly earnings over long-term strategies. Our disposable lifestyle could make a Swedish schoolgirl cry. And while we looked forward to universal brotherhood, our current world leaders take their cues from the Ferengi Alliance. Every day it gets harder to believe that some new invention, politician or hashtag will set us back on the road toward endless better tomorrows.
Many have come to see collapse not only as inevitable but immanent. Quite a few are even looking forward to it. America has always been fascinated with the End Times: we’re the country that brought you The Late Great Planet Earth and Left Behind. For some the crumbling of America is a harbinger of Christ’s return, and the worse things get the sooner He will arrive. And even unbelievers can fall prey to apocalyptic charms. Nero fiddled while Rome burned. An underemployed generation might dance around the fires that consume their student loan debts — or hail the chance to capture sex slaves.
It’s hard to deny the facts in evidence. There’s a reason “Winter is coming” resonated with so many Game of Thrones fans. We know that we are living beyond our means and that someday our lines of credit must run out. But as Game of Thrones fans know all too well, a bad storyline can lead to all kinds of problems. Mythology is the blueprint from which we plan our future. Should we divine it wrongly, we may find ourselves working toward a tomorrow that never happens and ill-prepared for the one that does.
Conflagration is exciting and clean: decay is boring and messy. Our future will be written not on a tabula rasa but a palimpsest. The heroes of that tale will not be great men leading us to the stars or hard men fighting photogenic marauders. They will be the small folk who preserve what they can and jerry-rig what they must to keep their communities together. They will toil with no idea of when or if the good times will come back. They will march through the long night with nothing save the knowledge of who they are and from where they came.
We can find tomorrow’s myths in yesterday’s tragedies. The stories our grandchildren’s grandchildren tell will echo the sounds of the Dust Bowl, the Black Death, the Highland Clearances. They will be tales of poverty and desperation. They will be tales of injustice and defeat. They will be tales of wealth lost and opportunity squandered. But they will also be tales of survival. And the future will belong to those with the foresight to weave those stories and the determination to see them through.
Many of the ideas in this entry were inspired by John Michael Greer‘s thoughts on the Long Descent. Greer is one of the great minds of our time and his writing is well worth checking out.