One Needful Thing
for survivors of the post-Collapse world to rebuild society better
Civilization as we know it is doomed. It will not survive the stresses that are coming. Doubt it? Think about how fragile our society already is. At age 68, but in good health (knock on my noggin), I might live to experience The Collapse (though I’d probably be old enough to be among its first victims).
The Collapse could still be prevented, but that is not going to happen. Most people are too lazy and/or cowardly and/or delusional. Most of the rest are too greedy: they would rather focus on getting as much as they can for themselves and fight over control of the rotting garbage scow that we have made of Earth than to concern themselves with fixing it.
[To that point, an irrefutable macroeconomic solution exists that would cost nothing and require no one to change his or her approach to life — and give many other benefits to society.]
Billions of people are going to die. Homo sapiens will not go extinct, but more will die than will survive.
The survivors will rebuild society. It’s what human beings do. To do better the next time, a better approach to governance will be needed.
The Collapse of civilization
‘Civilization’ means, most narrowly, ‘living in cities’. More broadly, it refers to urban culture (whatever ‘urban’ has meant at this or that time or place throughout history). Most broadly, ‘civilization’ refers to the domination of human culture by urban culture.
The U.S. of today offers a perfect example of that interpretation of what ‘civilization’ means. We have two cultures: urban and rural. This map illustrates how small urban culture is geographically. Yet, the existence of cities has determined the historical development of the entire nation, economically as well as in our arts and entertainments; through those influences (especially the last one) urban culture has greatly shaped the general approach to life.
The significant point for present purposes is that, while those two cultures are very much at odds in terms of how life should be lived, they are very much dependent on one another materially. That material interdependence comes down to food.
Again, what is true today has been true since the world’s first city was built: cities can only exist because of the food produced in rural areas; farmers and ranchers (and fishers) depend on city-dwellers buying food so they can use the money earned from selling their surplus food to buy what they want and need. That web of economic interdependence is, as it has been, the material foundation of civilization.
That web is going to be decimated. The existing global agricultural paradigm will break down under stresses related to a changing climate, exacerbated by the intensifying nationalism that those stresses will reinforce: nations will be ‘forced’ to be more and more concerned only with their domestic situations.
There will be cascading series of localized crises that will destroy the cohesion of even the biggest and richest nation-states. Cities will fail. People will come flooding out of the cities, overrunning the countryside. (Globally, people will be fleeing from increasingly uninhabitable areas of the planet to get to places that are still habitable.)
The survival of values; the problem of beliefs
Those people who do survive will do what humans have always done: develop human culture. ‘Values’ have always been one aspect of human culture. Up till now, values have always been a matter of belief (whether sacral or secular).
Beliefs divide us. They create ‘us vs. them’. ‘Us vs. them’ has been the attitude that has dominated human being as long as Homo sapiens have been roaming Earth. To do better the next time, in the post-Collapse world, the single most important thing for human beings to do is to relegate all beliefs to the realm of the strictly personal, shorn of any shred of consequence for any other person.
Yet, values are necessary for human beings. Having values is an integral part of being human. If nothing else, we are social beings who live together in groups. Living together in groups requires rules. Rules governing how people are to treat one another necessarily involve values. Such rules are in fact the expression of values: (heretofore) beliefs.
Any belief has the potential to be universal. That simple truth is crucial to the problem being analyzed here.
Within small groups of human beings it is possible for all to share the same beliefs, for them to be universal within the group. Other small groups can have their own beliefs that all members of the group share. All know that any other group can share their beliefs: there is no limit to the number of people who can share any belief.
Each group knows that their beliefs are ‘true’. For any other group to refuse to accept their beliefs as The Truth is just plain wrong. If they will not accept The Truth voluntarily, they must somehow be made to accept it, or at least abide by it — for their own good and the good of all, to be sure.
Of course, beliefs are not the only source of conflict among different groups of human beings. Greed and other lusts have certainly created their share.
Beliefs, however, have always been paramount. They have been used to justify and/or excuse conflict that was in reality generated by lusts: it has never, ever been the other way around.
It must be allowed that beliefs are (apparently) as integral to human existence as the need for food and water is. I myself believe completely in God as the Creator of the Universe. To reiterate, what all human beings must recognize is the supremely personal nature beliefs: every belief (and anything that would follow from it, such as a value) is perfectly valid for every believer, but no belief (or anything that would follow from it) is of any consequence for any person who does not share that belief.
So, we humans are social beings: we live together in groups. We shall without doubt continue to live together in groups after The Collapse. Rules are necessary for the existence of such groups. Rules are the expression of values. Heretofore, values have been expressions of beliefs. Yet, we must ditch beliefs as a source of values with any significance whatsoever for anyone other than the individual believer.
What are the survivors to do?
They must turn to our rational faculty. There is no other option available.
Beliefs are not (necessarily) irrational — they do not necessarily contradict material reality — but they are necessarily extra-rational: their source is something other than conscious cogitation. That is what makes them beliefs, as opposed to ideas. (It must be noted that feelings, intuitions, and creative impulses are also all extra-rational.)
For humanity to do better in the post-Collapse world, people will need to have a rule for governing groups of human beings (i.e., an ethic) that is strictly rational. It is perfectly O.K. if that strictly rational ethic happens to coincide with one belief or another (such as a belief in the moral equality of all human beings), whether that belief is sacral or secular, but the ethic must be (also) strictly rational.
An ethic can only be strictly rational if it follows from, or at least is verifiable by observation within material existence. Otherwise, it can only be extra-rational.
Here we must distinguish ‘rationality’ from ‘reason’. They are not the same thing. Reason is the use of logic to reach (or defend) conclusions. The starting point for that procession of logic can be a belief. Since beliefs are extra-rational, any chain of reasoning following from (or defending) a belief can be perfectly logical, but it is not strictly rational: its ultimate concern is a belief.
Reason has given us both theologies and ideologies. The former have been the result of reasoning from sacral beliefs, such as a belief in God (with certain attributes). The latter have been the result of reasoning from secular beliefs, such as a belief in a priori Rights, e.g., “Natural Rights,” and/or a belief in human equality — or inequality, in the case of fascism. [The famous ideologue Karl Marx was a failed materialist who was actually a radical equalitarian.]
Now, it is the case that some feeling or intuition or creative impulse must be involved in the generation of a new idea even if it is strictly rational. That is why the source of an ethic for governing society must at least be verifiable by observation within material existence. That takes it out of the realm of the extra-rational and puts it into the material realm. That way, no one must take anyone else’s word for the validity of it: any person can verify the validity of such an ethic for himself or herself.
It must also be stressed that a strictly rational ethic need not be rejected by a Believer just because it is strictly rational. Actually, anyone who believes in God as the Creator of the Universe and all that is in it must acknowledge that material reality and the rational capacity possessed by human beings as part of that reality are directly from God. That makes a strictly rational ethic more directly from God than any theology can be (which, as noted, would to be the product of human reasoning).
Finally, that ethic must serve three purposes. For one thing, it must be a rule people can use to govern themselves in their own actions involving other people. For another thing, it must be a guide for the further rules needed to govern society. Last but not least, it must provide a means for governing the process for deciding those rules (and how to administer/enforce them).
The reader will perhaps not be surprised to be apprised that I have an ethic in mind. It is mutual respect in effecting choices (i.e., choosing among perceived alternatives and taking action to bring that choice to fruition). It follows from the observation that human beings have no choice but to effect choices. It refers to respect of the most basic kind: taking one another into account as we live our separate lives together in this world. Though it might sound rather weak, that ethic boils down to a handful of absolute prohibitions: no killing, harming, coercing, stealing, or manipulating (lying, cheating, etc.) in getting what we want.
People living in a society governed by that ethic would have the maximum liberty that co-existing people can share simultaneously and a democratic political process. It produces three “conditions of justice” for the economy: freedom (to decide how to participate in the economy), a “democratically distributed income” (one for which any — adult — citizen could become eligible), and the absence of exploitation. The more of those conditions of justice that are met, the more just an economy is.
[If interested, there is more in “Mutual Respect: The Only Ethic for Justly Governing Society;” the economics of it are in “Same Economy, Way Better Outcomes for Society” (for economists: “Paradigm Shift”) and “A Fully Just Economy” (all here in Medium).]
Again, The Collapse of civilization is only a forgone conclusion because of the inadequacies of human beings. Once it happens, we can only hope, for posterity’s sake, that on the other side of that debacle (and the chaos and suffering that will accompany it) people will somehow have learned what they need in order to do better the next around for society: a strictly rational ethic for governing society, perhaps ‘mutual respect in effecting choices’.