Magazine | May 16, 2011, Issue

Tumbled the Towers

Winter conducted a fighting retreat this year, one last storm bringing down our cable service. That left us without TV, Internet, or house phones. When we signed up for this threefold package a couple of years ago, Mrs. Straggler observed that we should soon be getting our food and water from the cable-service provider. With some advances in the technology of molecular-level matter synthesis, my lady’s prediction may yet come to pass; but on this occasion we were only inconvenienced, not starved.

At such times one’s thoughts turn naturally to the fragility of civilization, and to speculations about whether our current civilization is more fragile than most. It used to take an invading barbarian army to turn comfortable urbanites into subsistence farmers or corpse-piles. Nowadays potential agents of civilizational destruction are more numerous.

There is, for example, the coronal mass ejection (CME). Our sun, in its more active phases, burps out great blobs of electrically charged matter. One such struck the earth’s magnetic field a glancing blow on March 10 this year, bringing auroras — the Northern Lights — as far south as Wisconsin.

A direct hit from a big CME would be catastrophic. The last time this happened was in early September of 1859. Named for Richard Carrington, the British astronomer who observed the originating solar storm, the Carrington Event caused auroras all the way down to Venezuela and blew out the world’s primitive telegraph systems, setting some telegraph offices on fire. A CME on the Carrington scale nowadays would shut down power-generation and water-purification equipment, disable computers (including the ones that planes and automobiles depend on), and cripple communications from cell phones to the Internet.

Nor need we depend on nature for such a result. In William Forstchen’s 2009 novel One Second After, unknown hostiles explode nuclear weapons in space above Russia, Japan, and the U.S. (Detonations outside the atmosphere are invisible, unless you happen to be looking in just the right place at the right moment.) The electromagnetic pulses that accompany these nuclear explosions act as localized Carrington Events: Two hundred million Americans die in the subsequent disruptions.

People have been worrying about this kind of thing since the first power stations were built in the 1880s. What if our infrastructure, instead of being within arm’s reach, were all managed by machinery in some remote place out of sight? In 1909, E. M. Forster wrote a short story, “The Machine Stops,” set in a future world. Humans have abandoned Earth’s surface to live in underground cells with all utilities and entertainment cabled in, communicating with something that sounds like an iPhone, all being managed by the Machine. Then, of course, the Machine breaks down and universal destruction ensues: “For a moment they saw the nations of the dead, and, before they joined them, scraps of the untainted sky.”

#page#Taking the long view of civilizational collapse, and setting aside the manifold new opportunities for it that our technologies have brought us, the event itself has been commonplace enough. Pre-industrial civilizations rose and fell with the rhythm of some great organism breathing.

For us of the West the archetypal horror here is the fall of Rome. Some years ago in England I had a friend who was a keen amateur archeologist specializing in the very dark period following the end of Roman authority in Britain around a.d. 400–410. He had lurid tales of mass graves filled with skeletons deformed by hunger, then hacked to death with swords; of fine old Roman mosaic floors on which campfires had been lit; of buried coin-hoards whose owners had not survived to claim them.

Roman Britain actually took some decades to die completely. In about a.d. 500 an Irish scholar, the future St. Tatheus, was entertained by a rich man in southeast Wales who was still living in a villa (probably the one excavated near present-day Portskewett) and who still heated water for his bath on Saturdays. Seeing his visitors arrive, “wearied with their journey and voyage . . . he refused to bathe, until first the strangers, more worthy of bathing, had entered the bath.”

This charitable gent must have been one of the last to keep up Roman ways. Two hundred years later there were only incomprehensible ruins to stir an Anglo-Saxon poet to melancholy: “Splendid is this wall-stone; fate broke it. / Shattered is the manor-house, crumbled is the work of giants. / Fallen are the roofs, tumbled the towers . . .”

That this will be the fate of our civilization too, there is no reason to doubt. The end may indeed come very soon, by nature’s hand or our own. British scientist Sir Martin Rees, who is no crank — he is a professor at Cambridge University and Britain’s Astronomer Royal — has written a book explaining why humanity is unlikely to survive the present century. That’s not merely American civilization, nor even civilization at large, but Homo sapiens.

The particular case of the U.S. is surely not encouraging. The signs of exhaustion are all around. The monstrous swelling debt and deficits we fret about are only aspects of a larger, more comprehensive falling-off — a civilizational deficit. We seem old. Our ability to survive any great shock must be doubted. Ne mæg werig mod wyrde wiðstandan, remarked another Anglo-Saxon poet: “A weary heart cannot withstand fate.” The space shuttles are to be retired this year; after that there will be no more great national adventures. The Health Department of my state recently tried to outlaw dodgeball and freeze tag in summer camps because these pastimes pose “a significant risk of injury.” Perhaps the kids should play shuffleboard instead.

We can no longer do those things a young civilization can do — win wars, write memorable poems, expel intruders, live within our means, execute great feats of engineering. Once, in the first fine careless rapture of civilizational youth, we could do anything. Now we can do nothing. Once we civilized wild expanses and humbled great military empires. Now we insult our ancestors, wrestle with codes of tax and regulation three inches thick, and dicker ineffectually with barbarian chieftains. The Anglo-Saxon poet again: “The north sends rough hailstorms / In malice against men. / All is distressful / In the earthly realm.”

He should complain: At least the hailstorms didn’t knock out his cable service.

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