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.

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

In This Issue


Politics & Policy

Syria Next?

Bashar Assad’s eleven unbroken years as president of Syria have been an exercise of aggrandizement through crime, culminating now in murderous onslaughts against his own people. This should come as ...


Politics & Policy

It’s Good to Be King

The Arab Spring, which almost no one anticipated, continues to confound. Nobody knows how long the protests will last, or how many dictatorships masquerading as Arab “republics” or “kingdoms” will ...
Politics & Policy

Remembering Bill Rusher

Debater NEAL B. FREEMAN The young Bill Rusher took to debating pretty much as the circling shark takes to soft human tissue — with hungry purpose and to startling effect. Rusher received ...

Books, Arts & Manners

The Straggler

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 ...
Politics & Policy

The Long Climb

‘In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men,” according to The Federalist Papers, “the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government ...
Politics & Policy

Great Generation

Throughout the developed world, birth rates are cratering. Many countries are well below the replacement rate. There are many explanations for this trend, but the most basic is sheer selfishness: ...
Politics & Policy

Preacher Feature

It’s fitting, in a sense, that Robert Redford’s courtroom drama The Conspirator is gracing theaters the month that Sidney Lumet passed away. For more than a generation, Lumet was perhaps ...


Politics & Policy


Atomic Detail It was with great glee and anticipation that I opened the April 4 edition to read William Tucker’s article regarding the events at Fukushima Daiichi (“Overreaction”). However, my glee ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ Perhaps Trump is well-suited to be president. He has overseen bankruptcies, after all. ‐ We speak of office holders growing into their jobs. Is Barack Obama shrinking into his? Mr. ...

Triumph of the Petrophobes

Don’t worry about six-dollar-a-gallon gas. The president can sign an executive order demanding pumps be rebranded to deliver the juice in half-gallon increments. Swift, decisive action! A 50 percent drop ...
Politics & Policy


WHAT SHALL YOU SAY . . . What shall you say this evening, solitary soul? What shall you say, my heart, heart withered heretofore, To the very good, the very dear, the beautiful Whose ...
Happy Warrior

Entitlement Sense

I like to think that upon arrival in this great republic I assimilated pretty quickly. Within four or five months, I was saying “zee” and driving on the right more ...

Most Popular

White House

Another Warning Sign

The Mueller report is of course about Russian interference in the 2016 election and about the White House's interference in the resulting investigation. But I couldn’t help also reading the report as a window into the manner of administration that characterizes the Trump era, and therefore as another warning ... Read More

What’s So Great about Western Civilization

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays. Dear Reader (Redacted: Harm to Ongoing Matter), One of the things I tell new parents is something that was told to me when my daughter still had that ... Read More
Film & TV

Jesus Is Not the Joker

Actors love to think they can play anything, but the job of any half-decent filmmaker is to tell them when they’re not right for a part. If the Rock wants to play Kurt Cobain, try to talk him out of it. Adam Sandler as King Lear is not a great match. And then there’s Joaquin Phoenix. He’s playing Jesus ... Read More
White House

The Mueller Report Should Shock Our Conscience

I've finished reading the entire Mueller report, and I must confess that even as a longtime, quite open critic of Donald Trump, I was surprised at the sheer scope, scale, and brazenness of the lies, falsehoods, and misdirections detailed by the Special Counsel's Office. We've become accustomed to Trump making up ... Read More

Supreme Court Mulls Citizenship Question for Census

Washington -- The oral arguments the Supreme Court will hear on Tuesday will be more decorous than the gusts of judicial testiness that blew the case up to the nation’s highest tribunal. The case, which raises arcane questions of administrative law but could have widely radiating political and policy ... Read More