“We are at heart so profoundly anarchistic that the only form of state we can imagine living in is Utopian; and so cynical that the only Utopia we can believe in is authoritarian” – Lionel Trilling
My therapist thinks I need to stop worrying about the collapse of civilization. Personally, I think he’s selfishly concerned that it will affect my willingness to pay his exorbitant bill (my neuroses are legion). It’s not so much that the notion of the end of the world unduly bothers me, for just as novelist Edan Lepucki said, “If you don’t ponder the end of the world on a regular basis, I don’t think you’re really human,” rather I would prefer it was a solemn occasion instead of an absurd one. Imagine one of the multitudinous predicted apocalypses arrives and it turns out the Norse descriptions of Ragnarök were fairly accurate or we’ve all failed in adequate worshipfulness of Baʿal Hammon. That’s the kind of unexpected theological dispensation that can really bum you out. I’m really not prepared to do battle with frost giants. It never came up in the meetings. If you’re playing the odds, there’s not too much need to be worried about religiously-defined end-times, since we’ve racked up thousands of dead gods over the years, many of which have long since missed their allotted Armageddons. God’s are notoriously bad with scheduling. That’s why they generally have a lot of executive assistants. The more existentially disconcerting end-of-the-world scenarios are secular in nature. Asteroids, floods, supervolcanos, gamma ray bursts, runaway climate change, and all those pernicious, looming natural catastrophes that are really hard to do something about (and are just about guaranteed in the long run) offer plenty of food for thought, for survival prepper and scientist alike, but I’ve come to the disturbing conclusion that current trends towards global supercivilization make us especially susceptible to the perils of the hypothetical, but disturbingly plausible “Shoe Event Horizon”.
Now, there are a few essential ideas packed into all this doom and gloom. Utopians, futurists, and conspiracy theorists can all agree that we seem to be moving towards a single global culture precipitated by technology, capitalism, and that gosh-darned quality entertainment. While the notion that human civilization is by necessity becoming increasingly homogenous is deeply offensive to some, it’s hard not to acknowledge the impact of globalization on everything from food production to national security. Try to get away from Starbucks. But let’s not dwell on microeconomics. Macroeconomics is where it’s at. Plus it makes me feel bigger. Global society has reached the point where it’s hard to deny that local changes frequently have worldwide impacts. It’s really all about allocation of resources and energy utilization. With world population stretching past 7 billion, it is increasingly hard to see to everybody’s needs without international cooperation on the distribution of resources. Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev proposed measuring a civilization’s level of technological advancement, based on the amount of energy a civilization is able to use for communication. On the Kardashev Scale, the Industrial Revolution represented the initial transition from a “Type 0” civilization (one which saw the nation-state’s energy consumption surpass the available resources in each individual civilization’s existing territory) and sees us inevitably marching towards a “Type 1” civilization (one that harnesses a substantial amount of energy that reaches us from the Sun, requiring the efficiencies afforded by a planetary civilization). This entails all sorts of pitfalls along the way from Malthusian catastrophes (population exceeds the carrying capacity of the environment) to excessive use of energy without adequate disposal of heat (leading to an environment unsuitable to the biology of our dominant life-form and our food sources). This is often offered as a reason why the universe is so quiet, that is, technological advancement ultimately kills us. Don’t go moving into a cave. As all our problems are increasingly global, so too does it seem that all our solutions will need to be enacted on a global scale, involving increasing concordance in our values across borders as the pressures of merely surviving increase. In short, from a practical perspective, we will inevitably move towards a planetary “supercivilization” just to ensure we have drinkable water, palatable food, and enough resources to go around. Unless you don’t care about all those folks who merely had the lack of foresight to be born on the wrong side of the border. Jerk.
Now, I don’t necessarily buy into all that “New World Order” paranoia, mostly because we are an insufferably uncooperative and clannish species, always looking for an angle to get over on our neighbors. If we ever develop a planetary society it will no doubt be a last resort, which of course is exactly what many scientists and philosophers predict for our future. That’s why they don’t get invited to parties. Maybe global government and a planetary culture (see Star Trek’s Starfleet for a nice fictional example) will eventually help us overcome our innate nastiness, usher in an era of peace and prosperity, help us be better caretakers of the environment, and increase our empathy for our fellow man, but despairingly I must admit that it also makes us more susceptible to the impending “Shoe Event Horizon”, an economic model proposed by Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame (listen to the dramatized radio version of the theory at Don’t Panic).
The basic presumption is that psychological depression leads to an inevitable descent into a mono-industrial society that can only produce shoes. As our environment gets increasingly unpleasant, food becomes scarcer, water gets more polluted, cities get more crowded, and life generally trends towards abject sucking, we will likely be depressed. Depressed people tend to look down more. When you look down all the time, you tend to notice your shoes more. Since you’re already sad, in order to make yourself feel better, you will be more likely to buy a new pair of shoes. The higher demand for shoes requires higher production of shoes, but in order to increase production, quality must be sacrificed. Decreases in quality lead to shoes wearing out quicker. Thus demand continues to increase as people need to buy more and more shoes. This is where the death spiral begins. Adams described the disastrous outcome on a planetary society, and may as well be describing our future. “Many years ago this was a thriving, happy planet – people, cities, shops, a normal world. Except that on the high streets of these cities there were slightly more shoe shops than one might have thought necessary. And slowly, insidiously, the number of the shoe shops were increasing. It’s a well-known economic phenomenon but tragic to see it in operation, for the more shoe shops there were, the more shoes they had to make and the worse and more unwearable they became. And the worse they were to wear, the more people had to buy to keep themselves shod, and the more the shops proliferated, until the whole economy of the place passed what I believe is termed the Shoe Event Horizon, and it became no longer economically possible to build anything other than shoe shops. Result – collapse, ruin and famine” (Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe).
And thus Death rides a well-shod horse. But, all is not lost, nor is the end inevitable if we take proper precautions. As the poet Ryunosuke Satoro said, “Let your dreams outgrow the shoes of your expectations”. Stop listening for Gabriel’s horn. Take a look at your shoes.