By Chris Begley / Special To The Washington Post
I am an archaeologist, and like many archaeologists, I study societies that no longer exist. All societies fall apart. Ours will, and that process may have already begun.
We see the signs in the weather, in the pandemic and in supply chain disruptions. We worry about a collapse, but we also fantasize about it in the post-apocalyptic stories we create. These fantasies represent our fears, but also our desires. Even in destruction, the next apocalypse represents a chance to start over, perhaps even a welcome simplification of our cluttered and increasingly complex contemporary reality.
The problem is that when we think in these terms, imagining life after the end, we inevitably prepare for the wrong disaster. Archaeology shows us that when real societies fall apart, their demise is nothing like our anticipatory pre- and post-apocalyptic fictions. The stories we imagine matter. They set the parameters for our response and shape the way the future unfolds. We are imagining a future that will not happen, and the consequences could be catastrophic.
The myth of the lone traveler: One of the consequential misconceptions in our imaginary future is our focus on the individual rather than on the community. Over the course of historical “collapses,” people weather transformative changes as communities. No matter the speed or severity of the accumulating crises, we see things that persist. Even in dramatic and catastrophic changes like those resulting from disease and settler colonization after Europeans arrived in North America, the Indigenous people maintained and reformed communities. For all our post-apocalyptic fictions of lone travelers walking burned-out roads, nobody really goes it alone, at least not for long.
Following the popular narratives, however, we prepare for a collapse modeled on these fictional scenarios endured by small groups. Such stories provide a vision of a depopulated post-apocalyptic world, where survivors are scarce, and self-sufficient small groups make their way in a wide-open albeit damaged world. This vision, the “cozy catastrophe” trope, allows us to start over, flexing our bravery and heroism, in an uncluttered world. Archaeological data shows clearly that, to the contrary, large groups of people survived past societal declines to create new communities. Indeed, “collapse,” a term that implies failure, is rarely the right word, even in cases of radical transformation, an experience that can sometimes even be liberating for many of those who live through it.
Apocalyptic narratives also mislead us about the speed of societal declines. Except for something like a volcanic eruption, the stresses that lead to a dramatic change develop over a long time before things truly fall apart. If the proceedings are gradual enough, we might only identify the change as a “collapse” in retrospect. This is not to say that these changes are not significant, even dramatic; in fact, changes at the end may accelerate so that the collapse seems sudden if you were not paying attention. Usually, the decline happens over decades, even centuries, as was the case with the decline of the Western Roman Empire. Even in cases of natural disasters, we see that our history and our response determine the degree to which a phenomenon becomes a disaster. Some societies weather these events well, while poverty of limited resources exacerbate the suffering in others.
Often the solution isn’t dramatic: The dramatic changes that we will face have deep roots that extend far into our past, and any solution will have to address that long history. The coronavirus pandemic, for instance, has its roots in the destruction of animal habitats, in inequitable health-care systems and in decades of political strategies that polarized the population to the point where public health issues become political. Instead of looking for causes and solutions that take into account that long buildup, we focus on the obvious and dramatic changes that occur when this lengthy process reaches a critical point. We see this in our response to climate change. The decades of carbon emissions are less recognizable as a threat than the dangerous extraplanetary objects heading for Earth in narratives such as “Don’t Look Up” or “Armageddon.” Like the apocryphal story of the frogs in the slowly heating pot of water, we notice the danger only when the water is nearly boiling and it might be too late.
Mirroring our anticipatory narratives, we imagine resolving our problems through intense, short-term efforts. In our popular narratives, heroic individuals or small groups of survivors take rapid, dramatic action that saves the group (and humanity) from a similarly rapid and dramatic collapse. On screen, we see Brad Pitt developing a vaccine that saves humanity in “World War Z,” Andrew Lincoln leading the group in “The Walking Dead,” and a group of medical researchers saving humanity in “Contagion.” In our real experience with a pandemic, the proper and effective response — masking, staying home and vaccination — was communal, largely invisible, long-term and decidedly non-cinematic.
Dramatic, simple solutions attract us, especially if associated with a potentially heroic individual that can save us all. Colonizing Mars captures our attention more easily than things that could actually stave off the next apocalypse, such as sustainable agriculture, renewable energy or an equitable distribution of wealth. Taking our cues from popular narratives, we eschew the hard — and, critically, collective — work that has helped others survive in the past, and might yet allow us to thrive in the future.
Usually, ‘collapse’ is gradual: This tendency to instead look for dramatic but simplistic solutions for the future parallels our tendency to find neat explanations for societal declines from the past. We condense enormously complex, protracted phenomena into singular events. We label them “collapses” even when the decline was gradual, when only certain things changed or when it was uneven over space and time. Archaeological evidence shows that the experience of any collapse depends on one’s socioeconomic status, ethnicity or geographic location. For instance, we use the term “the Classic Maya collapse” to describe significant changes that occurred, yet some places in these areas declined while others did not. The evidence for this “collapse” and for its causes, including drought and warfare, vary greatly across the region. The shorthand “collapse” obscures the varied transformations that took place over a century and played out very differently in different places and for distinct segments of society. We should expect any future declines to be similarly complex.
In the archaeological examples, we see stressors building up during a long lead-time, putting pressure on the existing systems and structures that make up a society until something breaks. The “collapse” we identify is really the disruption of complex systems like agriculture, trade or political order. We see that today, as the pandemic revealed the fragility of systems we have in place. Look at the current supply chain problem. Huge, efficient ships, able to dock only at certain large ports, suddenly seem very limited when part of this system slows down or fails. We designed terrestrial shipping and warehousing in conjunction with these ports, creating an efficient but complex and inflexible system. Various factors conspired to create bottlenecks and shortages, which in turn affected future consumer behavior and put further stress on the system. The original or proximate cause, the coronavirus, is not the whole story. The failure of complex systems becomes the crisis.
Think slow and communal: In our imagined narratives, the hero solves a newly emerging problem with decisive, heroic action. It doesn’t work that way in real life. We need to appreciate the importance of slow, domestic and communal action, such as wearing masks or reducing our carbon footprints. How we think about things falling apart matters. The way we envision the future can set the parameters of what is possible. The stories we tell can limit our imagination and our options, and they can frame how we might eventually reconstitute ourselves. Our concern must go beyond merely surviving the inevitable transformation of our society. We need to shape how we survive it. And the evidence tells us that the best way to do that is to ensure that we’ll survive it together.
This might be the most important lesson for the future: Like people in the past, we will persevere as a community. Survival will involve working together, doing the hard and messy work of cooperating, to create something new, maybe something better.
Chris Begley is a maritime archaeologist and author. He earned his doctorate from the University of Chicago, and recently published “The Next Apocalypse: The Art and Science of Survival.”