Cultural Caviar

Help Wanted: Save Civilization

January 27, 2018

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Help Wanted: Save Civilization

There is nothing quite as pleasing as to contemplate the imminent end of the world or the downfall of civilization. It gives you a sense of superiority for having recognized it when all about you people are going about their business as usual, as if nothing were about to happen. The fools!

I was reading the popular scientific journal New Scientist last week, as I do from time to time. The cover story was titled “The Writing on the Wall” and subtitled “The worrying signs that civilisation has started to collapse.” For people like me who find pessimism so much more interesting than optimism, this was good news indeed. (Optimists smile, but pessimists laugh.) But what, for New Scientist, were the signs of the collapse of civilization?

It was not altogether easy to say. I think a longish quote is in order:

According to Peter Turchin, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut, there are certainly some worrying signs. Turchin was a population biologist studying boom-and-bust cycles in predator and prey animals when he realised that the equations he was using could also describe the rise and fall of civilisations.

In the late 1990s, he began to apply these equations to historical data, looking for patterns that link social factors as wealth and health inequality to political instability. Sure enough, in past civilisations in Ancient Egypt, China and Russia, he spotted…recurring cycles that are linked to regular era-defining periods of unrest.

“Throw social pedagogy to the dogs, I say, I’ll have none of it.”

This is all very weaselly, if I may so put it. What does “linked to” mean? Causally linked? And did he choose his past civilizations because he knew that they would illustrate what he wanted them to illustrate? How trustworthy can the data be on increasing health differences in ancient Egypt and the China of, say, the Tang, Sung, and Ming periods? This all seems to me to have the strong flavor or smell of elaborated bilge, which no amount of mathematics can dispel.

There are other signs of the end of civilization, according to the article, among them the election of Donald Trump and the vote on Brexit. This means that what stands between us and the collapse of civilization—or one of the things—is the European Parliament and the European Commission. I thought I was pessimistic, but this takes pessimism to a stage well beyond even mine. If one of the only things standing between us and the new Dark Ages is the European Commission, then all I can say is that those new Dark Ages will be very dark indeed.

Perhaps one of the symptoms of the imminent collapse of civilization is the habit of taking opinions with which one disagrees as symptoms of the imminent collapse of civilization.

However, a psychologist at Princeton called Jonathan Cohen does not believe that collapse is inevitable. While he believes that societies that are heading for ruin often continue the very conduct that is leading them to ruin (amen to that, say I!), he thinks “Education has got to be part of the answer,” adding that “there could be more emphasis on analytical thinking in the classroom.” What he probably means by analytical thinking, if he were analytical enough to realize it, is indoctrination with the current secular pieties.

Here I turn from New Scientist to The Guardian, that journal of the secularly pious. In particular, I turn to an advertisement in the jobs section for schoolteachers. I quote from an advertisement for someone in a school whose title is Director of Social Pedagogy:

A rare and exciting opportunity has arisen to join our Executive and Senior Management Team. This is a key role within the organization with responsibility for all service provision for our children and young person services as well as for the support and development of a large and diverse social pedagogy staff team.

I trust that by now it is clear what the successful candidate will actually do when he turns up in the office on the Monday morning after his appointment; but in case it is not, let me continue with the quotation from the advertisement:

You will strive to achieve the best outcomes for our young people by putting them at the forefront of everything we do. This is an influential and unique role to lead and direct the organisation’s vision, values and ethos and drive innovation.