The Long Fall

The power failed last night for several hours, a far to typical event for Guam. Usually these blackouts are the result of major transmission lines blowing or one of the base load generators shutting down, causing large swaths of the island to embrace darkness. Last night’s electricus interruptus was extremely sporadic. My street went dark, the next block north did not. About a quarter mile up the street the video store was dark, but the main village of Yoña was brightly lit. Pago Bay, the site of Tuesday’s fatal car crash, was as dark as Dick Cheney’s soul. Yet it was business as usual in Chalan Pago and Hagåtña.

The darkness and quiet turned my mind onto a nihilistic path. I found myself thinking about the end of the world, the decline and fall of civilization. I think most people would confess to a morbid fascination with this subject. A giant asteroid striking the planet, an atomic war, some virulent plague, maybe an alien invasion, catastrophic climate change, or even zombies walking the earth, you name it. We all have a secret affinity for annihilation. Fifty years under the very real threat of nuclear holocaust has primed our collective psyche to expect annihilation.

Fire and Ice

SOME say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
–Robert Frost, Harpers’ Magazine, December 1920

Too bad the world will end in neither fire nor ice. The end will not come in some fiery apocalypse. Even if civilizations collapse, life goes on, a smaller, leaner shadow of its former glory. The terrible events of 9/11 did not cause our civilization to collapse, however much al Qaeda would like to imagine that the destruction of two skyscrapers portends the downfall of Western Civilization.

A Roman in 476 A.D. didn’t realize that the world of classical antiquity had just fallen into the Dark Ages; things just got worse and worse and ordinary people struggled and survived. Historians drew that line in the sand, marking the close of one era and the dawn of another. So Romulus Agustulus was deposed by a Gothic king, Odovacar still took the title of emperor and things continued along much as they had before. To the people alive at that time summer faded into autumn, the days got shorter and snow fell, and in the spring of 477 A.D. people continued sowing their fields, firing their pots, weaving their clothes and knowing they were still Roman citizens.

I expressed these ideas before. David will perhaps remember sitting out on my balcony after Typhoon Pongsona in December 2002. I was in a dark mood that day, and under the dark skies we sat while I tried to tell him how the world will end not with a bang, but with a whimper. What we experienced on Guam in December 2002 was just a taste of what the world will experience. After the typhoon the power and water were out, usual conditions for a major typhoon. The real crippler after Pongsona was the fuel shortage brought on by a massive fire at the port. The island was without gasoline for almost two weeks and life ground to a standstill.

In my glowering, frustrated state, I told David how I am certain the collapse of our civilization will resemble the deterioration of conditions on Guam. The power will go out more often, usually for days at a time. It will become impossible for most people to drive their cars, with only emergency vehicles and the very wealthy in cars. The rest of us will ride around on the bus, walk, or ride bicycles. Local foods will become important again, as people realize the idiocy of shipping strawberries from Chile to New York. And we will accept these things, and some will label them improvements. And we will slowly withdraw from what we once were. When the power goes out people won’t riot in the streets, they will just go to bed earlier.

This is all leading me back to an essay I read recently. Slow Crash discusses these very ideas, and suggests that Western Civilization has already peaked. It is an intriguing thesis, which touches on many of the same ideas I mention above. Taking it a step further, the essay concludes with some possible scenarios that will develop during this long, slow collapse, from mass starvation to virulent disease. It is an interesting read, and will provide something to think about next time the lights go out.

4 thoughts on “The Long Fall

  1. Anonymous

    i remember that conversation indeed, tomas. and i still agree with you. western civilisation has peaked. our (?) values tend toward greed (capitalistic must have more money attidude!!! mo money, mo money, mo money) and individualism and have moved away from family and spiritual values. we have become far too short-sighted, as seen with all the environmental degradation. so guam is our microsism petrie dish?? interesting thought…will read Slow Crash when i get a chance.

    Money for Nothin and Me MTV.

    indeed cc, what will become of TV??

    wes cunane

  2. Thomas

    I found myself thinking about this some more today during my commute. This time around I was thinking about global warming and the inevitable climate change. Seems like a lot of people are lamenting climate change and seeing portents of our doom in this planetary warming. The general gist is how low lying areas will be inundated – millions will die and the world economy will fail, hurling us into havoc and war.

    How exactly is this any different from the situation today? Aren’t millions dying around the globe in proxy wars waged by Western powers? Iraq, Palestine, Darfur, Mindanao, the Congo, Afghanistan, Chechnya, it seems like the list is endless. Maybe a little global collapse wouldn’t be such a bad thing, at least for the poor shits getting shafted right now.

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