“How secure is our civilization’s accumulated knowledge?”
That’s the question posed in a recent essay by Richard Heinberg, one of the most consistently brilliant, reasonable, and nuanced writers about the ecological and cultural-civilizational ramifications of peak fossil fuels and economic calamity. In “Our evanescent culture and the awesome duty of librarians,” he offers a detailed discussion of the ins and outs of cultural preservation in the age of digital media, which, as he points out, have become the basket into which we citizens of industrial-technological civilization are collectively putting all of our cultural eggs, and which depend entirely on electricity for their continued viability. If the lights go out, he observes, this all vanishes instantly. And the chances of the lights going out by century’s end, not only in developing countries around the globe, where rolling brownouts and blackouts are already becoming more common, but in the industrialized nations as well, is very real.
“Ultimately,” Heinberg writes,
the entire project of digitized cultural preservation depends on one thing: electricity. As soon as the power goes off, access to the Internet goes down. CDs and DVDs become meaningless plastic disks; e-books become inscrutable and useless; digital archives become as illegible as cuneiform tablets — or more so. Altogether, digitization represents a huge bet on society’s ability to keep the lights on forever . . . . It’s ironic to think that the cave paintings of Lascaux may be far more durable than the photos from the Hubble space telescope. Altogether, if the lights were to go out now, in just a century or two the vast majority of our recently recorded knowledge would be gone or inaccessible.
This would all obviously constitute a disaster of the first order, since we denizens of industrial society have been engaged for roughly a century in the project of forgetting how to live without our electrified technology, and in the event of a blackout we would lose not only this technology but access to the digital media in which we have taken to storing so much of the very knowledge and skills that would enable us to survive. And that’s not to mention the loss in purely artistic and spiritual terms.
But there’s an ambivalence to the issue that Heinberg also notes in his essay, since, to put it bluntly, not all cultural knowledge is worth remembering. “The contemplation of electric civilization’s collapse can’t help but provoke philosophical musings,” he writes. “Perhaps cultural death is a necessary component of evolution — as is the death of individual organisms. In any case, no one can prevent culture from changing, and many aspects of our present culture arguably deserve to disappear (we each probably carry our own list around in our head of what kinds of music, advertising messages, and television shows we think the world could do without).”
And this is what leads me, perhaps not too incongruously — especially in light of the present prevalence of zombies in mass media culture — to flash on horror film auteur George Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985), the third installment in his celebrated Living Dead series, which at one point grapples provocatively with the very issue that Heinberg raises, albeit in a slightly different context.
An epitaph that nobody’s gonna bother to read
In Day of the Dead, a dozen or so humans, the only apparent survivors of the zombie apocalypse that started in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead and continued in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, live in a vast underground military bunker while the zombies rule the outside world. In a key scene, a character with the appropriately apocalyptic name of John chides another character, a scientist, for continuing the obsessive quest to understand the zombie plague, since the bunker is already, effectively, a vast treasure trove of industrial civilization’s accumulated knowledge that nobody will ever know or care about:
Hey, you know what all they keep down here in this cave? Man, they got the books and the records of the top five hundred companies. They got the defense department budget down here, and they got the negative for all your favorite movies. They got microfilm with tax return and newspaper stories. They got immigration records and census records, and they got official accounts of all the wars and plane crashes and volcano eruptions and earthquakes and fires and floods, and all the other disasters that interrupted the flow of things in the good old U.S. of A. Now what does it matter, Sarah darling? All this filing and record keeping? Who’s ever gonna give a shit? Who’s even gonna get a chance to see it all? This is a great big, 14-mile tombstone with an epitaph on it that nobody’s gonna bother to read. And now here you come with a whole new set of charts and graphs and records. What you gonna do? Bury them down here with all the other relics of what once was?
When the other character, Sarah, responds, “What I’m doing is all there’s left to do,” John comes back with, “Shame on you. There’s plenty to do, so long as there’s you and me and maybe some other people. We could start over, start fresh, get some babies. And teach them, Sarah. Teach them never to come over here and dig these records out.”
The conversation relates back to an earlier exchange between the two characters in which John similarly criticizes the scientist’s attempts to explain and fix the apocalyptic situation. Upon being told to shut up because he has no alternative solution, he says, “Oh, I’ve got an alternative: Find us an island someplace, get juiced up, and spend what time we got left soaking up some sunshine.” When Sarah says with disdain, “You could do that, couldn’t you? With all that’s going on, you could just do that without a second thought,” he replies, “Shit, I could do that even if all this wasn’t going on.”
And obviously, this all relates back to Heinberg’s observation in his article that we can all name aspects of contemporary information culture whose loss we wouldn’t lament. Then again, as he also notes, the loss of many other things would be truly tragic. He says it so beautifully, and lays out the competing strands of the dilemma so elegantly, that I’ll quote his final paragraphs in toto:
Civilization has come at a price. Since the age of Sumer cities have been terrible for the environment, leading to deforestation, loss of topsoil, and reduced biodiversity. There have been human costs as well, in the forms of economic inequality (which hardly existed in pre-state societies) and loss of personal autonomy. These costs have grown to unprecedented levels with the advent of industrialism — civilization on crack — and have been borne not by civilization’s beneficiaries, but primarily by other species and people in poor nations and cultures. But nearly all of us who are aware of these costs like to think of this bargain-with-the-devil as having some purpose greater than a temporary increase in creature comforts, safety, and security for a minority within society. The full-time division of labor that is the hallmark of civilization has made possible science — with its enlightening revelations about everything from human origins to the composition of the cosmos. The arts and philosophy have developed to degrees of sophistication and sublimity that escape the descriptive capacity of words.
Yet so much of what we have accomplished, especially in the last few decades, currently requires for its survival the perpetuation and growth of energy production and consumption infrastructure—which exact a continued, escalating environmental and human toll. At some point, this all has to stop, or at least wind down to some more sustainable scale of pillage.
But if it does, and in the process we lose the best of what we have achieved, will it all have been for nothing?
Burn it all
Having said all of that, I’ll close by pointing out what I suspect many of my readers may have noticed as well: that even though there are veritable mountains of cultural treasures whose loss to a new dark age would be a tragedy, in light of the galling and garish nature of so much of our contemporary cultural dystopia with its digital media circus, its economic bloat, its ecological devastation, its human injustice, and so on, it’s pretty damned difficult to deny the mythically charged attraction of the “Burn it all!” solution as expressed so enticingly by Romero and others. And that’s even though we rationally recognize the full-on disaster that such a “solution” would inevitably entail in human terms.
For more about cultural preservation in the face of a new dark age, consider the following:
- John Michael Greer, “The End of the Information Age” (May 19, 2009) and “Cultural Conservers” (May 21, 2008), both published at The Archdruid Report. “I’d like to suggest,” says Greer, “that one crucial need of our present predicament is the rise of a movement of cultural conservers — individuals who choose, for one reason or another, to take personal responsibility for the preservation of some part of the modern world’s cultural heritage. That’s a tall order, not least because the crises inseparable from the decline and fall of a civilization will leave many of us scrambling for bare survival in the face of soaring death rates and increasingly harsh conditions.”
- Morris Berman, The Twilight of American Culture (2000). Berman talks movingly, in a tone that’s part businesslike and part elegiac, about the need for a class of “new monks” who will preserve and perpetuate treasured cultural knowledge not only in the midst of a future dark age brought on by industrial collapse (a theme he touches on only tangentially when he touches on it at all), but in the midst of our present cultural dark age of economic, political, educational, societal, and media-based madness, where hype and life have merged, and where the ever-expanding border of technocratic consumer culture and American imperialism encompasses a darkly dystopian reality. Importantly, he stresses that a) a new dark age is inevitable, so we’re not talking about “saving” what presently exists but preserving and planting the seeds of a future renaissance that none of us will personally see, and b) these new monastic efforts may need to take a different form than simply the writing of books and so on, since, unlike the original Dark Ages, when Western monks conducted their scribal work in an information-starved cultural environment, “This time around, we are drowning in information; hence, what is required is that it be embodied, preserved through ways of living . . . . I am not talking about putting the Great Books on CD-ROM, eventually to be buried in a time capsule, I suppose), or on the Net; these things have already been done, and they don’t amount to much, because the Great Books program is really a way of life, not a database.”
- Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953). Obviously, this novel has become a kind of Ur-text that defines the very lines along which we think and talk about the question of a new dark age. We shouldn’t forget the novel’s passionate endorsement of something like Berman’s “new monasticism” in its description of the tramps and hobos who traverse the fringes of a future totalitarian-dystopian society and preserve books whole in their memories, in the hope of one being able to recite them and write them down again when books are no longer outlawed. We also shouldn’t forget one character’s important and insightful declaration about the relative value of books themselves: “Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical about them at all. The magic is only with what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment.”