Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Collapse of Civilization

The last night I was in New Orleans, I watched a program on the History Channel about what would happen in a catastrophic pandemic. The program alternated between documentary style interviews of experts from various backgrounds (e.g., sociologists, epidemiologists, military survival trainers, etc.), and a dramatization of a couple and their teenage son living in Los Angeles when a fictionalized deadly pandemic hits. The program described and dramatized what each step of a catastrophic pandemic would be like from the initial days and weeks, until months and years later. The program was horrifying and upsetting. Perhaps like passing a wreck on the highway, I couldn’t help but watch.

The program’s experts described the chaos and lawlessness that would take hold, and the desperate plight for survival of those who didn’t succumb to the pandemic itself. Essentially government as we now know it would completely collapse. Violent people would break into homes and residents would be at their mercy. People might want to escape urban centers where the violence would be worse, but the major transportation arteries would be clogged and controlled by people with weapons looking for easy prey. Rural communities would block access and threaten violence to outsiders in efforts to preserve their own scant resources, and to protect the local residents from the sickness and violence that outsiders might bring. Roving armed gangs would be looking for opportunities to secure basic necessities, and those who controlled such basic necessities would use violence to enforce a new social order. Orphaned and abandoned children would savagely protect what few resources they had, and kill without remorse if threatened. There would also be a rise in religious fundamentalism, and scapegoating of “sinners” who are viewed to have brought upon mankind the catastrophic plague.

The program lasted a couple of hours, and when it was over, I felt thoroughly depressed. Over the next few days, however, I began to think about the irony of the program. It seemed to appeal primarily to the fears of fairly affluent, comfortable folks who have enough disposable income to subscribe to cable television. Particularly after American tragedies like 9/11 and Katrina, and international ones like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the recent Haitian earthquake, the program played on the concerns that many of us have that our social order might one day collapse and we’ll be left vulnerable, unable to satisfy our basic needs and to keep our families safe. But to me, the irony is that without a deadly pandemic the doomsday scenario described and portrayed in the program is already occurring in various communities. I think many of us realize that the program’s depiction of chaos and violence is not that different from what life is currently like in places like Darfur, Somalia and Sierra Leone. But even across our own country, there are countless communities in inner cities and in neglected rural areas where lawlessness and violence already reign. Doomsday programs like the one I watched play on our fears that eventually something cataclysmic will happen and that same chaos will come to our more privileged communities. We overlook that it is already happening to our neighbors.

Psalm 82:3-4

Vindicate the weak and fatherless;Do justice to the afflicted and destitute. Rescue the weak and needy;Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.

1 comment:

  1. Human civilization will never full collapse, unless the species collapses with it. It would have to be something incredibly catastrophic. We've been through many plagues, it only makes us stronger.
    The Atheist Perspective