People have been harbinging the decline of America for decades. Our rapid ascension to power combined with a near apocalyptic sense of our own national destiny has made the American landscape an inspirational setting for fictional takes on what an empire in decline will look like. Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand’s suite of films, Le Déclin de l’empire américain (1986), Les Invasions barbares (2003) and L’Âge des ténèbres (2007), engages the question of North American cultural decay in a decade long dialogue so well written and performed that it seems to negate its own argument through the talent of its execution. Our incredible beauty and talent as a civilization, Arcand argues, is the first sign that we are at the top; there is no where else but down. Even before Arcand’s films, Sindey Lumet’s 1976 masterpiece, Network, commented on the awesome power of our corporate overlords controlling us through television, the ultimate para-cultural medium, in an Orwellian satire culminating with the riviting statement:
There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars.
This was not a Mad Max apocalypse, it was an ideological apocalypse. Indeed, when the utopian theology behind the free market runs amuck, as it has recently, the contagion threatening the social structure is more insidious than a phantom bomb—it’s more damn complicated.
A recent New Yorker article by Ben McGrath discussing an emerging breed of survivalist—one armed with economic data in one hand and a garden hoe in the other rather than an automatic rifle and keys to the bomb shelter—got me thinking again about the possibility of an approaching turbulence, a great disturbance in the Force, if you will. The subjects in McGrath’s piece are adherents to Peak Oil theory, perhaps the most convincing and accurate theory on the future of human civilization. Several years ago, on recommendation, I had read peaknik luminary James Howard Kunstler’s erudite and terrifying examination of peak oil The Long Emergency and it was both the most frightening horror story I ever read and the most exciting. I also made it half way through Richard Heinberg’s treatise on human energy use The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies before I had to get back to driving my car, using Saran Wrap, and the Internet while I still had time. However, while Kunstler’s vision is starker and more McCarthian (Cormac, not Joseph) than many going around, it imagines a world at change rather than a world in decline. The “End” will not be a hellscape out of Bosch but more like a collapse of the way we live life now. What I’m saying is that after all the years of speculation, from the films, the 2012-ers, the peakniks, something may be finally happening and I’m glad that I am going to be around to see it.
Despite the dreamy moments when I imagine myself Hemingway in Paris sipping a Pernod, I daily thank my luck to be living now, in 2009. I cannot imagine a more exciting time to be alive. When I begin contemplating the prismatic weaving of the world together into a labyrinth of Internet addresses and international flights, the human experience today seems full to bursting with barely restrained kinetic energy. It’s precisely this instability which makes a dramatic change easier to imagine and all the more exciting. Look: America just elected Barack Obama as president; the Large Hadron Collider, a buzzing symbol of our scientific achievements, is prepared to burst open the secrets of the universe; iPhones (need I say more?); The Internet constantly evolving as an alternate space in which most of us exist when we should be working; history is made and records broken around the world faster than all the king’s bloggers and news agencies can put them together. If Arcand is right, we might be looking at the end; for what else is this sorcery of science and human achievement than the peak of a civilization?
That mad folding of the world over upon itself so that distances can be closed completely through technology quickens the speed at which we, The World, tell ourselves what is going on. As such, when it breaks down you will not witness it as a spectacle for it will bring down with it the aparatus which would present it so. That vast system of systems in Network is what is in danger of breaking down, yet when it does so, imagine not a Dark Age after the fall of the Roman Empire, but a Dim Age like the late 19th century, but with limited Internet access and human rights. Here is where I begin to go all gooey and romantic about it: imagine a world made smaller not by information but once again by actual geography. There is no telling what we will eventually be forced to sacrfice when the End comes calling, but try to imagine what we can gain. I admit, I prefer to go a little eco-utopian here, small organic farming communities and all, but my faith in America to remain coherent, solid, united in even a state of decline makes whatever lies ahead bright, interesting, anything but more of the same.