Thursday, June 4, 2009

Barbaric triumph?

I got home Tuesday night and found my wife and daughter transfixed by the show Earth 2100.

The theme of the speculative documentary is that a “perfect storm” of population growth, resource depletion, climate change and the attendant conflicts spell big trouble for civilization — up to and including collapse.

The animated doomsday scenario was riveting, intercut with interviews with a range of scientists, arachaeologists and historians.

Of course, as a history nut, I was gratified to see that the notion of civilizational collapse was treated in historical context. It’s happened before. The Maya. Rome. The Byzantine Empire; Easter Island. The key here is that, with a “global” civilization, where do we go when the walls come tumbling down?

Through it all, I could hear an echo of the dark vision of my favorite fantasy author, Robert E. Howard, best expressed in his finest story of Conan the Cimmerian, “Beyond the Black River.”

“Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,” the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. “Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.”

That hasn’t seemed true for the past millenium. Nations and empires have risen and fallen, sure, but civilization itself has thrived. The past thousand years have been a record of the inexorable rise of civilization, particularly Western Civilization, and the apparent “conquest” of nature.

But you have to wonder, was that a thousand-year whim of circumstance? Are we on the cusp of the ultimate barbaric triumph?

Jim Cornelius, Editor

1 comment:

  1. Jim,

    I am familiar with Howard, and the story you reference. If global anarchy wiped out civilization, and allowed barbarism to re-assert itself, Western "civilization" would be at a distinct disadvantage to most of the rest of the world. It would take generations of reverse breeding to reselect individuals who could be characterized as barbarian.

    It's interesting that when the media refers to acts or people as "barbaric", they are almost invariably groups outside of our culture. Suicide bombings, beheadings, stonings...some cultures have retained their vestigial barbarism much more than ours.

    Howard is right, though. A great deal of the stress of modern living is due to us forcing our barbarian instincts to conform to civilized standards. Barbarism is a simpler, more fundamentally sound existence, and one for which we yearn, or at least our DNA does.

    Thanks for the food for thought, and the forum to express it.