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Stratification and the End of the World

December 31, 2014 • Los Angeles

doomsdayNew Year’s Eve seems like a perfect day to write about millenarian drama. I recently talked with a friend who firmly believes that “things are gonna blow”—meaning the economy is going to crash again in a more spectacular fashion even than the recession and ongoing downturn that started in 2008. She’s not a doomsday prepper, but she did accurately predict the 2008 recession and was able to liquidate her investments and protect her assets, so she is confident that she’s tuned in enough to accurately predict a collapse once again. I’m not sure if she’s right this time around, but it did lead to an interesting discussion about the way we’ve structured our civilization.

She’s the kind of person who knows how to grow her own food, lives in the countryside, and wouldn’t be too harshly affected by the kind of collapse she envisions. Most of us, however, have no chance of surviving for long after a root-level collapse like a zombie apocalypse. There are 10 million people in this county, and a major disruption in the food supply chain, for example, would be very bad news for most of us. It’s terrifying enough to know that such a disruption could be caused by natural forces; worrying about Wall Street doing it is too much for me.

I’ve never been especially susceptible to dire predictions about the end of the world. On this day in 1999, I boarded a plane at LAX and headed to New Orleans to party for the New Year. It’s the only time I ever remember having a row of seats to myself—many people were avoiding technology and had headed into unheated cabins in the mountains in fear of the Y2K disaster, which, of course, never happened. Before I left for the airport that day I watched the New Year celebration in Sydney, and read about ATMs in New Zealand that had started malfunctioning, just as the cognoscenti had predicted. Still, I didn’t expect the sky to fall that day.

Today I’m similarly optimistic that despite the breathtaking greed of stock market–driven big business, a massive economic collapse isn’t really likely. Annalee Newitz, writing in io9, talks about the collapse of societies around the time of the agricultural revolution in the Middle East, five thousand years ago. It seems that large-scale villages grew in agricultural areas, but a repeated pattern was that despite producing enough food for everyone, the civilization collapsed and the communities were abandoned. Traditional wisdom contends that these towns were abandoned by necessity when climate change led to famine and made them unviable—a scenario that must strike fear into the heart of any doomsday prepper today.

Newer research has shown that climate change didn’t correlate to the abandonments. Newitz cites a researcher, Ian Kuijt, writing in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, who posits that the real reason for the collapses was the social structure and religious beliefs of nomads and hunters. Hunter-gatherers were highly egalitarian, and people were individually capable of performing all the roles in the society—but that didn’t work in the structure of a city. Only when people differentiated their work and roles in society was it possible for a large community to exist and sustain itself.

The implication that modern society requires social stratification makes me bristle, and I don’t think we need any more fuel for the idea that the omnipresent grinding poverty and obscene wealth that we see in this city are morally justifiable. But those interpretations are political uses of scientific ideas, and I’m not a scientist; the theorizing makes sense in its broad outlines regardless of what a political mind can extrapolate from it.

Whether we need vertical stratification in addition to differentiated work is an issue for those political minds, but for now I’m content with the differentiated work part of it, and the many advantages of living in a city with 10 million other people. I have no intention of learning how to grow my own food; if things really are about to blow, or if the zombie apocalypse is immanent, I will take my chances—there are worse things than winding up as zombie chow.

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