Should We Get Under Our Desk?

Is It Safe?”

                                                ~ Laurence Olivier, Marathon Man

It was a terrifying scene that haunts to this day anyone who saw the film. Thomas Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is strapped into a chair by the evil dentist Dr. Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) who hovers menacingly with his dental tools. “Is it safe?” Szell asks. The bewildered Levy tries to answer — unsuccessfully — before the painful dental torture begins.

As with that movie scene, recent events have unsettled many Americans. We are stunned by the uncontrolled pandemic and maskless politicians and protesters; shocked by the ongoing revolt against democracy by Trump and the Republican Party; and fearful of the alliance between Trump and various dictators including Xi Jinping, Putin, Erdogan and others. Racial and fiscal inequities are exacerbated by the current economic crisis, seemingly ignored by Senate Republicans, and creating an ever-worsening chasm between liberal and conservative Americans. Camo-clad armed gangs terrorize elected officials they disagree with, and peaceful protesters are shot then the shooter idolized. Immigrants are placed in concentration camps and children separated from their parents.

We ask, “Is our civilization safe?”

As kids, we heard Senator Joseph McCarthy warn our parents about annihilation at the hands of the Communists and we became aware of the Cold War waiting to rain nuclear death and destruction on us unless we hid in the safety under our school desks. We lined up to consume sugar cubes doused in Salk’s polio vaccine so to ward off the disease that affected our school mates and threatened to put us into iron lungs. Racial strife, lynching and rioting divided the country, along with the military drafts for Korea and Vietnam that fed our addiction to foreign wars. The anxiety of the Bay of Pigs and Cuban missile crisis was exacerbated by news of the assassinations of President Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King. And we wondered if our democracy could survive.

We asked, “Is it safe?”

Nick Hanauer and David M. Rolf report on the economic disparity currently plaguing the country, “Like many of the virus’s hardest hit victims, the United States went into the COVID-19 pandemic wracked by preexisting conditions. A fraying public health infrastructure, inadequate medical supplies, an employer-based health insurance system perversely unsuited to the moment — these and other afflictions are surely contributing to the death toll. But in addressing the causes and consequences of this pandemic — and its cruelly uneven impact — the elephant in the room is extreme income inequality … the top 1% of Americans have taken $50 trillion from the bottom 90% — and that’s made the U.S. less secure.”

“The iron rule of market economies is that we all do better when we all do better: when workers have more money, businesses have more customers, and hire more workers. Seventy percent of our economy is dependent on consumer spending; the faster and broader real incomes grow, the stronger the demand for the products and services American businesses produce.”

Right now, we seem to have all of our economic thinking backwards. For example, Dan Nosowitz reports on a recent study, “Just like with wealth inequality, land inequality can have disastrous effects on agriculture and on society as a whole The new study finds that only 1 percent of farms control over 70 percent of the world’s total farmland. The poorest 50 percent of rural populations, the study says, capture only 3 percent of agricultural land value.”

So much for the myth of family farms.

Is it safe? What are we doing about these problems?

Ben Ehrenreich quotes archeologist Joseph Tainter, “Civilizations are fragile, impermanent things … Nearly every one that has ever existed has also ceased to exist,”

Ehrenreich continues, “Just as apocalyptic dystopias, with or without zombies, have become common fare on Netflix and in highbrow literature alike, societal collapse and its associated terms — ‘fragility’ and ‘resilience,’ ‘risk’ and ‘sustainability’ — have become the objects of extensive scholarly inquiry and infrastructure.” In other words, we are asking what has caused civilizations to collapse.

“For nearly as long as human beings have gathered in sufficient numbers to form cities and states — we have been coming up with theories to explain the downfall of those polities. The Hebrew Scriptures recorded the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and divine rage has been a go-to explanation ever since. Plato, in ‘The Republic,’ compared cities to animals and plants, subject to growth and senescence like any living thing.”

“Tainter’s argument rests on two proposals. The first is that human societies develop complexity … in order to solve problems … characterized by a seemingly inexorable trend toward higher levels of complexity, specialization and sociopolitical control.”

“Social complexity, he argues, is inevitably subject to diminishing marginal returns. It costs more and more, in other words, while producing smaller and smaller profits … As the benefits of ever-increasing complexity … begin to dwindle, Tainter writes, societies ‘become vulnerable to collapse.’ Stresses that otherwise would be manageable — natural disasters, popular uprisings, epidemics — become insuperable.”

Sound familiar?

“But haven’t countless societies weathered military defeats, invasions, even occupations and lengthy civil wars, or rebuilt themselves after earthquakes, floods and famines? … the periodic disintegrations that punctuate our history … begin to fade, and something else comes into focus: wiliness, stubbornness and, perhaps the strongest and most essential human trait, adaptability. Perhaps our ability to band together, to respond creatively to new and difficult circumstances is not some tragic secret snare, as Tainter has it, a story that always ends in sclerotic complexity and collapse. Perhaps it is what we do best. When one way doesn’t work, we try another. When one system fails, we build another. We struggle to do things differently, and we push on. As always, we have no other choice.”

Is it safe? Maybe not right now, but it is survivable … and we are adaptable. After all, we are only human.

Additional information:

Ben Ehrenreich, How Do You Know When Society is About to Fall Apart?, Nov. 4, 2020, New York Times Magazine

Nick Hanauer And David M. Rolf, The Top 1% of Americans Have Taken $50 Trillion From the Bottom 90% — And That’s Made the U.S. Less Secure, September 14, 2020, Time Magazine

Dan Nosowitz, Study Finds 1 Percent of Farms Own 70 Percent of World’s Farmland, Nov 27, 2020, Modern Farmer

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