6 min read

Is a New Dark Age Falling?

Is a New Dark Age Falling?

Is it…or isn’t it? We can call this age many things. Polycrisis, collapse, a world on fire. In the end, perhaps we should all be conversant with the idea of a dark age. It’s a term we throw around casually, but it bears—especially in times like these—deeper examination. 

What is a dark age, anyways? Here’s a list of criteria that I think are pretty good, more or less a fairly standard set. We’re going to use it to apply to our age, so we can discuss this idea a little rigorously, formally, seriously. Are we on the cusp of something like a New Dark Age?

Political fragmentation
Collapse of trade networks
Economic decline
Loss of material culture
Population decline
Decline in art, cultural pursuits, wealth, and writing

How many of those criteria apply to us? Let’s take them one by one.

Perhaps the most troubling trend in the world, apart from climate change, which we’ll come back to, is the ongoing decline of democracy. Decline’s an understatement—it’s more like an implosion at this point. Between 5-10% a decade, at current rates, based on standard measures. 

So imagine what happens if, as it seems, Americans…elect…a figure who’s…already promising to be a dictator. That’s a capstone on an already dismal trend. And it has eerie echoes, of course, of classical Dark Ages past—Trump’s a quintessentially Caesarean figure, promising bread and circuses to an impoverished, disillusioned, broken empire, who’s economy is stagnant, elites ossified, and Senate more or less useless.

Then there’s the collapse of trade and economic decline. Interestingly, the IMF just published figures about trade falling, and that’s been true for many years now. But more than that, we now face economics’ twin demons, it’s horsemen, if you like: stagnation and inflation. They’ve absolutely wrecked living standards around the globe, ushering in what’s called a “cost of living crisis,” and fueling the turn to demagoguery, enmity, and sociopolitical corrosion, fracturing norms, and savaging people’s well-being.

Stagnation and inflation stretch into the horizon of forever now—they’re predicted to last to the end of decade, which is “forever” in economic forecast land—for a very good reason. They’re effects of climate change. What does climate change do? It shatters the economy output and surplus we’ve become accustomed to, through not just crop failures and droughts, but in anticipation of them, risk cascading through systems. Think of insurers pulling out of California and Florida, for example.

So already on these two scores, economics and politics, we’re…not in good shape. Everyone knows that, but the question is: are we in New Dark Age territory? That’s hard to say, but the trends aren’t good. They’re not reassuring. I wouldn’t look at data this dire—democracy in steep collapse, economies without a future—and tell you, hey, everything’s great, and we’re not heading towards a Dark Age. So let’s go deeper, and continue our investigation.

Then there’s the “loss of material culture.” That means that in Dark Ages, the sorts of monumental projects that characterized antiquity came to a halt. Sure, cathedrals were built, but not grand fora and cities and…aqueducts. So the “loss of material culture” doesn’t just mean statues and monuments—rather, especially for us, it should be interpreted in a more fundamental way: infrastructure. The stuff of physical civilization that we rely on.

How much of our infrastructure is now failing? How much is ready for an age where the temperature’s already beginning to cross the target of 1.5 degrees it wasn’t supposed to for another three decades? The answer to that is: not much. You can already see the ruinous effect that climate change is having on our infrastructure: food, water, and clean air are beginning to go into shortage. Not for everyone, not all the time, but certainly at the edges. As a civilization, we don’t know how to even produce agriculture without fossil fuels—meanwhile, crop yields are expected to fall by double digits as calamity hits harder and harder.

This dimension is critical, of course, because think of the vicious cycle of Dark Ages. Underinvestment produces failing economies, which are made of buckling, broken infrastructure. From the elemental—water, food, etcetera—to money, security, and social bonds themselves. Now think of our age. Isn’t that exactly what’s happened? Our investment rate’s been too low for decades, and so our infrastructure is a) badly depleted and in terrible shape and b) not even close to ready for what’s on the way from climate change. Poor infrastructure produces lower and lower living standards, as it’s depleted over time—and as people’s lives fall apart, they turn to demagogues in despair and fury. So there’s an interaction between these dimensions, an acceleration, a domino effect, if you like. Would you say it’s at work in our age? I would.

Then there’s the “soft” dimension, which in this little set of criteria, they’ve shoved all the soft stuff into—“the loss of art, culture, writing, wealth.” It’s a lot for one category, and it’s a little vague, but let’s think about it. Consider the endless “culture wars” which plague us now. What are they really about? What is this dimension trying to say? That social norms fall apart, and people don’t value knowledge, truth, beauty, or goodness anymore.

Take a hard look at, I don’t know, any number of examples, from what’s happened to Twitter, to the way masses are ensnared by conspiracy-theory peddling charlatans, and the importance of this dimension quickly becomes clear.

This dimension’s also trying to capture the social fallout of a Dark Age. In Dark Ages, social bonds rupture, of course. Think again of Rome, which was embroiled in civil war, or how in Weimar Germany, neighbor turned on neighbor. The “loss of culture” is really about the breakdown in the social fabric itself, and our societies have turned on themselves with a vengeance. You can’t speak reason to a Trumpist. It’s a small example of a larger truth—people don’t value knowledge anymore, and of course, the vicious attacks on science and scientists are a vivid example.

What was lost during the classical Dark Age? It’s a contested term now, and plenty of scholars will argue they weren’t so dark. The printing press was invented, local trade flourished, and so forth. All true. Yet at the same time, there were very real, and historically tragic losses. The knowledge of antiquity was lost, in the truest sense—people didn’t even remember that they’d forgotten…science, literature, art, philosophy. There was a turn instead to fundamentalist religion, everyday violence, brutality. 

What else was lost? The rule of law, too, was lost. It’s true that classical Rome and Greece were hardly modern utopias—they were democracies only in the loose sense of the word. Replete with slaves, crucifixion, and injustice aplenty. And yet they were still governed by laws. This was an immense breakthrough for humankind, and as the world fell back into darkness, or at least the West did, the rule of law was supplanted by feudal codes, based on heredity, privilege, and violence. Rights as the ancients thought of them—no Roman could be killed—ceased to exist, and a peasant’s life was a worthless as a failed harvest.

Democracy, the rule of law, knowledge, science, art, literature, philosophy. The ideas behind all those—which is that human progress was possible. To me, that’s the truest loss of all: during the classical Dark Ages, a sort of spell was cast, and the idea of human progress was forgotten. The peasant and the lord came to believe that their place in the universe was fixed, and eternal, because it was divinely justified. Therefore, progress was something born of the devil—who’d tamper with God’s plan, after all? And so the darkness fell, at the hands of the angels.

Are we in a similar place? I get in trouble when I say too much. You tell me what you’d conclude from the criteria and indicators above. I think it’s hard to look at such things empirically, to even do casual analyses like the one I’ve just done for you, and conclude that things are OK. We all know they’re not. 

I’d put it like this. I think we’re at a turning point in human history. And the road forks now. On one path, we veer and careen towards a new Dark Age, in spite and rage, and as we lose our minds, that terrible forgetting comes upon us, like a spell, like a curse. The other road? We don’t know where it leads. Perhaps to higher plateaus of democracy, peace, progress. New summits of truth, beauty, and goodness. That road’s harder. The mountains tower before us. The valley of the shadow of death lines the way.

The path to the Dark Age, on the other hand, glitters with temptations. Gold and power. Triumph and purpose. Meaning and belonging. But they’re mirages, cast by demagogues, legitimized by fools, whose words, today, beamed around the globe at the speed of light, function like spells. 

Maybe, before, you wondered. How do people get seduced into a Dark Age, anyways? I fear that right about now, looking around, horrified, dumbstruck, we’re beginning to learn just that lesson.

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