Will There Be Zombies?


Address to the Roman Forum, July 7, 2011, Gardone, Italy

As we all know, the end of the world is coming soon. No, I don’t mean the eschaton, the final event in which the Son returns all things to the Father. That will be, by all accounts, a very cinematic event, full of all sorts of special effects. It will be, no doubt, very entertaining for those fortunate enough to be raptured in time to get a ring-side seat to the festivities to enjoy the spectacle of suffering for all those left behind. However, it is an event I know nothing about—and certainly not the day and the hour—and even if I knew that, there is not much I could do about it. I would like to address a quite different sort of end, the end of our world. Now, while the eschaton will come but once, the end of the world in this sense is something that happens with appalling frequency, and is usually an appalling event. These events are, at a minimum, the loss of familiar things, the comfortable and customary things, and even when they are things that we do not particularly love, and may even especially hate, they are at least things that we are used to, and giving up such things can be wrenching.

I will immediately concede that predictions of collapse are far more frequent than actual collapses. What the predictions generally ignore are two things: the first is the remarkable adaptability of human beings, their ability to create institutions “on the fly,” as it were; the second is the remarkable courage and endurance of many people in the face of adversity. Indeed, it is the virtues, and the virtues alone, that equip us to survive difficult times. Justice, courage, temperance, and prudence, perfected by faith, hope, and caritas. Still, I am going to go out on a limb and predict that collapse is imminent; indeed, I do not believe that constitutional government, or such of it that remains to us, will survive to the end of the decade, and that the Union, and the world with it, will fracture into many pieces.

Now, every collapse is different, but the particular shape of the collapse is given not just by the conditions that cause it, but by the quality of our response; men will go mad, or men will go rational, and that will seem like a kind of madness. And it is in this regard that the study of the coming collapse is important for this group, for it is only groups like this, I believe, that can form a remnant, and the purpose of a remnant is to conserve true faith and knowledge, and, when the moment comes, to rebuild the world, or more importantly, to rebuild their own neighborhoods. That moment, I believe, is fast upon us. It is the remnant that must lead the way, must exercise that rational madness which will allow us to rebuild—if not the world—then our communities, and these functioning communities must show the world the way to rebuild itself.

What I wish to do here is to examine the causes of the coming collapse and the shape it might take, and then to examine the resources the remnant can bring to the world. And most especially, I want to examine the one factor that makes this collapse unique in all of history, and that is the presence of the zombies, and I want to answer the question posed by popular culture, namely, “Will there be any zombies?” More of this anon.

Let me start by noting the whole problem of the collapse of complex societies. Certainly, we live in an extremely complex world, one which we have difficulty understanding. Now, social complexity itself begins as a way to make systems more robust, and to incorporate as many elements of society as possible into a coherent system. But as time goes on, parts of the system that were designed for one purpose get used for another, and usually inappropriate, purpose. Each little part of the system acquires its defenders who will not let it change, or will change it in complex and inappropriate ways. When this happens, systems become extremely brittle, and by “brittle,” I mean that a failure in a small part of the system will cause massive failures in large parts or even of the whole system.

We just saw a perfect example of this in the financial markets. There, a failure in one small part of the system, the sub-prime mortgage market, caused a failure of the whole financial system. The sub-prime market was, at its height, worth about $1.4 trillion. Most analysts understood that the market was failing, but they were not particularly worried about it, since the market was so small in the overall scheme of things. What they failed to understand was that a comparatively few mortgages had been magnified to make the whole system brittle. What happened is that the banks, after making the loans, would package them into securities, called MBSs, which they sold to hedge funds. The hedge funds borrowed money from the banks to buy loans the banks had made to home-buyers. Then the hedge funds re-packaged the MBSs into CDOs which they sold to investors, which the investors bought with money they borrowed from the bank. Or another hedge fund might buy them in combination with CDSs to create synthetic CDOs, with money they borrowed from the banks. The whole system was supposed to be “insured” by something called a “credit default swap,” or CDS, which was sold by insurance companies like AIG. But since nobody believed there could be a general failure, AIG and others did not keep reserves for insurance losses; they just treated the premiums as “free money.” Further, investors (using money borrowed from the banks) began buying massive quantities of CDSs on securities they did not actually own. It is as if all of your neighbors started buying a fire insurance policy on your house. If that were to happen, two things would follow. One, your neighbors would all be encouraging you to smoke in bed, and two, when you did have a fire, there would be not one claim, but hundreds, and no insurance fund can survive that.

The sub-prime market reached default rates of 16%, and the whole structure fell apart, and achieved the positive miracle of causing $30T in losses in a $1.4T market. But beyond these losses of nominal wealth, there was the recession in which people who had no involvement in this elaborate structure lost their jobs, their homes, their positions in their communities, and perhaps even their marriages and self-respect. Here we see how complexity works, or fails to work, in its brittle stage: a small failure in a small market causes massive failure throughout the system. Nor can such systems be easily repaired, as we are discovering. Despite all the pundits and politicians, brimming over with good advice and simple fixes, it turns out that the system can only be “fixed” in one place by breaking it in another; every patch weakens the whole, and every “solution” is its own recipe for disaster.

When we go through the catalog of our economic, political, and social systems, we find a network of the same brittle systems, all of them ripe for failure, and any of them sufficient to cause the failure of the whole system. Our systems of trade, defense, education, entertainment, agriculture, housing, transportation—you name it—turn out to be fragile, dysfunctional, and beyond repair. They are all systems of inter-locking fragility, such that the whole system is brittle and on the verge of collapse. I would like to focus on just two of these systems to illustrate our situation, energy and advertising.

As for energy, our entire industrial civilization for the last two or three centuries has been dependent on cheap energy, first coal and then flow-able oil. But we are now in the stage of peak oil, and the system cannot be sustained. Peak oil does not mean we are running out of oil, and certainly not that we are running out of energy; that we will never do since we cannot outrun the sun, the source of all our energy. But we are using four barrels of oil for every barrel we discover, and what we are discovering is in increasingly difficult places and less useful forms. The sweet, light crude that was the mainstay of the oil age is in increasingly short supply, and the other forms are more difficult to refine. Indeed, much of the oil isn’t pumped at all, it is mined, as in shale “oil” or the tar sands. These sources are expensive to turn into flowable products that can actually be put into, say, a car; and the energy-in, energy-out ratio is very low. And the use of corn-ethanol produces little more than it consumes, and makes food compete with fuel for farmland.

The debate over peak oil is over, because it is reflected in the prices. On the day we invaded Iraq, oil was at $27/bbl, and that was considered high, a reflection of uncertainty in the Middle East. Now it is four times that amount. And we see a consistent pattern. As economic activity picks up, oil use increases, which drives up the price, which depresses economic activity, which again lowers usage and hence the price, but only along an upward trend line. And so it goes. Oil acts as a tax on productivity, which places a cap on the economy.

Now come the intricate dependencies. Our global trading system, agriculture, transportation, and urban systems all presume cheap oil and will not work without it. For example, when the price of oil was driven by speculation to $140/bbl, the price of shipping a container from Shanghai to Los Angeles went from $2,000 to $6,000, which wiped out any wage or regulatory advantages that the Chinese had, and companies made plans to bring their production back to our shores, which would have devastated the export-dependent economies of China, India, and others. The crisis passed, but the lesson was clear: at somewhere between $120-$130/bbl, the world trading system breaks apart, and we are not far from that.

A second dependency is agriculture, which is largely oil-based. Now, Americans have largely given up on eating food, or at least anything our grandparents and great-grandparents would have recognized as food. Increasingly, our diets consist of highly processed and manufactured food-like substances, composed mainly of corn syrup, starches, fats, salt, and the chemical compounds necessary to keep the whole thing from instantly rotting. But the farms themselves have become extensions of the factory food systems, where the soil is no longer used to grow food. Rather, the soil, or what remains of it, is merely used to hold the plants in the ground; it must first be sterilized, like instruments in a surgeon’s operating theater, and then a variety of petrochemical substances are applied to stimulate growth, fight disease, and ward off pests. The crops are planted and harvested with a large array of capital and energy-intensive equipment, to produce standardized products, most of which were unknown a generation or two ago. As the price of oil goes up, the price of food must follow. Nor can most farmers return to pre-petrochemical days, as they have destroyed their own soil, and it will take years to get it back. We do not have machinery for making soil; that comes in God’s own time with man’s own care. And if we don’t care, it won’t happen.

I could go on with this analysis through system after system, but I think you get the idea, and I would like to turn our attention to another and more serious problem, namely the problem of culture and religion. It is here, I believe, that we confront a situation for which there is no precedent in human history. Here my thesis is very simple: culture has been subordinated to the needs of commerce, a commerce that has exhibited some rather peculiar and even demonic needs. Now, at many times in the past, the merchant has moved culture, and this was not always a bad arrangement. Commerce sought to ennoble itself with culture, an arrangement that was often to their mutual benefit, as many of the monuments of Italy give testimony. The merchant, through his patronage of the arts and the Church, sought to lift up his fellow citizens, ennoble his city, and obtain honor for himself.

But what is happening today is something quite different. Although something of the old spirit of patronage remains, in the main the vast engines of culture have been turned from uplifting the citizen to degrading him. Indeed, the whole point of the exercise is to turn each of us from being a citizen into being a a pure consumer; that is, from being a person who takes responsibility for himself, his family, and his community, into being a person whose self-respect is invested only in what he buys, and who is directed only by unregulated and easily manipulated passions.

We are told that the economy is regulated by “self-interest,” but this is a lie. Indeed, it cannot be so, since self-interest is never something known in advance, but rather something discovered by experience. Who among us has not had the experience of getting exactly what we wanted only to find that it wasn’t what we wanted at all? And who has not feared the worst, only to find that it was all for the best? No, self-interest is revealed to us, not known in advance. What we can know—and what advertising appeals to—is our desires. Desire can be converted to self-interest only when guided by the intelligence to good ends and disciplined by the virtues to good means. Intelligence and virtue: these are the enemies of any good marketing program. Modern advertising appeals not to our virtues but to our vices. And it has at its beck and call an incredible and bewildering array of technologies capable of intruding into every corner of our lives and our souls.

Marketing has displaced philosophy to become the preeminent integrative science of the modern age. At one time, we relied on the philosophers to put together all the knowledge that was, and to advise princes, merchants, and soldiers on the proper way of the world. But today, the philosophers have become second-class citizens—even within the academy—and it is advertisers who put together all the knowledge of the world for their own ends. That is, advertisers hire the best psychologists, sociologists, mathematicians, musicians, composers, writers, actors, and artists, and their work directs the engineer and the scientist to push the limits of surveillance and product technology. But this patronage of the arts and sciences has a quite different end from, say, the merchant dukes of Venice or Florence; marketing patronage seeks to destroy the intelligence and play on the vices. That is to say, it seeks to create zombies, people whose lives and brains have been destroyed, and whose only object is consumption.

Let me add a word here on popular culture. I first became impressed with the ability of pure pop culture to see things that had escaped others when I started working with computers back in the 1970’s. These were truly impressive machines; the IBM 360/65 that I worked on was eight or nine feet tall and perhaps five feet wide, with rows and rows of blinking lights and banks of switches. The machine had one million bytes of memory—an incredible number for the time—stored in a row of cabinets as long as this room. Never has there been a scientific marvel which approached the power of the computer.

And yet, as soon as the children got to use these marvels of science, did they use them scientifically? No. They played Dungeons and Dragons; they entered a world of knights and wizards, and lost themselves in the simulacrum of a lost age. That is to say, they recognized it instantly not as science but as magic, and—if anything—pre-modern, and they were right to do so. For electronic technology is fundamentally different from the mechanical and electrical technology that preceded it. When I was a boy, the car was the limit of our technological desires, and every young man, or nearly, thought nothing of pulling the manifold, changing a head gasket, or fiddling with the carburetor. Of course, we never knew as much as we pretended to know, but at least in principle we could have known the whole thing, and known it to any desired degree of precision.

But that is not so with computers, for no matter how many doctorates one holds in computer science, at some point the system disappears into a world of magic. Thus the hardware engineer finds operating systems bewildering, while the systems programmer is mystified by telecommunications, and the communications engineer can’t help you with applications. Expertise is one area is matched by ignorance in other areas, so that to each practitioner of the computer arts, at some point the whole thing fades into a world of wizardry. This is why, when you call him for help, and after pressing “1” for English, Sanjay in Mumbai often appears to be bewildered by your problem; he is not always the wizard to help you, but you both know a wizard is required.

And it is often so that popular culture, guided only by its intuitive and communal wisdom, sees what can’t be seen, but is nevertheless real. But having gained some trust in that, I was still confused by the rather odd phenomenon of the zombies. Why did this rather obscure Caribbean cult of people in a drug-induced catatonic state get so easily transformed into such an elaborate metaphor of the post-apocalyptic world? And why did they think that the world after the collapse would be filled with people stripped of their souls, stripped of all feelings, whether of pain or pleasure, anger or joy, who spent their time relentlessly pursuing one product?

And then it struck me: they aren’t looking into the future, they are looking at the present moment; and they aren’t looking at what will be done to others; they are looking at what has already been done to themselves. The image, so silly on its face, resonates with the young because they know, at some intuitive level, that we are already in the midst of the apocalypse, that the world wishes to strip them of their minds and their hearts and make them pure consumers, and relentless consumers of one product, the advertiser’s dream. They know, in their heart of hearts, that the world is out to get them, and means them no good. They have seen a deeper truth than anyone cares to admit.

And what they have seen is something for which there is no parallel in history. Literature and the arts have always had, as their purpose, the transmission to the young of the most important values of a culture; they were the means of initiating the young into their own history, of telling them their own story. But never in history have such vast engines of persuasion and manipulation had, as their sole purpose, the degradation of the young, the stripping them of their minds and spirits; never has any society deliberately dedicated so much energy and wealth to corrupting its own young, to sacrificing its children to the idol of mindless consumption. There have been, to be sure, periods of bad literature and awful art, but even the worst was done with the best of intents; its purpose was never deliberate degradation for mere commercial advantage. Indeed, the Supreme Court of the United States has once again affirmed that the organized corruption of the young is a commercial right, even as it has affirmed in the past that exposing them to prayer in the classroom would be a violation of their rights. No civilization has ever committed such crimes against its own children.

Or perhaps there is a precedent. The Carthaginians, under siege from the Romans in 146 BC thought they could revive their fortunes by sacrificing their children; 300 children were thrown into a furnace to the god Moloch, but the city fell anyway, the inhabitants were sold into slavery, and the ground sowed with salt so that nothing would grow there, so deep was the Roman revulsion with the city. Carthago delenda est, and no city more deserved its fate.

But what of our fate? Have we not, in a way, committed the same crime to be condemned to the same fate? Have we not condemned our children to be sacrificed to the fires of a commercial Moloch, and must we not suffer a fate much worse than Carthage? Well, after all of this, I have a rather odd message: be of good cheer. We can get through this; we can do this, and perhaps it is only us, and people very much like us, who can do it. I believe that if we keep our wits and our faith about us, we can show our neighbors how to live—once we relearn the art ourselves.

We start by asking what happens in a collapse. The first thing is that the center cannot hold. That is, the central government—and centralized production companies—can no longer provide services to the periphery. At some point, the periphery simply refuses to obey orders or to remit funds. It occurred to me several months ago during discussions of California’s budget problems that there was a simple enough solution. California is facing a 20-month deficit of $38 Billion, yet in that same 20 months, it will remit to the federal government $50 billion more than it will receive in benefits, with the excess largely going to the Midwest states for things they neither want nor need, or to foreign adventures, which nobody needs and only a few want. So the great state of California could solve its problems by simply seceding from the Union. It is, after all, the world’s eighth largest economy and could easily stand on its own. And by seceding not only would the state have funds to solve its own problems, but the fiscal problems of all its cities and counties as well. Of course, Jerry Brown is an unlikely successor to Jefferson Davis, and the people of California are likely not ready for such a radical solution, but sooner or later, such a solution will occur to the states, and there is not much a bankrupt federal government will be able to do about it.

Secession then will cease to be an issue because it will have become a fact. The formal union may or may not continue, and there may even be some attempt at military government, but the army is simply too small to hold a country this size, even assuming the troops are willing to fire on their fellow citizens. States and cities, thrown on their own resources will find their own way. People will simply stop paying taxes. Indeed, large corporations have already done so, albeit by legal and quasi-legal means, and at some point the general public will follow; some 40% are already exempt from the income tax, although they still pay the payroll taxes. And if people simply refuse to pay the income tax, there is not much the Federal Government can do about it. Enforcement of any law depends largely on voluntary compliance. As more entities evade the tax—as the large corporations already do—more will be encouraged to follow their example.

But the large corporations will be having their own problems, and their failure to support the state financially is the commercial equivalent of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Corporate power depends on government power, and both will go down together; they are part and parcel of each other. Without a powerful federal government to enforce patents, people will use the knowledge they have to make the things they need. Without subsidized roads, the Wal-Mart distribution model will be shown to be expensive and inefficient. Without a big government to pick up externalized costs or provide large subsidies, corporate collectives will go the way of all collectives, whose very size condemns them to inefficiency.

But what shall we do, when there is no longer a remote government to care for us and a large corporation to feed us? How shall people get their daily bread when they discover that bread doesn’t grow on grocery-store shelves?

The task we will face will depend on the shape of the collapse, which will vary from city to city, and from town to countryside. Modern life is dependent on complex networks for electricity, water, sewer, transportation, gas, education, security, banking, food supplies, medical care, and so forth. Almost all of these are allocated by an exchange for money in market or quasi-market systems. Money, however, will be the first thing to go. Money is a social product, and never any stronger than the society which issues it. There will either be (and you can pick your favorite theory on this one) hyper-inflation or hyper-deflation; that is, money will either be too plentiful to have value or too scarce to be useful.

Our problem will be to restore each of these services on a community-by-community basis, and to find a variety of ways to distribute them, ways that will range from a circulation of gifts to barter, to local and ad hoc currencies. But will there be anything to exchange, either as gift, as barter, or for money? The first problem, of course, is food. If the mega-farms fail, can large populations be fed on the “three acres and a cow” approach the distributists favor? How about growing 1 million pounds of food, 10,000 fish, and 500 yards of compost on three acres. It is a simple system, using aquaponics, where water from tanks of tilapia is distributed over gravel beds where vegetables are grown. With greenhouses, the system runs 12 months/year, and the only heat source necessary is the compost bins. The whole system is “low-tech,” requiring only one pump and gravity to run the whole thing. That’s what you can do on three acres, and you don’t even need the cow. In fact, you don’t even need the three acres, since the same system would work on the roof of an apartment building in the midst of the city.

But some crops, such as wheat, do indeed require larger scale farming to be practical, and at present, such farms require capital-intensive machinery. And most of the requirements of modern life are, or are connected with, manufactured things, and we assume the factories in which these things are made are large and expensive. Does a collapse mean that we must return to a pre-modern and more primitive standard of living? Look at the work of Marcin Jakubowski of Factor E Farm. Faced with the need to buy expensive farm machinery, he developed his own low-cost and highly robust alternative, a tractor that could be built in six days from widely available materials, and for $4,000. But it is more than a farm tractor, because he also built a detachable scoop, which makes it a front-loader, a hoe that makes it a back-hoe. It has power take-offs to power other machinery, such as a brick press capable of 5,000 bricks per day. Indeed, the same farms are developing plans for the 50 most important machines for industrial civilization, plans that allow these machines to be built from a variety of materials, and built to be long-lived with low maintenance costs. Indeed, you can even buy today a low-cost 3-D printer, capable of “printing” plastic or metallic parts using only blueprints. In fact, a 3-D printer can print most of its own parts to be self-replicating.

Indeed, if we look around our neighborhoods, it is likely that we will already find enough equipment to provision a fairly respectable machine shop. The proliferation of highly functional but low-cost tools has given families and neighborhoods an enormous but usually unrealized creative potential. What this means is that even an “industrial” economy need not be dependent on large concentrations of capital, but can be (and in some places already is) distributed to widely dispersed production of short production runs that can easily be switched from product to product as demand requires, and done so on a neighborhood and family basis.

But the key terms are not machinery and technology, but “families” and “neighborhoods”; the mechanical stuff our culture can handle, on scales large and small. The problematic areas are the ones involving human relationships. Indeed, the family today is often a temporary arrangement, enduring only until we can get the kids out of the house, and we often get them very far out of the house indeed, across the country or around the world. Even with all of our “social” technology, we often find it difficult to retain close relations even with our closest relations. And neighborhoods are often nothing more than collections of habitats characterized more by their anonymity than by anything that could be called neighborliness. It is this neighborliness, more than any technical or physical quantity, that will be the scarce commodity in any effort to rebuild.

In this sense, we have all been turned into zombies; we are in proximity, but not in community. Like the zombies, we pursue the same goal, our supposed “self-interest,” but we pursue it mindlessly and without cooperation with each other, or at least, not outside of the forced and formal cooperation of the workplace. The zombies gain their power not from cooperation, but from having their goals limited to one thing, which they pursue relentlessly and without regard for others. But when the government and the corporations can no longer provide these workplaces, when we have to solve our problems in absence of these institutions, then self-interest, as understood by the modern world, will no longer serve. You might say that self-interest is no longer in our best interests, if it ever was.

What we will need is neighborliness, which is the exact opposite of self-interest understood as desire, as the pursuit of a private passion. Neighborliness requires a certain degree of sacrifice, of true caritas, that is, a willingness to see our own good in the good of our neighbors. But is this possible in a world of zombies? Would not the zombie see no other good than his own, recognize no other truth than his own? Here I would like to offer a rather strange suggestion: A world of zombies may prove to be an advantage, if we can use it correctly. Let me offer a case to make this rather surprising point.

The familiar world order collapsed with the first world war, and the world between the wars was full of good men of passionate intensity. Seeing the obvious disorder, the collapse of all that was customary and familiar, they wished to find some universal truth that could save the world. The men who opted for communism, or fascism, or Nazism, or Liberalism were, for the most part, good men who had gotten hold of the worst kind of lie: the half-truth. They committed great crimes in order to save their half-truth from all the other competing half-truths. But there is no danger of this happening with the zombies. The post-modern world has destroyed the whole notion of truth, even, or especially, the notion of the half-truth. What the zombie knows, and knows with mathematical and moral certainty, is that he has been lied to. He knows this because he knows everything is a lie, and he is correct, in the sense that everything the world has told him—and told him 24/7—is in fact a lie.

Post-modernism thus has the advantage of allowing us to find the end of ideology. Not that post-modern nihilism is itself the end of ideology; it is actually just another ism and hence another ideology with its own content; that is to say, it really isn’t nihilism at all; just a king of grand intellectual negativism with its own agenda. But it did allow us to create true nihilists, men who devote their lives to pursuing what they don’t really want but must have; their nothingness really is nothing, and not just the nothing advanced as an alternate “something.” But the zombie really does have a truth: the knowledge that it’s all a pack of lies. Men for the last 200 years or more have filled themselves with empty ideologies; the zombies alone are truly empty and waiting to be filled with truth.

But this “truth” they yearn for cannot be just another ideology, another ism. Indeed it cannot even be Catholic-ism, for this too is just an ideology, perhaps the worst. That is to say, it cannot be a Caholicism that is merely the spiritual support of some political ideology, be it the liberalism or constitutionalism of Scalia or Woods on one hand, or the liberation theologians and political liberals on the other.

So I return to the question: Will there be any zombies? That is, will mindless violence be the way of the future, or is it already the way of the past? Will the zombie die with the civilization that created him or will he come into his own? My answer to my own question is, “I don’t know.” However, I suspect the answer will depend very much on what we do. If we show the zombie a truth, rather than just preach one, we may release him—and ourselves—from his prison. By showing him a truth, I mean showing him a community, a community that functions economically, socially, and, I think it important to add, liturgically. I mention this last point in passing, although it has a prime organizing function in any community that would take another lecture to elucidate. But community, whole communities, are by themselves tools of evangelization. For example, the California missions were not just churches where one could preach to the Indians, but communities where a Christian way of life could be demonstrated, could be made visible and concrete to the Indians, something they could compare with their own lives.

To sum up, the technical problems of rebuilding the world, the problems that seem insurmountable, will turn out to be trivial: there is enough knowledge and resources to accomplish that task. But whether we are able to do it is another thing. The modern world begins by discovering—or rather inventing—the autonomous individual; the self-made made man who has no connections save contractual ones freely chosen and broken at will, for indeed there can be nothing higher than than individual will. Such a man is already half-way to being a zombie. And we must admit to ourselves, that we are all zombies, to some degree we are influenced by the technologies of persuasion and “need-creation.” We are all people who feel a need to work to buy what we don’t need, and then to discover new needs, which we must work even harder to fill. The modernist project ends with post-modernism, and with the true zombie, that is, with the creation of emptiness.

On a practical level, we need to first prepare ourselves. We must know what we really want and buy—or make—only what we really need. Growing a tomato is an act of resistance; fixing a car rather than buying a new one throws a wrench into the system. And making your own music defeats the entertainment industry, while entertaining your children and your neighbors defeats the whole wicked world. Educating one’s children, with or without the dubious help of the schools defeats both government and industry. And all of these provide the seeds from which a new economy, and a new civilization, a liturgical civilization, can be built, one that will fill the zombies and make them human again, and us as well.

We need to be looking around our neighborhoods and areas for resources to solve all the problems when the professional problem-solvers no longer can. If we look closely, we are likely to find more than we suspect. But mostly, we need to be looking at our neighborhoods to find our neighbors; all too often our neighborhoods are not at all neighborly, but rather anonymous and temporary housing, not real places but only real estate. By finding real neighbors, we will find real solutions. And here I make the assertion that to find anything real is to find something genuinely Christian. And only in a real Christianity will we build a real world.

To conclude, I say again, let us be of good cheer. To be sure, we must be realistic about the dangers we face and the hardships we will, no doubt, endure. There will be a certain madness abroad in the world, and this is unavoidable in times like these. People, deprived of comfort and customs, and anxious over the next meal or a place to sleep, will at least be mad, and likely prone to madness. But they are unlikely to fall victim to mere ideology, and we may have it in our power to calm their anxiety. And I suspect that we will discover that the things we will have to give up are not things that we really wanted anyway, and that what we stand to gain is what we were always looking for. And what we gain, we may give, and give to our fellow-zombies, who in their true emptiness of heart want only to be filled with the truth. This, I suspect, is our vocation, our calling, and this is our moment.


  1. John,

    Your article pleases me a great deal, as do most of the articles published on FPR. Kudos to everyone here.

    And I am most encouraged by your recognition of the possible positive aspect of a generation inoculated from truth. This is a wise insight. It is true. We have been lied to and manipulated so much that we believe nothing. But some of us have decided that because of our experience of being deceived, we will do our best never to lie to anyone else. We will not adopt creeds, meaningless theologies, beliefs or anything beyond what we can test ourselves. I am starting over. Yes, I have abandoned Western culture, Christianity and am starting over with Jesus. So far it is going very well.

    And you are right to assume that the only thing we will be able to recognize is a true, functioning and coherent community life. That will be the test of the truth that informs, guides and underpins said community. Does it actually work?


  2. This is, in the best possible sense, EPIC. I’m not sure that it will happen–our late period capitalism is remarkably resilient–but it’s certainly a possibility.

  3. Good article. I particularly enjoyed the following: “And all of these provide the seeds from which a new economy, and a new civilization, a liturgical civilization, can be built, one that will fill the zombies and make them human again, and us as well.”

    One nit: hedge funds did not (and do not) create or bundle mortgage back securities or collateralized debt obligations. Investment banks created, marketed, and sold the risky debt obligations to all kinds of investors, including hedge funds.

  4. Re: Let me start by noting the whole problem of the collapse of complex societies.

    How many cases of this actually exist in history– excluding those brought about by extrenal enemies (like the Mongols invading Russia)? I would suggest that “collapse” (as opposed to gradual decadence and decline) is almost unknown to history. What may look like a sudden collapse to us, becomes on closer examination a more gradual process spanning whole generations– the fall of Rome, for example. It wasn’t simply a matter of the Goths showing up and sacking and pillaging and then everything was instantly awful for centuries to come. No, again, the process took lifetimes to occur, from (roughly) the defeat at Adrianopole to the death (in failure) of Justinian. And of course external enemies were involved too, although natural disaster played its part in the final acts that doomed a Byzantine reconquista.

    For this reason, I rather doubt any sort of rapid “collapse” is going to happen now either. Which is not say everything will be coming up roses. But whatever betides it too will take whole lifetimes to transpire, and only in retrospect will historians be able to talk about the Fall of America as if it went downovernight.
    And of course we may just get a second wind as the Greeks did with Alexander and the Romans with Augustus, returbo-charging ourselves for centuries more of power and dominance, albeit as a very different sort of culture, and not one our forefathers would smile upon.

  5. We in the Midwest would gladly let California keep its money but how would they fare without our water? Could we also then refuse to import their movies?

  6. JonF, Actually, rapid collapse is quite common. It is true that such events are often preceded by centuries of decline; the problem is, “How do you judge when your civilization is in decline?” Nor should you exclude military conquest, since that is often just the last act in a drama of decline. For example, the collapse of the Persian Empire is not “explained” by its conquest by Alexander, rather its collapse invites the conquest. Alexander had at his command only a fraction of the resources of Darius, but the Macedonian forces were of a different quality. The Western Roman Empire should have had the resources to keep the Hun and the Goth at bay, and would have, had it not been for the disastrous decline in births that made a great empire an impossibility. So when the moment came, it came in a moment, a moment for which the Romans had spent a century weakening their ability or will to defend themselves. And surely, any one of the Indian Raj should have been able to resist Clive and his private army, which was less than a single brigade.

    That later may be the most relevant example. It is bad enough being conquered by a country, but to be conquered by a corporation, the East India Company, is certainly an insult. But we have already been conquered by the corporations, and the corporations are increasingly becoming Chinese and Indian; some would see a neat historical symmetry in that.

    You mention Alexander and Augustus as giving “second winds” to the Greek and Roman civilizations. Well, maybe, but both represent a collapse of government, or at least the kind of government that preceded them, which happens to be similar to the kind of government we have.

    We have the population problems of the Romans, the governmental problems of the Greeks, and the faded opulence of the Raj. In any case, I wasn’t speaking of civilizational collapse on that scale, but of ” the loss of familiar things, the comfortable and customary things, and even when they are things that we do not particularly love, and may even especially hate, they are at least things that we are used to, and giving up such things can be wrenching.” Perhaps I should have made that clearer.

    j. blum, water is never a problem, once you cut out the frivolous uses. I would have recommend conservation measures, like showering together, except that I notice that it seems to take more than twice as long, for some reason. You can refuse to import their movies even now, and I would heartily recommend that you do so.

  7. Carson, we have managed the miracle of having, simultaneously, an underpopulation and overpopulation problem. We are underpopulated with younsters, and overpopulated with geezers. The current “population explosion” is actually a statistical fluke. It is not that we are breeding like rabbits, but rather that we are no longer dying like flies. The extension in life expectancy gives the appearance of a population explosion, but the truth is that we are well below replacement rates. Sometime around 2050, there will be a disastrous population collapse. But the effects are felt much sooner. As I (a geezer) tell my students, “Y’all owe me a lot of money; be sure to get good jobs.”

    Oh, wait, that’s not working either.

  8. Good article but you are a little weak on oil. Adjusted for inflation oil is pretty cheap compared to the 1960s or especially the 1970s. Shale oil is real oil. Some of it is really good and easily refined. We have more newly discovered nat. gas than we can readily use.
    I know Peak Oil is a dogma that many treasure but fossil fuels are fairly cheap and plentiful.

  9. While the Persian Empire did end pretty quickly, civilization did not collapse: it continued much as it had been under Hellenistic rule, and then under the Parthians, in effect exchanging one set of rulers for another, and then another again.
    As for Rome, I am not aware that there was any decline in births. How could that have happened in a society that had no effective birth control, and where Chrsitianity was gradually ending the practice of abortion and infantcide? Rome’s demographics were impacted by severe epidemics (the plagues of Galen and of Cyprian), but that was long before Adrianpole. And yes, the final coup de grace in the 6th century was a demographic catastrophe: the global climate event of the 530s bringing about planetary famine and then the Plague of Justinian killing half of the survivors in 541-2. Vast tomes have been written as to why Rome fell, but I do stand by my point: that fall was not a single point event, but a gradual process that took many generations, and is most apparent only in retrospect.

    India: again, no collapse of civilziation, simply an exchange of one set of rulersf or another– and if I may utter a political incorrectness, an exchange that in the long run left the country better off.

    Re: We have the population problems of the Romans

    This is simply not the case at all. Rome’s population problem came from epidemics. We have no such problem at all. Indeed our demographics are still growing– and yes, that’s due in the large to immigration, but apart from a short while in the 20th century, that’s been true since John Smith set foot on a certain swampy Virginia island. The hand-wringing over a supposed “birth dearth” arises only when people assume the unprecedented baby boom of the post WWII era was old norm– and it wasn’t. In any event absent some great calamity that leaves corpses stacked in heaps as the old Balck Death did, there will be more of our kind between the Atlantic and Pacific, the Rio Grande and the 48th, at the end of this century than tread the earth now.

    Finally “the loss of familiar things”– yes, and I feel it too. But that’s the grief and sorrow of mankind since the gates of Eden were seen in the rear view mirror. “Time changes all things and we step not twice in the same river”. “This too shall pass”. Those things were not said by modern men. By the way, one benefit of having a “surplus of geezers” is that the culture will slow down and become more conservative (in the good, old sense of the word). Things will still change, but not quite so much at a breakneck speed. Perhaps we may even learn again to value the gentle, solid things of age rather than being endlessly enthralled to the flashy, callow thing of youth.

  10. RE: The collapse of societies –

    For relevant historical examples, as well as what “collapse” might actually mean, see Joseph Tainter and his work , “The Collapse of Complex Societies”. It’s brilliant stuff, and I get the feeling that some of the themes in this article were picked up from Tainter directly. Here’s his wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Tainter

  11. “Shale oil is real oil. Some of it is really good and easily refined. ”

    Is the problem really with the refining or with the extraction?

  12. An excellent and thought-provoking article. I can’t say I’m as cheerful as Mr. Medaille, however. I’d fully agree with the description of technology as a kind of magic, and that zombification is an apt metaphor for describing what’s been done to modern man. I would add, though, that the latter metaphor has unsettling implications.

    I’ve never actually sat through a zombie movie, but my impression of zombies is that if you tried to show a mob of them how your community works, they would promptly eat you.

  13. Seth, I note three basic critiques of Tainter’s work.
    1. He “explains” collapse in terms of declining marginal productivity. As population increases, they exploit the easiest resources first, then the less profitable ones, etc., until resource production is no longer useful. This idea really reduces to population explosion and resource depletion. For Tainter, this is an inevitable process that must occur as a society ages. But this flies in the face of all the known facts. Collapses are likely to be preceded by population declines rather than increases. And there is no reason to suppose that there can’t be a steady state, or growth matched to population growth.

    The second problem is that Tainter heaps contempt on any moral conception of society. Indeed, he groups moral theories with racist theories to produce a category he calls “mystical theories,” theories which for Tainter are simply beyond the bounds of reasonable conversation. I assert, on the contrary, that the moral element is decisive; that financial bankruptcy of a nation is always preceded by its moral bankruptcy. People want wealth without work, and seek economic rent through slavery and other exploitative systems of compensation. Labor loses its connection with wealth and (and this always accompanies it) sex loses its connection with procreation (which, come to think of it, means that it loses its connection with labor) and populations decline as rent-seeking increases. Thus, there are no longer enough young to support the nation or defend it.

    The third critique involves his discussion of the collapse of the Roman Empire. This is always a problem, since only half the empire collapsed, and the factors that apply to one generally apply to the other. Tainter blames it on a devaluation of the currency. But that, in fact, occurred two centuries before the collapse, and occurred equally East and West. Obviously, this can’t explain the collapse. Further, he doesn’t seem to understand the devaluation, which occurred as a result of the transition from a silver/bronze standard to a gold standard, which took place at the time of the conversion from a republic to an empire. The economy of the empire expanded, but the money base did not; something had to give to prevent a purely economic collapse, and it was the “debasing” (actually, re-valuing) of the currency.

    Tainter spends one paragraph on the rather embarrassing circumstance of the Eastern Empire’s non-collapse. This he attributes to the fact that it was imposed on an older culture. But from what he said earlier, this should have caused it to collapse sooner, not a 1,000 years later.

    So while I appreciate Tainter’s survey of the subject and the literature, I do not find his thesis persuasive or well-argued.

  14. Re: People want wealth without work

    Well, yes. But that’s as old as human nature; every society in every era has its rent-seekers.

    Re: sex loses its connection with procreation

    Nature or Nature’s God did that too us when it was decreed (or evolved) that human females would not have the sorts of estrual cycles that other terrestial vertebrates have, but rather would be sexually active even when not fertile.
    Any ethic of human sexuality that relies on the facile “sex=procreation” runs afoul of the fact that this is NOT human nature. It may be the nature of thousands of other species, but not ours. To properly moralize about human sexuality we need to look a lot deeper into what it does involve and what ends it actually does serve above and beyond simply generating new humans. Neither Nature nor God are known to waste effort extravagantly, so I would suggest that our procreationless couplings (which have been the vast majority of human couplings from a very remote era) must serve some purpose and we ought consider what it is rather than wagging fingers because we are as other animals in this matter.

    Meanwhile, getting back to your analysis, there is not a single society in human history that declined because too few young were born. Until very recently no society had truly effective birth control. Many societies have suffered demographic disasters, but the problem has always been on the other side of the coin: too many deaths, not too few births.

    Re: Tainter spends one paragraph on the rather embarrassing circumstance of the Eastern Empire’s non-collapse.

    The East was richer and more populous, and less exposed to invasion from beyond the Empire. The Anatolian heartland of The Byzantine Empire in particular was a bastion even after the Slavs and Avars breeched the Danube, and the Arabs overran Egypt and the Levant

  15. Jon F. Greed is indeed always present, but it doesn’t always receive the same rewards; some societies do not believe that greed is good.

    Sex does indeed have multiple ends; but until recently it was not possible to chemically limit it to one end.

    And birth control has always been possible, by refusing sex, by withdrawal, by homosexuality, or by killing the young. And yes, population decline is connected with collapse. The Roman Empire went from a height of 65 million to 40 million, and the bulk of that was in the East, not the West; the West could not defend itself. The size of garrisons was reduced, and Germans recruited to make up the shortfall; they outsourced their defense.

    The east was indeed richer and more populous and, I might add, older, which under Tainter’s theory means that it should have been poorer and weaker.

  16. And we must remember that Emperor Augustus had to implement many policies to try to restore the elite birth rate. It was not the peasants who were willfully sterile, but the leaders.

  17. Mr. Medaille,

    Greed has always been rewarded, in every society. The miser may not be wholly respectable– but he does have the gold. It’s impossible to read the moral jeremiads of past eras and not conclude that avarice was never lacking in society.

    You are corect that crude methods of birth control did exist, but crude != effective (withdrawl is notably prone to “surprises”). As for refusing sex, if we were talking about the early medieval period, when monasticism became popular you would have a point: large numbers of people did remain celibate, and this may have kept population in Europe low for centuries after the demographic catastrophe of the 6th century. But as for homosexuality, I see no reason to believe that its incidence was signifcantly greater (or less) in any historical era than in our own time. The vast majority of people prefer partners of the opposite sex (see: natural selection), and unless they are deprived of contact with them, they will remain hetersosexual.
    Killing infants (by exposure) is not birth control; it is, well, post-partum abortion. The practice was general throughout antiquity until Christianity became influential enough to stop it. But this points to another factor in past demographics: the high childhood mortality rates. And that was exacerbated by economic factors. Slave children, if allowed to live at all in antiquity, were the first to die in times of want. Likewise the children of the poor. Right up until the 19th century cities maintained their populations only because of immigration fron the countryside; otherwise urban death rates exceeded urban birth rates. The problem was never too few children born, but too many children dying– and that toll increased as the population was immiserated through an increase in inequality, plunging most into dire poverty, or outright slavery. Rome’s demographic problems were not due to moral factors– the late Empire was probably more recognizably moral than the late Republic owing to Christianity. Rome’s demographic problems were at their foundation economic in nature. A society of paupers and slaves will not have healthy demographics. The later strength of Byzantium was based on (among several factors) the Christian Church acting as a giant engine of wealth redistribution, improving the lot of the lower orders.

    Re: “The West could not defend itself”.
    The western half of the Empire was always less populous. However the trouble was excaerbated, as above, by economic factors. By the 4th century military service has ceased to be a popular career chocie, among either the wealthy or the common folk. There being no more land conquests to dole out, the poor could no longer hope to become land-owners in the provinces by putting in a 20 year stint in the legions. And the wealthy found proferrment not by leading troops but by making themselves obsequious toadies to the powerful. Again, this was not about demographics but about economic factors. The eventual Byzantine military recivery was based on the handing out of depopulated lands along the frontiers in exchange for military service, thereby building up a strong class of yeoman farmer-soldiers.

  18. Complex societies that collapsed from external forces should also include the sudden and complete collapses of the Aztec and Mayan societies. However, what is an example of a complex society that has collapsed absent an invading force?

  19. Thoroughly enjoyed the article. It’s good to see the glimmer of hope you provide, especially since it is all too easy to have visions of the kind of apocalypse portrayed in books like “The Road” dominate in thoughts of what increasingly seems to be the inevitable.
    When my wife was pregnant with our daughter (who turns 5 in December), I remember remarking to her that I didn’t feel that this country would survive in its current form in our daughter’s lifetime. I was, and am increasingly convinced, that it will cease to exist as we know it before she turns fifty–and that may be optimistic. There are various reasons, but a crucial one is the power of advertisers manipulating the citizenry to participate in an unsustainable lifestyle of consuming for consuming’s sake. Again, in this I heartily agree with you.
    As to sudden vs. gradual collapse, I have always thought of the collapse of civilization to be one of a long process of erosion of critical social and economic stabilizing forces resulting in some cases of a critical mass being reached and an uncontrolled sudden “implosion” of society. This may have taken generations in the past, but would you agree that mass media, portable media devices, and ubiquitous internet access drive a population more quickly to complicity in its own demise and serve to speed up that process of societal decay? The traditional means of ideas becoming mainstream involved a long process of dissemination through the academy, arts, general culture, and finally, the church (as described by Francis Schaeffer); but now, it seems to me that one can launch a “social revolution” by taking it directly to the people via mass communication, made enticing by eye-catching graphic designs and flash players. Or, are we too fractured as a people by a generalized moral/philosophical relativity to be swayed “en masse”?
    Thank you, again, for the article.

  20. Hugh,
    I made the same point, and the best case example is from the Bronze age– the Indus Valley civilization, which was apparently wrecked by changes in the weather that produced heavy flooding and a change in course of the Indus River. (It used to be thought that the invading Aryans had destroyed this culture, but better archaeology shows that they arrived only well after the fact). There are a few other weather/natural disaster related collapses as well (e.g., the Chavin and Teotihucan cultures appear to have failed due to planetary catastrophe of the 6th century that also put the final nail in Rome’s coffin)
    Of course there are plenty of examples of governments collapsing suddenly, but that’s not a “collapse of civilziation”, as most people go right on living their daily lives as they had been regardless of who is in charge. England remained England when Henry IV usurped the throne from Richard II, when Cromwell made himself Lord Protector, when the Tudors came to throne, and do forth.

  21. JonF wrote:-

    The East was richer and more populous, and less exposed to invasion from beyond the Empire. The Anatolian heartland of The Byzantine Empire in particular was a bastion even after the Slavs and Avars breeched the Danube, and the Arabs overran Egypt and the Levant

    It was richer, yes, but only more populous with non-Romans (in the sense of potential recruits for the army), and riches could only offset that by hiring barbarians with all the long term problems that brought in. However, it was geographically more exposed to invasion from beyond the Empire, as Persia often showed (all the way back to the conquest of Lydia); Italy, Spain, North Africa and the large islands of the western mediterranean all had more natural advantages that way, which is why it took so long to push Islam back (and even then, only where it had an incomplete presence) and why the Byzantine attempts at reconquest under Justinian took so long and eventually faded away. It was just that no natural advantages work without an active defence, and Byzantium had just got that in place for Anatolia when the post-Persian threats materialised nearby. But such things had faded away in the west after about the time of Julian the Apostate, making those areas nearly a walkover once the invaders got past Gaul except when other barbarians pitched in (as they did against the Huns).

  22. […] To give you short quotations would shortchange the reader and the writer. To gain the full import of their power, the essays have to be read in full. The essay by Jonathan Wallace can be found at http://www.spectacle.org/0811/billionaire.html. The essay by John Médaille can be found athttps://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2011/07/will-there-be-zombies/. […]

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