* Think most people are assholes?
* Assume anyone who says, "have faith in humanity!" is either being naïve or sarcastic?
* Enjoy post-apocalypse stories in which it turns out humans are the "real" monsters?
* Find yourself wondering what's the point of doing anything, since our species is destined to destroy itself regardless?
Then this column might help but also it might not.
The short version:
As a belief system, "Civilization is doomed because humans are inherently shitty" is as unscientific as astrology. Most people are good most of the time, the world is steadily getting better as a result, and I can prove it if you give me about ten minutes:
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6. The Asshole in the Cabin
Do you like thought experiments? Well, too bad, because here's one anyway. There's a whole genre of memes about how great it would be to leave society behind and live in a cozy cabin in the woods:
There are all sorts of variations on the theme, from this one about how some folks want a big house and fast cars, but this guy just wants a home in the woods away from those people...
...to others that insist living "off the grid" is the kind of life you don't need a vacation from:
But they all boil down to "Happiness is not having neighbors."
I feel this in my soul; I've had this fantasy from the moment I started kindergarten and realized I couldn't stand the sound of my shrieking classmates. So here's the thought experiment: Try to calculate how many other human beings it would take to allow someone to live out this dream.
I’ll even give you a head start and ignore all the people it took to design and build the cabin, including the furniture and appliances inside. And let's say I have a well for fresh water, solar panels for power and that I'll somehow get my own food (maybe I... fish? Collect berries? I dunno). We're as off the grid as we can plausibly be.
But at the very minimum, I'd want to know I can get medical help in case of an emergency; my plan for a tranquil retirement surely doesn't involve dying screaming because I stepped in a hole and snapped my fibula. So, I'll need doctors (including specialists and surgeons) and all of the support staff they require. Well, that's not so bad; that's still just a handful of people.
But now add all of the workers who manufacture their instruments, medicine and supplies (including all of the laborers who mine the raw materials), the guys who build and maintain the physicians’ offices and everyone who provided their knowledge of medicine (all of the faculty at their medical schools, all of the writers of their textbooks, all of the staff and materials involved in the support and upkeep of those schools, including the infrastructure to keep the utilities running).
Of course, all of those people above need to eat, so add in all of the farmers, food manufacturers, wholesalers and grocery stores plus the truckers who move all of that stuff around. Those truckers need trucks, so include the manufacturers who build those vehicles and maintain the supply chains to produce the metal, rubber, plastic and glass required. Those trucks need fuel, so now throw in the oil drillers, pipelines and refineries…
And we're somehow still not done. Now there's all of the administrative jobs needed to organize all of this shit, the number crunchers to work through the budgets and manage contracts and payroll, the lawyers to resolve legal disputes. Oh, fuck, that means we need some kind of government, too, including police and courts to enforce the law (which we already needed, otherwise who do you call if some other "off the grid" jackass claims your cabin for his own?). We'll need bureaucracies to make sure the roads get paved and to regulate all of those businesses mentioned above... and all of it has to be done at a large enough scale that it's readily available and affordable near wherever my cabin happens to be.
It's literally millions of workers. Just so one asshole can live "alone" in the woods.
In other words, the whole fantasy falls apart as soon as we realize how badly we'd still need other people and, yes, I realize this is just the moral of that Twilight Zone episode where the recluse gets his wish to finally be alone in the world, but then finds he has no one to fix his broken glasses.
My point is...
5. Misanthropy is Greed in Disguise
So here's the most important question of our age: When deciding whether or not humanity sucks, why don't we count all of that stuff above, the things humanity produces for us every day?
"Because they're just doing their jobs!" you might reply. "They don't give a shit about me!" So you're saying that despite the fact that humans inherently suck, they still managed to invent a system in which they reliably provide the good things that reduce suffering and increase happiness? Remember, the obnoxious assholes cutting you off in traffic and the industrious souls providing those lifegiving goods and services every day are the exact same people.
In fact, it kind of seems like when we dream of living "off the grid", what we actually want is all of the benefits of the grid, but without anybody pestering us to give anything back. All of the fruits of their labor, without having to do any labor ourselves. In any other context, we'd just call this selfishness.
But there's an even more important conclusion to be drawn, something that is as obviously true as the existence of your own head, but which lots of you will still reject out of hand. Are you ready? Brace yourselves. Here it comes:
More people = a better world.
I'm serious. It is, after all, undeniable that life sucked much worse in 1921 than it does in 2021 (unless you'd have enjoyed shitting in an outhouse in the middle of winter) and 1821 was worse than either (surgery back then meant hacking off the infected limb while you were wide awake and screaming). The further you go back, the worse things are. You know what happened to make life so much better now? This:
The world's population skyrocketed.
"That's not what happened!" you might reply, "the technology just got better!"
That's literally the same thing. More humans = more inventors and workers to manufacture the stuff they invent. "More people = a better world" is true because all of those people do stuff. And, for the most part, they behave themselves. Now, I know what you're saying...
4. The "Thin Veneer of Civilization" is Bullshit
"Sure, people behave themselves when everything is going well," goes one common rebuttal, "but as soon as the system breaks down, people reveal their true, shitty nature!" I mean, this is the assumption behind every post-apocalypse franchise from Mad Max to The Walking Dead.
But it's telling that no one imagines themselves immediately turning savage the moment the government falls. You assume it about your neighbors, they assume it about you.
This is madness.
It's also self-contradictory. The assertion is that the average person would turn into a bandit/rapist/cannibal if they didn't have society keeping them in line, but that's nonsense because "society" is nothing more than other average people. Which means the average person is, by your own admission, steadfastly against the behaviors typical of a gang of wasteland mutants - otherwise, we wouldn’t have built a society in the first place.
You say civilization is doomed because humans are selfish monsters at heart, but you do understand that we only have a civilization right now because the exact opposite happened, right? The savagery used to be the state of things and, over time, we decided we didn't like it.
If society collapsed, we’d just rebuild it better. I know this, because it’s happened before.
3. It's Naïve to Assume the Worst
"Uh, have you watched the news, Jason?" says the skeptic, and also me when I'm in one of my darker moods. "We just barely have a civilization now, people are rioting in Portland and throwing tantrums on airplanes!"
Come on, you surely know how news media works: They filter an ocean of good social behavior to find the nuggets of dysfunction they can blast from the headlines. Those headlines get clicks because the bad behavior is shocking and it's shocking because it is unusual. If it wasn't, everyday life would be impossible.
Deep down, you know this. Every single day you consume a container of a drink prepared by a long series of strangers - a coffee, a Red Bull, a Diet Coke - and you don't hesitate to put it up to your mouth, 100% sure that it doesn't contain poison or a cockroach or spoiled ingredients. You order and eat a pizza with total confidence that none of the thousands of people in the supply chain fucked with it, you step confidently into a crosswalk with no worry that a car is going to blow through the light and run you over just for the hell of it.
Regardless of what you say, your actions demonstrate that you have absolute faith that the overwhelming majority of strangers are trustworthy and law-abiding, that even most businesses - including the huge, evil corporations - are doing honest transactions. You clearly believe that humans are capable of solving big problems because you operate under that assumption every day (if your internet goes down, you don’t assume it’s just down forever). These days, we focus on crazy anti-vaxxers but ignore the miraculous system that developed a working COVID vaccine in two motherfucking days.
So why do we cling to this cynical charade when it's clearly making us miserable? I have friends who will gather for a leisurely brunch and, while laughing and browsing football scores on their smartphones, will idly converse about how that state of affairs is a literal Apocalypse.
This is, objectively, insane. But I also think I know why we do it...
2. Humans Are Amazing, But Have a Dangerous Flaw
There is a glitch in your brain and I'm going to demonstrate it right now. I want you to imagine two scenarios:
A) A tornado destroys an elementary school in Missouri, killing ten children.
B) A white nationalist terrorist kidnaps ten children in Missouri and, live on camera, executes them one by one with a bullet to the back of the head, because he found out their parents support Bernie Sanders.
The kids in both cases are equally dead but the second one hits your gut a hundred times harder - the tornado would be off the front page the next day, the executions would live on in our history books. When we hear that a human enemy is at fault, a flip gets switched and a burst of juices hit your brain like the nitrous oxide in a Fast and Furious hotrod:
That’s your tribal instincts kicking in. Humans are social animals who dominated the globe because we're incredible at cooperating in large groups. But to do that - to tolerate individual personality conflicts and jealousies, etc - we have to have a nemesis, someone we can all agree to hate together. It was, historically, the only glue strong enough to bind us, the desire to defeat an opposing tribe.
Today, this means the outline of your personality is mostly just the barriers you've erected against what you hate. Go talk to any Qanon-believing zealot in red America and they'll demonstrate it for you: Fundamentally, human beings need to believe they matter and, if we secretly don't think we're good enough, the easiest way to matter is to say, "At least I'm not one of them."
But this is a problem in a modern world that is trying hard to move past all that. Pitting yourself against an entire category of people isn't just frowned upon these days, it's nearly impossible, considering how interconnected we are (you can hate Trump voters, but you can't avoid using their products and services). Well, without something to hate, we can't define ourselves, can't convince ourselves that we matter. That's a problem.
This is why so much of our mainstream fiction involves a protagonist who's whisked away from their tedious everyday life, told that they're secretly The Most Special Person Ever and - most importantly - handed a clear enemy to take down.
The headlines sell the same fantasy: "The world outside your front door is full of fools, greedy bastards and sex predators, therefore you are a hero just by virtue of sitting on your sofa and watching news about it. You matter, because you're not one of them. You're one of the exclusive few heroes standing for all that is good."
The new opposing tribe is everyone outside your personal social circle. It’s a malignant belief system that threatens to ruin everything we’ve done here. I don't think it has to be like this.
1. We Can Be Heroes, Probably
"Damn, I wish I had your optimism!" is the reaction I usually get from these columns. "It's nice that you can always see the good in people, it must be comforting!"
No, you've got it backward - it's the doom that's comforting. That's why the brain gravitates toward that in the midst of depressed lethargy; it’s the choice that grants you permission to chill and do nothing. That's when you tell yourself that the cynical fatalism itself is a form of productive work and pat yourself on the back for having indulged it.
But if I'm right and the world has steadily improved over the centuries because of the strenuous efforts of billions of people, it means you are saddled with a tremendous responsibility to give back. If most people are good and even somewhat competent, it means you're not special, that the pressure is on you to measure up. It means your response to global warming isn't a dismissive, "We're doomed because of all those monsters outside our tribe" but a, "Holy shit, I have a moral obligation to try to help fix this, in any way I can."
This is why some people respond so violently to the assertion that humanity isn't screwed; they're being robbed of their comforting fantasy, the soothing reassurance that nothing matters and nothing is owed. Morpheus, it turns out, had the pills reversed.
The fantasy, the "blue pill", is that you're one of the few enlightened souls in a world of mindless, sleepwalking drones and that your dark pessimism is proof of your superiority. The "red pill" truth is that everyone around you is just as important and that most of them are trying their best. The brutal reality no one wants to face isn't that there's some thrilling secret war being fought, but that the mindless hours Neo spent in that cubicle produced work that probably made other people's lives better.
And no, this has nothing to do with capitalism - even the Star Trek post-scarcity utopia had tedious office jobs because some of the stuff people need requires tedious office work. So why can't that count for heroism? A sewer line once backed up until my basement was flooded with a foot of raw sewage. A plumber came out in the middle of a snowy night to fix it and to me, that was more heroic than any of that bullshit Harry Potter did. I don't care that he charged me money, it's all heroism. It sucks that we've been brainwashed into thinking otherwise.
Everyone knows this is a problem and if you look around, you'll see various institutions all scrambling for a solution that boils down to finding another enemy that can safely absorb our hate - social media is almost entirely this. There has to be another way to let people know that they matter, that all work is essential to someone. Maybe we can form a new religion around that idea, idk.
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