Living in Society Social Commentary

Society in Decline?

Sunrise Over Lake MacBride
Sunrise Over Lake Macbride

How does one recognize society is in decline? We participants probably can’t.

In 1540 conquistador Hernando de Soto sent a messenger to Quigaltam, supreme leader of a people whose ancestors had built mounds and lived in the Mississippi River basin for 700 years, to say, “the son of the sun” expected his people to obey him and do him service.

“With respect to what he said about being the son of the sun,” Quigaltam responded through the messenger, “let him dry up the great river and he would believe him.” [1]

While neither party knew it at the time, this incident was part of the beginning of the end of a civilization and a 350-year war between cultures. It ended with the more familiar massacre at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Dec. 29, 1890.

If modern society — the one cultured in North America by immigrants — has reached its zenith, and it’s all downhill from here, the methods of knowing it are elusive if not impossible. Life comes into a sharper focus when our perspective spans multiple centuries.

Earth has its troubles. Improvements in public health enabled population growth resulting in 7.4 billion people on earth today. Deforestation to harvest timber, grow crops and build cities is changing a long-standing environmental equilibrium. The rise of industrial society and its reliance on fossil fuels has changed the makeup of the atmosphere and contributed to global warming that in turn is changing climate patterns we have come to rely upon. People are increasingly connected by a world-wide communications network. They both say a lot more and have nothing to say. None of this is new, and the earth will likely be fine — achieving a new equilibrium that considers and incorporates all these changes.

What’s new is the rise of lamentations about how the old values are in decline. Families are not what we believe they were, politicians and religious leaders are corrupt, corporations only out to make a buck, the rich get richer and the rest of us are left on our own. If one buys into this paradigm society may well be perceived to be in decline.

I don’t believe it is and here’s why.

As long as there is clean air and water, a place to live and an opportunity to earn a living, there is hope for society. All of this is under pressure from multiple sources today, but like the polar vortex chilling the atmosphere this morning it’s only temporary.

There will be whiners and complainers, but William Faulkner said best what I would during his 1950 Nobel Prize speech.

I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

Is society in decline? The better question is what can we do to contribute to its rise? The age of humans is not over. Despite our problems we must have hope the progress started long ago is far from over. How else can we go on living?

[1] Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History by Paul Schneider. Henry Holt & Company, 2013.