How's the Handbasket?

Why are things always getting worse

At the slightest provocation, society's chronic worriers recount grim tales of the decline of humanity. Of course, such tales are timeless. The Romans lamented the Christians fall from glory, the French Monarchists decried the Revolution's ethics, and my parents presumably think that the world is on its last legs. At various trying moments, I've claimed that society will crash down around us within a year.

Because every generation holds that belief, it's a poor star to sail by. People who watched Hitler come to power believed that the country's morals were being perverted; so did American slaveholders in the late 1850s. A claim that things are getting worse will always find sympathetic ears.

The forces that drive the belief that society is in crisis are change and inertia. Human society is always changing. No society from the most isolated agrarian culture to modern dictatorships with planned economies has been able to hide from change or control its path. People are always thinking new thoughts and the environment is always presenting new challenges; change is assured.

Despite that axiom, human beings resist change. In many ways, people remain creatures of ritual and habit, neither of which is altered easily. I don't entirely denigrate this attribute. The principle that the universe always reacts the same way to the same conditions underlies the scientific method; however, reacting the same way to events also guarantees that a better response to those events is never found.

Groups of people magnify these traits. Unthreatened groups will try to slow down change to preserve the safe conditions. Groups that are challenged by the environment or other groups adapt quickly. Neither type of group seems comfortable with change, but both are confronted by it.

Given that assertions of societal collapse are always present, when are they right? Always, of course; and never. For change to occur, current structures collapse. To claim that the old days are gone is to indicate the presence of change, which is uninteresting. Determining the nature of the change is more difficult and enlightening.

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