For a brief moment in time, humans lived quite differently than they do today. Our most distant ancestors lived much as we still do, the elders tell us, but for four hundred generations or so humans tried living in a radically different way. Today most of us would agree that it didn’t work out very well. Some of the elders say that when it ended, it ended in an unparalleled paroxysm of pain, suffering, death, and grief. Others say that described the world that ended. A few say that the difference lies in your perspective — whether you had the perspective of one of the old world’s rulers who lost everything, or the perspective of one of those whose backs the entire edifice rested upon.
Once, a desert spread across that land. They called it “the southwest,” and before that, “Mexico.” Today, the world has changed. It has become wetter, but even hotter. The sweltering jungles of the Maya homeland have spread north, swallowing the Mexico Valley where the Mexica, the Toltecs, and Teotihuacan once ruled, spreading north to Aztlan, the fabled Mexica homeland, and into the ruins of the Anasazi and the Hohokam. Long before Europeans knew of the Americas, that land gave birth to many civilizations. They all died.
When the civilization that ruled Chaco Canyon fell, terrible war followed, with disease, death, desperation and grisly cannibalism. It must have seemed like the end of the world. But some survived. They had separated themselves from their civilization before its fall, hoping to pursue a more sustainable way of life. They practiced horticulture and rebuilt their world. When settlers from Europe came to that land, they found people like us: people who had survived the fall of a civilization, healed its wounds and their own, and rebuilt the world.
They told a story that those settlers would find echoed across that land by many peoples, a story of emergence. Many worlds have already passed, they said. The number differed. The Mexica said four. The Hopi and the Maya said three. In each one, humans eventually forgot their place in the world, and began to act as if they ruled it, rather than living as part of it. Sometimes it came as a consequence of such hubris. Sometimes it came as divine wrath for their sins, like a great flood that drowned the whole world. Sometimes it simply came with the passage of time, no more affected by human action than the cycle of the stars, but always, it came. Many struggled against it, in vain. The world always ended. Yet each time a small handful would exist who did remember humanity’s place in the world. They would escape the cataclysm and inherit the new world to repopulate it.
The Maya placed their emphasis on charting the changing seasons and years. They followed the course of the sun, the moon, the planets and the stars with unparalleled precision. Their complex calendars meant a great deal to them. They called their priests “day keepers.” To the Maya, worlds passed like years, beginning and ending at their appointed times. Each world lasted for 13 b’ak’tun, each b’ak’tun lasting for 144,000 days. When the Maya calculated out when their own, Fourth World would end, they saw a day on which the sun would align with the Milky Way at dawn on the winter solstice, an important moment in their story. The king (the sun) would climb the World Tree (the Milky Way), to open the Heart of the Sky, the door to the underworld. Then, the Fourth World would end, and the Fifth World would begin. That day happened at the end of the 13th b’ak’tun, in the year 2012, by the old reckoning.
The Hopi who had survived the end of one civilization and rebuilt their world warned the settlers that their world, too, would end. They warned that when the end came, only the Hopi lands would remain safe. They saw themselves as guardians, and some of them said the duty fell to them to warn and protect everyone they could. When it all fell apart, many Hopi set out to wander the broken world and offer it what their own experience had taught them so well: what lies beyond civilization.
Those early Hopi messengers helped many people through one of the most difficult challenges they faced: how to understand the end of the old world. They came to us like prophets, like elder siblings in our time of need, like angels to save us. That story of emergence has become the most common in our world. It helped our ancestors make sense of what had happened, and gave them a direction to move in.
Other stories grow, too, of course, along with it and each other sometimes, sometimes supplanting each other. Every family has its own story, its own way of telling what had happened — to the world and to them. I haven’t recorded every story here, of course. I haven’t even heard every story, not even close to it. These merely collect some of the most common refrains I’ve heard, the themes I keep hearing time and again.
Four hundred years before the Fifth World’s present, global civilization collapsed. As Joseph Tainter argues in The Collapse of Complex Societies, we can never explain the collapse of a complex society with a stressor like war, famine, plague, or invasion, because we create complex societies precisely to deal with such problems, so if such a stressor does bring a civilization to ruin, it only raises the deeper question of why the civilization failed to deal with it.
Tainter offers a model that seems to map well to historical instances of collapse. He argues that social complexity (including technological complexity, bureaucracy, the number and diversity of social roles, etc., which have deep interconnections as increasing one prompts increases in the others) operates on a diminishing marginal returns curve. Initial investments in complexity can offer enormous returns. Past a certain point, further investments may require more time or effort, yield less significant returns, or both. Tainter argues that we should see collapse as an economizing process that occurs once a society has moved past the point of diminishing marginal returns and a significant portion of the society can see that they could enjoy similar returns with less investment by accepting a lower level of complexity. At that point complexity may continue to drop until it reaches a new equilibrium, which may only happen at a much lower level than originally imagined.
As with historical instances of collapse, the collapse of our modern global civilization ultimately follows from the diminishing marginal returns on complexity. We want to avoid the classic science fiction dilemma of making predictions about the near future that will catch up with you all too soon. Fortunately, we can obfuscate from both angles. A complicated collapse would only seem to lend realism to the account, and from the perspective of people in the Fifth World, the collapse belongs to a distant, murky past, with many conflicting accounts.
Each family’s memory of collapse will undoubtedly spring from their unique perspective, so one family may say that civilization collapsed because of a terrible war, while another might blame it on some rampant plague, and we might consider both accounts true. No doubt a realistic collapse scenario would involve both wars and plagues, and you could blame either one as “the cause” based on your perspective.