The Fifth World

About the Fifth World

Five Facts About the Fifth World

  1. The world has changed.
  2. The people of the Fifth World vary as much as the land itself.
  3. The people of the Fifth World don’t think like their ancestors.
  4. The people who live in it consider the Fifth World paradise.
  5. Everyone carries some sacred mission to keep the Fifth World alive.

1 The world has changed.

Humans may not have had the power to change the globe so drastically on our own, but we didn’t really need to. We just needed enough power to start the process. Feedback loops did the rest, including many that we never even recognized before we set them into motion, pushing the world quickly into a new equilibrium. Global temperatures have risen dramatically, the ice caps have melted, and the seas have risen 216 feet, carving out new coastlines.

The feedback loop kept on intensifying until the cloud regime itself broke down. The new cloud regime that immediately began to form covered most of the earth in clouds most of the time, reflecting much of the sun’s heat and finally beginning to stabilize the rising temperatures. It rains a great deal more, as the new, hotter earth evaporates more water into the atmosphere. Powerful storms occur more frequently, and often rage longer and more violently.

Life has proven most resilient, though. Great evolutionary leaps tend to follow mass extinctions. Warmer climates and increased rates of mutation can spur faster evolution as well. The end of the old world brought all three at once. Four hundred years might not leave enough time for plants and animals to change drastically, but the incredible changes in bacteria and fungi can still have profound effects. What happens when one species of fungus begins to metabolize radioactive material? Or when the bacteria living inside one species’ guts evolve to digest plastic?

In accordance with Bergmann’s rule, warm-blooded animals (including humans) have gotten somewhat smaller in this warmer world, while the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has provided for more plants, which in turn have put more oxygen into the atmosphere. This has allowed insects to become much, much larger.

2 The people of the Fifth World vary as much as the land itself.

At its peak, the old world united all of humanity in a single civilization. People could speak of the history of the world as a singular thing, all leading to this moment. The only sensible history of the Fifth World, though, would simply tell the tale of how that single story unraveled back into ten thousand sagas, each one focused on the ties of kinship that bind a particular family to a particular place, and of their honored ancestors who rediscovered and renewed those ancient covenants.

Compared to a primordial earth, the Fifth World might seem diminished. The mass extinctions and climatic shifts have certainly left their mark, but in the intervening centuries an overwhelming richness and biodiversity has covered the world once again. Just enough time has passed for the oldest woods in many places to become old-growth forests. Shaped on every level by their dwelling in such places, the people of the Fifth World have become native to a particular place. The soil, water, and air of a particular valley flows through them and back into that same valley. The stone and wood found there influence their art, and the songs of the birds there teach them how to sing. The traditions of the Fifth World vary as much as the land itself because they arise out of the land, from thirteen generations of engagement with the land.

The close apprenticeship to the spirit of place that the people of the Fifth World take for granted shapes their minds to a particular soundscape, the rhythm of seasonal life and seasonal tastes, in close relationship with other-than-human neighbors. Like any other animal, they recognize the songs of birds and the calls of different animals. They may not see for miles off into the distance, but the eagle can, and they recognize the eagle’s calls and the way it flies when it sees prey. The whole world becomes an extended set of senses for them. Sneaking up to surprise such people in their own territory proves all but impossible. Every rodent, every bird, every insect in their territory rushes to alert them to your intrusion. To invade the native territory of such people means more than just challenging the family; it means challenging the land itself. Such incursions rarely happen anymore, but when they do, they usually end quickly and decisively.

The flourishing of the Fifth World has meant not only the restoration of the world’s biodiversity, but humanity’s own diversity along with it. Even as the old world’s genetic exchange has leveled the species’ klines into a fairly consistent omni-ethnic mix, the thousand thousand traditions that fill the world with unique songs, stories, customs, rites, beliefs, philosophies, values, and sciences exhibit the full breadth of wonder, wisdom, brilliance, hope, fury, and beauty that human beings can bring into the world. Each tradition rises from the unique history of engagement and collaboration with each other and all their kin, human and otherwise. Once, their ancestors spoke of “world history” as a singular thing, a story leading to one, singular achievement of human potential. The Fifth World instead offers histories in the plural, and ten thousand visions of how to live as a human being.

3 The people of the Fifth World don’t think like their ancestors.

The diversity of the people of the Fifth World makes it difficult to speak about them generally, since almost anything one can say will have many exceptions. Rather, the most important things to say about them as a group speak not to things they really have in common nearly so much as those points where they differ from their domesticated ancestors, even on points that might once have seemed like simple “human nature.”

Because they believe their unaided animal senses, they perceive the world unfolding in a constant process of revelation, engagement, and relationship, always changing and shifting. Many languages in the Fifth World changed to noun less and verb more, drawing their attention to the dance more than the dancers. They began to understand their primary occupation as the work of creation itself: to constantly renegotiate their place in an ever-renewing, more-than-human world.

Mothers carry their babies with them always, so the children become used to the rhythm of daily life. Before they learn to speak, babies become attentive to body language and the subtle, nuanced movements and tensing of muscles that express emotion and disposition. To an untrained, alien eye, such people might seem to communicate telepathically, but of course they don’t. They merely have a lifetime of close, tactile contact, keen awareness, and a synaesthetic experience of the sensuous world. Families sleep together and touch each other constantly when they speak, turning language into another layer of communication built only on top of a more elemental and tactile one. Such empathy extends to other-than-human kin as well. Trackers must learn the art of drawing close to an animal, including learning its language, not only to recognize its songs, calls, and cries, but to mimic them and even, by combining the two, to speak with them.

Raised in such a more-than-human family, the people of the Fifth World develop a self-confidence that might seem bizarre to their ancestors. They trust in their feelings as much as they trust their eyes and ears, as perceptions of the world around them. They have the confidence to embark on even the most perilous quests, to pursue even the most trifling whims, simply because they saw it in a dream. Such strength and confidence emerge from love and support the same way that a strong tree grows out of good soil and fresh water. To survive beyond civilization, the people of the Fifth World needed to become strong and confident again. Those who didn’t simply did not survive.

4 The people who live in it consider the Fifth World paradise.

The people of the Fifth World draw life, wisdom, and strength from the lands they dwell in. Some consider the land a lover, and the hunt a matter of seduction. For others, the land mothers them, providing all they want or need freely. Many tell an ancient story of how the first humans dwelled in paradise, and how they committed some terrible sin that resulted in their exile, and how their heroic ancestors found their way back to restore their birthright.

It takes a few hours of work a week for hunter-gatherers in the Fifth World to provide for their needs. The gardeners have greater ambitions of shaping the land around them, and work somewhat longer to do so — some toiling for as long as six hours a day for almost half the year. Of course, “work” usually means taking a walk, hunting, fishing, or occasionally joining your family in some physical labor, singing songs and frequently breaking to eat, drink, and play games.

They eat richly, enjoying a diet so varied, delicious, and healthful that it would have strained their ancestors’ imaginations. Most of the infectious diseases of the old world have died out without large populations to sustain them. The people of the Fifth World each have their own treasure of ethnobotanical wisdom to treat the infections and injuries they do suffer, the sort of knowledge that the pharmaceutical companies of old would have lusted after. People in the Fifth World expect to live a hundred years or more.

They would not consider themselves peaceful people or pacifists by any means. The Fifth World lacks any professional class of fighters to call upon, so when violence becomes necessary, they have no one to do it but themselves, and so they have disposed of the codes of ancient military aristocracies. War may not have disappeared from the world entirely, but it has become a truly rare event. Instead, scouts fight shadow wars of threats and intimidations on the periphery to ensure that their neighbors always know not to trifle with their family.

Wherever they live, the people of the Fifth World consider their territory paradise, the very center of the world. The stories and legends that give meaning and context to their lives all take root in the same soil. Within it, the strength and wisdom it provides makes them indomitable. Driven from it, they lose a significant piece of themselves.

5 Everyone carries some sacred mission to keep the Fifth World alive.

The people of the Fifth World know that they live in paradise, but if the great tribulation of their ancestors taught them anything, it taught them that “paradise” does not describe a location, but a relationship. It means having a place in a more-than-human world. It means having a voice in the great community of life thriving all around you.

Living in a web of relationship might sound very pleasant, but it requires a great deal of work, as each relationship pulls you in different — and sometimes mutually exclusive — directions. Living in such a world means constantly juggling those relationships. How will you navigate such conflicting obligations and imperatives? How will you maintain the relations that give you life, when they all ask you for something different?

The people of the Fifth World honor their ancestors because they took the first step away from the brink of annihilation, renewed the ancient covenants, and rediscovered paradise. They each helped to shape the world that has given them so much. The work of creation never ended, though. Living in a web of relationship requires them to constantly renegotiate their place in the world, as the world keeps changing. They know that in time, others will look back on them as ancestors who shaped the world. Will they leave paradise to their descendants, as their ancestors did? So they honor the ancestors, too, for giving them the example for their own lives, of how to live a life of sacred mission.

Some families say that the place where you first stir in your mother’s womb claims you as its custodian, and so only you have the right to sing the songs of that place — and you must sing them, for if you don’t, that place will begin to die. Other families say that the ruins nearby sink into the underworld, and so they must guard the doorway between life and death. Still others maintain sacred rites, like an annual fire to renew the prairie as a gift to the elephants. Always, in one way or another, they recognize that entropy constantly eats away at the edges of the world. They cannot think of creation as something that happened long ago, nor can they trust any god or ancestor to do the work for them. Every individual in the Fifth World carries a sacred charge to push back against entropy, to keep the world alive. They bristle with sacred songs, stories, and wisdom to accomplish their appointed task, honored with the titles and powers appropriate to their charge. Communities in the Fifth World knit themselves together with ties of kinship, but you’ll miss much of the point if you mistake them simply for people living together. They live together because they share a common mission and purpose — the work of continuously creating the world.