The Fifth World

About the Fifth World


Post-apocalyptic means:

Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies points out that no crisis can adequately explain why a civilization falls because we build civilizations precisely to help us deal with such crises. We must go deeper, and ask why this civilization could not handle this crisis, as we expected it to. Tainter argues that complexity yields diminishing marginal returns, and that civilizations collapse when enough people realize that they could enjoy the same benefits at a lower cost by accepting a lower level of social complexity. “Collapse then is not intrinsically a catastrophe,” Tainter writes. “It is a rational, economizing process that may well benefit much of the population.”

According to post-apocalyptic literature, when we strip away the thin veneer of civilization, we find the brutal savagery that truly lies in the hearts of men. According to the actual study of how people react amidst catastrophes, though, such disasters reveal the selflessness, altruism, and heroism that truly lies within us all. Those who do commit the worst crimes in such times typically do so for fear of their fellow human beings — because of the stories they believed in. As Cory Doctorow put it, “The belief that when the lights go out, your neighbors will come over with a shotgun — rather than the contents of their freezer so you can have a barbecue before it all spoils — isn’t just a self-fulfilling prophecy, it’s a weaponized narrative.”

The Fifth World envisions a world after the collapse of civilization and so, technically, belongs to the post-apocalyptic genre, but it stands opposed to almost everything that genre stands for. To the people living in the Fifth World, the collapse of civilization belongs to ancient history. The exact contours of how it happened — the precise mix of terrorism, disease, ecological disaster, and war that led to the fall of the old world — interests them no more than the details of the fall of Rome interest us today. Their ancestors became their ancestors by finding in themselves more altruism, more selflessness, and more heroism than they thought they would ever find. They faced a time of crisis and change with bravery and grace, and in doing so laid the foundation of a new and better world.

The map of utopias is cluttered nowadays with experiments by other names, and the very idea is expanding. It needs to open up a little more to contain disaster communities. These remarkable societies suggest that, just as many machines reset themselves to their original settings after a power outage, human beings reset themselves to something altruistic, communitarian, resourceful and imaginative after a disaster, that we revert to something we already know how to do. The possibility of paradise is already within us as a default setting.

Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster