The task we will face will depend on the shape of the collapse, which will vary from city to city, and from town to countryside. [Part 1, Part 2] Modern life is dependent on complex networks for electricity, water, sewer, transportation, gas, education, security, banking, food supplies, medical care, and so forth. Almost all of these are allocated by an exchange for money in market or quasi-market systems. Money, however, will be the first thing to go. Money is a social product, and never any stronger than the society which issues it. There will either be (and you can pick your favorite theory on this one) hyper-inflation or hyper-deflation; that is, money will either be too plentiful to have value or too scarce to be useful.
Our problem will be to restore each of these services on a community-by-community basis, and to find a variety of ways to distribute them, ways that will range from a circulation of gifts to barter, to local and ad hoc currencies. But will there be anything to exchange, either as gift, as barter, or for money? The first problem, of course, is food. If the mega-farms fail, can large populations be fed on the “three acres and a cow” approach the distributists favor? How about growing 1 million pounds of food, 10,000 fish, and 500 yards of compost on three acres. It is a simple system, using aquaponics, where water from tanks of tilapia is distributed over gravel beds where vegetables are grown. With greenhouses, the system runs 12 months/year, and the only heat source necessary is the compost bins. The whole system is “low-tech,” requiring only one pump and gravity to run the whole thing. That’s what you can do on three acres, and you don’t even need the cow. In fact, you don’t even need the three acres, since the same system would work on the roof of an apartment building in the midst of the city.
But some crops, such as wheat, do indeed require larger scale farming to be practical, and at present, such farms require capital-intensive machinery. And most of the requirements of modern life are, or are connected with, manufactured things, and we assume the factories in which these things are made are large and expensive. Does a collapse mean that we must return to a pre-modern and more primitive standard of living? Look at the work of Marcin Jakubowski of Factor E Farm. Faced with the need to buy expensive farm machinery, he developed his own low-cost and highly robust alternative, a tractor that could be built in six days from widely available materials, and for $4,000. But it is more than a farm tractor, because he also built a detachable scoop, which makes it a front-loader, a hoe that makes it a back-hoe. It has power take-offs to power other machinery, such as a brick press capable of 5,000 bricks per day. Indeed, the same farms are developing plans for the 50 most important machines for industrial civilization, plans that allow these machines to be built from a variety of materials, and built to be long-lived with low maintenance costs. Indeed, you can even buy today a low-cost 3-D printer, capable of “printing” plastic or metallic parts using only blueprints. In fact, a 3-D printer can print most of its own parts to be self-replicating.
Indeed, if we look around our neighborhoods, it is likely that we will already find enough equipment to provision a fairly respectable machine shop. The proliferation of highly functional but low-cost tools has given families and neighborhoods an enormous but usually unrealized creative potential. What this means is that even an “industrial” economy need not be dependent on large concentrations of capital, but can be (and in some places already is) distributed to widely dispersed production of short production runs that can easily be switched from product to product as demand requires, and done so on a neighborhood and family basis.
But the key terms are not machinery and technology, but “families” and “neighborhoods”; the mechanical stuff our culture can handle, on scales large and small. The problematic areas are the ones involving human relationships. Indeed, the family today is often a temporary arrangement, enduring only until we can get the kids out of the house, and we often get them very far out of the house indeed, across the country or around the world. Even with all of our “social” technology, we often find it difficult to retain close relations even with our closest relations. And neighborhoods are often nothing more than collections of habitats characterized more by their anonymity than by anything that could be called neighborliness. It is this neighborliness, more than any technical or physical quantity, that will be the scarce commodity in any effort to rebuild.
In this sense, we have all been turned into zombies; we are in proximity, but not in community. Like the zombies, we pursue the same goal, our supposed “self-interest,” but we pursue it mindlessly and without cooperation with each other, or at least, not outside of the forced and formal cooperation of the workplace. The zombies gain their power not from cooperation, but from having their goals limited to one thing, which they pursue relentlessly and without regard for others. But when the government and the corporations can no longer provide these workplaces, when we have to solve our problems in absence of these institutions, then self-interest, as understood by the modern world, will no longer serve. You might say that self-interest is no longer in our best interests, if it ever was.
What we will need is neighborliness, which is the exact opposite of self-interest understood as desire, as the pursuit of a private passion. Neighborliness requires a certain degree of sacrifice, of true caritas, that is, a willingness to see our own good in the good of our neighbors. But is this possible in a world of zombies? Would not the zombie see no other good than his own, recognize no other truth than his own? Here I would like to offer a rather strange suggestion: A world of zombies may prove to be an advantage, if we can use it correctly. Let me offer a case to make this rather surprising point.
The familiar world order collapsed with the first world war, and the world between the wars was full of good men of passionate intensity. Seeing the obvious disorder, the collapse of all that was customary and familiar, they wished to find some universal truth that could save the world. The men who opted for communism, or fascism, or Nazism, or Liberalism were, for the most part, good men who had gotten hold of the worst kind of lie: the half-truth. They committed great crimes in order to save their half-truth from all the other competing half-truths. But there is no danger of this happening with the zombies. The post-modern world has destroyed the whole notion of truth, even, or especially, the notion of the half-truth. What the zombie knows, and knows with mathematical and moral certainty, is that he has been lied to. He knows this because he knows everything is a lie, and he is correct, in the sense that everything the world has told him—and told him 24/7—is in fact a lie.
Post-modernism thus has the advantage of allowing us to find the end of ideology. Not that post-modern nihilism is itself the end of ideology; it is actually just another ism and hence another ideology with its own content; that is to say, it really isn’t nihilism at all; just a king of grand intellectual negativism with its own agenda. But it did allow us to create true nihilists, men who devote their lives to pursuing what they don’t really want but must have; their nothingness really is nothing, and not just the nothing advanced as an alternate “something.” But the zombie really does have a truth: the knowledge that it’s all a pack of lies. Men for the last 200 years or more have filled themselves with empty ideologies; the zombies alone are truly empty and waiting to be filled with truth.
But this “truth” they yearn for cannot be just another ideology, another ism. Indeed it cannot even be Catholic-ism, for this too is just an ideology, perhaps the worst. That is to say, it cannot be a Caholicism that is merely the spiritual support of some political ideology, be it the liberalism or constitutionalism of Scalia or Woods on one hand, or the liberation theologians and political liberals on the other.
So I return to the question: Will there be any zombies? That is, will mindless violence be the way of the future, or is it already the way of the past? Will the zombie die with the civilization that created him or will he come into his own? My answer to my own question is, “I don’t know.” However, I suspect the answer will depend very much on what we do. If we show the zombie a truth, rather than just preach one, we may release him—and ourselves—from his prison. By showing him a truth, I mean showing him a community, a community that functions economically, socially, and, I think it important to add, liturgically. I mention this last point in passing, although it has a prime organizing function in any community that would take another lecture to elucidate. But community, whole communities, are by themselves tools of evangelization. For example, the California missions were not just churches where one could preach to the Indians, but communities where a Christian way of life could be demonstrated, could be made visible and concrete to the Indians, something they could compare with their own lives.
To sum up, the technical problems of rebuilding the world, the problems that seem insurmountable, will turn out to be trivial: there is enough knowledge and resources to accomplish that task. But whether we are able to do it is another thing. The modern world begins by discovering—or rather inventing—the autonomous individual; the self-made made man who has no connections save contractual ones freely chosen and broken at will, for indeed there can be nothing higher than than individual will. Such a man is already half-way to being a zombie. And we must admit to ourselves, that we are all zombies, to some degree we are influenced by the technologies of persuasion and “need-creation.” We are all people who feel a need to work to buy what we don’t need, and then to discover new needs, which we must work even harder to fill. The modernist project ends with post-modernism, and with the true zombie, that is, with the creation of emptiness.
On a practical level, we need to first prepare ourselves. We must know what we really want and buy—or make—only what we really need. Growing a tomato is an act of resistance; fixing a car rather than buying a new one throws a wrench into the system. And making your own music defeats the entertainment industry, while entertaining your children and your neighbors defeats the whole wicked world. Educating one’s children, with or without the dubious help of the schools defeats both government and industry. And all of these provide the seeds from which a new economy, and a new civilization, a liturgical civilization, can be built, one that will fill the zombies and make them human again, and us as well.
We need to be looking around our neighborhoods and areas for resources to solve all the problems when the professional problem-solvers no longer can. If we look closely, we are likely to find more than we suspect. But mostly, we need to be looking at our neighborhoods to find our neighbors; all too often our neighborhoods are not at all neighborly, but rather anonymous and temporary housing, not real places but only real estate. By finding real neighbors, we will find real solutions. And here I make the assertion that to find anything real is to find something genuinely Christian. And only in a real Christianity will we build a real world.
To conclude, I say again, let us be of good cheer. To be sure, we must be realistic about the dangers we face and the hardships we will, no doubt, endure. There will be a certain madness abroad in the world, and this is unavoidable in times like these. People, deprived of comfort and customs, and anxious over the next meal or a place to sleep, will at least be mad, and likely prone to madness. But they are unlikely to fall victim to mere ideology, and we may have it in our power to calm their anxiety. And I suspect that we will discover that the things we will have to give up are not things that we really wanted anyway, and that what we stand to gain is what we were always looking for. And what we gain, we may give, and give to our fellow-zombies, who in their true emptiness of heart want only to be filled with the truth. This, I suspect, is our vocation, our calling, and this is our moment.