Ronald Wright, in A Short History of Progress, highlights Joseph Tainter’s three factors that lead to a civilization’s collapse: the Runaway Train, the Dinosaur, and the House of Cards. An illustration of these phenomena are in PBS’ just concluded production of Dickens’ Little Dorrit. Illustrations with a direct connection to today’s world.
Dickens illustrates the Runaway Train in Merdle’s Bank, where debt pays debt, and that debt pays more debt. Merdle alone, as the conductor of the train, sees the inevitible crash. He despises the Dinosaurs that seek his favour to “invest” with him, yet takes them on as passengers. The Dinosaurs continue to believe in his wisdom and prowess. ‘Society’ has complete faith in Society, hence Merdle. For Society, the financial returns will continue. This is what is owed to position, prestige and privelege. Status is taken for granted. There is nothing that can go wrong. But it does.
The House of Cards. From the degradation and literal collapse of the Clenham household, to the rise and fall (and rise and fall again) of the Dorrit family. The Merdles themselves who have enjoyed privilege find it gone. The newfound wealth of the Dorrit family is gone. “I might go back to dancing,” says Fanny Dorrit. Her brother, Tip: “But what about me?” All in which they found meaning is gone.
Enter Arthur Clennam, in debtors’ prison as a result of inability to pay his creditors after having lost his fortune on Merdle’s Runaway Train. His despair is not from having lost his fortune, but from having let others down. His happiness in the end is as it always was -enjoying, and in relationship with, people regardless of their status and position in Society. Through Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit and the cast of characters that support them on their journey, we see that relationships are what endure in the world. If you count only on riches and material goods, then you can’t have much to count on. The House will eventually crumble.
In today’s world, Merdle’s Runaway Train is the fall of Wall Street and even Bernie Madoff. Dinosaurs refused to see that the economic train was heading fast down a path of disaster. The harm for many is substantial. The House of Cards is revealed. What we have can disappear in an instant.
In the news this morning, 160 people are dead of swine flu in Mexico after only a handful yesterday. Travel advisories are now issued from the Government of Canada. The World Health Organization views travel restrictions as pointless – it can not be contained. Looks like a Runaway Train.
It appears, if we stop and think about it, that our very existence is a House of Cards. Our privilege in the West is a House of Cards, and perhaps a Runaway Train. Whether it is the economic conditions of our time, or the environmental and health stresses at this time, let us be wary of the Dinosaur. It is what keeps us from noticing the Runaway Train and the House of Cards.
Then what is the opposite of Dinosaur? Awake, conscious, in tune with the world. In relationship with the world. In relationship with others in the world to seek understanding and solutions. A sense of happiness. In Little Dorrit, the happy folk have relationships that cross (yet keep) many boundaries – jailed and jailor, poor and rich, female and male, servant and master, harassed and harrassor, young and old, unloved and loved. Perhaps this is the antidote to the Dinosaur. A way of being that gets the best out of people for the challenges ahead.
It can’t really be named, this anti-Dinosaur, but it seems this is what will cultivate our needed collective ingenuity.