The Fate of Peasants

Transformation of the Palace of Luxury, Frederick Robinson

At what point will we call the folks fleeing the drought-stricken west and southwest “climate refugees”? And are they really going to Duluth, or is that just cable news conjuring a trend from random acts of dislocation?

Perhaps my old stomping ground in the rust-and-snow-belt will become a new safe haven for those exhausted by western wildfires and coastal floods. Though everywhere has its troubles. Really, there’s no escaping us.

The plague of COVID-19 has taken nearly three-quarters of a million people from us in the U.S. Worldwide deaths are approaching five million.

Nero fiddled, Rome burned. But really, what else could he do?

Every society in the history of the world has ultimately collapsed.

Eric Cline, 1177 B.C: The Year Civilization Collapsed

In a culture that has no use for its elderly and doesn’t seem especially fond of its children, it’s hardly surprising that we seldom acknowledge that anything of any real value came before us, or that something significant might come after. But civilizations come and go, and their demise can happen quickly, as in the case of the Late Bronze Age Collapse, which seems to have occurred over the span of about 100 years.

Recall that this is “the Bronze Age.” Imagine a disruption along the route from Afghanistan, from which tin has to be imported, into the Aegean. It would end the bronze industry. As Carol Bell, a British academician, observes,“the strategic importance of tin in the LBA [Late Bronze Age] … was probably not far different from that of crude oil today.” 

Sally Mallam, The Human Journey Project

We can argue that it’s so much worse this time, that the whole world is involved, and that we’re taking much of the world’s species along with us. All true. And yet we seem unable to help ourselves.

It’s interesting to consider what might have been the fate of the peasants within those earlier civilizations, the ones who did not live in the palaces and trade in luxuries, the ones without a lot of wealth to lose. The vast majority of the population, in other words. No doubt they did what was necessary. They moved from famine-stricken areas, from war-torn locales, sought refuge where they could. They farmed, insofar as they were able, kept some chickens, maybe a goat for milk and cheese. They tended their children, mended their clothes, argued with their spouses, had sex, ate what was available, sat around in the evening drinking beer. They laughed, told jokes, buried loved ones.

They looked at the night sky and the expansive cosmos and wondered about the meaning of it all.

They did these things because they were humans. They were us.

We are not so far removed as we might like to believe. My father’s parents and grandparents were peasants. My grandchildren, should I ever have them, will likely be, as well, not in the pre-industrial sense, but in a post-petroleum age sense. It won’t be terrible, any more than any time is terrible, though terrible things may occur.

What it will be is different. So it (always) goes.