Senescence is the fancy term for aging. I only learned it a few years ago when I began my journey down the evolutionary biology rabbit hole.
Why do organisms age? It’s complicated, but the short hand version is that there is only so much space in the genome, and lots of stuff get’s packed in there. One result is that certain genes express themselves in ways that are enormously beneficial to a younger organism, but those same genes also express themselves in ways that are actively harmful to the older version of that organism.
Which doesn’t cost that much, in evolutionary terms anyway, since a) many fewer of the organisms will live long enough to experience the detrimental genetic expression and b) they’ve already reproduced by then anyway.
Short term gain – long term cost. That’s the key.
Now, ramp that up to the social context. What happens if you think of society as an organism? Is there a such thing as “social/cultural senescence”?
I think there is. And I think the implications are both fatal and unavoidable.
Which is to say, it is only a matter of time before some new phenomenon (could be technological, could be social, could be anything) that delivers what appears to be overwhelming immediate benefits. So much so that those who develop that phenomenon will become enormously wealthy and influential.
But then the butcher’s bill comes due, and we learn that the very phenomenon that delivered overwhelming benefits in the short term also delivers overwhelming costs in the long term. And eventually some such phenomenon will come along who’s long term costs prove to be “full social collapse”.
What could that be? No telling. Maybe the radical environmentalists are right, and it’s fossil fuels. Or maybe it’s digital technology. Or the smart phone. Or social media. Could be anything. The whole point is it is absolutely impossible to know, in advance, what is going to be the source of our destruction.
So far, we can say something like “We know that all new technologies come with unpleasant externalities. But they also bring wealth and general improvements in wellbeing. So far, we’ve been able to leverage that wealth and wellbeing such that we can overcome the negative effects, with a dramatic net-positive effect”.
Which is true.
But it also seems self-evident to me that, eventually, we’ll screw it up, and let loose something that (years later) presents with negative externalities we can not overcome.