There are times when it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that certain activities might result in the collapse of civilization. I would argue, for example, that this claim could be usefully applied to things like catastrophic global warming or nuclear war. Most of time, however, this argument is circulated by bloviating old windbags who are chronically afraid of change. A good example of this would be pretty much any argument against extending rights to queer people.
The difference between legitimate and illegitimate uses of this argument is, quite simply, that legitimate arguments are able to specify an actual, probable, materialistic mechanism through which the fall of civilization could be brought about. Taking the example of global warming, once again, an argument might be formulated like this:
Greenhouse gas emissions trap radiant heat from the sun in Earth’s atmosphere, raising the overall temperature of the surface of the planet. This in turn causes desertification of formerly arable land and rising sea levels owing to the melting of the polar ice caps. Both of these will tend to displace large numbers of people, as well as cause the food supply to become scarce to the point of mass starvation. Large, starving populations on the move will tend to destabilize existing national and international government structures, resulting in war, and ultimately the break-down in civilization as we know it.
Now, understand that I’m not necessarily saying that this argument is correct, but it is nevertheless a plausible, causal, scientifically-supported argument for how runaway greenhouse gas emissions could potentially be an existential threat to Human civilization.
Illegitimate uses of this argument, however, do not come with causal, materialistic explanations. For example, a few days ago I was reading an article on the Girl Guides of Canada’s policies towards transgender girls, when I stumbled upon this “brilliant” comment:
“Girl Guides Canada tackles transgender membership in wake of U.S. controversy” the next piece of evidence that Western society is slowly, but surely, headed for a bad end
You hear arguments like this a lot when you’re transsexual; pretty much all of them can be dismissed out of hand on the grounds that the idiots who spout them are never able to provide causal, materialistic explanatory mechanisms for what would prompt this “bad end.” Whenever they are asked, they will always launch in to some ridiculous and improbable logical fallacy about slippery slopes*, or spout some drivel about how deviation from ‘the Divine Plan’ will incur the wrath of the Almighty and cause Him to smite our collective asses.
As far as I can tell, their argument is rooted ultimately in some conception of Decadence; that is to say that they are hearkening, whether consciously or unconsciously, back to the old idea that cultures, after attaining the apogee of their civilization, naturally tend to settle down into a sort of protracted decline characterized by the deterioration of ‘traditional morality.’ In this framework, they would not so much be arguing that things like same-sex marriage or trans-acceptance will cause the decline of civilization, but that they are symptomatic of the already-ongoing decline of civilization. Basically then, what they’re saying is that there are certain behaviours which are recognizable (to them) as being decadent, and if you have enough of these behaviours going on at the same time, civilization will be engulfed in a cloud of decadence, and therefore, magically, collapse on the grounds that that’s just how things work. It is very much a cargo cult sort of philosophy, based on magical thinking; namely, if certain things are present in a civilization, then it is going to fall soon, regardless of whether or not there is actually a mechanism through which the two are related.
What’s more, this view of history is fundamentally flawed, on the grounds that such people almost invariably view whatever social structure happened to be in place at the time of their youth as being the just, correct and moral organization of society, and define ‘decadence’ as any deviation from this model. We should therefore be ready and willing to dismiss such arguments as the rubbish that they are, regardless of where they crop-up.
*Even these are often stupid; I mean, even if same-sex marriage led to polygamy, why would that bring about the end of civilization? Lots of civilizations have been polygamous and quite successful. Indeed, the Ottoman empire was, for a long time, a great deal more successful than its Christian contemporaries precisely because polygamy ensured the stability of its royal family.