Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Decline of Western Civilization


In a book called the Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler he suggests 1914 was the beginning of the decline of western civilization. I feel more comfortable pegging the start of decline when the World Trade Center towers fell.  Progress was not a sure thing till then but it still seemed as if good decisions could ameliorate decline. So  it's not the end of history it's just the end of industrial/technological expansion.  Spengler's insight is that cultures have a natural life span, like people, and these  phases almost organically follow one another just as youth, adolescence, maturity, and senescence have a chronological order.  One stage follows the next.  

So when did the idea that Western Civilization (industrial society) was going to “collapse” first occur to me? It was in discussing Guns, Germs, and Steel with my Dad at our weekly lunches, thinking about how cultures become ossified and hard to change, realizing ours was one huge interlocking worldwide complexity and subject to many vulnerabilities.   Diamond's next book was Collapse!  So it was 2003-2004.  Growing up I assumed that things would continue getting better because they had always done so.  It was a bright and happy view of the future for a young person.   I make no Cassandra like claims that “I knew failure of civilization was inevitable” but I can report that in thinking about a socially productive career in the early 70’s,  I stumbled on Lester Brown’s article on the Coming World Food Crisis in Foreign Policy Magazine and was grabbed by the idea of an international policy career. A helping career.  A "social justice warrior (SJW)" career.   The article introduced me to Malthus for the first time.  Now Malthus had been a known quantity for a long time and his predictions of future mass starvation due to geometric population increase were made in the 1790’s. They have not come true.  We have only gotten richer, more comfortable and well fed. Conditions have changed however; the wilderness we inherited is gone to parking lots, factories, and suburbs. Our natural ecosystem has been substantially degraded in the last 50 years and environmental pollution has made the planet a lot less bio-diverse. Our air, water, oceans, forests are not as healthy as they were 100 years ago.  When I was born there were less than 3 billion people in the world and when I started my professional public policy career in 1975 there were not yet 4 billion.  Today we have 7 billion.  I sought to improve the condition of the world's poorest billion people through targeted development assistance but today there are more hungry people, despite all our growth and development efforts, than there were then. There is more war and more refugees.  We have demonstrably failed thus far at creating a roughly equitable and sustainable world.  Since it is not “sustainable”, it will decline, degenerate, or “collapse”.  All the same process just a difference in rate of change.
     The essential recognition then was that the USA used 25% of the world's resources and yet was only 5% of the world's population.  Fortune had put us in a sweet spot and if we were truly interested in justice-then WE would be getting a lot poorer in the pursuit of an equality that included all the world's people. I didn't think America wanted to face that Reality and my quick calculation in 1979 was that world p/c income was approximately $2,000 or 10x less than our p/c income of $20,000.  "Development" that aspired to bring the world's poor up to our standards with trade and aid were doomed to fail.  We needed another model that focused on environmental stewardship and economic sustainability.
      The oil crisis of 1973 was a wake-up call that our US economy was dependent upon ever more oil consumption.  Peak oil production for the USA was in 1972.  Alaskan oil has allowed us to cushion the rate of decline and  pretend it is Morning in America for another 30 years. Instead of conservation, we sold SUV's to suburbia.  Our current fracking effort has temporarily increased our declining production but it will not return oil production to early 1970’s levels.   World peak oil production occurred around 2010.  Currently we are bumping along a plateau  in production with the price generally dependent upon the level of economic activity.  We are dependent on “cheap oil” to run our civilization but it is no longer cheap.  Our way of life needs a downsizing but our focus is still on increasing growth not fostering sustainability.  We have been incredibly wasteful over the years with our precious oil resources. "Price" does not completely capture the importance of a liquefied, dense, energy source. It may be a heretical idea, being a capitalist market economy and all, but our short term focus may not give oil its proper long term value.  It does not "count" the value in 100 years to our children.  A little careful utilization and a focus on efficiency would have gone a long way toward making the necessary decline in global interdependence and complexity less dramatic.  This “rightsizing” process is Collapse of the growth myth.  The process is actually one of simplification. We could say that our modern task is to de-construct our global interdependent world and  control our ragged stagger to sustainability.

   So how fast are we declining?  Right now we are at peak.   In retrospect we may be able to pick a point but for now it is a plateau.  Our “decline” or “collapse” is personal not generalized.  The poor are getting poorer and the middle class is shrinking. More individuals are becoming worse off in the US/Europe than are becoming better off.  In poor countries it may be true that more are becoming better off ( I am thinking of China) but I think perhaps with greater vulnerability.   Many thoughtful commentators (Diamond, Catton, Heinberg,  Foss, Martenson, Kunstler, Greer, Orlov) feel major collapse is coming SOON but most people I talk to are content to believe in the future, believe in the political process and just go along putting money in their 401-Ks and sending their kids off to college to get a good job.  Their future sense is positive.  As in the past, the future will be better.  When civilization is ascending—our collective sights are set on the stars and the improving Future.  Our capabilities are like the engines of a rocket accelerating and blasting us higher but when the engines cut out we start coasting.  Our civilization is currently coasting. We have arrived where we have always been heading-masters of the illusions we created and now subject to the gravity of reality.  We are surveying the world from the heights of our achievement, but we are not headed higher. We will bump along the plateau for awhile trying to figure out which direction to go,  and then we will head down.  How far, how fast?  With the engines off and out of fuel, the direction is set but the trajectory is unclear, will it be slow or fast? A glide path or a stall?   Do I need to persuade you of this or do you already know it?  I think you already know it.  There is a possibility that Science, Technology, and Progress will “save” us but it is an article of faith and not demonstrably certain. Our belief in Progress or Science and Technology suggests we will continue improving and continue growing, like experience has taught us, but it is possible that conditions are “different this time” and we may not be attending to the most important facts.  Our faith in Progress may be an illusion.

It seems analogous to the mid-19th century when a God centered universe placed mankind at the center of his concern. It was obvious that Nature was all about us but Darwin told a different story. We are ephemeral and transitional.  The dinosaurs died after 120 million years roaming the planet and so might we.  Now the Faithful operate with a different set of beliefs.  Spiritual belief has many forms or paths to Truth, but its essential task is to free man from materialism and provide salvation by certifying the Good.  If, as they assume, the next world is all that really matters, many believers do not have to worry so much about conditions in this world. Perhaps we can just write this ephemeral experiment off as a failure. Prepare for the Second Coming.  Rapture. Reincarnation.  Christians have always understood us as sinners. Humans are flawed and will go extinct when  God takes back his own. Your only earthly project is to acknowledge your ultimate dependence on God and your human limitations.

    Collapse thinking requires a psychological state of acceptance like being told you have a fatal disease. You can deny it but eventually you have to do the Kubler-Ross thing.  (You do have a fatal disease, it is called being born.) You can persist in your illusions of permanence but it is not true. Our civilization has a support system that no longer works for the majority.  It works fine for the rich and well connected but not the poor, war torn refugees, slum dwellers, and the homeless. And maybe not for you and your children. So if this decline is happening and unavoidable why are our leaders not discussing it? They may still be gripped in the progress myth or they may know but don't have an alternative.  Perhaps they are preparing for things to be alright for them but they don’t have a plan for me and you.  They may be doing the best they can or they are clueless and craven opportunists.  I don’t think WE know what sort of leaders we need.  Changing conditions after centuries of progress have not shown us what we must do.  Sinking in a limitless sea we are unsure which way to swim for shore.

So if we do not give Malthus any credit for being prophetic about future famine and collapse then let’s single out Hubbert—a paper in 1955 predicting world peak oil production in 2005 (close to when it occurred).  In the 60's & 70’s, nuclear energy  was going to take up the slack in energy production but of course it was expensive and dangerous.  Even after 40 years of experience with nuclear, I do not want to increase its role in energy production, I would like to decrease it like Japan and Germany have attempted to do. I'd like to go further. Clean up the toxic mess at all the nuclear facilities while we still have resources to do so.  Who wants oozing radioactive sites when the electricity grid fails?  Another Cassandra was Rachel Carson.  We don’t even know how many or how bad the toxins in our environment are:   nano-plastics, pesticides, GMO's, top soil loss, fresh water quality/aquifer depletion.   Donella and Dennis Meadows modeled Limits to Growth in 1972 and pegged 2015 as the crossover from falling resource availability to rising pollution costs.  Those predictions have been roughly accurate and show that we are now entering the age of contraction.  The Soviet Union “collapsed” in 1990 and numerous other countries have politically fractured:  Somalia, Sudan, Yugoslavia, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Ukraine.  Other countries have “wobbled” and are limping along:  Argentina, Cyprus, Venezuela, Greece, Spain, Italy.  The global interdependent world system is on the ropes.  Is there another system?  Is there another idea about how to organize things?  The elite tend to think more centralization will be helpful.  This is obvious, they run things. A world government, a world financial system with a common currency is suggested. I think not.  I think we are in downsizing mode.  There is nothing we can all agree on so it’s take care of your own backyard.  We could call this the managing decline model.  A new localism.
    The image that accompanies "collapse" is running people.  When a society collapses we call these people refugees.  We have a lot of refugees because of failing societies.  First we have to stop this war nonsense.  We have to make where people live, livable.  If we destroy the infrastructure in all these countries, where are the people going to go?  We already know that when we turn Mexico into a drug supplier for our bad habits then the crossfire is going to send them HERE.  Blowing up Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya has put millions of people in untenable environments.  And that is not counting Egypt, Sudan, and the rest of Africa.  Is S. America any better?  Brazil is trying to host the Olympics in a Zika frenzy-well we’ll see how they do and Argentina has the usual inflation problems but they both pale beside the oil rich Venezuela that is sliding toward disaster.  I have not heard that things are going well in Central America—too many people, too few opportunities.  They have gang problems as well.  So a number of areas are struggling with what could be called societal breakdown. Some of it is a result of interference from outside interests that are acquiring resources or exploiting gains from trade.  Other breakdown is a result of factions within the country.  These divisions can be roughly broken down into legitimate opposition and criminal opposition.  Criminal opposition to state power is present in every country and organizes to protect itself.  It becomes "organized crime".  All the rackets present in every country from drugs, to gambling, to sex trafficking, to protection, to counterfeiting products, to running scams and tax evasion are narrow hierarchical systems that employ and prey upon those left out of the status quo.  If we have seen The Godfather movies we know the basic structure of this kind of social organization.  One's primary loyalty is not to the disembodied State or the ideals of democracy, it is fealty to the leader.  It tends to assume a zero sum solution, with us or against us. Political opposition in a country is a little different.  It operates under laws that specify the rules of the game to acquire political power. Private companies seek rules that benefit them.  Not too surprising there. Lobbyists, interest groups, activist groups, and political parties make up this "legal" influence on State action.  These battles are constant:  who gets regulated, who gets taxed, who gets subsidies, who gets contracts.   So we have outsiders, insider factions, and criminals who have "interests" in every locale.  There is no "Away".  We are all in the game.

What may be dawning on us and is different than the recent past here in America is our understanding that the status quo is not benign and supportive of our wish to pursue our private individual interest.  Government appears to be interested in defining "us", as Bush the younger tried, with "you are either for us or against us" or in categorizing us as members of a group:  WASP, Latino, Gay, Evangelical, Democrat .   Although I am "for" the fight against terrorism I am "against" how we are pursuing it.  Thus we are free as long as we follow the rules  and do what we are told.  These requirements could get gradually more onerous.  Yes you are free--send me 1/3 of your income, buy health insurance, register for the draft. Someone decides we need a toxic waste dump and we have decided to put it in your neighborhood.  States are required to provide prisons of an acceptable standard with no funds to do so.  Immigrants from wherever must be housed and sent to schools at your expense.  You should report anything suspicious--spy on your brother now. Do what is asked of you or be cast down with the sodomites to quote a notable jailer.  There is no "right" to be left alone.  Demographically and politically we are defined into groups and manipulated against one another, all the better to manage us.  If we accept the category assigned to us then we are provided the proper response against the evil (or just misguided) "others".
   America defines itself as the land where categories melt into E pluribus unum.  This has always been more of an ideal than a reality though 100 years of increasing income has solidified the central ideal that America is about a future of "Progress".  It is both the exceptional and indispensable nation.  We are neither but seem predisposed to meddle to prove to ourselves that we matter.  The ideology of "growth" funds the belief in Progress but if the majority of people are not improving, the future of individual freedom is in danger of being lost.This notion of individuality and melting pot unity has reached a state of extreme psychosis in the national mind.  What is America beyond "show me the money"?  It is an "opportunity" without a coherent narrative anymore.  Diversity leads to Balkanization, not to unity.  A right to something is necessarily someone else's obligation to provide it.
    The term "collapse" is a terrifying image.  It seems to me that TV and movies have taken upon themselves the artistic challenge of presenting  various alternative images of collapse.   For the last 10+ years we have been given images of dysfunction and dystopia:  Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, Hunger Games to prepare us psychologically for a shift in our living conditions.  Years of being "entertained" by violence and sex" have left us expecting a world where that rather than justice matters.  Is it even possible to walk back to a world that honors virtue more than avarice?   What road could we plausibly take to return to a world of trust and hope that does not seem ironic or hypocritical?  Our leaders do not seem predisposed to deliver it.  Decline is manageable with good leadership but collapse is certain without it.  Whither America?  

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