This blog post ends cheerfully, although has a lot of not-very-cheerful stuff on the way there. So if you’re feeling a bit anxious anyway, you might want to skip to the end, or at least pour yourself a stiff drink first (although definitely not before driving, and preferably not before breakfast).
First, though, a quick bit of news. I’ve got two new articles on Medium.com (well, actually, one of them came out a couple of weeks ago, but I forgot to tell you – sorry!). How To Overcome Your Own Self-Limiting Beliefs and, hot off the press yesterday, You Manifest What You Measure. Please read, enjoy, and share the love by sending to someone you care about who would benefit from these.
Right, now on with the blog…
Last October I wrote a blog post about the rise and fall of empires throughout history, inspired by the 1976 essay of Sir John Glubb, The Fate of Empires, which you can download for free here. I recommend it in its entirety (24 pages).
Some of it may rub up against contemporary social mores, particularly on immigration, but it is also insightful and prescient, foreshadowing the collapse of the Soviet Union, and even hinting at Brexit (he was writing in the early years of the formation of the EU) and the subsequent infighting between the Home Nations. If even 24 pages is too much, I’ve copied and pasted some quotes at the end of this blog post to give you a flavour, along with various other resources.
This week I’m picking up the somewhat apocalyptic theme of the decline of empires as I’ve just finished reading Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail, by William Ophuls. As books go, it’s another short read – it took me about an hour and a half, and I’m not a particularly fast reader. And it’s also hard to go fast when it feels like you’re reading the death warrant of our world.
Ophuls provides a compelling synopsis, based on the historical record, of the six major factors that propel civilizations toward breakdown, saying that “civilization is effectively hardwired for self-destruction”. If you can find ways to refute his arguments, please tell me, because I’d like to believe it’s not true, and his case is quite convincing.
So here we go. Let’s dive into this cheery hypothesis and the six factors.
1. Ecological Exhaustion
As a civilisation expands, so does its ecological footprint. To date, every civilisation has centred around a great city (Rome, Athens, Istanbul, etc) and cities tend to: a) have a higher per capita footprint than the average for the rest of the nation, and b) conceal from their inhabitants the extent of the ecological impacts (soil degradation, deforestation, declining aquifers, etc.). Even before the resources are totally exhausted, the cost of exploiting them becomes unfeasible.
Part of the problem is the time lag before the problem becomes evident:
“Unfortunately, the benefits accrue immediately, but the debts come due only later, so the momentum of development continues.”
And another part of the problem is the “law of the minimum”, meaning that the variable that is in the shortest supply becomes the limiting factor. It doesn’t help a civilisation much if it has bountiful building materials, or even food, if it has a shortage of drinkable water.
In many ways, it’s not our fault. It’s in the nature of every species.
“In pursuing greatness, human beings are simply expressing their biological nature. Biological evolution is driven by the tendency of all organisms to expand their habitat and exploit the available resources—just as bacteria in a Petri dish grow until they have consumed all the nutrients and then die in a toxic soup of their own waste.”
Just like bacteria, humans will expand just as much as they can, given the prevailing conditions. But remember the law of the minimum? What if those conditions change – say, due to a change in the climate, human-induced or otherwise?
“The law of the minimum has a corollary: consuming to the limit when times are flush leaves a civilization exposed to peril if resources decline in quality or quantity… consistently pressing ecological limits is risky to the point of being suicidal.”
For more on that, see Kate Raworth and Doughnut Economics – we’re already over our limits on 4 out of 9 planetary boundaries. That leaves us really vulnerable and over-exposed to any change in conditions.
2. Exponential Growth
As a species, we’re really rubbish at comprehending non-linear growth. Think of the bacteria in the Petri dish again, because we’re not so different. If they double in number every day, they’re probably still feeling pretty chill when their dish is one-eighth full. “Hey folks, loads of space – let’s stretch out and relax!” The next day their dish is still only one-quarter full. Still roomy. The next day it’s half full. Still no problem. The day after that….
Our population growth might be slower than bacteria, but it’s still happening really fast. The chart above might not look too scary. But how about this one, with a longer time span on the x axis?
Now we’re looking rather like those bacteria in the Petri dish.
3. Expedited Entropy
“The Second Law [of thermodynamics] states that entropy tends to increase (where entropy is a measure of chaos, randomness, and disorder). In layman’s terms, this means that energy tends to decay into less and less useful forms. In practice, therefore, every transformation of energy from one form to another incurs a loss. There may be just as much total energy after the transformation as before, but the quality of that energy will be poorer.”
In other words, as a civilisation “matures”, it needs more and more effort for the same results. Take agriculture as an example.
“Agricultural production is the foundation of civilized life. But the word production is a misnomer, for what humans actually do is mine the topsoil. Virgin soil is a complex ecosystem developed over millennia that contains a myriad of chemical elements and biological beings within a very specific physical structure. Humanity breaks into this ecological climax to profit from the rich store of energy that it contains.”
Especially with modern farming practices, which emphasise short term profits over long term sustainability, the soil is eroded, compacted, leached, and otherwise degraded. Modern sewerage systems don’t return the nutrients to the soil – instead they are flushed, treated, and discharged into rivers and oceans, never to return.
Similar story with oil, minerals, metals, etc. Used to be you could stick a nodding donkey somewhere in Texas and have a chance of striking oil. But all the easy stuff is gone, so now we’re having to resort to difficult, dirty, and costly sources of oil like tar sands and fracking.
We may be getting more efficient, but we’re still using up our natural capital. Efficiency may delay the day we run out, but not indefinitely.
4. Excessive Complexity
Civilisations tend to complexity. Unless you, dear reader, are very young, you have probably observed this in your own lifetime. If you feel that life has got more complicated – more technology, more forms, more structures, more stuff, more information – you’d be dead right.
“The civilization’s very greatness makes it unwieldy—hard to control and harder still to change. At some point, it is likely to encounter what Thomas Homer-Dixon calls an “ingenuity gap.” The human ability to cope lags the accumulating problems, until the chasm between the demand for ingenuity and the supply of it can no longer be bridged.”
(It was complexity (and greed) that was largely to blame for the 2008 financial crisis. As Robert Peston wrote in How Do We Fix This Mess? The Economic Price of Having it all, and the Route to Lasting Prosperity, as he is touring the trading floor of a major investment bank: “it occurred to me that if I didn’t understand what was actually happening on this trading floor, what risks were being created, it was highly likely that the directors on the board of Morgan Stanley didn’t understand the risks their firm was taking.”)
But we keep trying, slapping successive band-aids (legal, financial, structural) onto the problems, which only contributes to the complexity. We end up in a hopeless arms race against complexity that only makes it worse.
“Moreover, problems that were once separate begin to coalesce into a “problematique,” a nexus of problems that mutually aggravate each other.”
And we end up in a complex adaptive system, in which there are so many variables, so deeply connected, that everything we do creates consequences, and predicting those consequences is nigh on impossible.
“Beyond a certain point, growth leads to a fundamental, qualitative change in the nature of systems. Specifically, it leads to what scientists call “chaos,” meaning that a system is characterized by so many feedback loops operating in a nonlinear fashion that its behavior becomes more and more impenetrable and unpredictable and therefore less and less manageable, because neither the timing nor the severity of specific events is foreseeable.”
5. Moral Decay
Ophuls references Glubb’s essay, and the downsides of the Age of Intellect. See if these quotes resonate:
The hubristic belief that we can technologise our way out of anything, without having to compromise our lifestyles:
“The excessively rational approach to life characteristic of the Age of Intellect also fosters “the unconscious growth of the idea that the human brain can solve the problems of the world” by mere cleverness, without effort, dedication, or sacrifice on the part of individuals. Thus problems are addressed with simplistic policies that are not supported by political will and are therefore doomed to failure.”
“The most dangerous byproduct of the unceasing cacophony is a growth in civil dissension. As Glubb notes, people are “interminably different, and intellectual arguments rarely lead to agreement.” To the contrary, they lead to polarization, so “internal rivalries become more acute.”
Celebrity culture, the 1%, obesity and mental health epidemics:
“An Age of Decadence inevitably follows. Frivolity, aestheticism, hedonism, cynicism, pessimism, narcissism, consumerism, materialism, nihilism, fatalism, fanaticism, and other negative attributes, attitudes, and behaviors suffuse the population. Politics is increasingly corrupt, life increasingly unjust. A cabal of insiders accrues wealth and power at the expense of the citizenry, fostering a fatal opposition of interests between haves and have-nots. Mental and physical illness proliferates.”
Sound like any countries you know?
But we’re smart. And now that we know the dangers, surely we can avoid them. Sure, no previous civilisation has managed to avert disaster, but we’re the most developed society that has ever walked the Earth. If any generation can save itself, we can!
Or maybe not:
“We could possibly do a better job of managing or arresting decline if not for one final, fatal factor. Human beings are barely evolved primates driven by greed, fear, and other powerful emotions… In addition, humans are only partly rational, so they also suffer multiple mental aberrations—delusions, compulsions, manias, idées fixes, and the like.”
6. Practical Failure
“A developing civilization grows steadily more complex and increasingly less manageable over time, preparing the way for its eventual demise. Only a race of supremely intelligent, rational, and wise beings could so order their affairs and so limit their behavior as to avoid this outcome. Human beings are not such a race.”
The fundamental problem is this: the people with the power to change the system are the ones who have benefited from the system being exactly as it is. So they have nothing to gain by changing it, and everything to lose.
“The civilization’s elites may understand that the system is dysfunctional, but fundamental reform would require major sacrifice on their part, so they fight to preserve their privilege and power instead. Increasingly polarized, they dissipate their energy in factional struggle instead of problem solving. Besides, says Ronald Wright, “They continue to prosper in darkening times long after the environment and general populace begin to suffer.””
And so the status quo remains firmly in place, while civilisation goes to hell in a handbasket.
So are we totally up the proverbial creek without the proverbial paddle?
Ophuls is not optimistic. A large part of the problem is that, by the time the participants in the civilisation notice what’s going on, it’s already too late:
“The process is insidious. Limits constrict by degrees. Decay creeps in unnoticed. It is only late in the game—usually too late to do much about it—that those living become aware of a gradual and imperceptible transformation that has rendered the civilization increasingly tired, depleted, impoverished, vulnerable, and ineffectual.”
“Those afflicted by hubris become the agents of their own destruction. Like a tragic hero, a civilization comes to a ruinous end due to intrinsic flaws that are the shadow side of its very virtues.”
And now for the cheerful(ish) bit.
So what can we do? Well, without wanting to get too “prepper” here – because really, stashing ten thousand cans of beans in your basement is not going to help in the long run – small can be beautiful. As Bill McKibben urges in Eaarth (sic), we can build resilience by localising food production, which minimises agricultural chemicals, plastic, and transportation. (I’m signing up for a permaculture course, looking at social permaculture as well as horticultural. I will let you know how it goes.)
You don’t have time for gardening? Form a group with some local friends to share the chores. Maybe you provide more money (if that’s what you have) and they provide more time (if that’s what they have). It works in Bali (see this article by Bernard Lietaer, wonderful for so many reasons).
We can also choose leaders who have the ability to face the future with a sense of reality, to name the ecological elephant in the room, and set a plan for riding out the seas of change.
I was talking with my coach, Lisa Marshall, about this the other day. I remarked that we need a 21st century Churchill, who for all his many flaws, found his calling in the dark days of the Second World War. He didn’t sugar-coat the truth, but faced it honestly and bravely, encouraging the nation that we would get through this by facing the challenges together.
“Yes”, agreed Lisa. “That’s why I called my book Speak the Truth and Point to Hope“. (I think she did actually speak in hyperlink for a moment there.)
Duh. Embarrassing when you share your dazzling insight with your coach and then they remind you that they wrote the book about it.
And finally, do you believe we could completely change the way we think?
Ophuls says, with no great degree of confidence:
“To the extent that we can do something, the required measures are far outside the bounds of what is feasible or even thinkable today… a genuine cure would require a revolution in human thought greater than the one that created the modern world.”
I’ve shared some thoughts on this in a previous blog post, The Shift in Consciousness (and what does that even mean?), with quotes from such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Joanna Macy, Paul Ehrlich and Arne Naess.
This is, I believe, the invitation of our times. Now that we are at the 11th hour, can we find it in ourselves to transcend our paradigm, change our thought systems, and switch to a different way of being in the world, virtually overnight?
It sounds unlikely, but the very thing about a chaotic system that makes it so scary, could also make it our only potential saviour. Ophuls quotes Scott Page:
“An actor in a complex system controls almost nothing, yet influences almost everything.”
YOU are an actor in a complex system. The only thing you have any hope of controlling is yourself. What do you want to try and influence?
If you want to dive deeper, here are some additional resources.
George Monbiot on Medium.com: The Earth Is in a Death Spiral. It Will Take Radical Action to Save Us
“the short-term interests of the elite are radically different to the long-term interests of society” (echoing Jared Diamond TED Talk: “Conflict of interest between the short-term goals of the ruling elite, and the long-term interests of the society as a whole, especially if the elite are able to insulate themselves from the impacts”
“only those who stand outside the failed institutions can lead this effort.”
“Two tasks need to be performed simultaneously: throwing ourselves at the possibility of averting collapse, as Extinction Rebellion is doing, slight though this possibility may appear; and preparing ourselves for the likely failure of these efforts, terrifying as this prospect is. Both tasks require a complete revision of our relationship with the living planet.”
Jason Hickel: Why Growth Can’t Be Green
“Even under the best conditions, absolute decoupling of GDP from resource use is not possible on a global scale.”
“A team of scientists led by the German researcher Monika Dittrich first raised doubts in 2012. The group ran a sophisticated computer model that predicted what would happen to global resource use if economic growth continued on its current trajectory, increasing at about 2 to 3 percent per year. It found that human consumption of natural resources (including fish, livestock, forests, metals, minerals, and fossil fuels) would rise from 70 billion metric tons per year in 2012 to 180 billion metric tons per year by 2050. For reference, a sustainable level of resource use is about 50 billion metric tons per year—a boundary we breached back in 2000.”
Kevin MacKay: The Ecological Crisis is a Political Crisis
Based on his book, Radical Transformation: Oligarchy, Collapse, and the Crisis of Civilization
He identifies five key negative forces:
- Dissociation: Individuals, organisations and governments are disconnected from the impacts of their decisions on the natural world and other humans. Because they can’t see the consequences, it’s hard for them to make rational or ethical choices.
- Complexity: “the world-spanning nature of industrial capitalist civilization, and the massive number of interrelationships it represents, make predicting the effect of any given change on the system as a whole devilishly difficult.” Complexity can also make the effects sudden, catastrophic, and impossible to contain.
- Stratification: economic inequality leads to political instability and societal breakdown, undermining the society’s ability to respond.
- Overshoot: “Our civilization is critically degrading the biosphere, burning through non-renewable energy sources, and shifting the entire climatic balance.”
- Oligarchy: A small, wealthy elite control political decision-making. They have benefited from the status quo, so their motivation to change it is small to non-existent.
Extracts from The Fate of Empires, by Sir John Glubb:
The Age of Affluence: There does not appear to be any doubt that money is the agent which causes the decline of this strong, brave and self-confident people… The first direction in which wealth injures the nation is a moral one. Money replaces honour and adventure as the objective of the best young men. Moreover, men do not normally seek to make money for their country or their community, but for themselves… The object of the young and the ambitious is no longer fame, honour or service, but cash… Education undergoes the same gradual transformation. No longer do schools aim at producing brave patriots ready to serve their country. Parents and students alike seek the educational qualifications which will command the highest salaries… greed for money is gradually replacing duty and public service. Indeed the change might be summarised as being from service to selfishness.
The Age of Intellect: Men are interminably different, and intellectual arguments rarely lead to agreement. Thus public affairs drift from bad to worse, amid an unceasing cacophony of argument. But this constant dedication to discussion seems to destroy the power of action. Amid a Babel of talk, the ship drifts on to the rocks… Perhaps the most dangerous by-product of the Age of Intellect is the unconscious growth of the idea that the human brain can solve the problems of the world. Even on the low level of practical affairs this is patently untrue. Any small human activity, the local bowls club or the ladies’ luncheon club, requires for its survival a measure of self- sacrifice and service on the part of the members. In a wider national sphere, the survival of the nation depends basically on the loyalty and self-sacrifice of the citizens. The impression that the situation can be saved by mental cleverness, without unselfishness or human self-dedication, can only lead to collapse.
The Age of Decline and Collapse: Another remarkable and unexpected symptom of national decline is the intensification of internal political hatreds. One would have expected that, when the survival of the nation became precarious, political factions would drop their rivalry and stand shoulder-to-shoulder to save their country… internal rivalries become more acute, as the nation becomes weaker… when decline sets in, it is extraordinary how the memory of ancient wars, perhaps centuries before, is suddenly revived, and local or provincial movements appear demanding secession or independence. Some day this phenomenon will doubtless appear in the now apparently monolithic and authoritarian Soviet empire. It is amazing for how long such provincial sentiments can survive.
The belief that their nation would rule the world forever, naturally encouraged the citizens of the leading nation of any period to attribute their pre-eminence to hereditary virtues. They carried in their blood, they believed, qualities which constituted them a race of supermen
…the age of decline of a great nation is often a period which shows a tendency to philanthropy and to sympathy for other races. This phase may not be contradictory to the feeling described in the previous paragraph, that the dominant race has the right to rule the world. For the citizens of the great nation enjoy the role of Lady Bountiful. As long as it retains its status of leadership, the imperial people are glad to be generous, even if slightly condescending. The rights of citizenship are generously bestowed on every race, even those formerly subject, and the equality of mankind is proclaimed.
Glubb on the European Union: “The present attempts to create a European community may be regarded as a practical endeavour to constitute a new super-power, in spite of the fragmentation resulting from the craze for independence. If it succeeds, some of the local independencies will have to be sacrificed. If it fails, the same result may be attained by military conquest, or by the partition of Europe between rival super-powers. The inescapable conclusion seems, however, to be that larger territorial units are a benefit to commerce and to public stability, whether the broader territory be achieved by voluntary association or by military action. “
Conclusion: However varied, confusing and contradictory the religious history of the world may appear, the noblest and most spiritual of the devotees of all religions seem to reach the conclusion that love is the key to human life. Any expansion of our knowledge which may lead to a reduction in our unjustified hates is therefore surely well worth while.