Continuing my sharing of musings on liminality (aka the “threshold” places and times) from my doctorate. Having pondered liminality from the perspective of the individual, I’m moving on to think about entire societies entering a liminal, or transformational, phase – sort of in the hope that the world is entering one right now. Liminal spaces are never comfortable, but sometimes they are necessary. [The bits in square brackets are not in the draft of my thesis – they are just my flippant remarks to liven up a blog post.]
There are various analyses of the rise and fall of empires, but here I will focus on the 1976 essay, The Fate of Empires, by [the magnificently named] General Sir John Glubb. Glubb examined the life cycles of eight empires since 859 B.C., and concluded that each empire (Assyria, Persia, Greece, Rome, Arab, Marmeluke, Ottoman, Spain, Romanov Russia, and Britain) spanned around 250 years, or 10 generations, and passed through the following phases:
- The Age of Pioneers: expansion of territory
- The Age of Conquests: more expansion, not always peaceably
- The Age of Commerce: wealth is created through trade and innovation
- The Age of Affluence: all appears to be well, but the seeds of destruction are being sown
- The Age of Intellect: the acquired affluence enables people to pursue the life of the mind. Academic institutions may produce sceptical intellectuals who start to question the dominant narratives of the empire, undermining its authority
- The Age of Decadence: people indulge in excessive consumption in the pursuit of happiness, while in actuality becoming less happy. The civilisation creates diversions for the populace, from gladiator fights to Facebook and Instagram, while people indulge in addiction and debauchery. The values and discipline that enabled the creation of the empire are eroded
- The Age of Decline and Collapse: inequality grows, increasing numbers are excluded from meaningful work and the means to fulfil their potential. Discontent leads to disruption and the empire collapses.
Glubb points to the heroes of an empire as a key indicator of where it is in this life cycle. During the early phases, pioneers and warriors are lauded. Then come the entrepreneurs and merchants. Once celebrities such as film stars, musicians, and athletes become the main focus of popular attention, no matter how flawed their characters, the empire is in trouble. Clearly this is where many countries in the western world are now. [See my blog post on Kardashians.]
The British historian Arnold Toynbee, in his 12-volume A Study of History, argued that the collapse of civilizations is not caused either by losing control over the environment, or attacks from outside. He posits that societies that develop great expertise in problem solving develop strong structures for problem resolution that they try to apply to all problems. So when new problems arise, requiring new structures, the methodology fails. [To the person who has only a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Except that not everything is a nail.]
He also argues that, during a period of social decay, some people are able to respond by transcending the current reality, meeting the challenges of the decaying civilization with new insights. They are then well positioned to create new structures and schools of thought better suited to the new reality, around which a subsequent civilization may begin to form after the old one has passed away.
This harks back to Donella Meadows’s number one leverage point for transformation of a system: the ability to transcend the existing paradigm. Whether that transcendence happens proactively in order to change the system, or reactively in response to the decline of the old system, is open to debate. Picking up on the wave metaphor of societal transformation mentioned elsewhere, it may make little practical difference: it may be the timing of the new paradigm, rather than its rightness, that is most likely to determine its success. In Darwinian terms, the “fitness” of an idea may be determined more by its fitness for purpose at the time it arises, rather than its inherent strength.
The German philosopher Karl Jaspers, in Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte (The Origin and Goal of History), published in 1949, called this relatively fluid period of disruption an “axial age”, which he described as “an interregnum between two ages of great empire, a pause for liberty, a deep breath bringing the most lucid consciousness”. Bjorn Thomasson suggests that the Axial Age was a historically liminal period, when old certainties had lost their validity and new ones were still not ready.
These interstitial periods represent powerful transformational potential. Apparent chaos is an opportunity [to quote Petyr Baelish in Game of Thrones] for new ideas and structures to take hold and become established. I have for several years felt intuitively that there needs to be a strategy covering the most important aspects of human society such as food, water, transport, energy, education, economics, and so on, using the best knowledge that we have at our disposal to forge a better future as the old structures break down. In a perfect world, there would be a smooth transition; new structures would be put in place that are so obviously more fit for purpose than the old structures that people would make the transition voluntarily. However, history suggests that this is unlikely, given the human tendency to cling to the old and familiar rather than courageously embracing the new. While humans have an appetite for novelty in terms of acquiring new things, few wish to leap into the radical newness of the liminal void, even individually, let alone collectively.
So how do we coax humanity into entering the liminal space, into the place where we can collectively re-imagine the way we inhabit this Earth? The good news is that we don’t have to have 100% of people thinking along these lines. We don’t even need 50%. According to Social Diffusion Theory, in the bell curve of adoption, from the innovators through the early adopters, the majority, and eventually the laggards, the tipping point lies somewhere between 15% and 20%.
So even if you feel that kindred spirits are few, take heart. If you only encounter one person in five or six who has the courage to envision a better future, we’re on track. If you encounter fewer, see what you can do to tip them. If you encounter more, see how you can help them become more courageous advocates. Every conversation counts.