THE BIG PICTURE, BIG HISTORY
Is “Western Civilisation” in peril?
Not obviously. The recent BBC story (1) is crying wolf.
FEATURED IMAGE…… Camille Pissarro (1837-1903). 1901 The fair, Dieppe, sunny afternoon, oil on canvas, 73.5 x 92.1 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA
JMW Turner (1776-1852), 1812, Snow Storm, Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, Oil on canvas, 145 x 236,5 cm. Tate Gallery, London. c1835-40, Northam castle sunrise c. 1835-40; Oil on canvas, 78 x 122 cm, Tate Gallery, London
- Talk of the threat of apocalyptic denouement, “Western” civilisation collapse, often recalling Rome, is basically misleading self-serving alarmism.
- The outlook? Most likely generally boring, more of the same?
- Comparisons with the fall of old Rome are spurious.
- Two major radical sets of circumstances have transformed Man’s capacity to manage his future? Technology and the “Western” model.
- There is a (very?) small chance of “catastrophic” disruption from unforeseen exogenous natural shocks (volcanoes, pandemics etc).
- And a (very?) small chance of dramatic endogenous disruption (rogue nuclear explosions)
THE OUTLOOK? A prognosis: don’t worry, keep pedalling!
The most likely outlook, broadly speaking, locally and globally, is more of the same?
Yes there will always be economic and political “problems” because economic growth, change is inherently disruptive, driven by:
- Ongoing technical change, in particular.
- Companies / countries competing keenly for customers.
- Some incompetent under-performing governments.
- Corruption, actors in whatever entity or jurisdiction “stealing” money.
- Imperfections in bringing miscreants to justice.
And there will be ongoing but manageable exogenous “natural disasters” to cope with.
The implications of “global warming” are unclear? Both the likely extent and the outcomes for any given extent? We know from history that the big climate problems have been sustained drought and global cooling.
But the two fundamental long term game-changers of the past century or so, of technological take-off, and the rational “Western” politico-economic model, give some broad cause for hope in Man collectively managing his affairs for the better.
HISTORIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: scrutinise views carefully
A popular topic.
Thus the BBC has just run the story (How Western civilisation could collapse (1)).
It’s a popular topic, one that always gets attention, attracts comment, and commentators.
Popular case studies from history.
The collapse of ancient Rome is the perennial favourite from history, everyone’s go to for collapse story, because:
1/it was spectacular, thus Rome’s Empire was big, ringed the Mediterranean, covered all of Western Europe, then the population of Rome fell from over a million at its peak 2nd C AD to maybe 50,000 late 6th C?
2/ Rome was the “West” then, and more.
But there were other cases.
The end of the Bronze Age, c1200BC, is less well known but was momentous, encompassing and emphatic, as dramatic and important as Rome?
And we have cases in other continents, like 1/ end of Old Kingdom Egypt, c2200BC; 2/ end of the Mayans in central America, in 9th C AD; 3/ end of Angkor civilisation in SE Asia, early 15th C; 4/ end of the Harappan / Indus Valley civilisation, c1800BC.
But beware the sensationalists coming with agendas.
Because the topic is intrinsically popular it attracts people with personal agendas, vested interests, like academics, popular historians etc trying to build careers, sell books etc.
Many observers here play on vicarious or ghoulish curiosity for past “dark” periods, of societal breakdown, and hence fears that they might return, per Cormac McCarthy’s recent The Road.
Some bring religious agendas, ruminate on apocalypse scenarios laden with appeal for believers, comfortable in their mind that they will survive in another dimension.
A common feature of some relevant commentary is stressing the element of “mystery”, even if cool analysis suggests otherwise. But again “mystery” sells.
THE WORRY TODAY? According to the BBC.
A recent BBC article (1) rounds up a diverse bunch of worriers, thus:
1/ computer modellers, Safa Motesharrei, a systems scientist at the University of Maryland, and his colleagues, in a 2014 paper, for whom “two factors … matter: ecological strain (“depletion of natural resources”) and economic stratification. ..”
Thus: “elites push society toward instability and eventual collapse by hoarding huge quantities of wealth and resources, and leaving little or none for commoners who vastly outnumber them yet support them with labour”
2/ Jorgen Randers, a professor emeritus of climate strategy at the BI Norwegian Business School. Climate change is a bother for him, The climate problem will get worse and worse and worse because we won’t be able to live up to what we’ve promised to do in the Paris Agreement and elsewhere.” And inequity too.
3/ Thomas Homer-Dixon, “chair of global systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Canada”, author of “The Upside of Down”, worries about sudden “nonlinearities”, discontinuities. And empire over-reach? Like Rome getting greedy? And “complexity”? Thus he draws much on Tainter’s work, per below. Throw in waves of migrants, and, yes, inequality.
4/ Joseph Tainter (anthropologist), professor of environment and society at Utah State University, author of The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988, which looked at “collapse” of Chaco, Maya and Western Rome)”, who is worried about.. complexity! And yes it’s back to good old Rome.
For him “investment in complexity as a problem-solving strategy reaches a point of diminishing returns, leading to fiscal weakness and vulnerability to collapse”.
What a clutter of woolly confusion.
THE PAST? Climate change the big culprit, and also warfare.
Looking at the past the TWO big factors that stand out in causing major collective disruption for large societies are 1/ climate change and 2/ warfare.
Climate change (CC) seems to have played a major role, seems to be by far the biggest culprit.
And by CC here we usually mean drought, sustained drought. The evidence for dramatic episodes of past CC has mushroomed in the past half century, particularly through data from like drill core, and tree rings.
It is almost certainly caused the end of the Bronze Age, c1200 BC, where a cluster of major “civilisations” round the Eastern Mediterranean (Mycenae, Hittites etc) expired more or less together, and emphatically.
It also seems very like to have closed Old Kingdom Egypt, the Mayans, Angkor Wat, and the Harappan / Indus Valley civilisation.
In North America the Great Drought across some decades around c1300 AD had a major impact on the Ancestral Pueblo people (including Chaco Canyon) and the Mississippian culture.
And going far back, to the ice ages and beyond, CC has been a massive factor in Man’s deep history. Only about 14,000 years ago, a blink in the c5m year history of hominid species, an ice sheet covered northern Europe, many 100s of metres deep over present London.
Warfare? This raises the fall of old Rome.
Despite some talking up “mystery” here, and while one can argue about the details, there is NO doubt that what felled old Rome – the pre-eminent factor -was “warfare”, and warfare associated with a flood of incomers, “refugees” from the east. Yes Rome had internal problems in coping with the inrush but the major factor was numbers of refugees, who ultimately would not, did not take no for an answer, so they fought.
Why the flood from the east? There was pull, attracted by the wealth of Rome, and it seems too there was meaningful “push” from climate change?
Rome is a unique case in the European context. We talk of “collapse” because it grew so big then fell so far.
However while warfare is obviously destructive – sometimes very destructive – it doesn’t always cause “collapse”.
Two mighty wars in Europe were the 30 Years War in the 17th C, which ravaged central Europe, and the World War of the 20th C, parts 1 and 2.
But neither war – while devastating for direct participants – caused civilisation “collapse”.
But there are some cases from history elsewhere, especially China, where “warfare”, allied with endogenous weaknesses, brought something close to collapse, like the Mongol invasion c 1250, then the Manchus c 1650. Though both times they recovered, and obviously are still with us.
THE PAST? Endogenous factors: “complexity”, “inequality”? Vague and unhelpful?
“Complexity” and “inequality” are endogenous factors, internal symptoms that emerge as “civilisations” develop, grow.
But the problem with advancing them as causes of “collapse” is simply, how? Why? What’s the mechanism for causing “collapse”?
All “civilisations” are “complex” by definition, and all emerge with varying degrees of inequality, often or usually marked.
But so what.
We need a precise mechanism for why they might cause “collapse”, otherwise it becomes a circular or tautological argument.
However two important endogenous factors which have had a big impact on the course of history, across millennia, are leadership and, more vaguely, internal ossification.
Thus yes they likely contributed to the fall off Rome, hastened its demise, even if were not the main factor.
Alexander the Great is a prime example of leadership causing “disruption”, certainly for the Persians, though what lasting impact his depredations had is debatable.
THE OUTLOOK? Two major new radical changes now condition history’s “lessons”?
Most commentators on the “collapse” tack keenly to the “lessons” of history, rake over past “collapses” for helpful clues to our future.
But arguably two momentous sets of change have emerged in recent centuries in “Western civilisation” which now impact on, condition how we might learn from “lessons” of history, and also how we deal with the future.
The first is Man’s technological take-off which, notwithstanding earlier green shoots, really started more or less in the 17th C, gathered steam (!) in the 18th, took off in the 19th, and erupted in the 20th.
The implications of this take-off – and the resulting ever mounting corpus of technical knowledge – are hotly debated but what’s not in doubt is their impact on Man’s collective circumstances.
Applying technology has allowed historically unparalleled growth in material prosperity, globally, notwithstanding work still to do.
Arguably this factor is without doubt the single biggest change in circumstances for the human species in recorded history, if not since the end of the last ice age, if not the last 4 million years!
The second factor – less precise but perhaps as important in its own way – concerns collective human organisation (political, social and economic), namely the emergence of the rational “Western”, enfranchised, rule-of-law based, “neo-liberal”, liberal/social democratic model.
This model emerged in Europe, and has consolidated especially through the size and success of its offshoot in the USA.
Married to the technical take-off it has had a phenomenal impact on Man’s material economic affairs, whatever the imperfections in the outcome.
While it is called “Western”, because of its origins, the model has now taken root to a greater or lesser extent across the world, despite obvious scope for argument on the “greater or lesser”.
So it is now effectively a global model.
Thus it applies meaningfully to India, and some other countries in Asia, especially Japan and Korea. And it applies in parts of South America, and Africa.
It now clearly even applies to some significant extent to China. Yes China is in no way a liberal democracy but its economy now has a substantial private sector, and is now closely engaged with the global “Western” economy, through trade and investment.
This emergence of this model has major implications for 1/ how Man exploits, applies the pivotal technological take-off and, probably, 2/ resort to warfare.
Looking back at history’s “lessons”, at the problem of climate change, there is no doubt Man’s capacity to cope with climate change is vastly enhanced by these two new realities.
And maybe his past predilection for warfare will be undermined by the second factor.
THE OUTLOOK? “Collapse” seems highly unlikely, barring unforeseen exogenous shocks.
First let’s hit “complexity” and “inequality” to leg!
These factors seem quite spurious, seem in no way pose existential threats to ”Western civilisation”?
They might have implications for detailed economic and political outcomes, might cause problems to be managed, but, based on current analysis, there is remotely no way they can threaten system “collapse”.
The same applies to ”energy”, cited by some as potential major disruption. There seems little doubt that ongoing technical change, accessing renewable energy, will eventually lead to cheap, limitless available energy.
Second, climate change (CC). This is now a crowd favourite by any reckoning.
As we have seen CC has been a mighty factor in affecting Man’s past.
And now global warming (GW) worries many, as a major threat to the globe.
It’s a very complex issue, especially disentangling underlying “natural” change (which, as we’ve seen, in the past has been important) and Man’s impact, ie anthropomorphic change.
Who knows how warm it will get but two points are clear.
First, GW is a far easier challenge than global cooling, which has been the big issue for Man before.
Second, how Man copes with, adapts to GW, compared to CC crises long ago, will, first, be hugely advantaged by, mollified by his access to technology, and will, second be greatly helped by the emergence globally of the “Western” politico-economic model, notwithstanding difficulties to date in reaching action agreement.
So the difference with how Man faced deleterious climate in the past is stark.
Third, warfare? Well the big question here obviously is China. And yes there is a school of thought (especially in the US?) which highlights this danger, risk.
Yes there’s a chance but realistically is seems very low, simply because the economic consequences for both sides would likely be catastrophic. China, after huge economic achievement since it “saw the light” c1980, remains strongly focussed on ongoing economic advancement.
War would be utterly unproductive.
Fourth, asymmetric “warfare”? There is a (small) chance of mass casualties from a terrorist attack using WMD, nuclear weapons etc. We include North Korea. But this in no way threatens “civilisations”.
Do other factors pose existential threats?
Yes the big ones are exogenous, left-field, natural disasters, like the asteroid at the end of the Cretaceous, c62my ago.
The chances are small but given the stakes the matter needs constant attention,
- “How Western civilisation could collapse” (“Some possible precipitating factors are already in place. How the West reacts to them will determine the world’s future”), Rachel Nuwer, BBC, 18 April 2017, http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170418-how-western-civilisation-could-collapse