By Nader Elhefnawy
Originally published in THE FUTURIST (November-December 2007, pp. 14-19). Used with permission from:
World Future Society
7910 Woodmont Avenue, Suite 450
Bethesda, Maryland 20814 USA.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the future-maybe too much. As a professor of literature, I often teach and write about science fiction. As a writer on security issues, I'm often thinking about the shape of future war and future peace. In this kind of work it is routine for projections, planning documents, and studies to look to 2025, 2050, and even beyond. In the process they posit a future where science fiction has turned into science fact. Thinking about the future in such ways, and coming into constant contact with the thoughts of others about the same things, I find myself exploring the ways people used to picture the future, and all the things that didn't happen-the bad as well as the good.
Naturally, I can only wonder how people in the future will look back on the present-and about all those in the present who suspect there may be no one able to do so. During the lats few years, there's been an explosion in books with words like "collapse," "catastrophe," and "dark age" in their titles. While millenarian religion always seems to be doing a brisk business, there is also no shortage of secular doomsday scenarios at any given moment.
A natural disaster like a large meteor impact or the eruption of a supervolcano might wreck the world in one fell swoop. (David Keys's Catastrophe, in fact, argues that a massive volcanic eruption in the sixth century did bring about the collapse of the ancient world.) The Cold War may have ended, but the risk of large-scale nuclear war remains, particularly the risk of a war beginning accidentally. (This almost happened in the "Norwegian rocket incident" of January 1995, when the Russian military mistook a weather rocket for a ballistic missile.) Relatively innocent scientific research might unleash a technological catastrophe on the world, high-energy particle accelerators tearing open the fabric of the universe, a tidal wave of tiny robots turning the planet into gray goo as Martin Rees describes in Our Final Hour.
A number of unhappy factors have combined in recent years to boost the discussion, however. One is concern about a shrinking supply of oil amid high energy prices and war in the Persian Gulf. Another is the destruction of the natural environment by the activity of a rapidly growing human population, and in particular a widening recognition of human-driven climate change. Still another is an apparent growth of irrationalism and a rejection of science, evident in religious fundamentalism, New Age fads and the like, the subject of Carl Sagan's last book, The Demon-Haunted World. While not comparable to concerns about a major nuclear war, terrorism has also fed such worries, with biological weaponry, computer attacks and so forth causing some to argue that a few quick blows could bring modernity crashing down all around us.
Conservatives may worry less about resource shortages or the environment, and view religiosity in any form as a positive development, but find other causes for worry. Population growth in and of itself also may not bother them much, but the disparities inside that growth often do. Low birth rates in the industrialized world and rapid population growth in poor countries sending waves of immigrants to the former cause them great consternation. They also worry about the widespread questioning of traditional attitudes toward nationalism, culture, race, sex, religion, capitalism and so forth, which they see as opening the gates to barbarians within and without.
Of course, there are also writers who go to the other extreme and dismiss such concerns completely. In The Idea of Decline in Western History, Arthur Herman promises to trace the history of the idea rather than pass judgment on it, but he ends up rejecting thinkers on the subject as a collection of pathetic neurotics and concludes his study on a triumphalist note.
The History of Civilization Collapse
While Herman may dismiss the idea, the fact remains that advanced societies have collapsed in the past and protracted "dark ages" have followed, and it seems only natural to ask why they did so. Why do the problem-solving abilities of societies give out? Why is it that instead of going on forever forward and upward, societies so often stagnate, decline and collapse, leaving behind little but ruins for archaeologists to pick through? In other words, was the process inevitable, or could something have been done about it? Learning the answer to that question might tell us which of the many seemingly catastrophic threats to our survival we should be most concerned about, or whether, as Herman argues, we aren't unnecessarily fixated on catastrophe.
As Herman's study attests, no small number of thinkers has attempted to address these concerns, especially during the last two centuries. Not every story those writers tell is the same, but there is a great deal of overlap in their accounts of particular declining societies, and declining societies in general. Values once adhered to seem irrelevant, and institutions that worked before no longer do so (or at least, it seems that way). Governments become less effective at collecting taxes from their citizens, and at providing them with the services that justified such exactions. Insecurity rises due to widespread crime, intensified class warfare, and fighting among elites themselves. Achievement in the arts and sciences drops off (or at least it seems that way). In the end a society is left susceptible to threats that it might once have coped with successfull and the barbarians--once easily held at bay--are suddenly in the Colosseum.
Moral vs. Material Decline
While these thinkers recount many of the same incidents and trends, the theories they propose as to why these things happen vary widely. They do, however, tend to fall broadly into one of two categories-mystical explanations, and materialistic ones. Many of the "mystical" writers are rightly criticized for being weak on cause and effect, but they often identify a culprit nonetheless, such as the exhaustion of a people's "life force," or the genetic impoverishment of a once-triumphant nation. Others point to a nebulous moral decline, or the replacement of an intuitive or spiritual approach to life by barren rationality, a phase that may initially have been fruitful but, carried far enough, means decadence. Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, Pitrim Sorokin, Christopher Dawson and many others developed theories along such lines. Their thinking has more recently been echoed by Pat Buchanan in books like The Death of the West.
The writings of the materialistic theorists are similarly varied, but they usually find economic explanations for decline. In recent years, scholars applying complexity science to the problem, such as Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies and Peter Turchin in War and Peace and War have added considerable theoretical sophistication to this approach. It is by no means new, however, and Carroll Quigley's 1960 book The Evolution of Civilizations is an outstanding example.
For sociologist Quigley the key to success or failure is a society's "instrument of expansion." This is a social mechanism enabling it to accumulate and invest resources in economic, political and cultural enlargement. Medieval feudalism, early modern mercantilism and laissez-faire capitalism are just a few examples of such systems. After early successes, these mechanisms produce diminishing returns, which clash with the rising expectations of a population that had likely been expanding up to that point. The resulting economic scarcity, insecurity and inequality lie at the root of the ills that follow, including the "moral decline."
Consider the case of ancient Rome, a popular one given the over-reliance of many of these writers on Classical history in developing their "universal" theories of civilizational rise and fall. Starting in the third century B.C.E., Roman agriculture began to shift away from a foundation of small, independent farmers to plantations worked by slaves. The farmers went into the cities-and the legions-where they participated in a sequence of brutal, class-driven civil wars and the conquest of the Known World, a process that destroyed the republic and ushered in the reign of the emperors. That reign became increasingly oppressive, the empire weaker and weaker economically, militarily, demographically and culturally, and in the end the barbarians overwhelmed it.
Writers of a more mystical bent see the formerly austere Romans corrupted by a loss of religious faith, an influx of foreign cultural elements and the temptations of wealth and urban living. The result is the popular image of depraved elites wallowing in cruelty, sensuality and luxury, while the rabble lived only for bread and circuses. Rather than enabling renewal the spread of an otherworldly, pacifistic Christianity is commonly blamed for undermining the last of the original virtue of the Romans, providing an object lesson in the danger that alien ideas will fill a moral vacuum. The only wonder is that the empire lasted as long as it did, given the circumstances.
Economics-minded writers instead point to the limits of economic development for preindustrial, agrarian societies. The Roman Empire was sustained by territorial expansion, and especially the opportunities expansion brought to acquire slaves and plunder. These were eventually exhausted, however, and the empire was left managing many unprofitable territories that drained its resources. Attempts to redress the problem often worsened it, for instance the debasement of the currency (which set off a wave of inflation) and the increasing tax burden (which the wealthy shifted away from themselves and onto the poor, who had less and less to tax).
In response the government became increasingly heavy-handed, ineffective and torn by usurpers and civil wars, this instability rising right at the same time as the pressure from land-hungry barbarians. This strangled the empire's commerce and economic productivity, and in particular its insecure, overburdened farmers, often driven to abandon their land and turn bandit or join a spreading manorial economy. The resulting feedback loop of declining productivity, state weakness and insecurity drove the western empire to collapse.
Questioning the Inevitability of Civilization Decline
So, is the process of civilization decline inevitable, or can something be done about it? There are writers who argue that Rome's fall was indeed inexorable. Philosopher Oswald Spengler took the organic analogy of a civilizational life cycle to such an extreme that he mathematically charted the future of Western civilization through the third millennium. Still, even he recognized the possibility of societies arresting their own decline. Civilizations can bring much of their strife to an end by uniting in a "universal empire," the way that Rome united the Known World of its day, an idea that can also be found in Toynbee and Quigley. They may even enjoy a "golden age" of sorts, as Rome did in the second century C.E. under the "Five Good Emperors."
Such actions, however, are just stopgaps unless the underlying causes are dealt with. This is much more difficult to do, especially if one leans toward mystical explanations. Several writers, like Toynbee and especially Sorokin, see the only real way out in a religious renewal.
Many of the materialistic authors also offer a grim prognosis, but they are less prone to insist on the certainty of decay. Quigley, for instance, saw a way out in the replacement of a failed instrument of expansion. When feudalism failed in the fourteenth century, centralized, mercantilist nation-states appeared in Western Europe. When mercantilism hit a wall, financial capitalism came along. While he saw the Western world as having been in another such crisis since 1929, he did suggest a possible way out, based on molecular technology and renewable solar energy. (Intriguingly, many observers who have never read Quigley now regard molecular technology and solar power as the driving technologies of the future.)
While not framed as the narrative of a civilization's rise and fall, David Hackett Fischer's The Great Wave presents a pattern of crisis similar to the one Quigley described. He identifies crises in the fourteenth, sixteenth, eighteenth and twentieth centuries, each coinciding with a wave of inflation, the last ongoing at the time of his writing. Fischer notes, however, that better technology and organization each time around made the crisis less severe than the one that preceded it. Even the Great Depression of the 1930s saw nothing like the famines and epidemics that made Europe's population implode in the early fourteenth century.
Of course, the same technology and organization made the war that ended the decade the most destructive in history. Troubled societies usually have no shortage of astute observers diagnosing their ills and recommending workable solutions for at least some of their problems. The weak link in the chain tends to be politics, the capacity of societies to change their collective behavior when a given way of doing things stops working. This is very difficult to do in the face of old habits and vested interests.
This challenge may loom especially large for Americans, who may be more attached to recent attitudes and behaviors than any other major nation because of the cherished successes those approaches seem to have brought the nation in the twentieth century--global economic predominance, victory in wars hot and cold. There is also the very nature of those attitudes and behaviors. The brand of rugged individualism Americans celebrate sits uneasily with talk of a common good. Decades of culture war and market fundamentalism have also left their mark, the results memorably described in Morris Berman's Dark Ages America.
Today's generation appears to be one of cyberpunk anti-heroes, alienated and alone for all the promised connectiveness of their technology, abiding by no rules in its scramble to survive and succeed, and incapable of even imagining a different sort of world. However, no cultural moment lasts forever, and it's not impossible that this phase has just about run its course.
In either event, the toughest part of any effort will probably not be the availability of wealth, technology or ideas, but getting societies to use these resources to take serious action. This will mean recovering lost social capital, not in the sense of bringing back a stifling conformity, but drawing people out of their solipsism. It will mean restoring rationality and depth to a political discourse divided among a confusion of ideologically-slanted outlets preaching to their respective choirs and the superficial, tepid dialogue of the mainstream, and widening the too-narrow range of ideas that can get a hearing from a general audience. It will mean the cultivation of a mind-set that Thomas Homer-Dixon in his recent The Upside of Down terms "prospective," able to cope with uncertainty and complexity in its efforts to "prevent or forestall horrible outcomes," if necessary through fundamental, far-reaching solutions. And it will mean "idiot-proofing" those solutions so that they can survive the hostility of the vested interests which invariably appear.
As Quigley notes, it was not possible for state-building monarchs, the rising middle classes and rebels from the long-suffering peasantry to defeat the feudal aristocracy's resistance to change outright, but they did succeed in going around them, and built the modern world in doing so.