The end of Western civilization?
Blog by Arthur Dahl
There have been warnings of the collapse of civilization from the scientific community for decades, from “The Limits to Growth" in 1972 (see my reflections at https://iefworld.org/node/838) and Jared Diamond's "Collapse" to the more recent work of Peter Turchin (see my reviews of War and Peace and War (https://iefworld.org/node/842), instability (https://iefworld.org/node/837) and Ultrasociety (https://iefworld.org/node/852). When both my local supermarket chain's weekly magazine and "New Scientist" had cover stories on the subject the same week, it was clear that the threat is now being taken seriously. The evidence can be summarized as follows.
The "New Scientist" cover on 20 January headlined "The Writing on the Wall: The worrying signs the civilisation has started to collapse". It referred to Laura Spinney's article (pp. 29-31) "There are disturbing hints that Western civilisation is starting to crumble". She notes that " scientists, historians and politicians alike have begun to warn that Western culture is reaching a critical juncture. Cycles of inequality and resource use are heading for a tipping point that in many past civilisations precipitated political unrest, war and finally collapse." She explains the difficulty of defining both collapse and Western civilization, but describes the work of a number of researchers looking for patterns in the rise and fall of ancient civilizations that might suggest what is coming for us.
She starts with Peter Turchin, whose work I have been following for a number of years, whose mathematical equations find patterns that link social factors such as wealth and health inequality to political instability, with a two century cycle of inequality and a fifty year cycle of peaceful and turbulent generations, with the most turbulent parts both cycles coinciding in around 2020. Another prediction by historians from 1997 also identified a crisis in America in the 2020s.
Other researchers have explored what causes turbulence to lead to collapse. A mathematical modeller of predator-prey relationships found that, when both extreme inequality and resource depletion coincide, collapse can become irreversible. The rich can avoid the effects of resource depletion for longer, and resist change until it is too late. When this extension is based on non-renewable resources, as today with fossil fuels, the collapse is much deeper. At the minimum, there could be a rapid loss of complexity, with simpler, smaller scale societies surviving. One researcher, on the contrary, predicts a shift up in complexity, with national governments being replaced by less centralized networks of control as the world becomes an integrated whole. Borders would disappear and cultural identity would be split between local communities and a global system of regulation.
None of these researchers are optimistic about the future for the West. Analytical long-term thinking that finds solutions to problems leads to the dominance of short-term automatic inflexible thinking using technology without foresight, as with climate change and antibiotic resistance. People keep up self-destructive behaviour despite warnings from more analytical thinkers, and technology innovation cannot find solutions. The researchers propose solutions, ranging from education in analytical thinking to more progressive taxes on the rich to reduce debt and controlling population growth, but there is little will to apply them. The article concludes that the survival of the West will depend on the speed at which we can adapt, reducing fossil fuel use and inequality, and stopping quarrelling among elites.
The article in Migros Magazine (Léderrey 2018) also says it is urgent to prepare for the end of our civilization, which could happen within a decade or two, and says now is time to prepare for what will come after. Experts in different fields all see a collapse coming, but do not coordinate their perspectives. We are going faster and faster into the wall, and see it coming, but still accelerate. Individualism is a luxury of the rich, while scarcity requires solidarity. If we enter a period of scarcity with a culture of egoism, we shall see social catastrophes. The article concludes that we need to balance competition with cooperation.
From a scientific systems perspective, it is difficult to argue with the views expressed. Western material civilization is rapidly reaching and overshooting planetary limits, with climate change as one obvious example. From a Bahá'í perspective also, we are going through simultaneous processes of disintegration and integration, as the old order is rolled up to clear the way for a new one. Rather than responding with fear or denial, we need to see the opportunities that these crises will bring to enable the needed transformation in society and the economy, and put our energies into experimenting with alternatives for the future. The more we advance in creating new communities with justice and solidarity, the more resilient we shall be to face whatever may be coming.
Laura Spinney. 2018. "There are disturbing hints that Western civilisation is starting to crumble". New Scientist, no. 3161, pp. 29-31. 20 January 2018.
Léderrey, Pierre. 2018. Créer du lien pour la civilisation post-industrielle. Migros Magazine, 22 January 2018, pp. 18-23. Interview based on Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens. 2015. Comment tout peut s'effondrer. Petit manuel de collapsologie à l'usage de générations présentes. Editions Seuil.
Last updated 12 February 2018