‘The Collapse of Western Civilization’ — A View From The Year 2393
JOE ROMMJUL 16, 2014, 8:57 PM
How would a historian in 2393 write about this century if we continue self-destructively ignoring climate science — and as a result modern civilization as we know it had collapsed 300 years earlier?
That’s the question answered by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their excellent and unique new entry in the emerging Climate-Fiction genre, “The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From The Future.”
This is not CliFi like the nihilistic movie “Snowpiercer” or the book version of “The Hunger Games,” with their epic fights to the death and absorbing human drama.
Even so, Oreskes and Conway don’t spare the apocalypse: “The human populations of Australia and Africa, of course, were wiped out.” But they aren’t trying to portray the impact of the climate apocalypse on individuals.
Part history, part science fiction, the book grapples with what I expect will be the greatest puzzle to the countless future generations who will suffer terribly — and needlessly — for our greed and myopia:
To the historian studying this tragic period of human history, the most astounding fact is that the victims knew what was happening and why. Indeed, they chronicled it in detail precisely because they knew that fossil fuel combustion was to blame. Historical analysis also shows that Western civilization had the technological know-how and capability to effect an orderly transition to renewable energy, yet the available technologies were not implemented in time.
So why didn’t knowledge lead to action — or, rather, to the relatively low-cost actions that could have averted centuries of misery? The authors offer several reasons. They blame a rigid adherence to “free-market fundamentalism” — the notion that the market will solve all problems and that government can’t play a positive role. They blame scientists for being too reticent to spell out the dangers clearly.
And, you won’t be surprised that the authors of the now-classic book “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming” also blame the group they label the “carbon combustion complex”:
A key attribute of the period was that power did not reside in the hands of those who understood the climate system, but rather in political, economic, and social institutions that had a strong interest in maintaining the use of fossil fuels. Historians have labeled this system the carbon combustion complex: a network of powerful industries comprised of primary fossil fuel producers; secondary industries that served fossil fuel companies (drilling and oil field service companies, large construction firms, and manufacturers of plastics and other petrochemicals); tertiary industries whose products relied on inexpensive fossil fuels (especially automobiles and aviation); and financial institutions that serviced their capital demands. Maintaining the carbon-combustion complex was clearly in the self-interest of these groups, so they cloaked this fact behind a network of “think tanks” that issued challenges to scientific knowledge they found threatening.
One of the central ironies of the book is that the freedoms enjoyed in modern Western civilization are destroyed by our failure to prevent catastrophic climate change, a failure caused in large part by those neoliberals, conservatives, and libertarians who placed personal freedom (and hence anti-government laissez-faire capitalism) above all other values. Climate Progress has been discussing this tragic irony for many years.
In the future Oreskes and Conway lay out, climate change leads to widespread drought, food shortages, rapid sea level rise, riots, civil strife, a migration of more than a billion people and widespread use of martial law — all things that require a strong-centralized government. They write:
The ultimate paradox was that neoliberalism, meant to ensure individual freedom above all, led eventually to a situation that necessitated large-scale government intervention.
As an aside, that is an “irony” and not really a “paradox.” There are a handful of such miscues in the book. For instance, the book ends with a “Lexicon of Archaic Terms,” which cleverly includes “capitalism” and “cryosphere,” but, puzzlingly, also includes “greenhouse gases,” which is a term I would expect to become far more commonly understood in a super-warm future.
But overall the book is well done. My biggest complaint is that it is too short, a little over 50 pages in the main text. Since it is derived from a Winter 2013 paper in Daedelus, it could have been fleshed out more.
For instance, the authors write:
… In 2023, the infamous “year of perpetual summer” lived up to its name, taking 500,000 lives worldwide and costing nearly $500 billion in losses due to fires, crop failure, and the deaths of livestock and companion animals.
The loss of pet cats and dogs garnered particular attention among wealthy Westerners, but what was anomalous in 2023 soon became the new normal.
Why exactly did so many pet cats and dogs of wealthy Westerners die in 2023? The authors don’t say, but the implication seems to be that there wasn’t food for them. But if so, that really needed to be spelled out since it isn’t obvious that would happen in real life. At least in this country, we have such an abundance of food — and we waste nearly half of it (and burn 40% of the corn crop in our engines) — so I’m inclined to think that people would make fairly simple changes to their diet and to the food/ethanol production system rather than let a substantial number of pets die, at least through this kind of one-year event.
But this is really a quibble — the book is so thought-provoking, I’d like to see more of it. Indeed, the issue of if and when most Westerners might abandon pets as we destroy the planet’s ability to feed the human population is just the kind of thing science fiction should make us think about.
We already feed much of the world unsustainably — using (up) ground water for irrigation in large parts of the world, for instance. We are in the process of Dust-Bowlifying (or inundating) some of the world’s richest agricultural land, as the authors discuss. So if continue on our current path of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions then post-2050 we will have a population of 9 billion or more and a planetary carrying capacity far below even current levels. Would we really maintain 180 million (!) cats and dogs in this country alone under such circumstances? For that matter, would we still convert a large fraction of our crops into fuel for our cars, and would we maintain the same kind of meat-based diet even though that can require 10 times as much acreage and water as a vegetarian (or insect) based diet?
The only thing that is certain about the future is death and taxes and multiple, catastrophic impacts on humanity if we continue on our current greenhouse gas emissions path. How humanity might deal with all those terrible impacts hitting at once is something we all need to think about.
What is science fiction today will someday be the history of real, live people — billions of them. Kudos to Oreskes and Conway for finding a creative way to talk about the immoral choice we are making today and how those billions of people will suffer for it.
In The Collapse Of Western Civilization
Eventually, populations died out and had to migration (known as the Great Migration) and nations were forced to join forces, such as Canada and the U.S. becoming the United States of North America. However, despite all government and scientific efforts, nothing worked for long and climate change only worsened. Market fundamentalism and positivism are cited in the book as reasons why, despite knowing the extent and reason for the problem, the West did very little to lower their carbon emission. Neoliberalism was noted as the main downfall for the Western world, due to the individual freedoms it offered over the protect of the people. While this book may be a bit harsher a future reality than what is really to come, it puts into perspective the…show more content…
However, in Global Supply Chain Management, there is also a need to protect the environment, although for more selfish reasons. Businesses need to be environmentally friendly because people around the world are catching onto the fad of “going green” and want products and companies that boast that. By having sustainable product development and sustainable transportation methods, business are both protecting the environment and attracting more consumers. This is an interesting point because one would not think that a book about best business practices would attract a business towards being more environmentally friendly, but the book is clear that that is what is…show more content…
Of course climate change and environmental protection are important topics, but the authors seemed to only criticize the forms of government that lead to the fall of the West rather than provide solutions for things that they could have done differently. While providing solutions was obviously not the goal of the authors given their backgrounds, their tactic of pointing fingers at the policies and regulations of the West was not productive and did not make for a great
Rachel Nuwer’s ‘How Western Civilization Could Collapse’
Out of the whole article about collapsion of Western civilization, titled “How Western civilisation could collapse” written by “Rachel Nuwer,” there’s a sentence that I want to reflect on. That sentence is: “One of the most important lessons from Rome’s fall is that complexity has a cost” (Tainter) . A complex society takes good efforts from individuals to lead the society to a prosperous way. As we see in today’s world, or specifically, Western countries, there are uncountable programs that governments
Collapse of Civilizations
The factors that lead to the “collapse” of civilizations are almost directly related to those that created it. Archaeologists characterize collapse by a number of elements, some of which we have evidence for, others we do not. Most archaeologists are unsure of exactly what caused the decline of most civilizations in the ancient world, yet there are many clues to some of the events that could have contributed. The collapse of the ancient Roman Empire, the Mesoamerican Mayan, and the Egyptian cultures
The Influence Of Powerful Ideas In Western Civilization
develops into a level of civilization. The first step would be a place to settle, build towns and cities. This process would require food production and also rules that would keep all the people together and well organized, to put all these steps together someone would have to come up with strong and smart ideas in order to please everybody without harming the rest. Civilization in europe flourished from powerful ideas like christianity and democracy. Western civilization was born around 500 AD, after
Reasons For The Collapse Of The Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was at one point the envy of the ancient world. At it’s peak in 117 C.E, the empire spanned from western Europe to northern Africa, through the Mediterranean Sea and into western Asia. From about 27 B.C.E. to 476 C.E.. Rome was notorious for holding the name of the world’s greatest empire, as Ancient Rome oftentimes furnished civilians with essential necessities such as jobs, food, and spices. Moreover, forms of entertainment including, holding a plenitude of concerts and plays were
The Collapse of Western Civilization
Senior Business Consultant
Published Apr 2017
The political economist Benjamin Friedman once compared our modern Western Hemisphere to a stable bicycle whose wheels are kept spinning by economic growth. Should that forward-propelling motion slow or cease, the pillars that define our society democracy, individual liberties, social tolerance and more would begin to teeter my friends. Our world would become an increasingly ugly place, one defined by a scramble over limited resources and a rejection of anyone outside of our immediate group. Sl¡l¡hould we find no way to get the wheels back in motion, we’d eventually face total societal collapse.
Such collapses have occurred many times in human history, and no civilisation, no matter how seemingly great, is immune to the vulnerabilities that may lead a society to its end. Regardless of how well things are going in the present moment, the situation can always change. Putting aside species-ending events like an asteroid strike, nuclear winter or deadly pandemic, history tells us that it’s usually a plethora of factors that contribute to collapse. What are they, and which, if any, have already begun to surface? It should come as no surprise that humanity is currently on an unsustainable and uncertain path but just how close are we to reaching the point of no return?
While it’s impossible to predict the future with certainty, mathematics, science and history can provide hints about the prospects of Western societies for long-term continuation.There are two factors that matter: ecological strain and economic stratification. The ecological category is the more widely understood and recognised path to potential doom, especially in terms of depletion of natural resources such as groundwater, soil, fisheries and forests all of which could be worsened by climate change or global warming which is very real.
Disaster comes when elites push society toward instability and eventual collapse by hoarding huge quantities of wealth and resources
That economic stratification may lead to collapse on its own, on the other hand. Under this scenario, 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. Eventually, the working population crashes because the portion of wealth allocated to them is not enough, followed by collapse of the elites due to the absence of labour. The inequalities we see today both within and between countries already point to such disparities. For example, thetop 10% of global income earners are responsible for almost as much total greenhouse gas emissions as the bottom 90% combined. Similarly, about half the world’s population lives on less than $3 per day.
For both scenarios, the models define a carrying capacity a total population level that a given environment’s resources can sustain over the long term. If the carrying capacity is overshot by too much, collapse becomes inevitable. That fate is avoidable my friends, however.If we make rational choices to reduce factors such as inequality, explosive population growth, the rate at which we deplete natural resources and the rate of pollution all perfectly doable things then we can avoid collapse and stabilise onto a sustainable trajectory. But we cannot wait forever to make those decisions. Time is running out!
One of the most important lessons from Rome’s fall is that complexity has a cost. Unfortunately, some experts believe such tough decisions exceed our political and psychological capabilities. The world will not rise to the occasion of solving the climate problem during this century, simply because it is more expensive in the short term to solve the problem than it is to just keep acting as usual,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.
While we are all in this together, the world’s poorest will feel the effects of collapse first. Indeed, some nations are already serving as canaries in the coal mine for the issues that may eventually pull apart more affluent ones. Syria, for example, enjoyed exceptionally high fertility rates for a time, which fueled rapid population growth. A severe drought in the late 2000s, likely made worse by human-induced climate change, combined with groundwater shortages to cripple agricultural production. That crisis left large numbers of people – especially young men – unemployed, discontent and desperate.
Many flooded into urban centres, overwhelming limited resources and services there. Pre-existing ethnic tensions increased, creating fertile grounds for violence and conflict. On top of that, poor governance including neoliberal policies that eliminated water subsidies in the middle of the drought tipped the country into civil war in 2011 and sent it careening toward collapse and doom.
Another sign that we’re entering into a danger zone is the increasing occurrence of ‘nonlinearities’, or sudden, unexpected changes in the world’s order
In Syria’s case as with so many other societal collapses throughout history it was not one but a plethora of factors that contributed these combined forces tectonic stresses for the way in which they quietly build up and then abruptly erupt, overloading any stabilising mechanisms that otherwise keep a society in check.
The Syrian case aside, another sign that we’re entering into a danger zone, is the increasing occurrence of what experts call nonlinearities, or sudden, unexpected changes in the world’s order, such as the 2008 economic crisis, the rise of ISIS, Brexit, or Donald Trump’s election.
The past can also provide hints for how the future might play out. Take, for example, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. By the end of the 100BC the Romans had spread across the Mediterranean, to the places most easily accessed by sea. They should have stopped there, but things were going well and they felt empowered to expand to new frontiers by land. While transportation by sea was economical, however, transportation across land was slow and expensive. All the while, they were overextending themselves and running up costs.
The Empire managed to remain stable in the ensuing centuries, but repercussions for spreading themselves too thin caught up with them in the 3rd Century, which was plagued by civil war and invasions. The Empire tried to maintain its core lands, even as the army ate up its budget and inflation climbed ever higher as the government debased its silver currency to try to cover its mounting expenses. While some scholars cite the beginning of collapse as the year 410, when the invading Visigoths sacked the capital, that dramatic event was made possible by a downward spiral spanning more than a century.
Eventually, Rome could no longer afford to prop up its heightened complexities
One of the most important lessons from Rome’s fall is that complexity has a cost to all of mankind. As stated in the laws of thermodynamics, it takes energy to maintain any system in a complex, ordered state and human society is no exception. By the 3rd Century, Rome was increasingly adding new things an army double the size, a cavalry, subdivided provinces that each needed their own bureaucracies, courts and defences just to maintain its status quo and keep from sliding backwards. Eventually, it could no longer afford to prop up those heightened complexities. It was fiscal weakness, not war, that did the Empire in.
So far, modern Western societies have largely been able to postpone similar precipitators of collapse through fossil fuels and industrial technologies – think hydraulic fracturing coming along in 2008, just in time to offset soaring oil prices. Tainter suspects this will not always be the case, however. Imagine the costs if we have to build a seawall around Manhattan, just to protect against storms and rising tides. Eventually, investment in complexity as a problem-solving strategy reaches a point of diminishing returns, leading to fiscal weakness and vulnerability to collapse. That is unless we find a way to pay for the complexity, as our ancestors did when they increasingly ran societies on fossil fuels.
Also paralleling Rome, Western societies’ collapse will be preceded by a retraction of people and resources back to their core homelands. As poorer nations continue to disintegrate amid conflicts and natural disasters, enormous waves of migrants will stream out of failing regions, seeking refuge in more stable states. Western societies will respond with restrictions and even bans on immigration; multi-billion dollar walls and border-patrolling drones and troops; heightened security on who and what gets in; and more authoritarian, populist styles of governing. It’s almost an immunological attempt by countries to sustain a periphery and push pressure back,
Meanwhile, a widening gap between rich and poor within those already vulnerable Western nations will push society toward further instability from the inside. By 2050, the US and UK will have evolved into two-class societies where a small elite lives a good life and there is declining well-being for the majority,What will collapse is equity.
Whether in the US, UK or elsewhere, the more dissatisfied and afraid people become, the more of a tendency they have to cling to their in-group identity whether religious, racial or national. Denial, including of the emerging prospect of societal collapse itself, will be widespread, as will rejection of evidence-based fact. If people admit that problems exist at all, they will assign blame for those problems to everyone outside of their in-group, building up resentment. You’re setting up the psychological and social prerequisites for mass violence. When localised violence finally does break out, or another country or group decides to invade, collapse will be difficult to avoid.
Europe, with its close proximity to Africa, its land bridge to the Middle East and its neighbourly status with more politically volatile nations to the East, will feel these pressures first. The US will likely hold out longer, surrounded as it is by ocean buffers.
As time passes, some empires simply become increasingly inconsequential
On the other hand, Western societies may not meet with a violent, dramatic end. In some cases, civilisations simply fade out of existence becoming the stuff of history not with a bang but a whimper. The British Empire has been on this path since 1918, Randers says, and other Western nations might go this route as well. As time passes, they will become increasingly inconsequential and, in response to the problems driving their slow fade-out, will also starkly depart from the values they hold dear today. Western nations are not going to collapse, but the smooth operation and friendly nature of Western society will disappear, because inequity is going to explode, Democratic, liberal society will fail, while stronger governments like China will be the winners.
Some of these forecasts and early warning signs should sound familiar, precisely because they are already underway. While I am not surprised at the world’s recent turn of events I didn’t expect these developments to occur before the mid-2020s.
Western civilisation is not a lost cause, however. Using reason and science to guide decisions, paired with extraordinary leadership and exceptional goodwill, human society can progress to higher and higher levels of well-being and development. Even as we weather the coming stresses of climate change, population growth and dropping energy returns, we can maintain our societies and better them. But that requires resisting the very natural urge, when confronted with such overwhelming pressures, to become less cooperative, less generous and less open to reason. The question is, how can we manage to preserve some kind of humane world as we make our way through these changes my friends! “Peace on Earth Good will to Mankind”
End of days: Is Western civilisation on the brink of collapse?
History tells us all cultures have their sell-by date. Do political strife, crippling inequality and climate change mean the West’s time is now up
Jan 2018 By Laura Spinney
People who have grown up in a turbulent society tend to have children who renounce violence
AH, the good old days, when predictions that “the end is nigh” were seen only on sandwich boards, and the doom-mongers who carried them were easy enough to ignore.
If only things had stayed so simple. The sandwich boards have mostly gone and the world is still here, but the gloomy predictions keep coming, and not all of them are based on creative interpretations of religious texts. 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.
For the most part, though, people are carrying on as usual, shopping for their next holiday or posing on social media. In fact, many people seem blissfully unaware that collapse might be imminent. Are Westerners doing the modern equivalent of sitting around eating grapes while the barbarians hammer on the doors? And more importantly, does science have any ideas about what is really going on, what might happen next and how people could turn things around?
The idea that Western power and influence is in gradual decline, perhaps as a prelude to a precipitous fall, has been around for a while. But it has gained a new urgency with recent political events, not least the election of US president Donald Trump. For some, his turning away from international commitments is part of fulfilling his promise to “make America great again” by concentrating on its own interests. For others, it’s a dangerous move that threatens to undermine the whole world order. Meanwhile, over in the old world, Europe is mired in its own problems.
Using science to predict the future isn’t easy, not least because both “collapse” and “Western civilisation” are difficult to define. We talk about the collapse of the Roman Empire in the middle of the first millennium, for example, but there is plenty of evidence that the empire existed in some form for centuries afterwards and that its influence lingers today. The end of Ancient Egypt was more of a change in the balance of power than a catastrophic event in which everyone died. So, when we talk about collapse, do we mean that people lose everything and go back to the dark ages? Or that it’s going to be socially and politically turbulent for a while?
Western civilisation is a similarly slippery concept. Roughly speaking, it covers parts of the world where the dominant cultural norms originated in Western Europe, including North America, Australia and New Zealand. Beyond that, though, the lines get blurrier. Other civilisations, such as China, were built on different sets of cultural norms, yet thanks to globalisation, defining where Western culture starts and ends is far from easy.
Despite these difficulties, some scientists and historians are analysing the rise and fall of ancient civilisations to look for patterns that might give us a heads-up on what is coming.
So is there any evidence that the West is reaching its end game? According to Peter Turchin, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut, there are certainly some worrying signs. Turchin was a population biologist studying boom-and-bust cycles in predator and prey animals when he realised that the equations he was using could also describe the rise and fall of ancient civilisations.
In the late 1990s, he began to apply these equations to historical data, looking for patterns that link social factors such as wealth and health inequality to political instability. Sure enough, in past civilisations in Ancient Egypt, China and Russia, he spotted two recurring cycles that are linked to regular era-defining periods of unrest.
“You’ve got to be very optimistic to think that this is just a blip on the screen”
One, a “secular cycle”, lasts two or three centuries. It starts with a fairly equal society, then, as the population grows, the supply of labour begins to outstrip demand and so becomes cheap. Wealthy elites form, while the living standards of the workers fall. As the society becomes more unequal, the cycle enters a more destructive phase, in which the misery of the lowest strata and infighting between elites contribute to social turbulence and, eventually, collapse. Then there is a second, shorter cycle, lasting 50 years and made up of two generations – one peaceful and one turbulent.
Looking at US history Turchin spotted peaks of unrest in 1870, 1920 and 1970. Worse, he predicts that the end of the next 50-year cycle, in around 2020, will coincide with the turbulent part of the longer cycle, causing a period of political unrest that is at least on a par with what happened around 1970, at the peak of the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam war.
This prediction echoes one made in 1997 by two amateur historians called William Strauss and Neil Howe, in their book The Fourth Turning: An American prophecy. They claimed that in about 2008 the US would enter a period of crisis that would peak in the 2020s – a claim said to have made a powerful impression on US president Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon.
Turchin made his predictions in 2010, before the election of Donald Trump and the political infighting that surrounded his election, but he has since pointed out that current levels of inequality and political divisions in the US are clear signs that it is entering the downward phase of the cycle. Brexit and the Catalan crisis hint that the US is not the only part of the West to feel the strain.
As for what will happen next, Turchin can’t say. He points out that his model operates at the level of large-scale forces, and can’t predict exactly what might tip unease over into unrest and how bad things might get.
How and why turbulence sometimes turns into collapse is something that concerns Safa Motesharrei, a mathematician at the University of Maryland. He noticed that while, in nature, some prey always survive to keep the cycle going, some societies that collapsed, such as the Maya, the Minoans and the Hittites, never recovered.
To find out why, he first modelled human populations as if they were predators and natural resources were prey. Then he split the “predators” into two unequal groups, wealthy elites and less well-off commoners.
This showed that either extreme inequality or resource depletion could push a society to collapse, but collapse is irreversible only when the two coincide. “They essentially fuel each other,” says Motesharrei.
Part of the reason is that the “haves” are buffered by their wealth from the effects of resource depletion for longer than the “have-nots” and so resist calls for a change of strategy until it is too late.
This doesn’t bode well for Western societies, which are dangerously unequal. According to a recent analysis, the world’s richest 1 per cent now owns half the wealth, and the gap between the super-rich and everyone else has been growing since the financial crisis of 2008.
The West might already be living on borrowed time. Motesharrei’s group has shown that by rapidly using non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels, a society can grow by an order of magnitude beyond what would have been supported by renewables alone, and so is able to postpone its collapse. “But when the collapse happens,” they concluded, “it is much deeper.”
The gap between rich and poor is growing, seeding unrest
Joseph Tainter, an anthropologist at Utah State University, and author of The Collapse of Complex Societies, offers a similarly bleak outlook. He sees the worst-case scenario as a rupture in fossil fuel availability, causing food and water supplies to fail and millions to die within a few weeks.
That sounds disastrous. But not everyone agrees that the boom-and-bust model applies to modern society. It might have worked when societies were smaller and more isolated, critics say, but now? Can we really imagine the US dissolving in an internal war that would leave no one standing? There are armies of scientists and engineers working on solutions, and in theory we can avoid past societies’ mistakes. Plus, globalisation makes us robust, right?
This comes back to what we mean by collapse. Motesharrei’s group defines historical societies according to strict geographical limits, so that if some people survived and migrated to find new natural resources they would constitute a new society. By this criterion, even very advanced societies have collapsed irreversibly and the West could too. But it wouldn’t necessarily mean annihilation.
For that reason, many researchers avoid the word collapse, and talk instead about a rapid loss of complexity. When the Roman Empire broke up, new societies emerged, but their hierarchies, cultures and economies were less sophisticated, and people lived shorter, unhealthier lives. That kind of across-the-board loss of complexity is unlikely today, says Turchin, but he doesn’t rule out milder versions of it: the break-up of the European Union, say, or the US losing its empire in the form of NATO and close allies such as South Korea.
On the other hand, some people, such as Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute in Massachusetts, see this kind of global change as a shift up in complexity, with highly centralised structures such as national governments giving way to less centralised, overarching networks of control. “The world is becoming an integrated whole,” says Bar-Yam.
Some scientists, Bar-Yam included, are even predicting a future where the nation state gives way to fuzzy borders and global networks of interlocking organisations, with our cultural identity split between our immediate locality and global regulatory bodies.
However things pan out, almost nobody thinks the outlook for the West is good. “You’ve got to be very optimistic to think that the West’s current difficulties are just a blip on the screen,” says historian Ian Morris of Stanford University in California, author of Why the West Rules – For Now. So, can we do anything to soften the blow?
Turchin says that by manipulating the forces that fuel the cycles, by, for example, introducing more progressive taxes to address income equality and the exploding public debt, it might be possible to avert disaster. And Motesharrei thinks we should rein in population growth to levels his model indicates are sustainable. These exact levels vary over time, depending on how many resources are left and how sustainably – or otherwise – we use them.
The problem with these kinds of solutions, however, is that humans haven’t proved themselves to be great at playing the long game. New psychology research may help to explain why that is the case.
Cognitive scientists recognise two broad modes of thought – a fast, automatic, relatively inflexible mode, and a slower, more analytical, flexible one. Each has its uses, depending on the context, and their relative frequency in a population has long been assumed to be stable. David Rand, a psychologist at Yale University, though, argues that populations might actually cycle between the two over time.
Say a society has a transportation problem. A small group of individuals thinks analytically and invents the car. The problem is solved, not only for them but for millions of others besides, and because a far larger number of people have been relieved of thinking analytically – at least in this one domain – there is a shift in the population towards automatic thinking.
This happens every time a new technology is invented that renders the environment more hospitable. Once large numbers of people use the technology without foresight, problems start to stack up. Climate change resulting from the excess use of fossil fuels is just one example. Others include overuse of antibiotics leading to microbial resistance, and failing to save for retirement.
Jonathan Cohen, a psychologist at Princeton University who developed the theory with Rand, says it could help solve a long-standing puzzle regarding societies heading for ruin: why did they keep up their self-destructive behaviour even though the more analytical people must have seen the danger ahead? “The train had left the station,” says Cohen, and the forward-thinking folk were not steering it.
“Technological innovation may not be able to bail us out as it has in the past”
This is the first time anyone has attempted to link the evolution of societies with human psychology, and the researchers admit their model is simple, for now. And while Rand and his colleagues make no attempt to guide policy, they do think their model suggests a general direction we might look in for remedies. “Education has got to be part of the answer,” says Cohen, adding that there could be more emphasis on analytical thinking in the classroom.
But Tainter says trying to instil more forethought might be a pipe dream. If behavioural economics has taught us anything, he says, it is that human beings are much more emotional than rational when it comes to decision-making. He thinks a more pressing issue to tackle is the dwindling rate of invention relative to investment in R & D, as the world’s problems become harder to solve. “I foresee a pattern in the future where technological innovation is not going to be able to bail us out as it has in the past,” he says.
So, is the West really on the ropes? Perhaps. But ultimately its survival will depend on the speed at which people can adapt. If we don’t reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, tackle inequality and find a way to stop elites from squabbling among themselves, things will not end well. In Tainter’s view, if the West makes it through, it will be more by luck than by good judgement. “We are a species that muddles through,” he says. “That’s all we’ve ever done, and all we’ll ever do.”
This article appeared in print under the headline “The Fall”
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WHAT IF… | COMMENT & ANALYSIS
How Western civilisation could collapse
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(Image credit: Getty Images)
By Rachel Nuwer18th April 2017
Some possible precipitating factors are already in place. How the West reacts to them will determine the world’s future, says Rachel Nuwer.
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• This story is featured in BBC Future’s “Best of 2017” collection. Discover more of our picks.
The political economist Benjamin Friedman once compared modern Western society to a stable bicycle whose wheels are kept spinning by economic growth. Should that forward-propelling motion slow or cease, the pillars that define our society – democracy, individual liberties, social tolerance and more – would begin to teeter. Our world would become an increasingly ugly place, one defined by a scramble over limited resources and a rejection of anyone outside of our immediate group. Should we find no way to get the wheels back in motion