Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Decline & Fall in the 21st Century: A Review of Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail by William Ophuls

Perhaps it started with a place called Manti, located in the countryside outside of my home town of Shenandoah. It had a small pond for fishing and a cemetery. The untended gravestones from the late 19th century lay overwhelmed by the exuberant grasses and weeds. You could walk among those gravestones, looking at the dates of birth and deaths of those long dead residents, and then look around and you see nothing but Nature. A village of the dead. 

I’m not alone in holding a fascination with the sense of ruin. Visits to Anasazi ruins in New Mexico; to Mayan ruins in the Yucatan and Guatemala; to those of the Incas in Peru; to the abandoned Moghul city of Fatapur Sikri in India; to the Coliseum and Forum in Rome—one never finds oneself alone. Crowds swarm through the great ruins. We behold and contemplate. The list of ruins is like a school’s honor roll of deceased alumni and serves as a haunting memento mori writ large. For us, for our civilization. 

For those interested in decay, decline, collapse—the terms vary but the experience remains—the sources are legion. Plato and Aristotle, St. Augustine, Machiavelli, and just about every series political thinker in the Western canon addresses this issue. Medieval Islam gives us the insights of Ibn Khaldun, while the Enlightenment provides us with Gibbon. In the 20th century, we have Spengler, Toynbee, and Sorokin among a host of others, many of them writing today, such as Peter Turchin. Francis Fukuyama will publish a new volume at the end of this month entitled Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy. The parade of reflection on this phenomenon continues. Some—those with the courage to look at our present situation and consider the real binds that we face—have a grim message for us. Such is the case with William (a/k/a Patrick) Ophuls. 

I recently reviewed Plato’s Revenge, which assumes the decline of our contemporary industrial civilization and that provides a guidebook of sorts about how we should model the successor to our civilization. In Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail (2013) Ophuls argues that decline is inevitable—discoveries of new fossil fuel reserves or reductions in climate change magnitude notwithstanding. It’s here. It’s happening. It’s happened before. And there are several reasons why. It’s like going to the doctor feeling young, fit, and trim, and she concludes the exam by telling you that you’re going to die. That’s an inarguably true statement. Sooner or later, you’re going to die. The difference with Dr. Ophuls is that he believes that his patient (industrial civilization) has already reached civilizational senility and that we’d best get our affairs in order to make life better for our heirs. He’s right. 

Dr. Ophuls—and he really is a doctor—of the Ph.D. in political science variety—identifies several disease processes that doom our civilization as they have doomed those before us. Ophuls does not develop any new or unique theories of civilizational decline in his book, but he does an excellent job of identifying and arguing the existing theories. Also, as a good social scientist or historian, he doesn’t wed himself to a single, grand theory, but he appreciates that a multiple causes drive the process of change. He begins his diagnosis, as he began Plato’s Revenge, with the basic science involved. 

Entropy, ecology, and complexity all entail natural, physical limits on human capacities. Each level of analysis—physical, biological, and social—faces tangible constraints. At the most basic level, entropy requires any life form to feed upon outside sources of energy. Whether for our bodies or for our machines, we must constantly tap new sources of energy. But the law of entropy establishes that energy degrades when used (chaos replaces order) and that eventually traditional energy sources will not yield a sufficient return on the investment needed to gather and use the energy. As Ophuls notes, Joseph Tainter builds his entire theory of civilizational collapse on the increasing marginal cost of a unit of energy, or conversely, on the declining energy return on investment (EROI). Complexity may delay, but cannot avoid, this conundrum. But complexity, too, has its limits: those implicit in the environment and in the human brain. 

As Ophuls notes: 

. . . .  [O]ur minds and language are linear and sequential , but systems happen all at once and overwhelm us intellectually: Systems surprise us because our minds like to think about single causes neatly producing single effects. We like to think about one or at most a few things at a time…. But we live in a world in which many causes routinely come together to produce many effects.
. . . .
In short, limited, fallible human beings are bound to bungle the job of managing complex systems. What they can neither understand nor predict, they cannot expect to control, so failure is inevitable at some point.

Ophuls, William (2012-12-28). Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail (p. 37). CreateSpace. Kindle Edition.

In addition to our limited cognitive ability to encompass the complexity of systems, we also have the problem that we’re incarnate human beings with some—shall we say?—unfortunate traits that are only overcome—if at all—through a great deal of effort. And effort, the struggle for civilization, for civility, invariably decreases as civilizations grow more prosperous. Add to this the ordinary traits of humans and we can see our problem. Ophuls quotes Edmund Burke: 

History consists, for the greater part, of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetite.

Ophuls, William (2012-12-28). Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail (p. 54). CreateSpace. Kindle Edition, quoting Burke (citation in notes)

Add to this the fact the humans are “are not innately wise, especially in crowds” (id. 41)(to put in mildly) and that democracy, at its worst, crowd sources difficult political problems to a less than qualified and informed electorate. With this situation, you have the making of a cascade of troubles on the horizon. Politicians are driven to the lowest denominator of popular prejudices and provide bread and circuses, entitlements and inflation, to stave off discontent. The ability to say “no” and to reason together all but disappears. Sound familiar? 

Ophuls concludes his reflections about the Ponzi-scheme of civilization (“as a process, civilization resembles a long-running economic bubble.” Id. 9.) with the observation that our civilization—industrial civilization—is nearly universal. This near universality (well, really speaking just of Earth) means that nowhere in this world of ours will we find an apparent successor of equal power and glory to replace industrial civilization. No Rome to replace Greece, no Byzantium to preserve Rome. We face a new Dark Ages. Can we avoid this? 

Ophuls notes that Ian Morris, in his Why the West Rules—For Now (the title belies the scope, magnitude, and sophistication of the work) concludes with the idea that we will either gain “The Singularity” of technological and cognitive control of our environment and our history, or we will descend into the collapse of “Nightfall”. But before plunging into Morris, ThomasHomer-Dixon, or Joseph Tainter (if you haven’t already)—or even if you have—I recommend this brief and incisive primer about how we’re in for a rough ride ahead, just like our ancestors.

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