[Marxism] Is Western civilisation is about to hit the skids?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jan 21 19:02:06 MST 2018


New Scientist
January 17, 2018
The Fall
BYLINE: Laura Spinney.
Laura Spinney is a writer based in Paris

HIGHLIGHT: There are disturbing hints that Western civilisation is about 
to hit the skids. Laura Spinney investigates

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 posting 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.

Borrowed time

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."

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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