Why Civilisations Die

I read David P. Goldman’s How Civilizations Die over the weekend, and have been mulling over his thesis ever since. (Goldman writes the “Spengler” column for the Asia Times, named as such in honour of Oswald Spengler.)

Briefly stated, his thesis is “as a people become less religious, they have less children — a lot less, below replacement levels; the society then implodes as the numbers of people available to pay for and care for the elderly declines; eventually the situation cannot be turned around and the whole civilisation disappears”.

He therefore thinks the United States — because alone in the West it has held onto its religiosity and thus replaces its own population — stands a chance. The rest of us? Good-bye.

That Leaves Out a Few Things…

Goldman’s arguments as to why the Islamic world is also losing its religiosity (he believes terror attacks are a result of that and collapsing economies, not the faith itself) are interesting, but I think overall he’s left more than a few bits out of the puzzle.

Let’s start with economies: all over the world, we have this idea that economies must grow, grow, grow, for ever and ever, amen.

Clearly, there’s a disconnect here. Economies are composed of energy flows, resource usages, and are governed by entropy. This is a finite planet. There are times when technology allows us to use what we have more efficiently — but we still live on a finite planet, and receive a finite amount of external input from the sun. There are, in other words, limits to growth.

Our models of economics, in turn, ignore completely the role of debt and banking. Debt is a burden on the future: it pulls demand forward, creating an illusion of growth. Eventually these “assets” must be wiped out — or consumption denied to repay. (When a Muslim moans that he lives in an usurious society, this is what he means.)

We’ve amassed more debt (by more than 2x) than all the world’s remaining capital stock of resources and energy can sustain. There will be bankruptcies and financial asset destruction: it is inevitable.

But, as Carroll Quigley pointed out in The Evolution of Civilizations, there are six factors in play, of which a model for a productive economy is only one. Religion, yes, is another. So, too, learning, militaria …

Societies emphasise some of these and deemphasise others at various points in their existence. We have chosen to emphasise the economic over the others. There are other paths (which have been trodden before).

These are paths that do not depend upon scale. They are paths that value locality, diversity, difference.

Such a path would allow a civilisation to continue. It would be different from today, yes. But then, Western civilisation has evolved, too: it emphasised religion, hierarchy and the needs of consumption in the High Mediaeval, merchantile trade, slavery, art and pure science and the rise of nationalism in the 17th and 18th centuries, industrial mass society, the military and empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and financialisation and global supply chains alongside technology over science in the last forty years.

Fewer people is only a problem if you have masses of debt and promised obligations of a financial nature coming out the wazoo (as we do). Make the financialised element back into a service, not a core, and all of a sudden population is less of an issue. (Indeed, fewer people becomes an asset, and stable, sustainable economics a possibility.)

Yet Civilisations Do Die…

Oswald Spengler, in The Decline of the West, made the life and death of civilisations into an inevitability. They were organic outgrowths, and like all “living” things had a birth, a childhood, growth, adulthood, senescence and death — along with a lifespan. Once “dead”, the forms could continue until they were disturbed, but without novelty.

Goldman’s thesis takes a lot from Spengler: his view differs only in that he believes those who continue to grow, and have a binding reason to grow (which he finds in religious dynamics), haven’t reached the inevitable terminus: their adulthood can be extended. Otherwise, once on the slippery slope of age, the story’s over, and all that’s required are the decades or centuries to watch it play out.

Quigley, or Arnold J. Toynbee (A Study of History) would disagree. Societies can reinvent themselves: this is the work of a creative minority who designs a new path that others in the civilisation can adopt. Only if the creative minority is stymied by a dominant minority heavily invested in and protecting “things as we have them” can it be left too late, and decline and fall be ordained.

Civilisations, in other words, are faced repeatedly by challenges: fail to meet one, and you’ve sealed your fate.

This has nothing to do with numbers. It has everything to do with power.

Indeed, what broke the High Mediaeval was a drop in population: the Black Death. Members of the then-existing hierarchy died and broke links of allegiance; labour became far more valuable and those who started to put people to work in new ways (town ways, not serf ways) prospered.

What broke the age of mercantile control and shifted power to producers was the discovery of hydrocarbon fuels — coal, then oil, then gas — and the amateur scientific entrepreneurs who built machines to exploit these. Machine power replaced muscle, animal and water power many times over.

But the successor to the mercantile trading and exploration corporation — think the Hudson’s Bay Company, the East India Company, and the like — was the industrial corporation writ large. Imposition of the modern tax regime ensured that incumbents would have a leg up on new entrants to help them continue to absorb those who could replace them. Adding modern finance to this meant that the power to control would be magnified. Couple the breakdown in the understanding that the political realm is for citizens — corporations masquerading as “people” — and today’s world is complete.

Today’s world needs growth just to pay off the debts of the past. It cannot survive.

If we do not break the bonds that hold us back, we will collapse and our civilisation die. We are close to the edge now. No amount of praying will change that. Nor will families with many children.

If we are willing to break with the past? Then hundreds of years from now our culture, our traditions, our way of seeing the universe will still be alive.

Civilisations do have lifespans, but they can be extended. It’s up to us.

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2 thoughts on “Why Civilisations Die

  1. Bruce
    I enjoyed the piece, it was stimulating. Having thought about it, may I offer a counterpoint?

    It seems to me that everyone wants a simple answer to why civilisations die. Like all quests for simple answers to complex questions, it will fail. Civilisations have dozens of complex interactions, fluxes and inter-dependencies.

    Military power, climate, religion, social cohesion, agriculture, education, disease, technology, transportation, infrastructure, resources, politics, productivity and fecundity are just a ‘top of the head’ list of factors that can cause dramatic shifts in the behaviours of entire civiisations.

    A picture of the death of any civilisation should look more like a biological systems model than a statement of facts.

    Your thoughts?

    • Hello, John:

      Oh, I couldn’t agree more! It is what Spengler was trying to get at in The Decline of the West: cultures and civilisations are organic and therefore have destinies as these different factors interact (each set on a path by prior choices, modified by current ones).

      Similar ideas are in Michael Rothschild’s Bionomics, although he assumes the “globalised civilisation” as opposed to multiples of them.

      One of the challenges a philosopher of history faces comes out of the problem of being an historian: there is always more detail! (It is similar to the problem of mapping a space: a fully-informed map is at least as big as the space being mapped.) So we must abstract, and the moment we do, we not only open ourselves to having excluded something important, but we make it look simpler than it really is.

      The people I am enthused about these days are the ones who have said “we are in trouble” and have rolled up their sleeves to get on with building something that can be sustained through the crises and onward into the future. None of these are politicians, of course.

      By their doing, they’re learning about the interrelationships of all these parts. I doubt, even after years of Transition Town experiences, those can be fully articulated yet: it is experiential but subconscious. But we’re slowly building a body of knowledge that is suited for a new way of being in society.

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