West Kootenay elites and the collapse of civilization
A new study sponsored by Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.
Noting that warnings of ‘collapse’ are often seen to be fringe or controversial, the study attempts to make sense of compelling historical data showing that “the process of rise-and-collapse is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history.” Cases of severe civilisational disruption due to “precipitous collapse – often lasting centuries – have been quite common.
— From The Guardian, March 14, 2014
Dark Ages ahead?
My readers are advised, if they are interested, to search out this prophecy about the future using the model developed by social scientists. I find it fascinating. I do not find it persuasive. Most important, I do not endorse the application of historical research to predictive forecasting.
History and Prediction
More from the Guardian article cited above:
“The research project is based on a new cross-disciplinary ‘Human And Nature DYnamical’ (HANDY) model, led by applied mathematician Safa Motesharrei of the US National Science Foundation-supported National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, in association with a team of natural and social scientists. The study based on the HANDY model has been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed Elsevier journal, Ecological Economics.”
The prediction of a dark future for human civilization depends a lot on a modelling of past times and historic civilizations. History is used as a proof for prophecy. Not good, by historians’ way of thinking. The professionals of history, the men and women of the academy whose scholarship is profound, would rather that their studies not be employed by vaguely-described “scientists” for modelling of the future. Historians know why models extrapolated from history are problematic.
I am not qualified to call myself a scholar of history, yet I am a professional in the field. My assumption that my education as a political historian gives me insights into the politics of the present, recently got challenged by my students in Learning in Retirement.
One of the class was certain he understood Russian president Vladimir Putin’s policy in the Crimea–by reading a fat, and rather old book by W. Shirer about Hitler. My reaction to his certainty was probably too strong. I offended him by calling his opinion ignorant and uninformed. I had my “button pushed.”
I was irritated to hear yet one more leader whom our Western political champions want to condemn, named as a Hitler. Obama and Harper assume that quickly summoning up images of Hitler will push the right buttons to get Western public opinion onside. Putin too uses the association of Nazism with the Ukraine to score his own points in Russia. The time has come to find a better way to make the point, so long after Hitler and with so much history between that time and the present.
If Hitler never happened, we would have invented someone to be the ultimate symbol for evil leadership. Jinghiz Khan or Stalin or Napoleon would do, with sufficient inflation of their dark aspects.
I will return to this in my conclusion, but for now, let us stay with the prediction of collapse based on the HANDY model of human social and economic behaviour, derived from historical data.
It is still a “common-sense notion” of our times that we can learn something from the history of humanity, from our experiences as a species, our experiments in organizing human life? And we extend that to say, what we learn from history can help us project future paths, yes?
Humans fail to turn aside from paths of collapse despite knowledge
No. In all honesty, we cannot learn wisdom from the past to teach us about our future. I will cite more from the HANDY modelling study reported by The Guardian, to illustrate how the past has been employed in this manner:
[The 32-page study] finds that according to the historical record even advanced, complex civilisations are susceptible to collapse, raising questions about the sustainability of modern civilisation:
“The fall of the Roman Empire, and the equally (if not more) advanced Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, as well as so many advanced Mesopotamian Empires, are all testimony to the fact that advanced, sophisticated, complex, and creative civilizations can be both fragile and impermanent.”
By investigating the human-nature dynamics of these past cases of collapse, the project identifies the most salient interrelated factors which explain civilisational decline, and which may help determine the risk of collapse today: namely, Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy.
These factors can lead to collapse when they converge to generate two crucial social features: “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity”; and “the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or “Commoners”) [poor]” These social phenomena have played “a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse,” in all such cases over “the last five thousand years.”
Currently, high levels of economic stratification are linked directly to overconsumption of resources, with “Elites” based largely in industrialised countries responsible for both:
“… accumulated surplus is not evenly distributed throughout society, but rather has been controlled by an elite. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels.”
There is a semblance of truth, a verisimilitude, in the way that the scientists use history to model human futures. I cannot deny it. It makes a certain intuitive sense that just as one person – you or I – might contemplate our experience to learn about our best choices in future, that humanity as a collective might do the same.
But historical study also demonstrates that societies do repeat the mistakes of others before them. In broad strokes, the pattern is similar enough: Rise, plateau, crises without solutions, collapse.
We fail to learn from history. Societies and individuals are just not learning what we think they should.
The Poverty of Historicism
It is a mistake to think that history has regularities that generate “laws” that can be predictive. An excellent study of why this is, is an extended essay by Karl Popper, The Poverty of Historicism. Popper makes all the right points against the meta-historians like Hegel and Marx, who believed they discerned the march of human history and the “laws of motion” that governed the development of global society along a predictable pathway.
Historicism, believing in this power of history, is defective thinking. It is the product of a time and culture in thrall to the ability of natural sciences – physics, chemistry, or biology – to find regularities that amount to “laws” as in Newton’s Laws of Motion. Marx and his school lived in such a culture.
Why experience does not teach the individual how not to repeat error
I might say I have learned from my history and will not repeat a mistake. I would mean, I will recognize exact parallels in my past and the present, and not repeat myself in negative ways.
But in my real living behaviour, I would find that no two experiences are exact parallels. Then it is up to me to decide whether my action will be the same as in the past or different. I will absolutely believe I have good, solid reasons to act as I do in the present.
I can say with complete conviction, “This time is not like that time, because of these differences. Therefore I will not be repeating a mistake if I act in a like manner to that earlier time.”
I want what I want, or need. Reasoning why I act will explain myself to myself and others only so far. I will not accept your interpretation of my past. My experience is mine alone. Only I will say when a situation is an exact repeat of the past. Only I will decide if I am repeating myself, or acting differently because the situation is different.
To make it a “law” of human behaviour, I would say, “Context is everything.” No two times, experiences, and persons are identical. I am not identical now to the person I was last year.
Human Collectives cannot do what Individuals fail to do: “learn from history”
Empires are expansive and exercise their power; their rulers might study history intensively and never be able to stop the eventual slide of their empire into weakness and disintegration. Rulers are like any individual in being able to see differences between their situation and one that existed in the past. Hitler could not learn from Napoleon, Napoleon could not learn from Louis XIV of France who could not learn from Philip II of Spain, Philip could not learn from Cesare Borgia, and so on, and so on.
George Bush Jr. invading Iraq in 2003 could not take a lesson from the Vietnam War, nor could his father George Sr. learn from General Townsend of the British Army when he invaded Iraq in 1991. The NATO invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 could not learn from the Soviet invasion of 22 years before it. All the hand-wringing about repeating mistakes cannot and does not stop the madness.
Convince the West that Russia and Putin in the Crimea in 2014 are Germany and Hitler in the Sudetenland in 1938, and maybe you could justify using force against Russia. Tell people this is a lesson of history. Stop the aggressor by force now, and prevent a more horrible war coming.
We may wish that our leaders would learn from history. But our politicians serve a ruling class and that class wants what it wants, to maintain itself as rulers. War serves some people, and the military solution does accomplish something for people in power in a short term, and those people will always persuade sufficient people of the ruled majority that the war is good, just, and worthwhile.
The HANDY modelling of our future is accurate, in my judgement. Civilization will deteriorate and unravel. The elites will feel the deterioration a lot less, for much longer, than the Commoners feel it. The Elite will manage not to share their wealth. This is the past. It will be the future too.
To make it closer to home, in a concrete way, I could say this: the elites in Nelson and this region are hiding themselves behind a facade of progressivism, but they can be revealed by some study of their incomes. Ignore their rhetoric of compassionate community and sharing with the poor; research the facts of where their affluence was derived and how they foresee maintaining their comfort. When others are failing to prosper outside the Elite’s zone of hip social-entrepreneurship and green economic growth and spiritual-economic development, the Elite will not alter the basic order which has provided them with their elite status. They still want their vacations in Bali or Tibet, their gorgeous homes, their yoga retreats, their expensive private health care to keep them alive and in amazing physical condition until they are 99.
The elite will uphold law and order; they will not share their wealth with the people who have not mastered the karma of affluence and the enlightenment of manifesting material possessions.
As for my skills as a historian and what political insights I can claim from them: I know that the study of history is not easy. I know how the past and its presentation is perverted, used for political agendas, and misapplied to “teach” the correct policy in the present.
I know these things by long study of the past and long contemplation of it. To anyone who would presume to take a lesson from Hitler’s career to teach that we must start war with Putin over Crimea, I feel justified in saying your opinion is ignorant, lacking insight, and profoundly uninformed.
I will leave readers with just two bits of advice for studying history:
(1) Learn what you can about the historian you are reading. Find out about their education, and find out how their peers in the community of scholarship have evaluated their work. [Hint: W. L. Shirer is not in high repute as an historian.]
(2) Get into the mind of the people you study, and sympathetically feel and think as they were trying to do. That includes getting sympathetically into the mind of “moral monsters” like Hitler or Stalin.
Ultimately, studying humans in history is not unlike studying the ones you know personally. The better you get at seeing the world through their eyes, the better you comprehend their actions.
Related to the study on collapse
The otherwise obscure report was first made public in a recent column in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper in which environment writer Nafeez Ahmed warned that it constituted a “highly credible wake-up call” and declared that its menu of suggested policy changes were “required immediately.”
In the days since, environmentalists, socialists, hard-line U.S. Republicans and even survivalists have taken up the banner of the 32-page study.
Charles Jeanes is a Nelson-based writer. The last edition of the Arc of the Cognizant can be found here.