Focusing on short term issues, as I’ve commented more than once in these electronic pages, is a common habit among those concerned about the future of industrial society, and not always a good one. To some extent it’s necessary, since some of the most crucial questions deal with immediate issues like the imminent peaking of world petroleum production. To some extent it’s inescapable, part of the common currency of thought in a society whose movers and shakers think only in terms of the next election or the next quarterly profit statement.
To some extent, too, the grand mythic narratives that dominate the contemporary view of history – the myth of progress and the myth of apocalypse – work to foreshorten our view of the future. Both myths insist that the future is predestined – to a heroic destiny among the stars, according to the myth of progress; to cataclysm followed by a return to the good society of the past, according to the myth of apocalypse – and so in either case, all that matters are the short term details, the next wave of technological advance or the next set of rumblings that prove that the great redeeming catastrophe is breathing down our necks. Both these narratives attempt to force history into the Procrustean bed of some form of secular theology; neither one of them, as I’ve argued repeatedly here, offers much in the way of useful guidance for the future taking shape in the circumstances, choices, and missed opportunities of the present.
What does offer useful guidance in our current situation is history. Many other civilizations have overshot their resource base and gone down the same rough slope of decline and fall ahead of us. Set aside the myths that convince us of our own uniqueness, and modern industrial civilization can be seen as just one more example of the type. Ours was made more gargantuan by the combination of luck and cleverness that enabled the industrial revolution to replace sun, wind, water, and muscle with the vast but not limitless supplies of ancient sunlight stored away in the earth’s fossil fuels. Still, the course of decline and fall traces the same trajectory across many different geographical scales; local civilizations restricted to a single bioregion, such as the ancient Maya, rose and fell in much the same way as sprawling empires built on a continental scale such as ancient Rome. It doesn’t require much of a leap to suggest that the same patterns will also shape the fall of a contemporary industrial civilization that includes several continents and dominates, for a brief historical moment, the rest of the planet.
History has plenty of lessons for us, and of course those have been central to the Archdruid Report project all along, but I want to focus on a single issue right now. Partly this is because the issue in question ties into controversies that are getting a lot of airtime in the media just now. Partly, though, it’s because the issue in question points up the importance of taking the long view as we try to make sense of the deindustrial future before us.
It’s fairly common today to think of nations and national cultures as something given, a fixed reality with which historical changes have to deal. Over the short term, this is generally true, though it’s a bit embarrassing for Americans to think this way, given that our nation didn’t exist at all 250 years ago and seized nearly all its current territory from the original owners at gunpoint. Over the long term, though, the combination of culture and territory that defines a national community is a mayfly phenomenon, and analyses that project current national and cultural boundaries very far into the future are likely deluding themselves.
Even in periods of relative stability, populations move, cultures elbow one another out of the way, and nations flow, fuse, and break apart like grease on a hot skillet. A hundred years ago the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire were among the major players in world politics – try finding either one on a map today – and Norway had only recently won its independence from Sweden. A hundred years ago the very thought of West Indian or Pakistani immigrant communities in Britain would have drawn blank stares, while a good fraction of the debates over immigration in the United States focused on whether Italians ought to be welcomed or not. Look over the afternoon periods of other civilizations, when people imagined that the current state of affairs would continue forever, and you’ll find similar shifts at work.
When major civilizations disintegrate, though, these changes shift into overdrive. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire offers one of the best documented examples. Outside of Scandinavia, Scotland, and Ireland, practically none of the peoples of Europe stayed put. Before Rome fell, for example, the ancestors of the English lived in Denmark, the ancestors of the French and the northern Italians lived in Germany, the ancestors of the Spanish lived north of the Black Sea, and the ancestors of the Hungarians lived not far from the Gobi Desert. It took most of a thousand years for the rubble to stop bouncing and the new nations of Europe to take shape, and when that finally happened, those nations and cultures had only the most distant connections to what had been there before Rome fell.
German historians of the 19th century coined a useful word for the age of migrations that followed the fall of Rome: Völkerwanderung, “the wandering of peoples.” Drawn by the vacuum left by the implosion of Roman power, and pushed by peoples from the steppes further east driven westward by climate change, whole nations packed their belongings and took to the road. The same thing has happened many other times in the past, though not always on the same vast scale. What makes it important for our present discussion is that we are likely to see a repeat of the phenomenon on an even larger scale in the fairly near future.
The first ripples of this future flood can be seen by anyone who travels by bus through any rural region west of the Mississippi River, as I did a few days ago. Stray very far from the freeways and the tourist towns, and in a great many places you’ll discover that culturally speaking, you’re in Mexico, not the United States. The billboards and window signs are in Spanish, advertising Mexican products, music, and sports teams, and the people on the streets speak Spanish and wear Mexican fashions. It’s popular among Anglophone Americans to think of this sort of thing as purely a phenomenon of the Southwest, but the bus trip I’ve mentioned was in northwestern Oregon. There are some 30 million people of Mexican descent in the US legally, and some very large number – no one seems to agree on what the number is, but 8 million is the lowest figure I’ve heard anyone talking about – who are here illegally. As the migration continues, a very large portion of what is now the United States is becoming something else.
There’s been a great deal of angry rhetoric from all sides of the current debate about immigration from Mexico, of course, but very little of it deals with one of the primary driving forces behind it – the failure of the American settlement of the West. The strategies that changed the eastern third of the country from frontier to the heartland of the United States didn’t work anything like as well west of the Mississippi. Today the cities, towns, and farms that once spread across the Great Plains in an unbroken carpet are falling apart as their economic basis crumbles and their residents move away, while most of the mountain and basin regions further west survive on tourist dollars, retirement income, or specialized cash crops for distant markets – none of them viable economic bases once cheap energy becomes a thing of the past. Like the Mongol conquest of Russia or the Arab conquest of Spain, the American conquest of the West is proving to be a temporary phenomenon, and as the wave of American settlement recedes, the vacuum is being filled by the nearest society with the population and cultural vitality to take its place.
This isn’t an issue unique to America. The same thing is happening right now in Siberia, where Chinese immigrants are streaming across a long and inadequately guarded border and making the Russian settlement of northern Asia look more and more like a passing historical phase. It’s a very common phenomenon when the reach of a powerful nation turns out to exceed its grasp. In a showdown between military power and demography, demography generally wins.
Once again, though, such changes shift into overdrive when civilizations break down. In an age of disintegration, when the political and military power that backs up America’s borders will most likely come unraveled in short order and climate shifts could all too easily hand tens of millions of people in Latin America a choice between migration or starvation, völkerwanderung once again becomes probable. Map the Roman model onto the present and it’s quite conceivable that by the year 2500 or so, the people living in the area of today’s Iowa and Wisconsin might trace their origins to a migration from Brazil, while west of the Mississippi, languages descended from English might only be spoken in a few enclaves in the Pacific Northwest.
Yet history also shows that where maritime technology permits, völkerwanderung can just as easly cross oceans. From the Sea Peoples who ravaged the eastern Mediterranean world around 1300 BCE to the Vikings of the early Middle Ages who left their mark on lands as distant as Greenland, Russia, and Sicily, plenty of migrant peoples have taken to the sea. As the petroleum age winds down, it will leave a great many nations with large populations, limited natural resources, and a strong maritime tradition, with few options other than mass migration by sea. Japan is likely to be the poster child here, though Indonesia is a close second, as Australia is likely to find out the hard way over the next century or so.
Some of these changes are already well under way. Others could very easily begin as soon as the next round of crises hit, especially if the crises include a temporary or permanent implosion of American military power. All of them need to be kept in mind in planning for the future, since options that seem plausible in an age of cultural and national stability may take on a very different character in an age of migrations, and the transmission of knowledge across cultural boundaries becomes a much more important task when those boundaries begin to move – as they will certainly move once the deindustrial age begins.