Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Trajectory of Empires

The structure of empire anatomized in last week’s post is a source of considerable strength for any imperial nation that manages to get it in place, and a source of even more considerable difficulty for anyone who opposes the resulting empire and hopes to bring it down. Nonetheless, empires do fall; every empire in history has fallen, with one present day exception, and for all its global reach and gargantuan military budgets, the American empire shows no signs of breaking that long losing streak. Thus it’s important to understand how empires fall, and why.

It sometimes happens that the fall of the last major empire in any given civilization is also the fall of that civilization, and a certain amount of confusion has come about because of this. The fall of Rome, for example, was the end of an empire, but it was also the end of a civilization that was already flourishing before the city of Rome was even founded—a civilization that had seen plenty of empires come and go by the time Rome rose past regional-power status to dominate the Mediterranean world. The example of Rome’s decline and fall, though, became so central to later attempts to understand the cycles of history that most such attempts in the modern Western world equated empire and civilization, and the fall of the one with that of the other.

That’s the principal blind spot in the writings of Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, the two great theorists of historical cycles the modern Western world has produced. Both Spengler and Toynbee argued that the natural endpoint of what Spengler called a culture and Toynbee a civilization was a single sprawling empire—a Universal State, in Toynbee’s phrase—in which every previous movement of the culture or civilization that preceded it reached its completion, fossilization, and death. A barely concealed political subtext guided both authors; Spengler, formulating his theory before and during the First World War, believed that the German Empire would become the nucleus around which Faustian (that is, Western) culture would coalesce into the rigor mortis of civilization; Toynbee, who began his A Study of History in the 1920s and saw its last volumes in print in 1954, believed that an Anglo-American alliance would become that nucleus. In each case, national aspirations pretty clearly undergirded scholarly predictions.

Yet it bears remembering that a Universal State along Roman lines is only one of the options. Plenty of successful civilizations—the ancient Mayans are one example of many—never came under the rule of a single imperial power at all. Others—the civilization of ancient Mesopotamia is an example here—had empires succeeding one another every century or two all through the latter part of its history, so that no one empire put its stamp on the civilization the way that Rome did on the ancient Mediterranean world. Other civilizations had their own ways of dealing with the phenomenon of empire, and so a distinction needs to be made between the fall of empires and that of civilizations.

I’ve argued at length here and elsewhere that the fall of civilizations takes place through a process that I’ve termed catabolic collapse. This unfolds from the inevitable mismatch between the maintenance costs of capital—that is, how much economic activity has to be put into maintaining all the stuff that civilizations create and collect as their history proceeds—and the resource base needed to meet the maintenance costs of capital. Since capital tends to increase steadily over time, but resources are always subject to natural limits, every civilization sooner or later finds itself with more capital than it can maintain, and that tips it into a maintenance crisis: basically, a loss of capital, usually made worse by conflict over who gets to keep how much of their existing shares. If the civilization relies on renewable resources, it simply has to shed enough capital to get down below the level that it can maintain with the resource flows it has available; this is what drives the sort of repeated collapse and recovery rhythm that can be seen, for example, in the history of China.

If the civilization relies on nonrenewable resources, though, the depletion of those resources triggers a downward spiral—catabolic collapse—in which each round of crisis is followed, not by recovery, but by a brief reprieve before the declining resource base forces another maintenance crisis. Rinse and repeat, and pretty soon the capital you can’t afford to maintain any longer amounts to everything that’s left. That’s the extreme form of catabolic collapse, and there’s good reason to think that we’re already seeing the early stages of it in modern industrial civilization.

Empires suffer from the ordinary form of catabolic collapse, just like any other form of human social organization complex enough to accumulate capital. Still, they have their own far more specific version of the phenomenon, and it’s generally this specific form that brings them crashing down. To understand how empires collapse, two things have to be kept in mind. The first is the core concept of catabolic collapse just mentioned—the mismatch between maintenance costs and available resources, and the distinction between renewable and nonrenewable resources that determines the outcome of the mismatch. The second is the definition of empire introduced two weeks ago—that an empire is a wealth pump, an arrangement backed by military force that extracts wealth from a periphery of subject nations and concentrates it in the imperial core.

Imperial rhetoric down through the centuries normally includes the claim that the imperial power only takes a modest fraction of the annual production of wealth from its subject nations, and provides services such as peace, good government, and trade relations that more than make up for the cost. This is hogwash—popular hogwash, at least among those who profit from empire, but hogwash nonetheless. Historically speaking, the longer an empire lasts, the poorer its subject nations normally get, and the harder the empire’s tame intellectuals have to work to invent explanations for that impoverishment that don’t include the reasons that matter. Consider the vast amount of rhetorical energy expended by English intellectuals in the 19th century, for example, to find reasons for Ireland’s grinding poverty other than England’s systematic expropriation of every scrap of Irish wealth that wasn’t too firmly nailed down.

This sort of arrangement has predictable effects on capital and maintenance costs. The buildup of capital in the imperial center goes into overdrive, churning out the monumental architecture, the collections of art and antiquities, the extravagant lifestyles, and the soaring costs of living that have been constant features of life in an imperial capital since imperial capitals were invented. The costs of building and maintaining all this accumulation, not to mention the considerable maintenance costs of empire itself—the infrastructure of an empire counts as capital, and generally very expensive capital at that—are exported to the subject nations by whatever set of mechanisms the empire uses to pump wealth inward to the center. Over the short to middle term, this is an extremely profitable system, since it allows the imperial center to wallow in wealth while all the costs of that wealth are borne elsewhere.

It’s over the middle to long term that the problems with this neat arrangement show up. The most important of these difficulties is that the production of wealth in any society depends on a feedback loop in which a portion of each year’s production becomes part of the capital needed to produce wealth in future years, and another portion of each year’s production—a substantial one—goes to meet the maintenance costs of existing productive capital. In theory, an empire could keep its exactions at a level which would leave this feedback loop unimpaired. In practice, no empire ever does so, which is one of the two primary reasons why the subject nations of an empire become more impoverished over time. (Plain old-fashioned looting of subject nations by their imperial rulers is the other.) As the subject nation’s ability to produce and maintain productive capital decreases, so does its capacity to produce wealth, and that cuts into the ability of the empire to make its subject nations cover its own maintenance costs. A wealth pump is great, in other words, until it pumps the reservoir dry.

The wealth of subject nations, in other words, is a nonrenewable resource for empires, and empires thus face the same sort of declining returns on investment as any other industry dependent on nonrenewable resources. It’s thus predictable that the most frequent response to declining returns is an exact analogue of the "drill, baby, drill" mentality so common in today’s petroleum-dependent nations. The drive to expand at all costs that dominates the foreign policy of so many empires is thus neither accidental nor a symptom of the limitless moral evil with which empires are so often credited by their foes. For an empire that’s already drained its subject nations to the point that the wealth pump is sputtering, a policy of "invade, baby, invade" is a matter of economic necessity, and often of national survival.

The difficulty faced by such a policy, of course, is the same one that always ends up clobbering extractive economies dependent on nonrenewable resources: the simple and immovable fact that the world is finite. That’s what did in the Roman empire, for example. Since it rose and fell in an age less addicted to euphemisms than ours, Rome’s approach to pumping wealth out of subject nations was straightforward. Once a nation was conquered by Rome, it was systematically looted of movable wealth by the conquerors, while local elites were allowed to buy their survival by serving as collection agents for tribute; next, the land was confiscated a chunk at a time so it could be handed out as retirement bonuses to legionaries who had served their twenty years; then some pretext was found for exterminating the local elites and installing a Roman governor; thereafter, the heirs of the legionaries were forced out or bought out, and the land sold to investors in Rome, who turned it into vast corporate farms worked by slaves.

Each of those transformations brought a pulse of wealth back home to Rome, but the income from conquered provinces tended to decline over time, and once it reached the final stage, the end was in sight—hand over your farmland to absentee investors who treat it purely as a source of short term profit, and whether you live in ancient Rome or modern America, the results you’re going to get include inadequate long-term investment, declining soil fertility, and eventual abandonment. To keep the wealth pump running, the empire had to grow, and grow it did, until finally it included every nation that belonged to the ancient Mediterranean economic and cultural sphere, from the tin mines of Britain to the rich farms of the upper Nile.

That’s when things began to go wrong, because the drive to expand was still there but the opportunities for expansion were not. Attempts to expand northward into Scotland, Germany, and the Balkans ran headlong into two awkward facts: first, the locals didn’t have enough wealth to make an invasion pay for itself, and second, the locals were the kind of tribal societies that fostered Darwinian selection among their young men via incessant warfare, and quickly found that a nice brisk game of "Raid the Romans" made a pleasant addition to the ordinary round of cattle raids and blood feuds. Expansion to the south was closed off by the Sahara Desert, while to the east, the Parthian Empire had an awkward habit of annihilating Roman armies sent to conquer it. Thus Roman imperial expansion broke down; attempts to keep the wealth pump running anyway stripped the provinces of their productive capital and pushed the Roman economic system into a death spiral; the imperial government stumbled from one fiscal and military crisis to another, until finally the Dark Ages closed in.

The same process can be traced throughout the history of empires. Consider England’s rule over India, once the jewel in the crown of the British empire. In the last years of British India, it was a common complaint in the English media that India no longer "paid her own way." Until a few decades earlier, India had paid a great deal more than her own way; income to the British government from Queen Victoria’s Indian possessions had covered a sizable fraction of the costs of the entire British empire, and colossal private fortunes were made in India so frequently that they gave rise to an entire class of nouveaux-riches Englishmen, the so-called Nabobs.

It took the British Empire, all in all, less than two centuries to run India’s economy into the ground and turn what had been one of the world’s richest and most productive countries into one of its poorest. Attempts to expand the British empire into new territory were ongoing all through the 19th and very early 20th centuries, but ran up against difficulties like those that stymied Rome’s parallel efforts most of two millennia before: those areas that could be conquered—for example, eastern Africa—didn’t yield enough plunder to make the process sufficiently lucrative, while where conquest would have been hugely profitable—for example, China—British imperial ambitions ran up against stiff competition from other empires, and had to settle for a fraction of the take. Neither option provided enough income to keep the British empire from unraveling.

Another example? The short-lived Soviet empire in eastern Europe. In the wake of the Second World War, Russian soldiers installed Marxist puppet governments in every nation they overran, and the Soviet government proceeded to impose wildly unbalanced "trade agreements" that amounted to the wholesale looting of eastern Europe for Russian benefit. Much of the Soviet Union’s rapid recovery from wartime devastation and its rise to near-parity with the United States can be assigned to that very lucrative policy of pillage. Once the supply of plunder ran short, though, so did the Soviet economy’s capacity to function; efforts to expand into new territory—Afghanistan comes to mind—ran into the usual difficulties; and when the price of oil crashed in the mid-1980s, depriving the Soviet system of much of the hard currency that kept it afloat, collapse followed promptly.

The United States, as I hope to show in upcoming posts, is being driven by the same forces along the same trajectory toward imperial bankruptcy and collapse. Like the empires just described, and many others as well, it’s become economically and politically dependent on a set of unbalanced relationships that extract wealth from much of the world and concentrate it here at home. The specific form of those relationships unfolds from the unusually complex history of America’s empire; we’ll begin talking about that in next week’s post.

End of the World of the Week #11

Prophets of a new world about to dawn have spoken and written in many different styles, ranging from some of the world’s greatest poetry to some of the world’s least impressive gibberish. In 19th century Europe, however, it became fashionable to express such predictions in philosophical language, the more pompous and turgid the better. Two of the figures we’ve already discussed, Charles Fourier and Karl Marx, came out of that tradition, but Fourier had too colorful an imagination and Marx too readable a prose style to represent its main current.

No such handicaps burdened Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who managed to become the 19th century’s most influential philosopher by writing some of its most unreadable books. His bio is nearly a caricature of a contemporary German academic career—private lecturer at the University of Jena, editor of a literary journal at Bamberg, headmaster of a high school at Nuremberg, professor at the University of Jena, and finally chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Berlin, where he spent the rest of his life. His publications followed the same utterly conventional route: his doctoral dissertation studiously avoided the least suspicion of original thought; his first major work staked out a carefully chosen stance within the field of 19th century idealist philosophy, and later works applied the same stance at progressively greater length to various fashionable fields of thought.

His theory of history was part and parcel of this agenda. He argued, if it’s possible to sum up a vast amount of murky prose and convoluted reasoning in a few sentences, that history is the process by which the Absolute manifests Itself in space and time, according to a rhythm of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis by which each manifestation contends with its internal contradictions and achieves a new synthesis, which generates its own internal contradictions in turn, and the beat goes on.

Eventually, though, the Absolute will have completely manifested Itself in the world, the perfect human society will have been achieved, and history will come to a screeching halt with the appearance of a "world-historical personality" who would embody the Absolute. Hegel spent a good deal of his career waffling about when this would happen, but toward the end of his life, announced that it already had, and that Germany was the perfect human society. History, though, failed to take the hint, and just kept on going.

—story from Apocalypse Not


Wandering Sage said...

Your eloquence at discussing this subject is unparalleled.
Thank you for the time and effort you put into this work.
Wishing you much peace in these times of change.
Wandering Sage Wisdom

conrad said...

Sorry if this is a doublepost, I had to create a Google account...

I've read a bit of Toynbee, but found his relentless forcing of examples to fit his thesis a bit annoying. I've no intention of trying to read Spengler.

As always a very thought provoking post and I look forward to the next installment. As an observer from the far fringes of empire (rural New Zealand) the centre certainly looks shaky too me.

Joel Caris said...

I'm enjoying this set up of the basics of empire you're providing, even as I'm eager to get into some of the more present-based meat of the forthcoming posts. Still, a basic understanding is obviously necessary and you're providing me some good stuff to consider. Your explanation for the collapse of empire certainly makes a lot of sense. This capital we've built up does seem quite a handful these days.

It makes me yearn for a return to the country's agrarian roots. How nice it would be if we could just wash our hands of the whole empire business and do such a thing. Of course, there are quite a few issues that would make such a simple transition impossible, and quite a number of people who, unlike me, wouldn't be so keen on the idea. Oh well.

I just finished up Overshoot, finally, and must thank you for introducing me to the book. It's brilliant and has given me much more than some good thinking to mull, but a whole new paradigm to attempt to engage and integrate into my thinking. I'm looking forward to viewing events with fresh eyes.

I so enjoyed Overshoot, I was thinking of checking out Bottleneck. I remember you writing that Catton gave you a copy at the peak oil conference you attended recently. Have you read it, by any chance? If you have, I would be interested in any quick thoughts you might have, if you feel compelled to share.

Of The Hands

Richard Clyde said...

It seems to me the American situation is complicated by the convergence of at least three wealth pumps nearing or passing the point of decay.

One, there is of course the system of subject nations that pump wealth and resources, and increasingly human labour, to the core. They also pump pollution of various kinds in the reverse direction. This is the system that like Rome has run out of worthwhile places to conquer, can't export much more industry, and faces strengthening rivals as well.

But of course there's also the massive non-renewable resource wealth pump, delivered and administered through the core-periphery system. That both the system and the resource pump are entering decay at the same time is a vicious coincidence, even if the two are related.

And finally there's the pump that works within the empire's core, enriching the upper echelon at the cost of a growing internal proletariat. This pump started up as soon as domestic oil production peaked. Current levels of inequality are as high as they've ever been, and it seems possible that this represents a kind of minimum-potential point, where wealth outside the ruling class is sufficiently diffuse that not much more can be transferred upward without the application of force. Past peaks of inequality have been followed by large-scale conflicts that shuffle the deck and repotentiate the internal wealth pump (i.e. give the middle class a fresh start), but in our case it seems more likely for the result to be a collective step down the ladder of descent.

Three pumps tipping into negative returns at once. Yikes.

John Michael Greer said...

Sage, thank you.

Conrad, Spengler's actually the easier read of the two, and to my mind the more interesting.

Joel, Bottleneck's an intriguing work -- it's much more focused on sociological issues, and makes a strong case that the way that industrial societies develop puts a specific barrier in the way of constructive change. I'd encourage you to read it.

Richard, excellent! I've noticed with delight that a number of readers have been taking each of these posts and drawing the same conclusions I am, from the same presuppositions. We'll be talking about all three of those failing wealth pumps as we proceed.

Sean Anthony said...

This is quite possibly one of the most well written and thought provoking takes on this subject. I eagerly look forward to reading more, and bringing this post up in message boards and blogs in the very near future.

-Sean Anthony (Sean of Detroit)
Author & Blogger from one of the first post industrial American big cities that has been "pumped dry".

Igneous said...

I couldn't agree more with your simple observation, understood by most independence movements in history, that empires always involve (on some level) a zero-sum-game economic relationship between the center and the periphery. You're also quite right that this common-sense observation is always resisted, for obvious reasons, by the empire's "tame intellectuals."

During the Victorian era, the nationalist intellectuals Dadabhai Naoroji and Romesh Chunder Dutt (who had contacts with Irish nationalists) used the term "bleeding" to describe the Raj's policies toward Indian industry. Around the same time, Filipino nationalists like Dr. Dominador Gomez (arrested by the American government in 1903) were making similar observations about the economic priorities of the new guys in Manila.

It's interesting to note that Marx, for all his preoccupation with exploitation, shared many of the assumptions about Britain's activities in India as a "tame intellectual" like James Mill. In his case, of course, it involved a teleology (adopted from the Hegelian doctrines you satirized in today's apocalypse excerpt) of the necessary introduction of capitalism before we can get to socialism.

One last thing. Wouldn't you say every empire has different tiers of colonies, relating to geographical and strategic factors? For instance, the Gulf sheikdoms have gotten quite wealthy since Britain withdrew its forces in 1971 and the U.S. assumed naval/air hegemony, not because the U.S. is nicer than Britain, but because of OPEC, global oil prices, etc. Japan has been able to relegate U.S. military bases to its own "Puerto Rico" of Okinawa. South Korea has entered the OECD, and come close to Japanese living standards since the 1980s, although it would probably be wealthier if the U.S. and Soviets had allowed peninsular unification to occur during the Cold War. The contrast between wealthy Seoul and hungry Pyongyang seems to say something about the fate of satellites before and after the imperial plug gets pulled.

All I'm saying is, it seems every empire creates UAEs and South Koreas, as well as Nicaraguas and Indonesias, as well as Angolas, Iraqs, Somalias and Afghanistans.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Nice post. I hope the untame intellectuals making an income from the fringes don't end up with Merlin's fate?

Actually, you reminded me of something I read in Galbraith's crash of 1929 book, in that it was later revealed that many of the loudest and most well remunerated economists (prior to the crash of course), were actually on the payroll of the powers that be. Who'd have thought it?

It was good that you mentioned soil too. I'm in the process of writing an article on soil and I keep wondering how long we can keep going as a society with industrial agricultural methods. You don't have to look hard to see the signs of strain. Incidentally, the cost of diesel fuel here is starting to increase the costs of the raw materials I'm using to restore the soil health here. Interesting times.

By the way, I think the Persians had also done quite a bit of looting and integrating into India well before the English got there. You can still see their presence there all over the place.



Les said...

"hand over your farmland to absentee investors who treat it purely as a source of short term profit, and whether you live in ancient Rome or modern America, the results you’re going to get include inadequate long-term investment, declining soil fertility, and eventual abandonment"

One of your more interesting points, JMG. Here in Oz, there's a fair bit of noise being made about those untrustworthy foreigners that are buying up farmland left, right and centre. The biggest noise currently is about the fact that Johnny Foreigner (to use the endearing Brit terminology) only has to register his interest with the Foreign Investment Review Board (i.e. the Gummint) if the purchase price for one property is more than 100 million bucks or thereabouts.

The purchase of much vaster tracts of land by local conglomerates attracts no notice at all.

But the result will be exactly the same, whether the buyer is a local or foreign investor, as described by you above.

Funny how we so often ignore the bleeding obvious and refuse, ever, to learn.


Derv said...

Hey JMG,

I've loved the essays on empire so far, and they've provided some clarity on the matter of empire (specifically America's) and what defines them.

I'm not entirely sold on your thesis, though, to be honest. No one could doubt that a wealth pump is a fundamental element of every empire, true, but I think it's possible you're confusing cause and effect here. You could also be dead-on, of course; I'm just trying to think down a different route.

In trying to understand empire, my first thoughts go to its genesis. The latter phases are well-documented and indisputable, and the wealth pump/resource exhaustion aspect is almost certainly the cause of imperial collapse, which I'd just classify as overshoot. But very few empires started out with the initial INTENTION of becoming a wealth pump, with a few exceptions.

Consider, for instance, the growth of the Crusader Kingdoms, which undoubtedly became a wealth pump in short order, for a time. My understanding is that material motivations were certainly presented to the Crusaders (notably land), but the impetus for the whole action was religious and political: the restoration of the Holy Land and reunification with Byzantine churches.

I think of the Napoleanic Empire, the Nazi Empire, the Soviet Empire, the Caliphate (though certainly the raider mentality played a part from the beginning), the Macedonian Empire...all of these were motivated by ideological convictions, namely pride in one form or another. Pride in one's own ability, or character, or in one's culture, or religion. You remove that element, and I'm not sure empire develops at all.

Moreover, it seems to be a necessary element for the continuance of empires as well. The loss of cultural pride always seems to precede the collapse. Cause and effect could be debated, naturally - the breakdown of the wealth pump causing a sort of cultural malaise - but you see it prominently in the West today, while the Arab world suffers from no such self-doubt.

If oil and general resource scarcity were removed from the equation, who would doubt that France would still be on its way to becoming a Muslim country in 40 years or so? Obviously imperial overshoot is a serious concern and could of itself collapse empires, but if the genesis, impetus, and eventual decay of an empire is always tied to this sense of individual/cultural superiority, it seems like a big oversight to ignore it.

Anyways, that's my two cents, but I'll stop now because I'm already being long-winded.

Jeffrey Kotyk said...

"The buildup of capital in the imperial center goes into overdrive, churning out the monumental architecture, the collections of art and antiquities..."

Kinda funny to think most of what is studied in universities is only really available due to massive amounts of extra capital floating around society. Not just art. I mean some people get paid to become experts in Parthian pottery of all things. In the heyday of the British empire it was capital generated from imperial activities that funded the first research into "orientalism".

Ironically, if it wasn't for the British empire having funded it, we probably wouldn't have our present knowledge of early Indian history, Sanskrit, Pali and all things Indological. They might have pillaged the place, but the British did fund Indology with some of their spoils!

phil harris said...

Nice distinctions: an Empire is not necessarily or usually the same as civilisation.
I thought I would write a footnote to Toynbee and the Anglo/American Alliance.
That notion (I did not know it was owed to Toynbee) still has a lot of traction in English politics (not sure about wider British politics).
One Geoffrey Howe, (Margaret Thatcher’s first Chancellor (Finance Minister) and later her political assassin) was both a European Common Market man, and an Atlantic Alliance realist. He spotted in the late 70s the obvious opportunity of global modernization. I remember his defining declaration: “We [generously referring to mankind] have solved all the main problems; all we need to do is roll it out worldwide.” By solving problems he meant Agriculture (mainly referring to the application of large quantities of fertilizer to new varieties of cereals that could grow under that condition), and thus food and health with the help of sanitation and pharma, alongside yet more and more productive Machinery, and large scale universal Transport at appropriate speeds: in other words Business. Geoffrey saw an alternative to the disappeared British Empire in a new expanding sprawling civilization (let’s not call it Empire!), though without any hint of a Faustian bargain. He drew in those days just about the opposite conclusion to that drawn as I understand by a then very young JMG, and also I have to say by a still youthful Phil Harris, observing the same decades of post-war expansion of the Age of Petroleum. Though Geoffrey was a spectacularly incompetent Finance Minister he was right in the medium term. Britain got lucky, very lucky, and could replace coal, and now here we are, or some of us Brits; still breathing and still with enough young people in need of a job to be able to help the USA “fight small war on the heels of small war”; a good number of us apparently enjoying our bourgeois retirement while our brightest young people ‘do finance’.
Faustian bargain? What can these funny people mean?

Nestorian said...

Another lucid analysis, JMG. However, the examples you’ve chosen of collapsing empires all contrast in one important respect with the current phase of US empire: They ran into the outer limits of their military power. The way you describe each case, this circumstance proved pivotal in the empire’s undoing.

The US, by contrast, is far from having reached this point, despite many other signs of imperial decline. Let’s not forget that the US could literally destroy any nation on earth with military impunity. This is an uncontroversial, though often forgotten, assertion when it comes to every country in the world except Russia and China; and a powerful case can be (and has been) made, based on a careful comparative analysis of current military capabilities, that the US disposes over this sort of one-sided destructive capacity even in relation to the latter two countries. In any event, though, Russia and China’s capacity to threaten the US militarily is vastly weaker than many people seem to suppose. (If my current post generates sufficient interest, then I would be willing to go to the trouble of looking up references for these assertions in a future post.)

There will come a point in the next decade or two, I believe, when the US begins to wield its global destructive capacity in completely ruthless fashion. A military standoff with Iran, for example, could lead to the nuclear incineration of Tehran. Such an event would certainly induce great terror among the rest of the world, and this terror in turn would induce a global readiness to submit to continued US hegemony that might considerably extend the effective duration of imperial wealth pump mechanisms on the order of many decades.

And if such an exercise in ruthlessness with an uncontroversially defenseless nation were to lead to a global conflict pitting the US against Russia and China, I think that a very good case can be made that the US possesses the military capability to essentially destroy the military assets of both countries in an effective first strike. In such a case, the relative disparity between US military might and that of any potential rivals (who would then ALL be effectively defenseless) would be so vast for generations that it would be easily possible to marshal it in the service of implementing continued imperial wealth pump mechanisms, even in an age of scarcity industrialism.

Jason said...

I’ve wished for the extended JMG glosses on Spengler and this project is probably the nearest I can expect, so I’m glad to have it.

I always wanted to shout, “but why???” in history lessons about Roman invasions of Britain, but never did. I doubt I'd have got an answer like this.

Empires are nature’s way for us. We can be conscious of that fact thanks to writing like this, but they can not become conscious of us in the same way. Roberto Assagioli had similar thoughts.

I compared JMG to Marcus Aurelius in these comments a couple of years back. There was a man heading an empire deeply involved in imperial war which he regarded simply as what it was: necessity. Acceptance was the only response. I may be mistaken but he never really recorded his thoughts on the nature and pattern of that necessity. He simply acknowledged it; a better Stoic could hardly be imagined, nor one better fitted to be the end of that line.

It was he who brought out the thought that JMG also likes: comfort that in the vast reaches of time we are of more or less no significance. A man of that great character nonetheless could do very little about the course empire necessitated. He was a cell in a lumbering monster keeping itself alive -- and him, and his people.

How do you stay virtuous as an Emperor? Fewer luxuries at court, if enjoined on everyone, simply become one more ostentation. The wealth symbols actually keep your empire together. The answer is you bear what you must do.

Fascinating stuff.

Mike said...

Thanks for another great post. I'm really looking forward to this discussion.
Just to inject a bit of humor into the mix, re: the claims made by imperial rhetoric, a quote from The Life of Brian shows British Imperialists playing Jews and parroting the claims of a previous empire: "All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?"

Steve in Colorado said...

Another excellent post in this series.

Your mention of the imperial capital got me thinking. Most empires have a single imperial capital which sort of display the imperial self-image; Rome, London, Moscow, Beijing, Tenotitlan, and so forth all follow that pattern.

But the American empire seems to have two capitals, marked by two quite different styles of monumental architecture. The administration of the Republic is headquartered in DC, and the ideas on display in the architecture there relate to to America's mythic-history and traditional system of government. The wealth pump, meanwhile, is headquartered in New York-- and its primary monument was a pair of massive, modernist-style buildings, with none of the stylization of monuments in other imperial capitals.

The fact that both cities serve imperial capitals is perhaps also demonstrated by the fact that both were sacked by the barbarians 10 years ago.

& this is interesting, because it relates to the question: After the American empire, what will remain? Chalmers Johnson and others have written about the supposed mismatch between America's republican government and its imperial foreign policy, though I think that such arrangements have occurred often enough before (Athens, Rome, the Iroquois...). But the states of the republic were acquired by force, just as the nations of the periphery.

So how much of the actual claimed territory of the United States is part of the empire? Samoa, Guam, and Puerto Rico, certainly. Hawaii too, and probably Alaska. The Southwest was all acquired in a war of conquest, and at least some among the conquered people want their country back; the same, of course, can be said about the Indian reservations, and in an ongoing collapse, some of these might be strong enough to do so.

California, Texas, and the Midwest are as American as anywhere in the world right now. It would be an incredible thing if, in 200 years, all that remained were the states of the eastern seaboard, using the same sorts of technologies as when the republic was founded. But what do you consider to be America's "core," and what do you think will remain after the periphery falls apart?

russell1200 said...

I would subtract nothing from what you said but add one sub-set of items.

The cost of defense was a major factor in the demise of many empires.

In a vacuum empires would take over what ever wealthy targets were available to them, Rome- the Mediterranean Bases, The Mongols – the lands bordering the Asian Steppes, The Dutch and Portuguese – the areas that there ships could safely sale. The last group you could call these Trade Empires - although piracy was often as important as trade in establishing them.

But the vacuum that creates these empires does not last because of the “Red Queens Race.” A phenomenon often discussed in biology, it also works with Empires. In Lewis Carol’s Alice and Wonderland (or was it the sequel?) the Red Queens race had everyone running harder and harder just to stay in the same place.

When countries rely on some form of superior organization (Napoleonic Empire) or technology (Britain), at least some rivals will be able to copy the methods. And copying is easier than creating.

So to use Britain as an example, even though its fleet of 1914 was in an absolute sense, far more powerful than it’s 1904 fleet. The various lesser powers (U.S., Germany, Japan primarily) had caught up with it in the technical race. Britain ran hard, but still lost the race.

When countries loss the Red Queens race, they are usually (nuclear war possibly excepted) most vulnerable at the margins. The areas where there previously was a power vacuum can no longer be defended inexpensively, and there is a required pull back. Trade Empires seem to be particularly vulnerable to this extreme pull back.

So even if the United States manages to repair its current problems, and even prosper in some sense, that is not sufficient for it to maintain its empire.

GHung said...

It occurs to me that, in the case of the U.S., the majority of extracted wealth is non-renewable, the 'periphery' is pretty much the whole planet, including the US middle class, and the imperial center (and its perceived wealth) is largely virtual. Fiat currency and fractional reserve banking may mean that the nature of this decline is unprecedented and unpredictable, especially the rate of descent.

BTW: The new login is ridiculously complicated; 6 tries to get the security words correct. Complexity rears its ugly head!

Dwig said...

... a nice brisk game of "Raid the Romans" .... Knowing your penchant for cryptic references, I'm going to guess that you're acquainted with those worthy Gauls, Asterix and Obelix.

It might be worth a paragraph or two somehere along the line to consider this question: in what ways are empires and Ponzi schemes similar and different?

@Richard Clyde: nice point about the multiple pumps. Re "... wealth outside the ruling class is sufficiently diffuse that not much more can be transferred upward without the application of force". There are signs that a serious increase in the application of force may be in the offing, such as the increasing use of military technology and tactics by police forces, and the push to allow the military itself to operate in the US.

Richard Larson said...

Highlighting the differences between civilization and empire is most interesting and requires more thought.

Whereas past empires main objective were the accumulated wealth of productive lands and people, empire Unites States is unique in its reliance on a single source of energy.

Thus it invades for oil.

What is particularly troubling is this empire imports oil and exports food - which is also being used as leverage - and has sucked many into its tailwind.

This reliance on oil is the weakness and, my opinion, may have this empire bypassing the stair-steps of collapse.

Hey, at least it will be a spectacular time for scribblers around the world to document the demise of empire United States.

Again, just my opinion.:-)

Otherwise, one can bake a lot of hot fruit pies after chopping up and using the tree for fuel!

I still don't get that Hegel stuff... I do think that is what you were getting at!

steve said...

To be fair to Spengler, he did hedge his bets between Germany and America as the likely centre of the final centuries of the West-European Civilisation - he was rooting for Deutschland, though, and, if the Second World War had gone differently, I guess he might have got his wish (although not quite in the way he wanted it...).

See, for example, this part Farrenkopf's excellent study:

I'm not entirely convinced Spengler confused empires and their overarching Culture either - he describes the phenomenon of the Kultur as he sees it and is pretty consistent in his application of the idea.

However, it is true that he writes surprisingly little about the trajectories of individual empires, and your distinction here is thus very welcome!

bcwoodcarver said...

John Thanks for a good read. The book ROBBER BARONS ( sorry can`t remember the author) tells the history of The East India Co., the Northwest Trading Co., etc and how they raped and pillaged unarmed peoples throughout the third world. Amassing fortunes for the Dutch, Portuguese, British , Spanish that should rightfully be returned to these now impoverished peoples.

Petro said...

@Joel - I yearn for the pre-agrarian...

zaphod42 said...

May I respectfully suggest that we have a World Empire at this time, and that fact is the salient forebearer of and worldwide crash.

Unlike past empires, our World has run out of easy money, and is now trying to print money to fill the gap. Witness the Eurozone, where multiple nations have just bailed out the world banking system, interestingly in almost the same amount as the US bailed them out in 2008. $750 Billion. And this while the US was printing greenbacks as fast as they were able (though, today, money printing is not a physical thing, but a computer trick).

As always, JM, your blog is interesting, direct, factual, and correct. Thank you.


DeAnander said...

The "agrarian roots" of the US are not all they would seem, iirc. The anglo agrarians (plough people) came late to the party, after the indigenous (well, at least far earlier-established incomers) people had been living pretty large for 11 or 12 millennia as gatherer/hunters, permaculturists, gardeners, etc. The indigenous people's traditions (somewhat agrarian to nomadic) varied widely with terrain and climate, appropriately enough.

The agrarian model, that tradition of the sturdy British -- or French or German or whatever -- yeoman farmer, community of independent smallholders, market town economy, for which many of us (including me) have a strong nostalgia... was represented during the colonisation of the US, notably in the NE, where states like Vermont continue to seem more rational, civil, thoughtful, democratic than the "frontier" states of maximum resource extraction. But doesn't it seem like a minority phenomenon?

Some major, defining features of US historical development -- like annexation of huge territories, extirpation of major species like buffalo and passenger pigeon, importation of enslaved Africans and immiserated Chinese and other immigrants -- seem to me far more strongly linked with a priority of resource extraction, and much/most of the early whitefella interest and activity was not in agrarian settlement but in mining for export: mineral mining, tree mining, fish mining, cash cropping etc.

Much of the SE seaboard was colonised by the anglos as latifundia for the monocrop production of export commodities like tobacco, cotton... much of the NW was stripmined for fish to be sent back to the Anglo core... British ships used to stop on the California coast to take away loads of cowhide "home" to the British markets... much of N California was colonised and urbanised during the Gold Rush... anyway, the US started out as "virgin territory" Periphery to be made into export-crop plantations and mined for raw materials that were shipped to the Core; then the centre of power shifted from the old core to a new core in the ex-periphery... London to Washington in just a couple of centuries...

I wonder how many instances of this (former colony becomes new imperial core) are in the historical record. Seems to me that often, the heart of authority remained in the physical capital of the old empire, which was captured and occupied by the "barbarians" (the periphery, or some third party, invaded and took over the capital of the empire). I hadn't really thought of mapping imperial power transitions according to the movement (or stability) of the administrative core. Interesting idea...

Repent said...

"The United States, as I hope to show in upcoming posts, is being driven by the same forces along the same trajectory toward imperial bankruptcy and collapse. Like the empires just described, and many others as well, it’s become economically and politically dependent on a set of unbalanced relationships that extract wealth from much of the world and concentrate it here at home. The specific form of those relationships unfolds from the unusually complex history of America’s empire; we’ll begin talking about that in next week’s post."

This was an excellent synthesis, I didn't want to stop reading. Like a book you don't want to stop reading, where you read half way through the night and are tired for work the next day.

I literally can't wait for your next several weeks' articles.

sv koho said...

Fine post JMG. I think it is useful to introduce new readers to what is probably your best work: your concept of catabolic collapse which combined with Joe Tainter's work comprises a soundly reasoned explanation and explication of where the current industrial civilization finds itself and where it is likely to travel. I wasn't clear about the applicability of the wealth pump concept functioning as it once did for the american empire. We had a big jump on the rest of the world after WW2 and sucked resources at bargain basement prices to build the empire but it seems to me that this is now running in reverse as we squander our capital at the periphery a la catabolic collapse as we fail to keep up our maintenance costs of capital and empire. It also seems to me that the empire is still pulling what it can from the periphery, but now the periphery is US instead of our conquered foes.In any case the results are the same, impoverishment of the periphery followed by impoverishment of the citizens left in the empire by virtue of layering more debt to cover these unaffordable maintenance costs. Was that your point?tarnswa mntjp

Karen said...


To add to your statement, that is always an uncomfortable subject when the "conquered" put forth their case to be reimbursed.

One of other mechanisms of empire that I have observed, is the studied "forgetfulness" of what was done to the people whose wealth and often lives were taken.

It is an uncomfortable truth that genocide often goes hand in hand with the forced acquisition.

John Michael Greer said...

Sean, thank you!

Igneous, exactly. Last week's post drew a distinction between the inner circle of imperial allies, who are exploited by an empire but are also encouraged to do some exploiting of their own, and the subject nations of the periphery, which are simply cash cows to be milked; between those two are many gradations. It would be possible, I think, to work out a continuum for any given empire, with the core at one end, the most harshly exploited subject nation on the other, and every other part of the imperial system falling somewhere in between.

Chris, the untame intellectuals, like Merlin, have to spend a long time in the wilderness, and their work generally ends up being buried, so I suppose there's a parallel!

Les, I'm sorry to say that's standard practice pretty much everywhere these days. Yes, it would be nice if we could learn from past mistakes!

Derv, it's an interesting question of the chicken-and-egg variety -- which comes first, the sense of cultural/ethnic/religious superiority or the system of plunder that it legitimizes? Still, I want to focus on the economic dimension of empire, since it allows certain factors to be highlighted that, in turn, make it a bit easier to suss out the shape of the future.

William Hunter Duncan said...

I'm wondering about your conception of Ugo Bardi's Seneca Cliff, which Dimitri Orlov just wrote about? I think American empire has at least the potential to bypass the catabolic and head straight for the compost bin, particularly as we are so complex, so digitally dependent, and dependent on long distance, every-day transportation of goods. I hope you might address that in a future post.

Jim Brewster said...

Nestorian, you may be right about our military capabilities. But our empire right now is very dependent on free trade, which in turn is dependent on political and social stability. Both of these would be seriously shaken by a ruthless military strike.

One reaction might be to acquiesce to TPTB's demands. Another would be to resist fiercely, figuring there was little to lose and much to gain. I'm sure there would be some of each around the world, but which one dominates would determine whether the US can extend its imperial shelflife by some few decades or watch it crash and burn in a matter of months due to economic collapse, civil unrest/civil war, and/or a military coup.

One powerful lesson of the Vietnam war, of which we are often reminded in our current wars, is that the most powerful military in the world is no match for disciplined, desperate, and determined people.

Seaweed Shark said...

I appreciated your thoughtful response to my comment last week, as well as this elegant if somewhat provoking essay. Tastes differ, but I think you do Toynbee an injustice. He is sometimes maddeningly systematic, but his Anglo-Americanism and forcing of facts are much more a feature of Somerville's popular abridgement, than of the multi-volume original.

It would seem your problem with Toynbee is not rhetorical, but that he explains the rise and fall of civilizations according to the dynamics of human groups and how well they work together, rather than by the dynamics of resource exploitation. His explanation is to a great degree psychological and spiritual, while yours is primarily economic.

For example: a Toybnee might say that the British didn't leave India because India ran out of stuff to exploit. India still has a lot of stuff to this day, and those mid-century comments about India "not paying her way" were no more than sour grapes: the British publicly dismissing as worthless, something that was actually out of reach for other reasons. The British Empire had lost its spiritual center during a disastrous 30-year European war, and no longer possessed the self-confidence and ruthlessness necessary to murder the number of people it would have to have done, to keep hold of those imperial territories. Gandhi's followers certainly didn't see the end of British India as the outcome of resource depletion, but as the result of a long, difficult struggle by Indians against a massively dominant oppressor.

To sum up, historians of Toynbee's stripe would say that resource depletion, corrosive exploitation and structural breakdown -- your catabolic collapse -- are the results of a spiritual crisis in a civilization, not the cause of one. This argument, in various forms, seems to be the primary counterpoint to your own. You may see it as fundamentally wrong: the product of an age of abundance in which resource depletion was not considered because it was thought impossible, but it would be helpful to address it a bit more systematically, if not in these blog posts than in the book that you plan to make of them.

Thanks for another entertaining and thought-provoking contribution.

Jason Heppenstall said...

My understanding of empire was shaped from a fairly early age by writers such as Orwell, Forster and Kipling. I could never really get to grips with the latter - he always seemed so, well, condescending.

But E.M.Forster's Passage to India, was an education. He seemed to recognise that a side effect of the wealth pump isn't just a craving for money, it also fosters racism.

As did George Orwell, with his experience of being an imperial flunky (as a military policeman in Burma), which is far more clear-sighted than Kipling's view - whatever his poetry.

But empire works both ways and it was these writers that instilled a great sense of respect for and fascination of India within me. Culture also tends to hitch a ride on the freight trains of materials leaving those countries.

But of course, none of these writers ever really addressed the reasons for empire, as you describe them, more like the effects.

I'm interested to learn more in your upcoming posts, after all, being British, we only tend to learn about empire from gin soaked ex-colonels propping up bars in golf clubs - and most of them are now pushing up daisies in any case.

I remain to this day an admirer of Orwell, even though he (probably deservedly) whacked one of my relatives over the head with a shooting stick for being drunk and disorderly. I would urge anyone to read Burmese Days to get an understanding of how a subject and overlord nation interact.

okieinbabylon said...

@ DeAnander: I can think of one example of a former colony superseding it's parent culture. Carthage gaining prominence over the Phoenician city-state of Tyre, which is supposed to have founded it as a colony.

Justin Patrick Moore said...

These posts on empire and civilization have been a great history lesson for me. They have also clarified and made me rethink previous assumptions I held about Empire with a big 'E' (and how easily the notion big 'E' can be used to further dualities like 1% vs. 99%. The distinction between empire and civilization is also quite useful.

May Clio, the Muse of History, continue to inspire you JMG!

Readers of this blog who aren't already aware of it, today on March 1st the Club of Rome and the Smithsonian Institution are hosting a celebration for the 40th anniversary of "The Limits to Growth". I read about it here:

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ Nestorian

You are probably right that in a contest of brute military strength the US could flatten any other nation that attacked it. But the contest need not be one of brute military strength, and the other party need not be a sovereign nation.

First of all, there is always the possibility of turning an enemy's overwhelming strength against him, as is done in many martial arts. The 9/11 attacks were one small instructive example of that method, and they did (I suppose) suggest countless new possibilities for all time to come. A system as complex and interconnected as ours necessarily contains a thousand or more point of vulnerability at which its great power can be turned against it by a resourceful and knowledgeable foe who pays attention to all the small details of its organization. Knowledge is power, after all.

And second, some groups of people that are not nations in any sense can nevertheless act in concert as an enemy, and if their wealth and strategic expertise are great enough, and their knowledge of our own system detailed enough, they can do as much or more damage as any sovereign nation.

As if that is not enough, here is a third (far-out) possibility to think about as well. A number of small sovereign nations in the Pacific Ocean are likely to be wholly overwhelmed by the rising sea level sometime during the next few decades; their plight will be desperate. What if some very wealthy person or corporation or other group of people relieves the plight of one of these nations, resettling most of the threatened population, in exchange for the exercise of its recognized sovereignty, whether by outright purchase or as a shadowy power behind a puppet government? Such a group of people could operate with more impunity than any ordinary corporation.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ Steve in Colorado

The Roman empire also had two capital cities from the early fourth century CE onward; and from the fifth century onwards Rome was much the less important and powerful of the two, though it still retained most of the Empire's ancient symbolism for a while. The other capital city, of course, was Constantinople.

tubaplayer said...

@Chris (Cherokee Organics)

Indeed I worry about soil. I am hoping that goat sh*t and pigeon guano will slowly fix it!

Leo said...

that explains why the US is suffering so much now with rising oil prices. its rivals are taking more of the pie and its subsidaries are either taking more of the their share or the same level but more of a diminishing whole.
also you have iran standing up to them and south america is steadly leaving the US sphere of influence.

@Nestorian and others who think Nukes and military force can help the US
For an empire to use military victory takes more than forces of arms, it takes political and diplomatic skill and force otherwise nothing is gained economically.
also the power of nukes has been exxagerated over the years, a 1 megaton bomb in the middle of london would only kill 20% of the population and 5% of the assets. while still powerful most of their original effectivness has also been taken away by MAD and counter-measures. MAD meant that countries focused on stockpiles that were resistant to first strikes (promotes stability since no-one can attack with impunity) and the counter measures mean more nukes have to be used for the same effect due to uncertainty.
also guerrilla warfare has been shown repeadtly to beat advanced armies when conditions allow it, mostly the resident population hating them and supports the guerrillas.

Thijs Goverde said...

Well, you seem to be playing rather fast and loose with Roman history here!
For instance: the Germans were already hacking Roman legions to bits before the Romans had conquered as much as a square inch of Britain (the famous German war chief Arminius was probably a Roman citizen, having served in the Auxilia, by the way), the Romans pretty much did conquer the Balkans, and German society and resources don't seem to have been all that different from Gaulish ones.
The fall of Rome may have ended the Western Roman Empire, but it certainly didn't end its civilisation which held out for another millenium or so in Constantinople.
By the time that one fell, there was already a new Western Roman empire in place for over 600 years, although that was arguably Roman In Name Only.
These latter facts are rather reminiscent of the sort of repeated collapse and recovery rhythm that can be seen, for example, in the history of China, come to think of it.

All in all, the facts seem tailored to fit the thesis, which is a shame because the central idea of empires being wealth pumps seems very valuable.
However, there appear to be so many subpumps at work within the big imperial one, creating so many conflicting currents, crosscurrents and undercurrents that it would probably take some advanced Chaos theory to apply the idea to a concrete historical example.
Such as ourselves.
This much, however, seems certain: all wealth pumps do break down eventually. And the spectacular wealth pump we're using right now may break down... spectacularly?

sgage said...


A very somber essay this week - it all seems so inevitable.

But you made my day with this:

"Hegel spent a good deal of his career waffling about when this would happen, but toward the end of his life, announced that it already had, and that Germany was the perfect human society. History, though, failed to take the hint, and just kept on going."

History failed to take the hint! That left me chuckling at the end... thanks!

John Michael Greer said...

Jeffrey, Rome's imperial wealth paid for a lot of literary studies as well. It's a common feature of empire, and probably has a lot to do with the eagerness of those tame intellectuals to sing the praises of the imperial system.

Phil, the idea wasn't original to Toynbee; he was one of many British and American intellectuals of his time who promoted it. As for Howe, with attitides like the ones you've sketched out, I'm not surprised that he turned out to be incompetent as a finance minister -- believing in something for nothing schemes will do that.

Nestorian, it's a common mistake to define military superiority in too simplistic a fashion. The military power of the US, vast though it is, suffers from at least three huge vulnerabilities, any one of which could result in a catastrophic defeat. I'll be detailing them in later posts.

Jason, someday I may write a book on historical cycles, which will be my answer to Toynbee, Spengler, and Vico. Until that time arrives, yes, this is about as close to a gloss on Spengler as you'll get.

Mike, yes, I was thinking of that scene also!

Steve, we'll be getting to that in good time. The probable disintegration of the US is a complex theme, and needs some preliminary ground covered first.

Russell, a useful analysis. It was Alice Through The Looking Glass, by the way.

Ghung, the use of hallucinatory finance is certainly going to add some interesting features this time around. As for the middle class, though, not so fast -- most people in the American middle class, at least, still lead very privileged lives by global standards.

Dwig, excellent! Like most modern Druids, I'm a close student of the teachings of Panoramix. (Yes, that's Getafix in the English version.)

Richard, empires can collapse very quickly -- the Soviet empire is a good example. The recovery happens later, sans empire.

plotinus said...

I wonder if others could expand on the concept of lost wars in the demise of empire. After all, "our" recent wars have been net losers. In Iraq nothing was gained; yes some of "our" oil companies got some contracts but overall the oil went to many different players and now Iraq is a failed state for many years to come. Afghanistan was just a horrific waste and "we" will leave with nothing to show. Pakistan? They hate "us". Yemen, Libya, Syria, "we" are going to win nothing and leave ruined states behind (see Iraq). I know that there were individual winners i.e. the corporate profit made by members of the Military Industrial Cannibal. However, on the whole, the lost wars were just a drain on the empire. Are there parallels in history?

John Michael Greer said...

Steve, granted, it's easier to drop the universal empire from Spengler's theory than it is from Toynbee's, although both survive the surgery surprisingly well.

Carver, thanks for the reference! Those who think that corporations can't be the "front men" for national empires might do well to review the history of the East India Company and its peers.

Zaphod, as I mentioned to another commenter, the use of hallucinatory finance does put some interesting wrinkles into the current situation. Still, the British empire was a world empire, and directly controlled more of the world than the US does today; you'll notice that its decline and fall was far from simple, and ours will likely be at least as complex.

DeAnander, the transition from former colony to new imperial core is quite common, on many different scales. Italy was on the colonial periphery of Greece, for example, then became the imperial core under Rome.

Repent, I'll get 'em written as fast as I can! We've got a lot of ground to cover.

Koho, when an empire starts catabolizing its own population in a big way, its days are numbered. We'll get into that in some detail down the road a bit.

Shark, I haven't read the Somerville abridgment in decades -- I think I still have a copy upstairs in a box, but the unabridged version of A Study of History is on a bookshelf about ten feet from where I'm typing this, and that's the Toynbee I study. As for your speculations about why I disagree with Toynbee, er, have you read any of the things I've written about his work over the last six years? I use his models constantly -- he's a major influence on my thinking about historical cycles -- and the fact that I find an economic explanation more useful in the present case, to explain some factors that his model doesn't cover well, doesn't make his work any less useful in dealing with other factors. We'll be talking quite a bit, down the road, about his analysis of internal and external proletariats, for example.

Jason, that's quite an honor, to have had a family member whacked over the head by Orwell! I'm envious. ;-)

Justin, glad it's of use. I think you'll be intrigued by some of the material that's coming up, too.

Leo, you're landing 'em in the bullseye pretty regularly in this series. Exactly.

John Michael Greer said...

Thijs, trying to sum up a millennium of history in a single paragraph is a bit of a challenge, you know, and involves inevitable simplifications. Still, I'd point out that the level of cultural continuity in China's repeated imperial collapses was far greater than that on either side of the Roman world; as for Gaul, er, the Gauls had a literate class and urban centers before the Roman conquest, which was not the case with the Germans.

Sgage, we're going to be covering some very sobering ground in the weeks to come. Glad you enjoyed the joke!

Plotinus, there are more parallels than you'd like to count. Yes, we'll be getting into this as we proceed.

Mark Angelini said...

I was thinking the other day of how strange the idea of money really is—that whole economies exist where individuals earn money from money, from making nothing! It's absurd.

Is the fact that most of what passes for successful or innovative business these days in America, those businesses that exist by making money without making anything, a sure sign that the American empire has reached its precipice? Or simply a symptom of an empire who has sucked its physical wealth resources dry? Or perhaps both?

Joel Caris said...

Hmm, thinking about the concept of empire as a wealth pump in relation to corporations, it seems that many corporations are simply little empires. They function on the same principle, whether that be pumping wealth from their customers, their employees, the countries they do business in, the places from which they get their raw materials, or a combination of all those.

The corporate agriculture outfits come to mind. They essentially own every step of the processing of foods, but the actual growing or raising of food tends to be outsourced on contracts that completely close off their vulnerability to crop or herd failures. They get the product of the farmer's labor at a dirt cheap price, generally also at the expense of the land, process the cheap raw materials into packaged foods of poor quality, sell them at a high price--thus pumping away some of their customer's wealth--and then outsource the pollution and public health failures that result from their product back onto the host nation. A very healthy profit with minimal risk exposure!

This would make a certain sense of the success of strong anti-trust laws, in my mind. If empires tend to collapse as their capital accumulation increases, rendering its maintenance costs eventually untenable, then anti-trust laws would serve to break apart those corporations that have entered that phase into smaller entities that could better handle their capital. A boon for the stability of the economy! As long as the resource needs continue to be met, then the anti-trust laws would work brilliantly to help minimize major disruptions in the market.

Perhaps we could use some very vigorous anti-trust laws for nations.

Stephen said...

Hello JMG,
Just wanted to say a quick hello and thank you for your work on this blog over the years. I've been reading it since 2009. (This isn't a response to your latest posting.)

I'm just wondering if you've seen the book "A Brief History of the End of the World: From Revelation to Eco-Disaster" by Simon Pearson. I picked it up for a couple dollars at a thrift store recently. It seems to cover the same ground as your Apocalypse Not. I'd be happy to send my copy to you if you're interested. (if so e-mail me at stephun (at)

Secondly, are you aware of the online "Soil and Health library" founded by Steve Solomon. Though I prefer hard copy books, I've found this to be a very valuable source of information. The Agricultural Library, one of four sections, specializes in out of print agricultural works, mostly from the first half of the 1900s. The public domain texts can be downloaded immediately, the others only after joining. This also seems in line with some of your work.

I look forward to following your latest venture into the trajectory of empire. Thanks again,

Stephen (Lasqueti Island, BC)

Tony said...

An interesting thought came into my head regarding the periphery/core dynamic, and the seeming pattern of part of a periphery becoming a new core. It seems possible that at least some of the time, when the wealth pump has been operating for long enough the core comes to actively depend upon part of the periphery for certain vital bits of wealth, and loses the ability to create sufficient amounts on their own. This makes this bit of periphery vital to the core, and if it can somehow (this is probably the tricky part) avoid being looted it both could gain a special position in the periphery and wind up pre-loaded with the productive capability to jump-start its own empire when the old core goes down. This at least is one of the patterns I see at work with the US-China relationship, and maybe a few other historical examples - though it can be hard to tell.


I just wanted to thank you again, JMG, for all your thought-provoking writing. While my current status as a grad student studying cell biology is safe for the easily-forseeable future, it is quite clear to me just how much of my current situation owes to the situation you are laying bare here... but you will be glad to know that not all us young people are assuming the large structures around us will always meet our needs or fulfill our dreams. The entire genome of the organism I work with, yeast, can be stored in less than 10 megabytes and most of the most powerful tools I use in the lab are actually just pieces of custom DNA that can be kept going as long as you keep a stock of yeast that contain it alive or frozen. One of my friends (also just out of undergrad and with a passion for engineering) has recently put together a backyard blast furnace/foundry that runs on scrap wood and can cast aluminum and various alloys, purchased a 1940s cam-operated mechanical-logic machine tool, and will soon be manufacturing custom parts for a local machine shop for cheaper than they can buy them from big suppliers. We are talking about building our own DNA-replicating machine, even though you can buy them for $200 on ebay sometimes, for the experience. Salvage is alive and well...

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Have you ever touched on, or described the motivation for striving for empire in the first place? In my mind, the motivation looks quite base and I think that it may well be greed. It could actually be that simple. It seems to be the desire to augment your own wealth at the expense of others. Of course that motivator is multiplied many times over, but there you go.

The funny thing is that long term sustainable communities and societies have co-operation as their dominant core value. Strangely enough too, co-operation is a very undervalued value in our society and as time has progressed in recent decades, it seems less valued. The individuals desires and values are being pushed foremost and centre, but this is simply the old divide and conquer strategy.

I'm fascinated by how well Anton LaVey, Ayn Rand and co. understood the coarser side of human nature.

When you mentioned the lament of the English that India could no longer pay her way, I thought of some US states and wondered how long it may be that a similar cry is not raised your side of the pond? It may well be like a bad relationship in that you wonder whether the costs outweigh the benefits?

PS: I'm untame so you are in good company and the more I look, the more I see that it is untame up this way in the forest!

My advice is to never be in a position where you are advising the king. It seems to be a recipe for a short life.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi tubaplayer,

Goats and pigeons. Nice work, truly both will work together and at the very least I've seen footage of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall eat both of them! Guano is really good for the soil, I cultivate the local parrot population here with water and fodder. Hopefully in the next article you'll see a photo of them happily out fertilising the herbage. Top work 10 out of 10!

Hi Nestorian,

Aren't you the confident one? If you were better read, you'd notice that your military are complaining that a lot of their hardware requires upgrading and replacing due to the prolonged active usage. As part of this you'd notice that a lot of machines are involved and they require constant maintenance and repairs. The US military is copping a budget cut and you can bet that maintenance and repair is one of the things that gets cut, because no one sees it until it’s too late.

Interestingly enough this is what happens with airlines when they get into financial trouble too!

Speaking of machines, ICBM's with nuclear warheads are an extremely complex and sophisticated bit of kit. I would think that within a decade or two, without sustained maintenance and repair these machines probably won't function very well. You should probably think about this issue the next time you ask your congress person for a tax cut.



Thijs Goverde said...

Of course trying to sum up a millennium of history in a single paragraph is a bit of a challenge ... and involves inevitable simplifications - which is why I'm agin it.

I so enjoy your thoughtful analysis on present-day problems, that I find these hasty presentations of history somewhat dissapointing, is all I'm saying.

As for Gaul: my bad. I was thinking mainly of the Eburones and the Treveri and suchlike, who (as far as I know) did have more in common with their German neighbours than with the southern Gauls. But of course these latter were far more numerous and when we use the sweeping generalisation of "Gaul" it's them we should mainly think of.

Leo said...

one of the major differences i can see between the British empire's end and the american's is that thanks to our global, most regional and local (easiest to fix, bikes, canals or small boats) transports reliance on oil and oil supply looks set to fall alongside american dominance, we'll see a much more roman pattern of transport infrastrucure collapse. this will probably be more a cause of collapse than an effect due to the different technical details.
i've been mulling over this for the past week and i think its the major flaw in many countries plans of buying land overseas for farming since the two main replacements for our oil based transport across intercontinental and continental distances are capital intensive and would take decades to build up the relavent infrastructure (i.e unlikely to happen on more than local/regional level). One is sailing ships, tested but needs lots of skills and new infrastructure. the other is airships/blimps, untested and would take a use on the local/regional level first.
my conclusion from this is that we'll see multiple empires form, propably one or two for each continent when the american empire falls instead of one big one, like china,also it will speed up the decline and fighting over of scraps when it really starts biting.
i see this as a mixed blessing since it will mean southern australias isolation (north is close enough to indonesia and new guinea to have some connection) which means no support but also far away from others problems. i think ireland was similar after the romans.

Hypnos said...

I know history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

And so I wonder, what and when will America's Suez moment be? When the surging upstart checks the old empire's latest foray, quietly telling it "No, not this time. Go home."

From the looks of it, it will probably be in Africa, the last frontier for unexploited resources and wealth.

My utterly unsubstantiated guest is Nigeria.

And I wonder - will America take it as gracefully as Britain did?

void_genesis said...

Thanks again for another excellent post that brought a simple, essential and previously overlooked distinction into focus (i.e. civilization vs empire).

It occurred to me that to maintain a perfectly stable population any excess resources need to be precisely diverted to prevent them being invested in population growth.

Of course this is impossible in practice. Populations that have no mechanism to lose surplus resources can grow very rapidly, overshooting their resource base. Examples of herbivores released on islands without predators utterly denuding the landscape.

But predators cannot instantaneously respond to changes in prey availability- time delays are the key to causing oscillations in populations over time.

In human societies we have a few other options. Excess resources can be theoretically harvested instantaneously by human predators (rulers/grifters) and wasted on architecture/art or population thrown into reverse through war. Falling resource availability can be managed as well by organising sequential die offs (better let 5% die per year until things stabilise, than risk having everyone starve simultaneously).

As such it seems to me that civilisation and heirarchy, with all the resource extraction and "waste", may be analogous to a predator or parasite that stabilises the dynamics of human exploitation of underlying resources. A successful predator/parasite reaches a balance with its prey, ensuring its own long term survival.

Occasionally a parasite gets out of balance and uses its host non-sustainably. We see this in virulent pathogens that rapidly kill their host. This phenomenon only can emerge when their is an exceptional abundance or connectivity of host resources. This seems to be what happens in empires. The key seems to be the connectivity of the host- changes in transport/communication technologies seem to be necessary for fast burning empires to spring up.

So I am not so certain that empire and civilisation are different by definition. Perhaps they are extreme ends of a continuum of resource balancing mechanisms to avoid even worse instabilities in resource use over time.

whblondeau said...

I think a lot of people (including perhaps Nestorian, per the remarks at 3/1/12 5:42 AM) are going to be shocked at the limited effectiveness of US military power in coming decades. True, if the US were going head-to-head with the biggest available conventional adversaries on conventional battlefields, there would be little doubt about the outcome; but this is not a very useful observation, because no such large open battles are very likely to develop, even if a ruthless US government "takes the gloves off".

It's far more likely that the conflicts that define the decline of the American Empire will be the asymmetric kind that the Fourth Generation military theorists talk about. (See the Wikipedia article for an overview.) It's on-point, I think, that the people who developed the 4GW theories were urgently attempting to awaken the US military to the ongoing loss of the State's monopoly on violence. Since the US forces have been optimized to fight States, a lot of their resources and doctrines are grossly inefficient, and ineffective, when applied to non-State adversaries.

The entire point of asymmetric warfare is that, yes, you can bring a knife to a gunfight - just stab your opponent in the back a bit before High Noon. Further (a nod to Toynbee) the 4GW theorists posit three levels of combat: physical (the least useful), mental (taking away the enemy's will to fight) and moral (altering cultural norms to deprive the larger, more powerful enemy of legitimacy.)

America is immensely militarily powerful, but lacks moral resilience. In 4GW terms, the US has already lost all of the coming wars.

Jim Brewster said...

This week's post sent me to Wikipedia, in lieu of a more "reputable" encyclopedia, for more information on the Parthian empire, and was struck by how persistent are some of the geo-political patterns of the ancient world.

Assuming the US/NATO as successors to the Western Romans, Russia as successor to the Byzantines, and Iran as successor to the long line of Persian empires, it's amazing how little has changed in some ways. It would be good to keep this in mind when considering the current "world order."

Glenn said...

Judging by Erskine Childer's comments in Riddle of the Sands, and Jerome K. Jerome's in Three Men on a Bummel, Germany a hundred years ago was certainly governed in a more enlighted fashion than many countries today, including the U.S. Compared to the countries of his day, Spengler might be forgiven for mistaking "very much better" for "perfect".

Marrowstone Island

prack45 said...

As much as “The Trajectory of Empires” seems to end up in the ditch through the sands of time what amazes me is how civilizations keep trying this model. IMHO as it pertains to Western Civilization, it seems that each empire iteration wraps a similar basic model with added layers of complexity with the presumption that each layer is going to make it better than the last or in our case “Exceptional”.
Even the historical progression of the old familiars Egypt (Old, Middle, New), Greece and Rome (Hellenic) seem to add many layers when studying one to the next. Each one seemed to be at their max territorial extent right before they began cliff diving down the back end of the trajectory step function. I am wondering how this will bode for us in the US? Is Empire in our genes? I am sure your getting ready to fill us in the next few weeks. Anyway I enjoy the angles you bring to this topic and hope they infiltrate more of the byte waves and publishing houses… soon.

John Michael Greer said...

Mark, it's a bit more complex than that. Vico pointed out a long time ago that every civilization tends to move from the concrete to the abstract over time, and this is one of the factors that brings civilizations crashing down: you can get so abstract that you lose track of the fact that people can't eat abstractions! Still, that's a trend on the scale of civilizations, not so much of individual nations or empires.

Joel, civilizations that last long usually have efficient ways of draining off accumulations of capital. That's what building pyramids (or the equivalent) is about, for example -- you encourage the very rich to spend their money hiring laborers and skilled tradespeople to build something absolutely useless, which can then be allowed to decay gracefully in the desert, or get rebuilt every twenty years (the Maya approach), or what have you.

Stephen, thank you! Yes, I've read the book, and yes, I'm familiar with Solomon's library -- I hope as many people as possible are joining that, and then downloading and printing out copies on acid free paper.

Tony, that's very good to hear. The only way the sciences are going to survive is if people involved in them make arrangements that will allow them to continue research without government and corporate subsidies -- the way science was pursued a century ago, for example. I'm delighted to hear from people who are making those preparations.

Cherokee, as I see it, that's like asking about the motivation for theft or murder. There are plenty of variations around certain common themes.

Thijs, the problem there is that I need to reference historical examples to make certain points, without writing a book on the economic history of Rome! As for Gaul, it's interesting to note that the areas where the Roman conquest "took" were by and large exactly those that had gotten as far as oppida, if not full scale cities -- Britain, for example is still divided into the part that had oppida (England) and the parts that didn't (Scotland and Wales). I don't believe those existed in Germany in Roman times.

Leo, depends on how fast petroleum production declines. My working guess is that we've got about one more empire worth of long distance travel, and that might be enough time for sailing ships to return to common use. Hubbert's curve doesn't drop like a rock, remember.

Hypnos, good. We'll see...

Void, er, I think you've misunderstood my distinction between civilization and empire. We live in both an empire and a civilization right now; the civilization is western industrial civilization, the empire is the American empire, which is a temporal and geographical subset of the civilization -- that subset that happens to be dominated by one particular nation. A century ago, the big empire was Britain's; a century from now -- well, we'll be talking about that.

Whblondeau, I have my disagreements with the 4GW theorists, which we'll be covering in later posts, but they've got hold of a crucial point, which is that there are always more ways to fight a war than the one that's fashionable among the militaries of big nations. There's a fourth level of war, by the way, which fits between physical and mental: economic and systemic, which focuses on disrupting the systems that allow a combatant to project force. More on this down the road a bit.

Jim, that leads us into the murky but unavoidable territory of geopolitics. Yes, I'll be discussing that in some detail as we proceed.

Glenn, nah, it was Hegel who thought 19th century Prussia was the perfect human society, not Spengler. Spengler just thought that it was probably going to become the hub of the next world empire. If it hadn't had a dunce on the imperial throne in 1914, he might well have been right.

Twilight said...

This series on empire is very well argued, very clear and logical. I wish people could see the actions of the US and allied western powers in this light, and leave behind the emotional appeals and silly myths used to justify them to the imperial denizens. It is too scary I suppose, because surprisingly enough, when the wealth pumps stop then … the wealth stops coming. And it's so hard to admit that we all receive the wealth they pump. The more you look at it the more you realize that this is simply what the machine does. It cannot be re-configured to do something else, it will not decide to change from within. This is an empire, and it will follow the logic of empires until it cannot, regardless of how cruel and foolish or doomed it may seem. To ask for the wealth pumps to stop is to look around you an ask for what you see to stop working or stop existing.

blue sun said...

JMG-- I am glad you provided a comprehensive definition for 'empire,' but I may have missed your definition of 'civilization.' What exactly is the difference between the two?

I would guess that you take "civilization" to mean an "economic system," more or less. Thus (I'm assuming here) that you would consider modern American people to form an industrial civilization and the San bushmen to form a "hunter-gatherer civilization" (despite the fact that some would argue that hunter-gatherers are not "civilized" at all).

If my assumption is not correct, I'm not sure I understand the differences between the two. I recall that Joseph Tainter does not distiguish between two--he merely refers to "complex societies." So perhaps further clarification of your meaning would come from Spengler and Toynbee; I have not read them yet.

For those of us living in America, at least, I think it might be nearly impossible to tell the difference between events due to civilization-collapse and those due to empire-collapse. Then again, when the rubble is falling on your head, is it really necessary to distiguish one type from another?

* * *
On another note, a few years ago the medium-sized company I worked for was bought by a huge international corporation. It had grown itself from a company quite similar to the one I was already working for. Since I carry the hopelessly naive notion that people should get paid more or less proportionally to what they produce (how often that's dispelled!), I was curious what explained the few million dollar difference in annual compensation of the executives of the larger corporation. They had the same training and background as their counterparts at my current company. I thought surely there must be something--some innovation they came up with that would justify their compensation. But the only conclusion I could reach is that they had created an empire. Our services are still the same (I work in the engineering industry). The quality was still as good as before. Our fees have not even increased. True, there were some economies of scale, but they had not improved the product in any way, only the size of the company increased.

A few others have mentioned that international corporations are like empires in their own right. To one of the above comments you mentioned that the East India Company was a "front man" for the British Empire. So I think a case could be made that giant corporations are like "mini-empires."

This is the analogy I think could apply here: I think you could apply the priciple of superposition (to those without a science or math background it basically means that smaller things can be added together to form a larger one). Thus, just as the individual bell-shaped production curves for individual oil wells can be added together to form a global bell-shaped curve, I think the wealth extraction curve for each individual corporate "empire" could be added together to form the wealth extraction curve for the whole empire.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

I came across a fascinating video which I thought that you may find to be interesting. It is like the "Story of Stuff", except that it is based in reality and gives a message that I believe that you would approve. If you don't have the time to have a look at the whole thing, please at least watch the last 5 minutes as the conclusions are (some people may find them to be) startling!

There's no tomorrow - ie. no brighter future

It is well worth the time,and not at all bosh.



Unknown said...

For what seems a fairly comprehensive look at empires and the way that peripheries take over from them see Why the West Rules:the Patterns of History and What they Reveal About the Future by Ian Morris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Pah and bosh! I'll agree to disagree with you on the motivation for empire.

It's been only in recent times that I've come to terms and accepted how base people really are. If they aren't lazy, self interested and greedy, individuals seem mostly OK by me. Yeah, I maybe a cynic.

Empire wouldn't be such a hot button topic (which it isn't here) if it didn't touch on some very core issues that made people vaguely uncomfortable.



Jason said...

JMG: someday I may write a book on historical cycles, which will be my answer to Toynbee, Spengler, and Vico.

I'll keep the volume next to your Tao Te Ching on my hopefully-not-vaporware shelf.

Your work on the I Ching might be helpful with the history cycles too?

I wondering also whether you knew the work of Turchin and Nefedov on secular cycles and if so what you thought.

Do you think you will address religion as part of this run? You already mentioned the role of missionaries... The back and forth of belief and the conquest of minds is an interesting topic. My latest post looks at how people in the West came to be practicing qigong, a complex interplay of communism and scientism with the traditions of China... hard to know who has converted whom to what in this case. :)

DeAnander said...

If we see corporations as mini-empires -- means of concentrating profit/wealth in the hands of the "core" -- then maybe corporations and capitalism are not really something new under the sun. Maybe "capitalism" is just the latest ideological wrapper for the same old business of empire and wealth pumping...

Leo said...

it seems the web empires have with other nations looks like a rather strange and malleble food web, similar consequences and events as well (knock out the lower levels and the higher go or simply lower the resource level).

the fact rome only conquered places with oppida is a good example of one solution not working in all cases, the roman military-political control system worked well on places with cities but couldn't bring barbarians (people without cities or important ones) under control. The same thing seems to be happening to the american system with the rise of non-state actors and iran+china.
also who do you think will be the next empire/s? chinas the obvious one but there are other contenders.

The Croatoan 117 said...

Jim, The Parthian empire has been a passion of mine for a while. I'm always glad to hear of other westerners reading up on them. The follow on Sassanian empire is quite interesting as well. I don't either receive the "air time" they deserve in western studies of world history. Depending on how far down the rabbit hole of Persian studies you want to go, you might want to check out al-Biruni. He was a brilliant scholar who is ignored in western world history as well. (I think JMG may be trying to copy his style with the sweet beard and all;)
Cherokee, Thanks for the link to the video. I will definately forward it to my friends and family who have largely ignored/argued the possibility of decline. If they do acknowledge the possiblity it always somebody else's fault (Republicans, Democrats, speculators, etc.)

Jason Heppenstall said...


I saw the video and thought it was indeed very good - so much so that I put a permanent link to it on my blog.

However, I do think the choice of title - There's no Tomorrow - is misguided. After all the video makes the point very well that there certainly is a tomorrow and we'd better get prepared for it.

Opting for that title will sadly put many off viewing it and plays straight into the hands of those who would call us 'doomers'.

jean-vivien said...

Hello everyone,

I wanted to mention two cultural aspects previously evoked here, where I think that the US peak oil current could perfect its vision.

First, having lived in Sweden as an exchange student for almost one year and a half, I can say that I have fairly tried to delve into their language. However the interest was not reciprocal, since the young people I have been speaking to have always reverted to English because it was more convenient for them when they were speaking to me... In spite of that unexpected difficulty, what I have seen of their language is quite interesting. It is a mix of French words used for terms that could only have been useful to the aristocracy/upper classes. Sometimes the spelling is taken as is from my native language ("belvedere", "cigarette", "cafe"), and some other times they just came up with some Swedish spelling so that the words end up being pronounced just like in French ("byrºa", "fötalj"). Could be a leftover from the times of the Bernadote... Then there are loads of words common with German ("Konditorei"...) and English. When you discuss with the youngsters and the adults, they all tell you the same thing, that they used to be culturally close to Germany, but nowadays they are closer to the USA. They call their universities "campuses", whereas in France we still use the word "Faculty" which I believe is more ancient.
As for the food culture, it is traditionnally quite good, but the way that the students eat nowadays rivals the USA or England in terms of how "junk" it can be.
Their modern pop music is more Americanised than even the pop music from the USA...

In the end, I think you are right to point out how James Howard Kunstler projects his own fantasies on top of Europe. Sweden, due to its location on the globe, still has a limited population and lots of land, a culture of biking, which are all good assets for the time to come.
However it is culturally very tied with the rest of Western civilization. It has always been assimilated into frameworks of Empire (France, Germany...) as their language can tell.
Their people have not known modern world wars, so I do not know how much they are aware of the dangers of fascism. Just take a look at the shooting in Oslo, or the one or two sadly famous Black Metal bands who endorse burning churches and commiting ritual murder, and you will see that Scandinavia is not the rosy island of "civilization" that Kunstler would like to see.
One of their most notable cultural exports being the Millenium series, it bears recalling that Stieg Larsson had a firsthand experience and a more nuanced view of the cultural aspects of that country :

jean-vivien said...

The second thing that strikes me as a cognitive distortion is that the usual view of US Peak Oil speakers about Europe totally ignores certain realities. The peoples of Western Europe do certainly still have the memory of hard times, and that might help them a lot for the future, but the younger generations are as "Americanized" as those in the USA. However none of the US commentators has so far taken interest into how the social minorities do get by, how they organize, and how their position as descendants of direct victims of other empires (what about the French colonies...) do get by to survive within the framework of the empire (French, but indirectly a little bit US too).
I have seen one comment about Muslims here on this blog, and seeing the issues that arise from social differences and gender problems does not mean that you should ignore how an academic example of post-collapse people are adapting to urban life in a collapsed empire. I am here referring to the collapse of the French empire, but South America is in pretty much the same situation right now.
I see that same blind eye skipping Latin American people as well as far as the emigrants living in the USA are concerned. Exotic fancy places like the dictatorship of Cuba or permaculture in Hawai are certainly better examples of social adaptation to oil shortages.

Overall, I see fantasies of "original colonists who were real men and pure native Indians" (Tom Brown Jr being a living example, with all the respect I owe to his outdoor abilities) nevermind how the settlement of the USA actually happened, (go read "1491"...).

In general I see that the problematics of wealth distribution, what I would call the "politics of Peak Oil", have suffered from a certain bias towards individualism, epitomized in the Survivalist movement. And the presence of the ethnic diversities in the White world (even in Sweden...) are often seen as problems, even though I think that they provide us with good examples of how to do certain very specific things with less. So they are as much part of the solution as of the problem in Europe, but living in the USA must make it hard to see, and in general they could be involved positively within a vision of collective responses.

goedeck said...

Somewhat not specifically on-topic, but relevant, I stumbled across this fascinating study of energy, scarcity, and environment:

February 2012

If nothing else I learned that Congo has tar sands.

Unknown said...

Highly motivated local populations don't always win their rebellions against empires. Neither do guerrillas always win wars. The Romans creamed the Jews three times, at great cost, but the final victory was absolute. They also defeated Boudicca in Britain. The U.S. defeated independence forces in the Philippines after the Spanish-American war. The U.S. and NATO put down a Marxist guerrilla force in Greece after WWII.

When local populations succeed in expelling an imperial overlord, sometimes it's because it has a rival power on its border that is willing to provide arms and haven for fighters (Vietnam, Afghanistan). Sometimes it's because the empire is preoccupied and the supply line is long (American war of independence). Sometimes the imperial power is weak (Maccabees versus Seleucid Empire).

Usually the little guys lose. That's why it's a big deal when they win.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Thought you might be interested in the following:

I hear the claim that we can command energy and resources that kings and queens would only have dreamt about in the past. Now, I don't dispute this point and accept it as a factual statement, but plenty of people do dispute it. So here is some proof that the concept is valid:

Melbourne Food Festival - Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee celebration dinner

Yes, for only AU$275 you can eat the same menu served to Queen Victoria in 1887 on her Golden Jubilee Celebration. Now think about this for a while and you'll see that any bozo off the street, as long as they come up with the cash, can eat the same menu that was served to Queen Victoria at both the height of her reign and the height of the British empire. The implications are quite staggering.

Perhaps it’s because of the common place nature of our access to resources and energy that most people no longer see them for what they are?



phil harris said...

@Croaton mentioned al-Biruni and dscussion in western media.
The BBC has a 2010 discssion podcast to listen to
Also the BBC broadcast a film documentary 2010 presented by Prof Jim Al-Khalili who discussed al-Biruni- not available for viewing now unfortunately it seems.
Brief synopsis at

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

@Cherokee Organics,

Hi Chris, Thanks for the link. One of my sustainability workshops for instructors at my school will introduce useful videos to use in class. I'll add this one to the collection I'm making.

Also, to go some weeks past, I did like seeing your homeplace in that article you wrote.


Adrian Ayres Fisher said...


Reading and thinking, thinking and reading. It's interesting how each new cycle of this blog brings out a new set of readers to comment, though some remain more or less constant and some reappear, so it's maybe like a four dimensional figure that is simultaneously a spiral and set of venn diagrams developing through time.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hello JMG again,

Tangentially related report from the ground: Two people you wouldn't expect (ensconced in two local power structures) have expressed to me a vision of the future that hews more closely to that sketched out in this blog than to the "official story." Each is his own way is working to help his area of responsibility move with that vision, rather than with BAU.

So there's always the counter current where you don't expect it, I think, and surprising people can be more aware than one might expect.

dragonfly said...

Two of many things brought to mind by this thread on empire:
First, and I hope I am not restating the obvious, if the central mechanism in creating and sustaining an empire is indeed a wealth pump, I think one can take a step even further back and view the wealth pump as a thermodynamic system. There are energy inputs. Conversions between energy and wealth occur. Work gets done. Inefficiencies and leaks of energy/wealth create drag on the system. Entropy forever looms large in the rear-view window.
Second, I had an "hour of the wolf" realization that empire exhibits many of the symptoms of Narcissistic personality disorder. While I usually take such institutional categorizations with a sizable grain of salt, in this case if the shoe fits, etc...
Finally, I must say this exploration of empire is most interesting from where I read, here in Hawai'i. As the most recent addition to the 50 states, the signs of imperial aspiration are quite evident here, if one has the eyes and ears for them.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Cherokee Organics--Neither Queen Victoria nor her subjects enjoyed air conditioning or Chilean raspberries in midwinter. But if you read the press release carefully, the menu is "inspired by" and "a modern interpretation" of Queen Victoria's dinner.

I recently watched a TV documentary in which a chef was attempting to duplicate a typical formal dinner menu of roughly that period. Late Victorian dinners, even in private homes of the upper middle class, had a good many more than six courses. Taking into account that a different wine would have been served with each course, I doubt such a dinner could be recreated in detail for AUS $275.

Not that I dine in such circles, but I imagine $275 would barely cover the tasting menu in a top tier New York, Paris or UAE restaurant today.

I'm the Unknown who posted about guerrilla warfare at 9:52 PM last night.

The Croatoan 117 said...

Thanks for the links. I've always suspected a primary reason we don't hear about Persian history in the US is that it would not be beneficial to the idea that our enemies are, and always have been, backwards cave dwellers.

Seaweed Shark said...

In answer to your question, I assure you I've read your posts for several years, with what I hoped was attention and sympathy. Although I'm not in a position to go back and review all the relevant material, my strong impression has been that you write in far more detail, and with greater interest, on Spengler than you do on Toynbee. You seem to share with Toynbee the understanding that long-term history is organic and cyclical, and you oppose this to the contemporary shibboleth of eternal unhindered progress. I agree.

However, as I understand it, the main criticism that Toynbee's work received was that it didn't offer a convincing mechanism for the rise and fall of civilizations: that in the end it was no more than an immensely extended meditation on the truism that "what must rise must fall". His religiosity and Eurocentrism also attracted criticism, but I think they are secondary. In any case, his proposed mechanism is spiritual and psychological.

But you emphatically do offer a naturalistic foundation for the breakdown and fall of civilizations: that resource depletion and its consequent inconveniences sooner or later expose the internal contradictions of a civilization, prompting increasingly frantic attempts to keep the engine going, increasingly violent struggles over what is left, then systemic breakdown and collapse, continuing over as long a period of time as the civilization's core values prompt it to live beyond its means. That would seem to put you in opposition to Toynbee, who as far as I can tell mentions resource depletion as an afterthought, in only two paragraphs toward the end of "Mankind and Mother Earth".

Thanks again for your efforts in sharing the Archdruid Report. Please accept my poor critiques as evidence of engagement and interest. I agree with much of what you say, and I envy the elegance of your presentation.

Ruben said...


If you are collecting videos, I found this one to be very, very good. I think he tries to give the audience something hopeful at the end, but some of his best lines are in the last third nonetheless.

TED Talk -- Paul Gilding: The Earth is full

Matchstick Warrior said...

Hi John,

You may find this BBC production on the British Empire interesting. It is only available in the UK, though it may end up on the World Service at some point, or someone may know how to get round the country protection (not that I could condone that):

It reflects lots of the points you have raised from the slightly strange point of view (for me anyway) of Jeremy Paxman talking about the empire as if he were not British.
Incredible how historians know exactly what went on, and can no doubt see parallels with the present, but have their observations drowned out by other events.

phil harris said...

@ Matchstick W wote about the BBC series.
I watched the first episode last week of Paxman's BBC "Empire" and thought I learnt something. This week's offering of part 2 seemed to accentuate more the sensational popular stories at the expense of analysis. For example; tough Canadian Scots who made a life from the wilderness but to this day remain very much Scots. Or the 30K Indian workers brought from Imperial India to work building the Kenyan railway, and their high casualty rate, and who initially stayed on in Kenya, though many (most?) in the last 50 years ended up in England. There was mention of the land grab of the Kenyan Highlands that enabled for example plantation tea (low paid workers), and of the tea exported via the railway. However, most of the Railway story seemed to be about workers eaten by lions or not having enough water in the desert. (Negligent employers could have easily provided protection and supplies but the program offered no explanation, except perhaps to mention that the railway went massively over budget. There was no real summing up of the overall ‘returns’ provided to the Empire’s core by the Kenyan economy. According to our own JMG, Kenya was not a great return on Imperial investment.)

Paxman seemed to hang all his questions from the same peg: "Was it a 'good thing' or a ‘bad thing'?"
Well, some said ‘good’ and some said ‘bad’. I don't think I learned much this week
Phil H
NB Large construction and military projects in Britain or abroad always had a large casualty rate, even in my day. British Empire ex-pats in India though in 19thC had a death rate 2-3 (?) times higher than their middle-class counterparts back in England. So maybe I almost learned something after all!