I've mentioned in previous posts here on The Archdruid Report the educational value of the comments I receive from readers in the wake of each week’s essay. My post two weeks ago on the death of the internet was unusually productive along those lines. One of the comments I got in response to that post gave me the theme for last week’s essay, but there was at least one other comment calling for the same treatment. Like the one that sparked last week’s post, it appeared on one of the many other internet forums on which The Archdruid Report, and it unintentionally pointed up a common and crucial failure of imagination that shapes, or rather misshapes, the conventional wisdom about our future.
Curiously enough, the point that set off the commenter in question was the same one that incensed the author of the denunciation mentioned in last week’s post: my suggestion in passing that fifty years from now, most Americans may not have access to electricity or running water. The commenter pointed out angrily that I’d claimed that the twilight of industrial civilization would be a ragged arc of decline over one to three centuries. Now, he claimed, I was saying that it was going to take place in the next fifty years, and this apparently convinced him that everything I said ought to be dismissed out of hand.
I run into this sort of confusion all the time. If I suggest that the decline and fall of a civilization usually takes several centuries, I get accused of inconsistency if I then note that one of the sharper downturns included in that process may be imminent. If I point out that the United States is likely within a decade or two of serious economic and political turmoil, driven partly by the implosion of its faltering global hegemony and partly by a massive crisis of legitimacy that’s all but dissolved the tacit contract between the existing order of US society and the masses who passively support it, I get accused once again of inconsistency if I then say that whatever comes out the far side of that crisis—whether it’s a battered and bruised United States or a patchwork of successor states—will then face a couple of centuries of further decline and disintegration before the deindustrial dark age bottoms out.
Now of course there’s nothing inconsistent about any of these statements. The decline and fall of a civilization isn’t a single event, or even a single linear process; it’s a complex fractal reality composed of many different events on many different scales in space and time. If it takes one to three centuries, as usual, those centuries are going to be taken up by an uneven drumbeat of wars, crises, natural disasters, and assorted breakdowns on a variety of time frames with an assortment of local, regional, national, or global effects. The collapse of US global hegemony is one of those events; the unraveling of the economic and technological framework that currently provides most Americans with electricity and running water is another, but neither of those is anything like the whole picture.
It’s probably also necessary to point out that any of my readers who think that being deprived of electricity and running water is the most drastic kind of collapse imaginable have, as the saying goes, another think coming. Right now, in our oh-so-modern world, there are billions of people who get by without regular access to electricity and running water, and most of them aren’t living under dark age conditions. A century and a half ago, when railroads, telegraphs, steamships, and mechanical printing presses were driving one of history’s great transformations of transport and information technology, next to nobody had electricity or running water in their homes. The technologies of 1865 are not dark age technologies; in fact, the gap between 1865 technologies and dark age technologies is considerably greater, by most metrics, than the gap between 1865 technologies and the ones we use today.
Furthermore, whether or not Americans have access to running water and electricity may not have as much to say about the future of industrial society everywhere in the world as the conventional wisdom would suggest. I know that some of my American readers will be shocked out of their socks to hear this, but the United States is not the whole world. It’s not even the center of the world. If the United States implodes over the next two decades, leaving behind a series of bankrupt failed states to squabble over its territory and the little that remains of its once-lavish resource base, that process will be a great source of gaudy and gruesome stories for the news media of the world’s other continents, but it won’t affect the lives of the readers of those stories much more than equivalent events in Africa and the Middle East affect the lives of Americans today.
As it happens, over the next one to three centuries, the benefits of industrial civilization are going to go away for everyone. (The costs will be around a good deal longer—in the case of the nuclear wastes we’re so casually heaping up for our descendants, a good quarter of a million years, but those and their effects are rather more localized than some of today’s apocalyptic rhetoric likes to suggest.) The reasoning here is straightforward. White’s Law, one of the fundamental principles of human ecology, states that economic development is a function of energy per capita; the immense treasure trove of concentrated energy embodied in fossil fuels, and that alone, made possible the sky-high levels of energy per capita that gave the world’s industrial nations their brief era of exuberance; as fossil fuels deplete, and remaining reserves require higher and higher energy inputs to extract, the levels of energy per capita the industrial nations are used to having will go away forever.
It’s important to be clear about this. Fossil fuels aren’t simply one energy source among others; in terms of concentration, usefulness, and fungibility—that is, the ability to be turned into any other form of energy that might be required—they’re in a category all by themselves. Repeated claims that fossil fuels can be replaced with nuclear power, renewable energy resources, or what have you sound very good on paper, but every attempt to put those claims to the test so far has either gone belly up in short order, or become a classic subsidy dumpster surviving purely on a diet of government funds and mandates.
Three centuries ago, the earth’s fossil fuel reserves were the largest single deposit of concentrated energy in this part of the universe; now we’ve burnt through nearly all the easily accessible reserves, and we’re scrambling to keep the tottering edifice of industrial society going by burning through the dregs that remain. As those run out, the remaining energy resources—almost all of them renewables—will certainly sustain a variety of human societies, and some of those will be able to achieve a fairly high level of complexity and maintain some kinds of advanced technologies. The kind of absurd extravagance that passes for a normal standard of living among the more privileged inmates of the industrial nations is another matter, and as the fossil fuel age sunsets out, it will end forever.
The fractal trajectory of decline and fall mentioned earlier in this post is simply the way this equation works out on the day-to-day scale of ordinary history. Still, those of us who happen to be living through a part of that trajectory might reasonably be curious about how it’s likely to unfold in our lifetimes. I’ve discussed in a previous series of posts, and in my book Decline and Fall: The End of Empire and the Future of Democracy in 21st Century America, how the end of US global hegemony is likely to unfold, but as already noted, that’s only a small portion of the broader picture. Is a broader view possible?
Fortunately history, the core resource I’ve been using to try to make sense of our future, has plenty to say about the broad patterns that unfold when civilizations decline and fall. Now of course I know all I have to do is mention that history might be relevant to our present predicament, and a vast chorus of voices across the North American continent and around the world will bellow at rooftop volume, “But it’s different this time!” With apologies to my regular readers, who’ve heard this before, it’s probably necessary to confront that weary thoughtstopper again before we proceed.
As I’ve noted before, claims that it’s different this time are right where it doesn’t matter and wrong where it counts. Predictions made on the basis of history—and not just by me—have consistently predicted events over the last decade or so far more accurately than predictions based on the assumption that history doesn’t matter. How many times, dear reader, have you heard someone insist that industrial civilization is going to crash to ruin in the next six months, and then watched those six months roll merrily by without any sign of the predicted crash? For that matter, how many times have you heard someone insist that this or that policy that’s never worked any other time that it’s been tried, or this or that piece of technological vaporware that’s been the subject of failed promises for decades, will inevitably put industrial society back on its alleged trajectory to the stars—and how many times has the policy or the vaporware been quietly shelved, and something else promoted using the identical rhetoric, when it turned out not to perform as advertised?
It’s been a source of wry amusement to me to watch the same weary, dreary, repeatedly failed claims of imminent apocalypse and inevitable progress being rehashed year after year, varying only in the fine details of the cataclysm du jour and the techno-savior du jour, while the future nobody wants to talk about is busily taking shape around us. Decline and fall isn’t something that will happen sometime in the conveniently distant future; it’s happening right now in the United States and around the world. The amusement, though, is tempered with a sense of familiarity, because the period in which decline is under way but nobody wants to admit that fact is one of the recurring features of the history of decline.
There are, very generally speaking, five broad phases in the decline and fall of a civilization. I know it’s customary in historical literature to find nice dull labels for such things, but I’m in a contrary mood as I write this, so I’ll give them unfashionably colorful names: the eras of pretense, impact, response, breakdown, and dissolution. Each of these is complex enough that it’ll need a discussion of its own; this week, we’ll talk about the era of pretense, which is the one we’re in right now.
Eras of pretense are by no means limited to the decline and fall of civilizations. They occur whenever political, economic, or social arrangements no longer work, but the immediate costs of admitting that those arrangements don’t work loom considerably larger in the collective imagination than the future costs of leaving those arrangements in place. It’s a curious but consistent wrinkle of human psychology that this happens even if those future costs soar right off the scale of frightfulness and lethality; if the people who would have to pay the immediate costs don’t want to do so, in fact, they will reliably and cheerfully pursue policies that lead straight to their own total bankruptcy or violent extermination, and never let themselves notice where they’re headed.
Speculative bubbles are a great setting in which to watch eras of pretense in full flower. In the late phases of a bubble, when it’s clear to anyone who has two spare neurons to rub together that the boom du jour is cobbled together of equal parts delusion and chicanery, the people who are most likely to lose their shirts in the crash are the first to insist at the top of their lungs that the bubble isn’t a bubble and their investments are guaranteed to keep on increasing in value forever. Those of my readers who got the chance to watch some of their acquaintances go broke in the real estate bust of 2008-9, as I did, will have heard this sort of self-deception at full roar; those who missed the opportunity can make up for the omission by checking out the ongoing torrent of claims that the soon-to-be-late fracking bubble is really a massive energy revolution that will make America wealthy and strong again.
The history of revolutions offers another helpful glimpse at eras of pretense. France in the decades before 1789, to cite a conveniently well-documented example, was full of people who had every reason to realize that the current state of affairs was hopelessly unsustainable and would have to change. The things about French politics and economics that had to change, though, were precisely those things that the French monarchy and aristocracy were unwilling to change, because any such reforms would have cost them privileges they’d had since time out of mind and were unwilling to relinquish.
Louis XIV, who finished up his long and troubled reign a supreme realist, is said to have muttered “Après moi, le déluge”—“Once I’m gone, this sucker’s going down” may not be a literal translation, but it catches the flavor of the utterance—but that degree of clarity was rare in his generation, and all but absent in those of his increasingly feckless successors. Thus the courtiers and aristocrats of the Old Regime amused themselves at the nation’s expense, dabbled in avant-garde thought, and kept their eyes tightly closed to the consequences of their evasions of looming reality, while the last opportunities to excuse themselves from a one-way trip to visit the guillotine and spare France the cataclysms of the Terror and the Napoleonic wars slipped silently away.
That’s the bitter irony of eras of pretense. Under most circumstances, they’re the last period when it would be possible to do anything constructive on the large scale about the crisis looming immediately ahead, but the mass evasion of reality that frames the collective thinking of the time stands squarely in the way of any such constructive action. In the era of pretense before a speculative bust, people who could have quietly cashed in their positions and pocketed their gains double down on their investments, and guarantee that they’ll be ruined once the market stops being liquid. In the era of pretense before a revolution, in the same way, those people and classes that have the most to lose reliably take exactly those actions that ensure that they will in fact lose everything. If history has a sense of humor, this is one of the places that it appears in its most savage form.
The same points are true, in turn, of the eras of pretense that precede the downfall of a civilization. In a good many cases, where too few original sources survive, the age of pretense has to be inferred from archeological remains. We don’t know what motives inspired the ancient Mayans to build their biggest pyramids in the years immediately before the Terminal Classic period toppled over into a savage political and demographic collapse, but it’s hard to imagine any such project being set in motion without the usual evasions of an era of pretense being involved Where detailed records of dead civilizations survive, though, the sort of rhetorical handwaving common to bubbles before the bust and decaying regimes on the brink of revolution shows up with knobs on. Thus the panegyrics of the Roman imperial court waxed ever more lyrical and bombastic about Rome’s invincibility and her civilizing mission to the nations as the Empire stumbled deeper into its terminal crisis, echoing any number of other court poets in any number of civilizations in their final hours.
For that matter, a glance through classical Rome’s literary remains turns up the remarkable fact that those of her essayists and philosophers who expressed worries about her survival wrote, almost without exception, during the Republic and the early Empire; the closer the fall of Rome actually came, the more certainty Roman authors expressed that the Empire was eternal and the latest round of troubles was just one more temporary bump on the road to peace and prosperity. It took the outsider’s vision of Augustine of Hippo to proclaim that Rome really was falling—and even that could only be heard once the Visigoths sacked Rome and the era of pretense gave way to the age of impact.
The present case is simply one more example to add to an already lengthy list. In the last years of the nineteenth century, it was common for politicians, pundits, and mass media in the United States, the British empire, and other industrial nations to discuss the possibility that the advanced civilization of the time might be headed for the common fate of nations in due time. The intellectual history of the twentieth century is, among other things, a chronicle of how that discussion was shoved to the margins of our collective discourse, just as the ecological history of the same century is among other things a chronicle of how the worries of the previous era became the realities of the one we’re in today. The closer we’ve moved toward the era of impact, that is, the more unacceptable it has become for anyone in public life to point out that the problems of the age are not just superficial.
Listen to the pablum that passes for political discussion in Washington DC or the mainstream US media these days, or the even more vacuous noises being made by party flacks as the country stumbles wearily toward yet another presidential election. That the American dream of upward mobility has become an American nightmare of accelerating impoverishment outside the narrowing circle of the kleptocratic rich, that corruption and casual disregard for the rule of law are commonplace in political institutions from local to Federal levels, that our medical industry charges more than any other nation’s and still provides the worst health care in the industrial world, that our schools no longer teach anything but contempt for learning, that the national infrastructure and built environment are plunging toward Third World conditions at an ever-quickening pace, that a brutal and feckless foreign policy embraced by both major parties is alienating our allies while forcing our enemies to set aside their mutual rivalries and make common cause against us: these are among the issues that matter, but they’re not the issues you’ll hear discussed as the latest gaggle of carefully airbrushed candidates go through their carefully scripted elect-me routines on their way to the 2016 election.