WHY THE WEST IS RIDING FOR A FALL
By Paul Sheehan
January 15, 2005
A little book with a big title, Dark Age Ahead, published last year, tracked
the ebbs and flows of civilisations over centuries. It came to this chilling
conclusion: "We show signs of rushing headlong into a Dark Age." Not
slipping towards a Dark Age. Rushing.
Dark Age Ahead (Random House, New York) <http://tinyurl.com/6aw7z>, was
written by Jane Jacobs. She may be almost unknown in this country but has
been famous in North America for 40 years, making her name writing about how
communities thrive or decay. "Jane is like a rock star in Canada," her
publisher, David Ebershoff, told me. (Jacobs is American but lives in
Toronto.) Her dark age warning was directed at the United States but she
also wants the rest of the West to heed the signs. She thinks Western
culture is not as sturdy as it looks: "Writing, printing, and the internet
give a false sense of security about the permanence of culture. Most of the
million details of a complex, living culture are transmitted neither in
writing nor pictorially. Instead, cultures live through word and mouth and
example ... [and] countless nuances that are assimilated only through
She singles out several pillars of culture that she believes are
Community and family: A culture of consumerism and debt is working against
long-term cultural regeneration. People are choosing houses over families,
consumption over fertility, debt over discipline. "This bubble will burst,"
Higher education: "Credentialling, not educating, has become the primary
business of North American universities." More and more people are being
churned through corporatised credential factories. And not just in North
Bad science: Huge numbers of mediocrities with flimsy credentials are
sprouting jargon in defence of outdated orthodoxies. Jacobs is especially
brutal about economists.
Bad taxes: "Fiscal accountability of public money has almost disappeared
from the modern world." Governments buy elections and suffocate innovation.
"False image-making has become a very big business throughout North America
and is a staple of the US government. Legions of hired liars labour to
disconnect reality from all manner of images."
Jacobs sees junk culture creeping over society, and skills being exported
wholesale to low-wage countries in the name of consumerism and corporate
profit, and communalism in decline. "A culture is unsalvageable if
stabilising forces themselves become ruined and irrelevant. This is what I
fear for our own culture."
What makes her fears more troubling is that they are complemented and
amplified by another substantial public intellectual, Jared Diamond, a
Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor of geography and environmental
health sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles. His latest
book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
<http://tinyurl.com/6sowf>, will be published in Australia next month by
Penguin. Its thesis was summarised in an essay published in The Best
American Essays 2004, entitled The Last Americans:
"One of the disturbing facts of history is that so many civilisations
collapse. Few people, however, least of all our politicians, realise that a
primary cause of collapse of those societies has been the destruction of the
environmental resources on which they depended. Fewer still appreciate that
many of those civilisations share a sharp curve of decline. Indeed, a
society's demise may begin only a decade or two after it reaches its peak
population, wealth and power ...
"Because peak population, wealth, resource consumption, and waste production
are accompanied by peak environmental impact -- approaching the limit at
which impact outstrips resources -- we can now understand why declines of
societies tend to follow swiftly on their peaks."
Diamond's warning appears when both the US and Australia have never enjoyed
so much material wealth yet had so much environmental poverty. No advanced
economy is as dependent on natural resources as Australia's. On Wednesday
came the news that Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth face serious water
shortages within 10 years. Research showed that without drastic changes to
Sydney's water supply and consumption, the city faces a dire shortfall in 25
As a non-doctrinaire geographer, Diamond is unmoved by the ideology of
consumerism: "Foremost among misconceptions is that we must balance the
environment against human needs. That reasoning is exactly upside down...
"Another popular misconception is that we can trust in technology to solve
our problems ... All of our current environmental problems are unanticipated
harmful consequences of our existing technology. There is no basis for
believing that technology will miraculously stop causing new and
unanticipated problems while it is solving the problems that it previously
produced ... We think we are different. In fact, of course, all those
powerful societies of the past thought that they too were unique, right up
to the moment of their collapse."
In one of his case studies of catastrophic cultural hubris, he writes: "Why
did the kings and nobles not recognise and solve these problems? A major
reason was that their attention was evidently focused on the short-term
concerns of enriching themselves, waging wars, erecting monuments, competing
with one another, and extracting enough food from the peasants to support
all those activities."
Unlike Jane Jacobs, who describes cultural amnesia and the hollowing out of
human relationships, Diamond's theme is driven by another form of
short-termism -- environmental decay. He details the inverse wealth of
environmental problems in the US, including water restrictions in southern
California, Arizona and the Florida Everglades, forest fires resulting from
logging practices, farm land lost to salinisation, drought and climate
change on the Great Plains, worsening air quality in the large population
centres, problems with water quality, and inundations by exotic invaders
such as harbour-choking zebra mussels.
"We have already lost American chestnut trees, the Grand Banks cod fishery,
and the Monterey sardine fishery; we are in the process of losing swordfish
and tuna and Chesapeake Bay oysters and elm trees; and we are losing
The message in Collapse applies to the lethal combinations of consumerist
excess and environmental ignorance that has occurred across cultures and
ages. And his dissection of decline, along with the warnings contained in
Dark Age Ahead, are far from unusual among American scholars. No less than
six serious books about US imperial overstretch were published last year, in
addition to dozens of anti-Bush, anti-war tracts. All the books appeared in
the wake of the Iraq war and their collective message led the critic Tony
Judt, in a review of all six books for The New York Review of Books to
conclude: "With our growing income inequalities and child poverty; our
underperforming schools and disgracefully inadequate health services ... our
bellicose religiosity and our cult of guns and executions; our cavalier
unconcern for institutions, treaties, and laws -- our own and other
people's, we should not be surprised that America has ceased to be an
example to the world."
The world is biting back. As Diamond argues: "The cost of our homegrown
environment problems adds up to a large fraction of our gross national
product, even without mentioning the cost we incur from environmental
problems overseas, such as the military operations they inspire. Even the
mildest of bad scenarios for our future includes a gradual economic decline,
as happened to the Roman and British empires. Actually [America's] economic
decline is already under way. Just check the numbers for our national debt,
yearly government budget deficit and unemployment statistics..."
Social anxieties in the West have cohered around the threat of terrorism, an
anxiety fanned by the Bush Administration, but the toll of terrorism pales
into relative insignificance when compared with the thousands of small
tragedies that Western society deems acceptable for the convenience,
efficiency, freedom and glamour associated with consumerism, above all, the
motor vehicle. Australia is certainly no exception. Over the past 50 years,
while the numbers of Australians killed in wars and terrorist attacks
totalled less than 1000, more than 135,000 people were killed on Australians
Today, instead of responding intelligently to the dangerous dependence on
oil from the hair-trigger Middle East, consumers in the US and Australia,
with the encouragement of government, have reacted with a historic boom in
sales of four-wheel-drives and other heavyweight, fuel-guzzling urban combat
vehicles that have become symbols of this era. If ever there was a metaphor
Jane Jacobs regards the cultural addiction to the motor vehicle as the
single biggest contributor to civic decline: "Not TV or illegal drugs, but
the automobile has been the chief destroyer of American communities ... One
can drive today for miles through American suburbs and never glimpse a human
being on foot in a public space, a human being outside a car or a truck ...
While people possess a community, they usually understand that they can't
afford to lose it; but after it is lost, gradually even the memory of what
was lost is lost. In miniature, this is the malady of Dark Ages."
Cultural amnesia, excess consumption and environmental decline are more
dangerous than terrorism, but we are so awash with propaganda we don't even
notice. Or care.
Warnings of mass migration
For 9000 years, the most advanced civilisation in the world was centred
around the Fertile Crescent. Almost every major innovation adopted in Europe
originated in the civilisation based on the Tigres-Euphrates river system.
Today, the fertile crescent is a sinkhole, fertile only in creating trouble
for the rest of the world. Today, most of the region goes by the names Iraq
Decline began with environmental degradation. Excessive irrigation and
land-clearing led to salinisation and desertification, a process that has
been going on for centuries. As Jared Diamond predicted eight years ago in
Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, for which he won the
Pulitzer Prize: "Today's ephemeral wealth ... based on the single
non-renewable resource of oil, conceals the region's long-standing
fundamental poverty and difficulty feeding itself."
Stagnation is now accompanied by growing resentment of the West. "Cultural
xenophobia is a frequent sequel to a society's decline from cultural
vigour," writes Jane Jacobs in Dark Age Ahead. "A fortress of fundamentalist
mentality not only shuts itself off from dynamic influences originating
outside but also, as a side effect, ceases influencing the outside world."
In her study of the decline of civilisations, Jacobs found that significant
population flux was a byproduct of decline. "The collapse of Rome and the
onset of its famous Dark Age coincided with a great migration of peoples."
Today, the movement of people escaping economic, political and cultural
suffocation has reached a scale that creates a form of reverse-colonialism.
Diamond, in his new book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,
describes mass movement of people as one of the consequences of both
disruption and globalism, which includes the export of problems, not just
products, and people, what Diamond terms "unstoppable numbers of immigrants,
both legal and illegal, arriving by boat, truck, train, plane and on foot".
The mass movement of people over and around sovereign barriers has prompted
yet another big thinker to give yet another big cultural warning, this time
from Samuel Huntington, the Harvard professor who became famous for The
Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order (1996). He has
produced a sequel, Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity
which portrays the United States as facing an unprecedented cultural
challenge brought on by massive immigration from Latin America.
"Mexican immigration is leading toward the demographic reconquista of areas
Americans took from Mexico by force in the 1830s and 1840s ... No other
immigrant group in American history has asserted or been able to assert a
historical claim to American territory ... American society and culture
could eventually change into a country of two languages, two cultures and
two peoples. This will not only transform America. It will also have deep
consequences for Hispanics, who will be in America but not of it."
Ten years ago, Huntington predicted social tensions in Europe caused by the
spread of Islam. Like Diamond's, his predictions have aged well. Europe's
birth rates have plunged while the birth rate of Muslims in Europe is three
times that of non-Muslims. The number of Muslims in the European Community
has doubled in 20 years to 16 million, or 3.5 per cent of the population. By
2015, Europe's Muslim population will have doubled again to 32 million,
while the non-Muslim population remains static or declines. By 2050, Muslims
will constitute about 20 per cent of Europe's population, and 25 per cent in
France and Holland.
Cultural fault-lines have already emerged in Holland, Sweden, Denmark and
France, with a political backlash against rising crime and immigration in
what were once the bastions of Western liberalism.
PREVIOUS NHNE NEWS LIST ARTICLE:
THE ENDS OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW THEM (1/4/2005):
BOOK REVIEW: 'COLLAPSE': HOW SOCIETIES DESTROY THEMSELVES (1/3/2005):