So, is our civilization in decline?
Using themes fleshed out in John Greer’s 2008 release, “The Long Decline,” the Weekly Sift uses the impact of punishing hurricanes as the lens to address this question of ‘where are we?’
In civilizations on the rise, dominant positive energy (‘Construction’) outweighs the negative (‘Destruction’).
A study of civilizations in decline identifies similar telltale shortcomings – including the steady inability to keep up with infrastructure demands.
History teaches us to expect the decline to not be precipitous (“the Long Descent”). As well, the human drive to make things better for our children and grandchildren is a powerful countering and mitigating force in and of itself. Jim
“…TLD is both depressing and reassuring: depressing because Greer thinks our civilization is already on the way down, and reassuring because he believes that a civilization-wide decline takes a very long time to play out. (The peak of the Roman Empire was in the 2nd century, but the last Caesar didn’t fall until the Ottomans captured Constantinople in 1453. As Adam Smith is supposed to have remarked in 1778, when told that Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga marked the ruin of England: ‘There is a great deal of ruin in a nation.’) So Greer doesn’t predict a Mad Max future for our children, just an era of greater difficulty and more constraint, followed by an era of even more difficulty and constraint for their children.
“Oversimplifying greatly, Greer sees civilization as a constant struggle between Construction and Destruction. Construction is happening all the time and is fairly gradual, while Destruction tends to concentrate in big disasters. In an ascending civilization, Construction is the long-term winner; every big disaster is just an excuse to rebuild bigger and better, as London (1666) and Chicago (1871) did after their Great Fires.
“But during the descent, Destruction has the upper hand: A certain amount of rebuilding happens after each disaster, and sometimes it even briefly looks like things have turned up again, but you never quite get back to the previous peak before the next disaster sends you reeling. A constant shortfall of constructive energy means that maintenance is always getting deferred, which invites the next disaster sooner than it would otherwise show up…
“Rising civilizations respond to challenges with visionary bursts of construction. At the height of the British Empire, for example, London responded to a series of cholera epidemics and the Great Stink of 1858 by building a citywide sewer system that is still in use today.
“But declining civilizations are always a step behind. They congratulate themselves for how well their plans would deal with yesterday’s problems, while ignoring the predictable challenges they soon will have to face.”