Monday, October 18, 2010

Peak Civilization

   Much has been made about the peaking of resource availability, such as coal, oil, water, etc, in the media.  This is where demand exceeds supply, of course.  Little has been said of the social counterpart of this, where the problems in a civilization exceed the supply of solutions for them.  This is a phenomenon I call "peak civilization."  For example, empires are often built on the cycle of conquest-plunder-build-conquest, where the acquisition of new territories, wealth and people often leads to both the needs and means to acquire more territories, wealth and people.  As in the case of ancient Rome (when there was no more "low hanging barbarian lands") and the Spanish empire (when there was no more "low hanging American Indian silver"), when the formula gets derailed, so does the society.  
   America, the world's current premiere empire, seems positioned at the same point.  While the early stages of the American empire was fueled by conquest of the territorial kind, recent decades have seen the nation shift to primarily making economic conquests.   Much of this involved the application of new ideas to money, in terms of how it would function.  Leveraging the value of a dollar across multiple loans (in other words, creating seven times the vallue of a dollar through clever manipulation) came into vogue.  Now that the process for increasing wealth has reversed itself, what of the whole infrastructure which was built on that wealth amplification?  There really don't seem to be any official ideas for trying to fix the mess, except for printing more money in a futile effort to "stimulate" the economy. 
   Of course, there are the usual political rantings on all sides of the spectrum about this, that and the other about what should be done, all of which ignores the fact that the frame of discussion should be shifting from how to tweak the system to how to deal with the fact that the system is not going to be recognizeable in a few years.  Cliches about "reining in government spending" don't mean much when the national debt is already not realistically serviceable and trying to blame business for the mess ignores the political origin of many of the problems.  Nowhere in the mainstream to be heard is "How are we going to function when the national currency is worthless and commerce how ground to a halt on a national scale because no one can agree how to get paid for their goods and services?"  On the other side of things, the doomsayers are also equally unable to propose solutions for the impending collapse outside of "grow some vegetables and make solar electricity."  (in fairness, they are at least able to frame the discussion in something more closely resembling reality) 
   I once read that you knew a society was on its way out when it had nothing else to say, culturally speaking.  When there was nothing new as far as literature, music or art went, then it was a symptom that the society itself had become petrified to where it could no longer have anything to say about the new problems which inevitably crept up.  Little of note seems to be produced lately in the arts worth considering.  Old musicals are making a return as the avant garde has fallen into a state of confusion.  Music itself has degenerated to where pop artists need twenty dancers on stage to distract the audience from the lack of substance in their art form.  Cinema itself has become a derivative of a derivative, to where genres are ideas are so muddled that the latest version of Robin Hood has a battle scene which seems to be a time warp with Saving Private Ryan.  Organized sports, most of all, seems most emblematic of this, where a great deal of effort, time and emotion is invested in a cyclical enterprise that begins anew each season. 
   Some people might read this as a rant about anything modern, but it is instead a rant against the stagnation of ideas and thought, the one thing which is necessary to avoid if a society is to continue to be able to adapt and evolve as times change.  The twin revolutions of America and France (even with the tragedy that the French Revolution became) were new ideas, attempts to address the problems with trying to run nations with the vestige of medieval political and class thought in an increasingly modern and global economy.  How could this issue possibly be resolved today? 
   The reason that the end of dark ages often seems so vibrant (the flowering of the Renaissance and the example Classical Greece) is that things are torn down, with a fresh slate to begin with.  People are not slaves to tradition, because what had been the keeper of tradition is gone.  They don't have a need to do anything but what works, because there is really no room -- no surplus of security -- to experiment with anything else.  Up and out.  When there is no more "up" in a civilization -- when there is no ability or drive to propose and adopt new solutions, then the "out" is the only thing left.  I suspect that as the current mess unfolds, we will hear more and more calls for new ideas and solutions to the situation, only to learn that, like a slash-and-burned jungle clearing turned barren, the necessary resources are exhausted.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article. One thing to think about when comparing the American and French revolutions. The big difference I see is that the American one was all about freeing Man by endowing him with responsibilities and rights from God. The French revolution was all about freeing men from other men. I think that America could with a lot of work turn this around and become the greatest nation on Earth again and invent our way out, but it would require a return to personal responsibility and the work ethic of our founders.