Why the Idea That the World Is in Terminal Decline Is so Dangerous
The one thing both extremes of Left and Right agree on.
From all sides, the message is coming in: the world as we know it is on the verge of something really bad. From the Right, we hear that ‘West’ and ‘Judeo-Christian Civilisation’ are in the pincers of foreign infidels and native, hooded extremists. Left-wing declinism buzzes about coups, surveillance regimes, and the inevitable – if elusive – collapse of capitalism. For Wolfgang Streeck, the prophetic German sociologist, it’s capitalism or democracy. Like many declinist postures, Streeck presents either purgatory or paradise. Like so many before him, Streeck insists that we have passed through the vestibule of the inferno. ‘Before capitalism will go to hell,’ he claims in How Will Capitalism End? (2016), ‘it will for the foreseeable future hang in limbo, dead or about to die from an overdose of itself but still very much around, as nobody will have the power to move its decaying body out of the way.’
In fact, the idea of decline is one thing the extremes of Left and Right agree upon. Julian Assange, avatar of apocalyptic populism, gets kudos from neo-Nazis and social justice crusaders alike. He noted to one reporter how American power, source of the planet’s evils, was in decline like Rome’s. ‘This could be the beginning,’ he whispered with a smile, repeating it like the mantra of an avenging angel.
Rome’s decline looms large as the precedent. So, world historians have played their part as doomsayers. At the same time as the English historian Edward Gibbon’s first volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) was published, the American colonists said good-bye to their overlords; some read that as an omen. The First World War brought endism into the modern age. The most famous rendition was the German historian Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1918). The carnage of Flanders and the influenza plague of 1918 – which wiped out up to five per cent of the world’s population – made The Decline of the West more than timely. Spengler added a spin: he predicted that, by the end of the century, Western civilisation would need an all-powerful executive to rescue it, an idea that autocrats have seized upon with repeated glee ever since.
It is almost part of the modern condition to expect the party to be over sooner rather than later. What varies is how the end will come. Will it be a Biblical cataclysm, a great leveller? Or will it be more gradual, like Malthusian hunger or a moralist slump?
Our declinist age is noteworthy in one important way. It’s not just the Westerns who are in trouble; thanks to globalisation, it’s the Resterners too. In fact, we are all, as a species, in this mess; our world supply chains and climate change have ensured that we are poised before a sixth mass extinction together. We should worry less about our lifestyle and more about life itself.
Declinisms share some traits. They have more purchase in times of turmoil and uncertainty. They are also prone to thinking that the circles of hell can be avoided only with a great catharsis or a great charismatic figure.
But most of all: they ignore signs of improvement that point to less drastic ways out of trouble. Declinists have a big blindspot because they are attracted to daring, total, all-encompassing alternatives to the humdrum greyness of modest solutions. Why go for partial and piecemeal when you can overturn the whole system?
Declinists claim to see the big picture. Their portraits are grandiose, subsuming, total. Consider one of the all-time bestsellers, the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth (1972). With more than 30 million copies sold in 30 languages, this ‘Project on the Predicament of Mankind’ gave alarmed readers a portrait of demise, mapped out with gloomy confidence about ‘feedback loops’ and ‘interactions’. In fact, it shared much in common with the good Reverend Thomas Malthus, including the obsession with diminishing returns. Fixated with the decline of arable land, Malthus could not see sources of increasing returns – at least not at first. Some of his friends eventually convinced him that machinery and colonialism solved the problem of too little food for too many mouths; later editions of his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) went through contortions to figure this out. In the same way, systems analysts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology simulated the whole world, but could not admit little pictures of ingenuity, problem-solving and adaptation – some of which had the perverse effect of unlocking so many more sources of carbon that we’d begin to bake the planet several generations later!
One dissenting voice in the 1970s was Albert O Hirschman’s. He worried about the lure of doomsaying. Dire predictions, he warned, can blind big-picture observers to countervailing forces, positive stories and glimmers of solutions. There is a reason why: declinists confuse the growing pains of change with signs of the end of entire systems. Declinism misses the possibility that behind the downsizing old ways there might be new ones poking through.
Why the allure of declinism if history seldom conforms to the predictions? To Hirschman, it was traceable to a prophetic style, one that appealed to intellectuals drawn to ‘fundamentalist’ explanations and who preferred to point to intractable causes of social problems. For revolutionaries, what awaits is a utopian alternative. For reactionaries, what lies in wait is dystopia. The result is an ‘antagonistic’ mode of thinking, a belief that history swings from one big, integrated, all-encompassing system to another. Compared with modest advances, compromises and concessions – how boring! – the magnificent vision of a complete overhaul has so many charms.
The preference for the bold and the big has hazards. The inability to see unheralded achievements and hopeful signs in a frenzy to overhaul can often yield more destruction than construction. Hirschman had seen the toll of declinism before. Growing up in Weimar Germany, he watched his country fall prey to an ‘ideological trap’, and fork into extremes in the early 1930s, as Communists and Fascists agreed to tear down the republic in pursuit of their rival utopias – while disagreeing on everything else.
Decades later, Hirschman observed how Latin Americans despaired about the prospects for democratic reform. Their slide into what he called ‘fracasomanía’ – the propensity to see failures everywhere – blotted out real, incremental advances and achievements that fell short of high expectations. And the reason they fell short was because Latin America’s decline had gripped democratic reformism. The result was to put more faith in ever-more extreme views and the temptations of direct action. Students at the University of Buenos Aires joined the ranks of urban guerrillas. At the other end of the spectrum, Argentine reactionaries bemoaned the end of Western civilisation and turned to paramilitary death squads. When the coup d’état finally came in March of 1976, the military junta baptised itself as the ‘process of national re-organisation’. As close friends slipped into hiding or fled, Hirschman felt pangs of déjà vu. He began to have nightmares about the ideological traps of his youth. When German publishers asked him to write a special preface to the German translation of his classic Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (1970), memories of Berlin 1933 came storming back.
The problem with declinism is that it confirms the virtues of our highest, impossible solutions to fundamental problems. It also confirms the disappointments we harbour in the changes we have actually made. This is not to say there aren’t deep-seated problems. But seeing them as evidence of ineluctable demise can impoverish our imaginations by luring us to the sirens of either total change or fatalism.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
The world's getting hotter, and it's getting more volatile. We need to start thinking about how climate change encourages conflict.
- Climate change is usually discussed in terms of how it impacts the weather, but this fails to emphasize how climate change is a "threat multiplier."
- As a threat multiplier, climate change makes already dangerous social and political situations even worse.
- Not only do we have to work to minimize the impact of climate change on our environment, but we also have to deal with how it affects human issues today.
Human beings are great at responding to imminent and visible threats. Climate change, while dire, is almost entirely the opposite: it's slow, it's pervasive, it's vague, and it's invisible. Researchers and policymakers have been trying to package climate change in a way that conveys its severity. Usually, they do so by talking about its immediate effects: rising temperature, rising sea levels, and increasingly dangerous weather.
These things are bad, make no mistake about it. But the thing that makes climate change truly dire isn't that Cape Cod will be underwater next century, that polar bears will go extinct, or that we'll have to invent new categories for future hurricanes. It's the thousands of ancillary effects — the indirect pressure that climate change puts on every person on the planet.
How a drought in the Middle East contributed to extremism in Europe
(DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.
Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.
One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.
The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.
Why climate change is a "threat multiplier"
This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.
Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.
Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.
What the future may hold
(NASA via Getty Images)
Increasingly severe weather events will make it more difficult for nations to avoid conflict.
Part of why this is difficult to see is because climate change does not affect all countries proportionally — at least, not in a direct sense. Germanwatch, a German NGO, releases a climate change index every year to analyze exactly how badly different countries have been affected by climate change. The top five most at-risk countries are Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Notice that many of these places are islands, which are at the greatest risk for major storms and rising sea levels. Some island nations are even expected to literally disappear — the leaders of these nations are actively making plans to move their citizens to other countries.
But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.
Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.
Climate change and its sociopolitical effects, such as refugee migration, aren't some poorer country's problem. It's everyone's problem. Whether it's our food, our homes, or our rights, climate change will exact a toll on every nation on Earth. Stopping climate change, or at least reducing its impact, is vitally important. Equally important is contending with the multifaceted threats its going to throw our way.
You can learn good design through these books. Most of which is avoiding bad design.
- Like chess, Formula 1, and making ravioli... design has rules.
- The rules are flexible. But the main point of these rules is to avoid bad design.
- The best part? It's achievable.
There's still a lot even doctors don't know about it.
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