History tells us all cultures have their sell-by date. Do political strife, crippling inequality and climate change mean the West’s time is now up
*By Laura Spinney
AH, the good old days, when predictions that “the end is nigh” were seen only on sandwich boards, and the doom-mongers who carried them were easy enough to ignore.
If only things had stayed so simple. The sandwich boards have mostly gone and the world is still here, but the gloomy predictions keep coming, and not all of them are based on creative interpretations of religious texts. Scientists, historians and politicians alike have begun to warn that Western culture is reaching a critical juncture. Cycles of inequality and resource use are heading for a tipping point that in many past civilisations precipitated political unrest, war and finally collapse.
For the most part, though, people are carrying on as usual, shopping for their next holiday or posing on social media. In fact, many people seem blissfully unaware that collapse might be imminent. Are Westerners doing the modern equivalent of sitting around eating grapes while the barbarians hammer on the doors? And more importantly, does science have any ideas about what is really going on, what might happen next and how people could turn things around?
The idea that Western power and influence is in gradual decline, perhaps as a prelude to a precipitous fall, has been around for a while. But it has gained a new urgency with recent political events, not least the presidency of Donald Trump. For some, his turning away from international commitments is part of fulfilling his promise to “make America great again” by concentrating on its own interests. For others, it was a dangerous move that threatened to undermine the whole world order. Meanwhile, over in the old world, Europe is mired in its own problems.
Using science to predict the future isn’t easy, not least because both “collapse” and “Western civilisation” are difficult to define. We talk about the collapse of the Roman Empire in the middle of the first millennium, for example, but there is plenty of evidence that the empire existed in some form for centuries afterwards and that its influence lingers today. The end of Ancient Egypt was more of a change in the balance of power than a catastrophic event in which everyone died. So, when we talk about collapse, do we mean that people lose everything and go back to the dark ages? Or that it’s going to be socially and politically turbulent for a while?
Western civilisation is a similarly slippery concept. Roughly speaking, it covers parts of the world where the dominant cultural norms originated in Western Europe, including North America, Australia and New Zealand. Beyond that, though, the lines get blurrier. Other civilisations, such as China, were built on different sets of cultural norms, yet thanks to globalisation, defining where Western culture starts and ends is far from easy.
Despite these difficulties, some scientists and historians are analysing the rise and fall of ancient civilisations to look for patterns that might give us a heads-up on what is coming.
So is there any evidence that the West is reaching its end game? According to Peter Turchin, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut, there are certainly some worrying signs. Turchin was a population biologist studying boom-and-bust cycles in predator and prey animals when he realised that the equations he was using could also describe the rise and fall of ancient civilisations.
In the late 1990s, he began to apply these equations to historical data, looking for patterns that link social factors such as wealth and health inequality to political instability. Sure enough, in past civilisations in Ancient Egypt, China and Russia, he spotted two recurring cycles that are linked to regular era-defining periods of unrest.
“You’ve got to be very optimistic to think that this is just a blip on the screen”
One, a “secular cycle”, lasts two or three centuries. It starts with a fairly equal society, then, as the population grows, the supply of labour begins to outstrip demand and so becomes cheap. Wealthy elites form, while the living standards of the workers fall. As the society becomes more unequal, the cycle enters a more destructive phase, in which the misery of the lowest strata and infighting between elites contribute to social turbulence and, eventually, collapse. Then there is a second, shorter cycle, lasting 50 years and made up of two generations – one peaceful and one turbulent.
Looking at US history Turchin spotted peaks of unrest in 1870, 1920 and 1970. Worse, he predicts that the end of the next 50-year cycle, in around 2020, will coincide with the turbulent part of the longer cycle, causing a period of political unrest that is at least on a par with what happened around 1970, at the peak of the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam war.
This prediction echoes one made in 1997 by two amateur historians called William Strauss and Neil Howe, in their book The Fourth Turning: An American prophecy. They claimed that in about 2008 the US would enter a period of crisis that would peak in the 2020s – a claim said to have made a powerful impression on US president Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon.
Turchin made his predictions in 2010, before the election of Donald Trump and the political infighting that surrounded his election, but he has since pointed out that current levels of inequality and political divisions in the US are clear signs that it is entering the downward phase of the cycle. Brexit and the Catalan crisis hint that the US is not the only part of the West to feel the strain.
As for what will happen next, Turchin can’t say. He points out that his model operates at the level of large-scale forces, and can’t predict exactly what might tip unease over into unrest and how bad things might get.
How and why turbulence sometimes turns into collapse is something that concerns Safa Motesharrei, a mathematician at the University of Maryland. He noticed that while, in nature, some prey always survive to keep the cycle going, some societies that collapsed, such as the Maya, the Minoans and the Hittites, never recovered.
To find out why, he first modelled human populations as if they were predators and natural resources were prey. Then he split the “predators” into two unequal groups, wealthy elites and less well-off commoners.
This showed that either extreme inequality or resource depletion could push a society to collapse, but collapse is irreversible only when the two coincide. “They essentially fuel each other,” says Motesharrei.
Part of the reason is that the “haves” are buffered by their wealth from the effects of resource depletion for longer than the “have-nots” and so resist calls for a change of strategy until it is too late.
This doesn’t bode well for Western societies, which are dangerously unequal. According to a recent analysis, the world’s richest 1 per cent now owns half the wealth, and the gap between the super-rich and everyone else has been growing since the financial crisis of 2008.
The West might already be living on borrowed time. Motesharrei’s group has shown that by rapidly using non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels, a society can grow by an order of magnitude beyond what would have been supported by renewables alone, and so is able to postpone its collapse. “But when the collapse happens,” they concluded, “it is much deeper.”
Joseph Tainter, an anthropologist at Utah State University, and author of The Collapse of Complex Societies, offers a similarly bleak outlook. He sees the worst-case scenario as a rupture in fossil fuel availability, causing food and water supplies to fail and millions to die within a few weeks.
That sounds disastrous. But not everyone agrees that the boom-and-bust model applies to modern society. It might have worked when societies were smaller and more isolated, critics say, but now? Can we really imagine the US dissolving in an internal war that would leave no one standing? There are armies of scientists and engineers working on solutions, and in theory we can avoid past societies’ mistakes. Plus, globalisation makes us robust, right?
This comes back to what we mean by collapse. Motesharrei’s group defines historical societies according to strict geographical limits, so that if some people survived and migrated to find new natural resources they would constitute a new society. By this criterion, even very advanced societies have collapsed irreversibly and the West could too. But it wouldn’t necessarily mean annihilation.
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For that reason, many researchers avoid the word collapse, and talk instead about a rapid loss of complexity. When the Roman Empire broke up, new societies emerged, but their hierarchies, cultures and economies were less sophisticated, and people lived shorter, unhealthier lives. That kind of across-the-board loss of complexity is unlikely today, says Turchin, but he doesn’t rule out milder versions of it: the break-up of the European Union, say, or the US losing its empire in the form of NATO and close allies such as South Korea.
On the other hand, some people, such as Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute in Massachusetts, see this kind of global change as a shift up in complexity, with highly centralised structures such as national governments giving way to less centralised, overarching networks of control. “The world is becoming an integrated whole,” says Bar-Yam.
Some scientists, Bar-Yam included, are even predicting a future where the nation state gives way to fuzzy borders and global networks of interlocking organisations, with our cultural identity split between our immediate locality and global regulatory bodies.
However things pan out, almost nobody thinks the outlook for the West is good. “You’ve got to be very optimistic to think that the West’s current difficulties are just a blip on the screen,” says historian Ian Morris of Stanford University in California, author of Why the West Rules – For Now. So, can we do anything to soften the blow?
Turchin says that by manipulating the forces that fuel the cycles, by, for example, introducing more progressive taxes to address income equality and the exploding public debt, it might be possible to avert disaster. And Motesharrei thinks we should rein in population growth to levels his model indicates are sustainable. These exact levels vary over time, depending on how many resources are left and how sustainably – or otherwise – we use them.
The problem with these kinds of solutions, however, is that humans haven’t proved themselves to be great at playing the long game. New psychology research may help to explain why that is the case.
Cognitive scientists recognise two broad modes of thought – a fast, automatic, relatively inflexible mode, and a slower, more analytical, flexible one. Each has its uses, depending on the context, and their relative frequency in a population has long been assumed to be stable. David Rand, a psychologist at Yale University, though, argues that populations might actually cycle between the two over time.
Say a society has a transportation problem. A small group of individuals thinks analytically and invents the car. The problem is solved, not only for them but for millions of others besides, and because a far larger number of people have been relieved of thinking analytically – at least in this one domain – there is a shift in the population towards automatic thinking.
This happens every time a new technology is invented that renders the environment more hospitable. Once large numbers of people use the technology without foresight, problems start to stack up. Climate change resulting from the excess use of fossil fuels is just one example. Others include overuse of antibiotics leading to microbial resistance, and failing to save for retirement.
Jonathan Cohen, a psychologist at Princeton University who developed the theory with Rand, says it could help solve a long-standing puzzle regarding societies heading for ruin: why did they keep up their self-destructive behaviour even though the more analytical people must have seen the danger ahead? “The train had left the station,” says Cohen, and the forward-thinking folk were not steering it.
“Technological innovation may not be able to bail us out as it has in the past”
This is the first time anyone has attempted to link the evolution of societies with human psychology, and the researchers admit their model is simple, for now. And while Rand and his colleagues make no attempt to guide policy, they do think their model suggests a general direction we might look in for remedies. “Education has got to be part of the answer,” says Cohen, adding that there could be more emphasis on analytical thinking in the classroom.
But Tainter says trying to instil more forethought might be a pipe dream. If behavioural economics has taught us anything, he says, it is that human beings are much more emotional than rational when it comes to decision-making. He thinks a more pressing issue to tackle is the dwindling rate of invention relative to investment in R & D, as the world’s problems become harder to solve. “I foresee a pattern in the future where technological innovation is not going to be able to bail us out as it has in the past,” he says.
So, is the West really on the ropes? Perhaps. But ultimately its survival will depend on the speed at which people can adapt. If we don’t reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, tackle inequality and find a way to stop elites from squabbling among themselves, things will not end well. In Tainter’s view, if the West makes it through, it will be more by luck than by good judgement. “We are a species that muddles through,” he says. “That’s all we’ve ever done, and all we’ll ever do.”
*Laura Spinney is a science journalist and the author of Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World
*This article first appeared on the newscientist.com website