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Is America’s decline inevitable? No.

21 January 2008

Comment on a thread at the DNI blog:

“IMHO, the United States is so far down this path that – absent some deus ex machina – its political / economic decline seems to be inevitable and irreversible.  Under these circumstances, our efforts should not be to seek to stem or to reverse this process but rather to seek means to carve out islands of civility and/or excellence notwithstanding general political decay.  Eg. the Spain of Philip IV, with its imperial decline, was nevertheless also the Spain of Velasquez.”

These sentiments are widespread already.  As times darken such views will become more so.  They raise two important issues.  First, why be an American if one has no faith in the American people?  How can you believe in democracy without that faith?  The second concerns the gravity of the threats we face. 

Perhaps as a result of the long summer of America, the post-WWII era of prosperity and peace (relatively speaking), many folks see any serious threat as Armageddon.  But consider our problems vs. those of our European ancestors.  Did they surrender?

  • The 6th and 7th century plaques that killed 1/4  to 1/2 of the peoples in the Eastern Mediterranean region (see Plague of Justinian).
  • The Black death, 14th century plagues and famines that killed 1/3 – 1/2 of Europe’s population.

Those disasters had death tolls of the sort we probably could experience only in a nuclear war (or an improbably geophysical event, such as an asteroid impact).

  • England in 1588,  facing the overwhelming might of the Spanish Empire — which ruled most of Europe.
  • Russia when invaded by Napoleon in 1812.  1941 was even worse.  Ruled by a madman. Their government had betrayed the hopes of the revolution, killed tens of millions, and reduced the nation to poverty. Most of their generals were dead, their armies were in full retreat, and vast areas were controlled by a ruthless invader.
  • The UK in mid-1941, almost friendless, surrounded by victorious enemies, bankrupt.

There are many examples from our own history.  The dark days of the Revolution.  Or the Union in early 1863 — battlefield defeats, the Confederacy working to gain foreign allies, support for the war waining at home (Copperheads, draft riots). 

Even more relevant, consider conditions in 1937.  We had much more to fear than fear itself.  War looming in Asia and Europe plus an apparently endless Great Depression.  We had several schools of economists proposing remedies, each contradicting the others, all speaking in tongues (just like today).

Our problems today are unique, as is each crisis in history.  I doubt they are worse than those we have surmounted in the past.

Excerpt from Forecast: Death of the American Constitution

The mark of a great people is the ability to carry on when all is lost, including hope.  We can learn much from the Russian people’s behavior in WWII.  I doubt we will fall into such peril.  On the other hand, our situation might be far more complex, with no clear enemy to unify us.  But there is no cause for despair.

People, Ideas, and Hardware. “In that order!” the late Col John R. Boyd, USAF, would thunder at his audiences.

Our wealth is just things (“hardware”), an inheritance from past generations.  What we lose we can work and replace.  Our aspirations to global hegemony were revealed as a mirage in Vietnam and Iraqi, lasting less than two generations after WWII.

The Constitution is not America.  We are America.  Our Constitution is just an idea, inherited from the founders.  We created it, and its death will give us the experience to do better with the next version.

Our culture is a collection of discordant ideas, mixing lofty and base elements in a manner despised by much of the world – an easily understood disgust to anyone watching many of our TV shows and movies, or listening to some of our popular music.

We are strong because of our ability to act together, to produce and follow leaders.  We are strong due to our openness to other cultures and ability to assimilate their best aspects.  We are strong due to our ability to adapt to new circumstances, to roll with defeat and carry on.

We will be what we want to be.  The coming years will reveal what that is.

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp relevance to this topic:

Posts on the FM site with good news about America:

  1. Good news: The Singularity is coming (again)  (8 December 2007) — History tends to look better over longer time horizons. For example, consider one bit of good news: the Singularity is coming.
  2. Some good news (one of the more important posts on this blog)  (21 December 2007) –  I do not believe we need fear the future, despite the tough times coming soon.  This remains a great nation, not because of our past but because of us and our polity.  We differ from almost every other nation.  The difference consists of our commitment to our political order, of which our Constitution is the foundation.  In this we are like Athens more than our neighbors …
  3. A crisis at the beginning of the American experiment  (27 December 2008) — Looking at the problems looming before us, it is easy to forget those of equal or greater danger that we have surmounted in the past.  
  4. An important thing to remember as we start a New Year  (29 December 2007) — As we start a New Year I find it useful to review my core beliefs. It is easy to lose sight of those amidst the clatter of daily events. Here is my list…
  5. Is America’s decline inevitable? No.  (21 January 2008) – Why be an American if one has no faith in the American people?  How can you believe in democracy without that faith? 
  6. Let us light a candle while we walk, lest we fear what lies ahead  (10 February 2008) — Many people look to the future with fear. We see this fear throughout the web. Right-wing sites describe the imminent end of America: overrun by foreigners, victim of cultural and financial collapse. Left-wing sites describe “die-off” scenarios due to Peak Oil, climate change, and ecological collapse – as the American dream dies from takeover by theocrats and fascists.  Most of this is nonsense, but not the prospect of massive changes in our world. But need we fear the future?
  7. A happy ending to the current economic recession  (12 February 2008) — Sometimes we can see medium-term outcomes with greater clarity than short-term events or long-term trends.  In January 1942 none could forecast the events of the next 44 months, but it did not take an expert to see that the US would defeat Japan.  So it is with the current economic down cycle in America.
  8. Fears of flying into the future  (25 February 2008) — Reasons we need not fear the future.
  9. Experts, with wrinkled brows, warn about the future  (2 May 2008) — Experts often see the future with alarm, seeing the dangers but not benefits. That gets attention, from both the media and an increasingly fearful public. Both sides feed this process. It need not be so, as most trends contain the seeds of good and bad futures. This post considers two examples.
  10. Good news about the 21st century, a counterbalance to the doomsters  (9 May 2008)
  11. “America’s Greatest Weapon”  (25 May 2008)
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17 Comments leave one →
  1. Marzouq permalink
    21 January 2008 12:06 am

    Fabius,

    Good points about what people and nations have endured. What is on our horizon is nowhere near as scary as the historic catastrophies you cite. If the wise and cooler heads prevail and the right leaders come to the fore (dang, isn’t that always a problem), this could be just a bump in America’s road to the future.

    Regarding the death of the constitution: Maybe the problem is not The Constitution but the ignorance of the American People regarding it due to poor education in public schools. Maybe it is because those who lead this nation are forgetting the fundamentals of The Constitution. Maybe overlawyering has diluted our Constitution. If it goes, I am not sure America can produce something better. I like your optimism and faith in the American People, my feelings are mixed. I must connfess my love for The Constitution because it is the idea that is America.

    It has been rewarding learning from the D-N-I site and I thank you and the other Boyd desciples for the enlightenment.

    Salaam eleikum!

  2. JoseAngel de Monterrey permalink
    21 January 2008 5:27 am

    “Our culture is a collection of discordant ideas, mixing lofty and base elements in a manner despised by much of the world – an easily understood disgust to anyone watching many of our TV shows and movies, or listening to some of our popular music”

    I am from Mexico, but I had the opportunity to live in the United States, and so my perspective is more that of an outsider.
    Yes I think America is about movies and TV shows, but it is also about options, about the power to choose. I have cable tv, satellite tv in my country, and I have yet to see an offering of channels coming from Europe or Asia with such rich and powerful contents as the american television industry offers. It is up to you to watch discovery channel, history channel, national geographic, or HBO, Showtime, MTV or even playboy, it is your freedom to choose.

    I see the United States, America as yourselves and many in the world call you, as a debating society. Nowhere else in the world, in my opinion, has a candidate to debate so much if he or she wants to become a congressmen, senator, or president. America also loves to debate about social, cultural, technological and economic issues all the time. If America is a debating society, the name of game is consensus and respect for each other as the rules for so much debating.
    And it is a country that knows when to stop debating and gather themselves together and take action bravely confronting its enemies abroad, which is why many countries also hate America, because they cannot have their cake and eat it too with America.
    Liberal and democratic societies, with their freedom of expression and their debates and open political life, have always seemed chaotic and even decaying in critical eyes, even in times of the greeks, and democracies are often compared against the ever apparent orderly and quiet political life of tyrannies where one man or party hold power and quickly silences dissenting voices that later built into social pressures awaiting a sudden and violent burst to be set free. And we tend to forget that these totalitarian are always like volcanos quietly building pressure until it is ready to explode and auto-destroy themselves while democracies do not usually build those kind of social pressures because people get a chance to show their disagreement or anger by speaking out, protesting in the streets, or at every election casting a punishing vote to the governing party and in other civil and democratic ways.
    I don´t see America going down any path, I see an America that faces existing crisis and challenges, certainly, because it doesn´t hide like other nations, say China, or Russia for example, America debates its troubles and foes openly, it talks about them in public places, and America always takes action in end, and the whole world knows that.
    As long I see that strong and debating society, able to see its own failures and shortcomings and talk about them openly, I know America will continue to be a lighthouse of hope for the world in times to come.
    God bless America.

  3. dckinder permalink
    21 January 2008 6:15 am

    Fabious Maximus essentially has stated that my post, quoted above, subjectivelyshould be false; and – who knows – perhaps it so should be. But that begs the question of whether, in fact, my quote objectively is false.

    There are many fine democracies that were erstwhile superpowers. Sweden, for example. Our Constitution was originally written for a small third rate power on the outskirts of the world stage. Presumably, therefore, it could survive should we revert to that status.

    As for the Americans being a “great people,” objectively speaking, we begin with the idea that they are a random sample of the normal run of humanity. If we should think that, nevertheless, we “rise above” that, then we need carefully to consider that our vanity and pride rather than objective factors lead us to that conclusion.

    So, perhaps, I should be wrong. But am I?

  4. Pete Farmer permalink
    21 January 2008 7:47 am

    Fabius Maximus:

    Thanks for the tremendous blog… it looks great and reads even better. FM and DNI are among my favorites for independent-minded commentary. I especially like your foray into analysis of the economic dimensions of competition and 4GW, such as peak oil and credit/debt as weapons. Boyd would approve, I am sure.

    You are correct: America faces difficult challenges ahead, but they appear no worse – and perhaps substantially less serious – than those of our forebearers in 1863, 1933 or perhaps 1941-42. From my perspective, they are considerably less serious – perhaps by an order or two of magnitude – than those faced by a typical Pole or Russian in the Depression or WW2. Perhaps because I am a scientist, I have somewhat novel views on what constitutes a real crisis for America. Although the two World Wars proved costly for America, neither was fought on US soil for the most part. Even the US Civil War, the most costly war in our history, pales in cost beside the toil of single battles such as Stalingrad or the Somme. Protected by two oceans, the US has never been completely conquered by an invading force under arms (although one could make a case that illegal immigrants are in fact conquering us without arms, that is a separate issue). Instead, I would argue that the closest we’ve come to a partial collapse of our civilization was during either the Great Depression or during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1920. John Barry’s wonderful book about the latter, “The Great Influenza” shows just how tightly fear gripped the nation during the flu pandemic. And that fear was not misplaced; influenza killed well-upwards of 25 million people worldwide, and nearly brought western civilization to its knees. Similarly, the Great Depression and its attendent hardships – i.e. the Dust Bowl – affected Americans and other peoples to an extent that subsequent generations probably find incomprehensible.

    In addition to our somewhat unique geographic situation, Americans today perceive threats differently than generations past simply due to the effects of affluence. For many years, we have been fortunate enough to avoid widespread mass deaths due to starvation, natural disasters, or communicable diseases. Most Americans fail to appreciate just how unusual this state of affairs would have been in any previous era of history. In the past, it was accepted stoically that people died early deaths in childbirth, illnesses for which there were no cure, accidents, and many other causes. People often died at home rather in a hospital, so death was a more familiar presence in most families and communities than it is now. America once saw many of its workers employed in agriculture (which is still a dangerous occupation), the steel mills, mining, or other heavy industries. Work was dangerous, and it was an accepted risk that you might lose a limb or your life on the job. In the Depression, no one cared – if a luckless worker plunged to his death building the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge or the Empire State Building, another worker stepped forward to take the place of the lost man, risk be damned. They needed the paycheck, no matter what. These people were tough because they had to be. They didn’t take for granted the money in their pockets, or the food on their tables. Only the well-off or fortunate possessed reliable electricity, heat, water or other basic services. Many Americans walked or rode horses to get where they were going, just as their ancestors did. If you owned a car or could afford the train or subway, you were doing well indeed. The bathroom was for many an outhouse.

    Contrast the people toughened by the hardship of the depression and war with the sometimes spoiled person of today. Joe or Jane Taxpayer sometimes pitches a fit because his chocolate latte is not served precisely as he/she likes it, or perhaps the newspaper lands on the neighbor’s lawn instead of his own. The greatest risk to an adult male’s mortiality after leaving youth is driving his car, or being felled by a disease of affluence – such as heart disease, cancer, or perhaps diabetes. Dreaded names from the past – such as cholera, dysentery, polio, malaria, and many others are dim memories if they are remembered at all. We take for granted the food in our stores and refrigerators, the water in our faucets, and the electricity or gas to heat/cool our homes – all luxuries unaccustomed by past generations. In short, we have forgotten what real hardship is like, if we ever knew it in the first place. We are, many of us, soft – even decadent – but we do not know it or do anything about it. Remember: Some of our grandparents walked many miles for the privlege of being educated in a clapboard schoolhouse; we won’t even get up to change the channel on the TV. More importantly, most of us are helplessly dependent on others for our lives – our food, our power, etc. Toss that accountant or interior designer into a suddenly lawless country where he/she has to fend for food and perhaps shelter – it’s a whole new ballgame, folks…

    As commentator Dinesh D’Souza has noted, the ‘Greatest Generation’ that survived the depression, helped win WW2 and then faced down the Soviets had one flaw – it could not always impart its character to its children, who largely rejected traditonal values during the 1960s, thereby altering our national character perhaps permanently in ways that still reverberate. What is the reason for this seeming paradox? Why had those who came from so little achieved so much, while those who had everything in life sometimes failed so miserably? The obvious answer is that hardship is Darwinian – if one survives it, one emerges from it stronger and better adapted to the challenges of the world. Conversely, affluence demands little of those experiencing it, except perhaps strong appetites. Hardship builds character, affluence does not. Of course, tough times can destroy character, too, just as affluence can shelter the weak and protect the infirm – but just as often material wealth and comfort corrupt us, not strengthen us.

    Our experiment is unique in that America is not a place so much as it is an idea, or more properly, a set of ideas and assumptions about the world. This precious inheritance was bequethed to us by the generations that came before, in our case – perhaps 10-12 since the republic was formed. This gift is still there if we can summon the will power, the discipline necessary to save it. The real question to me is whether we care enough to do so or not. On one hand, I see many, many Americans who would make our Founders proud. On the other, I see many – the indifferent, the corrupt – who would make them weep or shake their heads in disgust. We are unlikely – as Abraham Lincoln noted – to be conquered from without. If the republic dies, it will likely be a suicide, and not a murder. Perhaps even this is too optomistic a view in the long run. Everything in nature cycles, according to the rhythms of life and the seasons. Nations, like men, are born, grown into a vigorous youth, mature and then senesce into old age and frailty. America cannot remain ‘on top’ forever, but it can grow into a graceful old age if we the people help it to, and thereby avoid an ugly death in protracted war, poverty and indebtedness, or a similar ignoble end. If we are wise enough, we can see the example of Europe – whose death throes may be taking place before our own eyes – and change our habits accordingly. In the end, the extent to which the American idea survives, then the country can survive. But human nature is cause for worry: Many is the child who squandered his inherited wealth. Our forefathers had to fight hard to build America, and so treaured it. Largely given the country as it is, modern folks seem to take America for granted, never having struggled as our ancestors did to build and protect it.

    One final observation or two. Physics describes the laws of theromdynamics – i.e. such as the law of entropy. Simply stated, we purchase order in one part of the cosmos in return for the cost of disorder in another part of it. Systems will, left to their own devices, evolve towards increasing disorder. The laws of motion tell us that a system in motion will tend to stay in motion unless acted upon in such a way as to change that motion, or the converse. We know that complex systems can change state much more quickly than predicted due to feedback loops and other additive events. Outcomes can acrue positively in a nation’s favor, in a beneficial positive feedback cycle, or they can quickly add up – spiraling downwards in a negative feedback loop. An example of the former is the American economy after WW2 and the long post-war boom; an example of the former was Weimar-era Germany, in which a loaf of bread could not be paid for by a bushel of marks. Which road will be taken? I don’t know; nor do I think anyone else does with any degree of certainty. More importantly, where is the tipping point? Again, no one really knows – but we’d best not play with fire, right?

    My fear is that our inter-linked, super-connected economy is powerful but brittle, and of unknown resiliency. I had little doubt of our reservoirs of strength in the past, but now I wonder. Everyone assures us of the strength of the economy, the character of the American people, and so on – and these are real – but how much can one system take? How much debt, how much neglect, how much abuse? Our society and civilization are founded on a delicate web of social contracts and behavior patterns which, once changed, may be difficult to repair. For example, the vast majority of people in the USA currently self-govern their behavior and stay within the boundaries set by law and society. Most of us do nor murder, rape, loot or steal. But if conditions were to deteriorate, and resources became scarce enough, the law of the jungle would take over – just as it always has in such times. The strong would take what they wished from the weak. If that happens, all the police and soldiers in the nation would be pretty much powerless to stop it – short of unleashing the full might of the US military on its own nation, that is (Let us hope that ugly scenario is fictional and stays that way). As the Soviet experience of WW2 shows, humans are capable of withstanding more than they think. But let us not dilude ourselves; Americans are just as capable of cruelty as any other people, as well as kindness and humanity.

    So Fabius, I agree with you in the end. The jury is still out. I hope we don’t blow it; it would stink to be known to history as the generation that ruined our country once-and-for-all.

    Many thanks for the website…

    Pete

  5. baduin permalink
    21 January 2008 10:51 am

    If you are interested in metahistory, theory of history, future history, including Oswald Spengler, and similar topics, I suggest the website of John Reilly. He explains the basic ideas and has a lot of reviews of books, so one can get basic understanding of the topic. That kind of discussions went for a long time and there is no need to start from the beginning.

    For one thing there is the difference between the early colonial empire, such as British, and the late, so-called ecumenical empire. The latter simply means that economical and political interconnections in a civilisation grow so intense that there is a need for an unified authority on the top. We are undoubtly at that point – EU is the best proof.

    Any talk about decline of USA is wishful thinking. The nature of USA will certainly change. There is nearly no chance for a long term survival of the democracy, for the simple reason that the democractic regime is unable to exercise any effective rule. The coming economic crisis will show the necessity for even more international governance. USA is the only country able to provide it. Multinational bureaucracies like EU or UN cannot take any difficult decisions without some polical authority over them.

    I think America will be unable to finance its military on the present basis. The informal tribute arrangements will be insufficient, and USA will begin to use its army to extract more substantial tribute.

    http://www.xanga.com/home.aspx?user=russwinter&nextdate=7%2f27%2f2006+23%3a59%3a59.999
    http://wallstreetexaminer.com/blogs/winter/?page_id=36

    What is most important is this: all other rivals to the hegemony (France, Germany, England, Russia) have been defeated. China has its own sphere and hegemony over Europe is far beyond it. The only military problems before USA are in the nature of house-cleaning: terrorists, finally finishing off Russia, etc. Those enemies are incomparably weaker than USSR during the cold war. The struggle will be certainly VERY troublesome, much more that it is imagined today, and will require some serious effort, but the outcome is not in doubt.

    Of course, at present no one in the leadership of USA is willing to treat any problem seriously. Washington seems to treat War with Terrorism (this is a very good name, similar to the Roman War with Pirates), economy etc as merely chips in the internal power struggle for the White House. This will have to change, and will change, most probably after some serious defeat.

  6. Fabius Maximus permalink*
    21 January 2008 4:51 pm

    I doubt that the US military can extract tribute from nations with nukes. If we attempt to do so from non-nuke powers, most will quickly obtain nukes. If Pakistan can do so, most nations can do so.

    “the democractic regime is unable to exercise any effective rule”
    Perhaps so. Perhaps not. Such forecasts seem imo to have insufficient basis to say with certainty.

    “What is most important is this: all other rivals to the hegemony … have been defeated.”
    Periods of history with hegegomonic states are rare. Periods with mutli-polar systems are common.

  7. rogelio007 permalink
    21 January 2008 8:17 pm

    “we need carefully to consider that our vanity and pride rather than objective factors lead us to that conclusion.”

    Definitely. There is a way of thinking among some that assumes the gods on Mount Olympus have granted the United States empire an exemption from the usual and normal decline and fall of empires. This way of thinking is indeed based on vanity and pride rather than objective factors.

  8. 21 January 2008 9:34 pm

    “Periods of history with hegemonic states are rare. Periods with multi-polar systems are common.”

    You make a typical mistake by looking only on the history of Europe. After the fall of Rome, Europe was a multipolar system. Early attempts to unify it were doomed, like Alexander’s conquests in Greece, because the internal development didn’t cause the demand for it to grow. But this is typical for only a certain period of development of civilisation – in China eg Warring States.

    When you look at eg Egypt, later history of China, Middle East (Persia and Caliphate) or Byzantium, you see a hegemonic power dominating the whole area of a single civilisation for most of time. Most of the foreign relations dealt either with tributary powers or real foreigners, belonging to another civilisation.

    We are slowly entering that phase. It is difficult no t to see the demand for unification in USA, Latin America and Europe. But this certainly does not mean America can rule Middle East. To the contrary, it belongs to a different civilisation. Unless you manage to convert it to Christianity (a tall order), any conquests will prove to be only short-term.

  9. Fabius Maximus permalink*
    21 January 2008 10:46 pm

    I think we’re using the term “hegemonic” in different senses. The usual geopolitical meaning is one political unit dominate dominant among other units in a single geographical region. The area of such dominance has increased over time along with improvement of military, communication, and transportation technologies (e.g., steel, large horses, canals, roads, larger & more robust ships). For the same reason, the size of individual political units has tended to increase (e.g., China from 700 BC to 690 AD, France from 800 to 1450).

    The Nile basis (Egypt) is an unlikely place to look for a multi-polar political regime. A single cohesive civilization, sharp geographical boundaries, a small area tightly connected via the Nile.

    The Middle East has been fragmented (multi-polar) for most of its history. Even more so Europe, N America, Central Am, South America, Africa, SE Asia, and the Indian sub-continent.

  10. baduin permalink
    22 January 2008 7:17 am

    Africa has not developed higher civilisation. In America both local civilisations (Inca and Aztecs) filled their “geographic regions”, and had no relations with any equal competitors. India alternated periods of imperial unification and dissolution. It has been a single state for quite long time (Pakistan belongs to a different civilisation).

    Middle East has been fragmented for most of its history, if the history begins in 1918. It would be boring to list all the empires in Middle East since Sargon, so I will start with Rome. At that time Middle East belonged to two empires – Roman and Parthian, later Persian, with some protectorates between. Each empire belonged to a different civilisation. Later Rome was replaced by Byzantium, and Persia by Caliphate. Caliphate ultimately suffered a period of dissolution and was again unified by Osmans, who managed to conquer Byzantium. The Middle East was not quite unified, since in Persia there appeared another rival empire. Again, both those empires belonged to different civilisations. Turkey was organized similarly to eg Central Asian states, Mongol empire and Russia. That last assertion would obviously require a long argument, for which there is no place here, so I will have to leave it at that.

    Even that extremely short survey suggest two things. First, the history is not an undifferentiated mass of happenings. There are very definite rhythms, among others the rhythms of unification and fragmentation of empires. Secondly, the basic unit of analysis is not an arbitrary and meaningless “geographic region” but a civilisation, that is a group of peoples with similar organization and common history.

    The most useful authors on that topic are Spengler, Toynbee and Feliks Koneczny. Gumilev’s work is too much bound up with the particulars of the Great Steppe to be useful otherwhere, similarly Ibn Khaldun with Northern Africa and Islamic civilisation.

    And I again remind that the organizations which in Europe used to be called empires (eg British Empire) belonged to a quite different category of beings. The colonial empires of that type have nothing in common with the civilisation-wide empires I discussed earlier. European civilisation is very young, and have not yet managed to form its final state, but the pressure to do so is quite evident. I personally would prefer for Europe to form a separate state from USA, but the performance of EU does not inspire confidence.

  11. 17 February 2008 4:16 am

    “How can you believe in democracy without that faith?”

    Democracy differs from despotism in two major manners – representation and friction. If I posit that the prime benefit of democracy is the friction, why do I need faith?
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus: Friction? Please explain.

  12. 27 December 2008 2:30 pm

    Humanity, like lichen, is an organism of associated individuals that lives by taking resources from the rock it inhabits. Much of the 20th Century, and its 21st Century denouement, is about what happens when a powerful resource, oil, is found in the rock, proliferates, and then runs out.

    As of now there are clearly four dominant strains, based on their possession of nuclear weapons, arable land, population, and a sophisticated culture. These are the US, Russia, China, and the EU (France and the UK having the sufficient armaments). If these entities struggle over the remaining nutrient, they may queer the entire deal or take one another out piecemeal. Their interest would lie in dividing up the remaining resources and imposing a solution the other strains of lichen would have to accept.

    What remains to be decided is the fate of players who have pieces of the puzzle but not all: India, Israel, Pakistan, perhaps North Korea. The best guess is that of these, India is the one to make it to the top tier. The rest are destroyed or hemmed in or negotiated into the settlement by sympathizers in the top tier. This may involve a short and limited nuclear war in Asia, but not involving any of the top four players directly.

    Assuming this happens, the major players will then turn mostly inward and attempt to make the best of the situation, in terms of growing and transporting food for their populations. Resources will simply be lacking for continuing anything resembling the ‘globalization’ paradigm.

    For the United States, this will most likely mean a return to its 18th Century agrarian and handcraft roots, with the most productive and necessary oil-based technologies kept on life support for as long as possible. Many of the ridiculous luxuries and false professions that have caused or contributed to the current crisis will be eliminated out of necessity. It is impossible to look past this until it plays out. But the inevitable rolling up our sleeves and getting serious will be a good thing.
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: Much of this looks like the distopian myths I discussed in “Peak Oil Doomsters debunked, end of civilization called off” (8 May 2008). I no of no expert who even talk about scenarios when “oil runs out.” Oil production peaking and then (probably after a plateau of unknown duration) declining will be a challenge, a multi-decade transition. Perhaps a crisis, maybe a serious one.

    But I see no factual foundation for forecasts like this “For the United States, this will most likely mean a return to its 18th Century agrarian and handcraft roots”.

    The FM reference page about energy has links to 52 reports and articles about energy; the 41 posts on the FM site like to dozens more (the archive is here). None support such an outlandish forecast.

  13. seneca permalink
    27 December 2008 7:10 pm

    Fascinating thread here — lots of eloquent historical musings. Greg makes the most original contribution, a good pragmatic calculation based on current material and demographic resources, not form of government or ideology.

    FM says: “The difference consists of our commitment to our political order, of which our Constitution is the foundation. In this we are like Athens more than our neighbors. . .”

    Athens was one of the shortest lived of democracies, ending in empire and a foolish expedition to conquer Syracuse. Not a very propitious model for us!
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: I do not believe than Athens is a model for us. Rather it is the “mark one” version, providing the experience on which subsequent versions are designed. Like NASA’s first rockets, it had a brief but glorious flight.

  14. 27 December 2008 8:10 pm

    Greg, let’s do some thermodynamic calculation. Solar radiant flux hitting earth is about 10,000 times all human energy production including fossil fuels. We now have plants that grow as weeds, fix their own nitrogen, and convert sunlight to carbohydrate biomass at about 2% efficiency. Two percent of 10,000 is 200. We must plant .5% of the globe area or about 2% of the globe’s land mass (1/4 globe is land) if we can convert this fuel by combustion in heat engines at 100% efficiency. Using 50% efficiency(quite possible) we need to plant 4% of our land mass. This can be marginal land because we are growing weeds. Ten times more population and we’re screwed without fusion, but not yet.

  15. anna nicholas permalink
    29 December 2008 12:13 am

    I wonder about the effects of drugs and the drug trade on our future .
    Distort the minds of users , enslave the poor , corrupt those in power .
    But has it been ever so ? Have they caused serious change in past societies ; or are they like alcholic drinks , something self limiting we can live with ; or are they going to turn us all into puppets ?

  16. OldSkeptic permalink
    29 December 2008 7:55 am

    It is a choice, not an inevitability. That the gap between the US and others will close is a given, but it is a clear choice for the US people as to whether they are still an exteremely successful, innovative and rich country in 50 years (without an ‘empire’ though)… or a bit of a mess.

    Ecomically it means living with your means and rebuilding depleted economic infrastructure, politically/socially a narrowing of inequalities and the slaughtering of some ‘sacred cows”, such as opposition to a national health scheme or a greatly reduced military.

    But it is becoming pretty clear from the current politics that it is not the political and economic elite (the major decision makers) that will achieve it. That maybe the major difference to previous times, in the past the elite showed a greater flexibility to events (sometimes after a bit of a time lag though) and a greater willingness to move in alternative directions, as the situation demanded.

    This bunch you have seem to want to keep BAU going as long as possible, no matter what the cost or its repetitive failures (trust me though, we all have those problems just about everywhere). So its going to be up to ordinary people to force the changes necessary, through probably quite intense opposition.

    I am reasonably confident that, admittedly after some ‘agonising re-appraisal’ (to coin a phrase), that it will come through these daunting challenges. There are too many educated, aware, motivated, idiolistic and frankly out right hornery US citizens to allow ‘Wall St’ and a Washington elite to run the place into the ground for too long.

    Nothing, good or bad, surprises me any longer about the US, if a totally new economic model comes out of there, or it starts selling production fusion plants, in 10 years or so, I’ll just shake my head and mutter “Dr Who of countries” … again.

  17. 30 December 2008 12:35 am

    America WILL decline, relative to others, ONLY if she is hegemonically successful at transmitting values of democracy and capitalism (with fairly tight limits on corruption).

    There are only 3 countries with 300+ million people, the USA, China, and India. But both China and India are facing huge demographic crises due to too many boy babies 10 & 20 years ago… China has not yet had a serious post-Mao recession, but recession/ depression is what market economies have after they have been free to invest, and there has been too much mis-investment. China hasn’t dealt with that before.

    The US has. Altho, how the gov’t chooses to act in this still-early recession will have a big impact on how we all feel in a few years. There is clearly a money bomb coming, in an attempt to save the economy from deflationary depression. Will the cash go to the people first, or thru the politicians and to the closest friends (campaign contributors) first?

    I hope the opposition Reps push for the people to choose the future winners, not the gov’t — who will almost certainly try to keep the losers from losing, instead of helping the future winners.
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: To limit your view to just “nations” probably overlooks many of the more interesting dynamics of the next few generations. To name one obvious example, your list ignores Europe. Also, almost everybody has a demographic bomb of one sort of another. The US has grossly underfunded pension systems, offset by a high level of immigration and (so far) successful assimilation. Prediction about such complex things are hazardous.

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