Sunday, November 25, 2007

The End of Civilization as You Know It

It has come to my attention that there are those of you out there that do not believe that Western Civilization will eventually collapse. How you justify this hubris is a mystery to me.

Henry Kissinger once said "Every civilization that has ever existed has ultimately collapsed." This seems so obvious that I'm always surprised that others found Dr. Kissinger's quote to be controversial. But for me, to assume otherwise would be to assume that anything wrought by man could be immortal. This is contrary to both physics and history. Thanks to the laws of thermodynamics, nothing is immortal.

Even corporations have a natural life span. Sure, General Electric has been around for as long as anyone can remember. But I bet at one time everyone thought the Dutch East India Company would be a permanent fixture, too (and would always pay an 18% dividend). To its credit, it lasted nearly two hundred years, before finally going bankrupt.

If nothing else, you know that in a few billion years or so our sun will run out of fuel. That's just part of the cosmological circle of life. Unless Western Civilization has escaped the grip of the Earth and our Solar System by then, it (and every other civilization on it at the time) is toast. It's not a matter of if, but when.

So it seems a safe bet that Western Civilization will eventually collapse, like every other civilization before it, permanently and irrevocably. It might collapse sooner than that, depending on various other catastrophic scenarios that are fun to ponder, like major asteroid or comet impacts, pandemics, or the super volcano under Yellowstone National Park erupting. On a purely statistical basis, it seems likely that one of those will happen (maybe more than once) long before our sun goes nova.

I think what people are actually saying, though, when they disagree with me, is that Western Civilization will not permanently collapse in their lifetime. This, I might agree with. But I would counter with that it seems almost a sure thing that your little corner of Western Civilization can collapse temporarily, given the right circumstances. This is the lesson of Hurricane Katrina. It was a hard lesson to all involved, but entropy means it is a lot easier to move from order to disorder (like, say, in Baghdad) than from disorder to order (as in New Orleans).

I used to spend my summers as a kid living in a farm house without running water, telephone, or the Internet, only a fireplace for heat, one iffy channel of broadcast television on a good day, and electricity most of the time. (I read a lot, drew water out of a well, and routinely walked around with a firearm.) As a professional, I've stayed in hotels many time zones away, where the tap water was not potable, and where I endured regularly scheduled rolling blackouts that put an end temporarily to elevators and air conditioning. (I also ate a lot of food which I had no idea what it really was, but I sort of liked that part.) These experiences really drove home the fact that the conveniences of modern day life are not evenly distributed, even in these United States.

I'm a fan of author Steven Pressfield. He's probably best known for his golf book The Legend of Bagger Vance because Robert Redford made it into a movie starring Will Smith, Matt Damon, and Charlize Theron. (Yes, I know it's not really about golf.) But if you've read more than one book by Pressfield, you probably already know that he is better known among his fans as an author of well researched historical fiction taking place in ancient Greece.

His book Last of the Amazons is about the siege of the city of Athens by the Amazons and their allies circa fifth century B.C. Greek scholars are still uncertain whether the Amazons, a tribe dominated by fierce woman warriors centered around what is now Eastern Europe, were real or myth. But if they were myth, the ancient Greeks devoted a great deal of time and effort to making bas-reliefs depicting the mythical war between them.

In Pressfield's book, we see Athens right at the early stages of its experimentation with democracy. The fictional Greeks in his book were aware of how fragile this beginning of Western Civilization was, and how easily it could all come tumbling down. Losing the war meant more than just death or enslavement. It meant an end to democracy, the end of the city state, and a return to being a nomadic tribe of hunter-gatherers living in animal skin huts.

I thought about this a lot while reading Pressfield's book.

When I say that Western Civilization is a house of cards, what I'm saying, in part, is that we shouldn't take civilization, Western or otherwise, for granted. It is fragile and all too easily lost. And once lost, difficult to regain.


mcjoe said...

Something came to mind while reading the last line of your post that I thought was worth mentioning. When the Roman Empire crumbled, the world lost a lot of technical knowledge that took a long time to regain.

These losses included advanced medical knowledge, mathematics (the far eastern civilizations saved our bacon a bit on that one), and engineering.

I mention this because when our current civilization finally fades away (or dies a quick, possibly violent death?) it is quite likely that much of what we know today will be lost for quite some time. How much information is stored in digital form that requires a computer to access it? In a civilization without power (worst case fall of civilization), how useful will computers be?

So not only are we screwed, we are really screwed!

demian said...

Having spent a few months in an environment as close you could get to a Mad Max version of anarchy, I like your post. Seeing that puts a lot of things into perspective.

Reminded me of my high school peers with the circle-A 'Anarchy' symbols on their clothes. Unless you're a tough SOB, I mean really tough, you don't want anarchy.

Of course my theory is peak-oil will be the cause of decline in our way of life. Be it a gradual switch to a more simple, agrarian life or a more desperate end to civilization as you describe.

I'm inclined to think nothing horrific happens in our lifetime. But I share your astonishment at the feeling of indestructibility many people have about our society.

Paul Moorman said...

Will civilizations follow the rules of entropy and hopelessly devolve into a uniform chaotic state or will they evolve into better and longer lasting institutions that last longer after each iteration (forgetting the sun blows up end scenario for the moment)? I agree with your 'it will end', but am curious to hear what you think will happen next, if even in a macro sense.

Chip Overclock said...

mcjoe: very insightful. Who can say how many centuries mankind has been set back by the loss of the bodies of literature and scientific knowledge that followed the collapse of the Greek, Persian, Roman and many other empires throughout recorded history. Our own digital data is far more fragile than that maintained by these prior civilizations. I've seen a Greek urn that was thousands of years old, but I can't read my master's thesis on eight-inch floppy disks.

This topic merits an entire article all on its own. And I'm just the supervillain to write it. But until then, I can recommend an excellent article on the challenges of preserving digital data:

Rothenberg, J., "Ensuring the Longevity of Digital Documents", Scientific American, vol. 272, no. 1, January 1995.

demian: Over the recent holiday, Mrs. Overclock (a.k.a. Dr. Overclock, Medicine Woman) and I saw the new Coen Brothers' movie NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and I read the book on which it was based by Cormac McCarthy. The story features a character who is a sociopathic killer. That's the kind of person who might do well in a true anarchy.

McCarthy is no stranger to anarchy: his prior book, the Pulitzer-prize winning THE ROAD, portrayed a post-apocalyptic world in which babies turning on spits over open fires was commonplace.

Paul: will it end with a whimper or a bang?

In the bang category are those events that we can't really predict: cosmic impacts, supervolcano eruptions, pandemics, etc. Interestingly (to me, anyway), ALL of these catastrophic events are known to be possible, because we know for pretty sure that they all occurred in the past, some of them during recorded history. So while they seem unlikely, we know that they are possible.

I don't worry about bang events too much, although I find it entertaining to think about them.

In the whimper category, global warming is getting a lot of press these days. But the whimper event that is 100% certain is that we'll run out of oil. It may not happen in your lifetime, but it will almost certainly happen within your daughter's lifetime.

So much of what we have depends on cheap transportation, not just of us with our SUVs, but of the food we eat and the products we buy. And there is so much else that depends on oil: plastic, fertilizer, lubrication, coolant, feedstock, detergent, hormones, tons of other stuff that I know nothing about.

I'm sure that over time as scarcity drives the price of oil up, we will find alternatives for all of these applications. But market forces suggest that all of those alternatives will be more expensive than oil, some of them much more so, or else we would be using them right now.

A world without oil, a world that is sure to arrive relatively soon, will for sure be a very different world, with different economics, different lifestyles, than the one we live in now.

We've been living on borrowed time for decades, using a huge, but finite, source of potential energy that was stored up millions of years ago, probably as the result of a bang event. When it runs out, we'll all be whimpering.

Mike Wyszinski said...

it seems like the downfall of western civilization is not as important as what displaces it. Although I'm not sure what "the end of western civilization as you know it" actually means? Aren't civilizations always changing?

If you look at recorded human history
as a whole, haven't civilizations evolved into increasingly better (better meaning generally more free, governed by rule of law vs. monarchies/warlords) versions?

Barring the arrival of the killer asteroid in the near term (or assuming we develop the technology to divert it) Is peak oil the main reason you think this trend will reverse? if not what else?

Chip Overclock said...

After thinking about this for several days, I've decided that your questions merit a longer response than is practical as a comment.

But in short, I believe that it depends on your timescale. Over centuries or millenia, yes, civilization has generally progressed upwards. Over the span of years or decades, what I would consider a timescale more in line with the horizon of human perception, no.