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Why the West is riding for a fall

A little book with a big title, Dark Age Ahead, published last year, tracked the ebbs and flows of civilisations over centuries. It came to this chilling conclusion: "We show signs of rushing headlong into a Dark Age." Not slipping towards a Dark Age. Rushing.

Dark Age Ahead (Random House, New York), was written by Jane Jacobs. She may be almost unknown in this country but has been famous in North America for 40 years, making her name writing about how communities thrive or decay. "Jane is like a rock star in Canada," her publisher, David Ebershoff, told me. (Jacobs is American but lives in Toronto.) Her dark age warning was directed at the United States but she also wants the rest of the West to heed the signs. She thinks Western culture is not as sturdy as it looks: "Writing, printing, and the internet give a false sense of security about the permanence of culture. Most of the million details of a complex, living culture are transmitted neither in writing nor pictorially. Instead, cultures live through word and mouth and example ... [and] countless nuances that are assimilated only through experience."

She singles out several pillars of culture that she believes are "insidiously decaying":

Community and family: A culture of consumerism and debt is working against long-term cultural regeneration. People are choosing houses over families, consumption over fertility, debt over discipline. "This bubble will burst," she says.

Higher education: "Credentialling, not educating, has become the primary business of North American universities." More and more people are being churned through corporatised credential factories. And not just in North American universities.

Bad science: Huge numbers of mediocrities with flimsy credentials are sprouting jargon in defence of outdated orthodoxies. Jacobs is especially brutal about economists.

Bad taxes: "Fiscal accountability of public money has almost disappeared from the modern world." Governments buy elections and suffocate innovation. "False image-making has become a very big business throughout North America and is a staple of the US government. Legions of hired liars labour to disconnect reality from all manner of images."

Jacobs sees junk culture creeping over society, and skills being exported wholesale to low-wage countries in the name of consumerism and corporate profit, and communalism in decline. "A culture is unsalvageable if stabilising forces themselves become ruined and irrelevant. This is what I fear for our own culture."

What makes her fears more troubling is that they are complemented and amplified by another substantial public intellectual, Jared Diamond, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor of geography and environmental health sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles. His latest book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, will be published in Australia next month by Penguin. Its thesis was summarised in an essay published in The Best American Essays 2004, entitled The Last Americans:

"One of the disturbing facts of history is that so many civilisations collapse. Few people, however, least of all our politicians, realise that a primary cause of collapse of those societies has been the destruction of the environmental resources on which they depended. Fewer still appreciate that many of those civilisations share a sharp curve of decline. Indeed, a society's demise may begin only a decade or two after it reaches its peak population, wealth and power ...

"Because peak population, wealth, resource consumption, and waste production are accompanied by peak environmental impact - approaching the limit at which impact outstrips resources - we can now understand why declines of societies tend to follow swiftly on their peaks."

Diamond's warning appears when both the US and Australia have never enjoyed so much material wealth yet had so much environmental poverty. No advanced economy is as dependent on natural resources as Australia's. On Wednesday came the news that Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth face serious water shortages within 10 years. Research showed that without drastic changes to Sydney's water supply and consumption, the city faces a dire shortfall in 25 years.

As a non-doctrinaire geographer, Diamond is unmoved by the ideology of consumerism: "Foremost among misconceptions is that we must balance the environment against human needs. That reasoning is exactly upside down...

"Another popular misconception is that we can trust in technology to solve our problems ... All of our current environmental problems are unanticipated harmful consequences of our existing technology. There is no basis for believing that technology will miraculously stop causing new and unanticipated problems while it is solving the problems that it previously produced ... We think we are different. In fact, of course, all those powerful societies of the past thought that they too were unique, right up to the moment of their collapse."

In one of his case studies of catastrophic cultural hubris, he writes: "Why did the kings and nobles not recognise and solve these problems? A major reason was that their attention was evidently focused on the short-term concerns of enriching themselves, waging wars, erecting monuments, competing with one another, and extracting enough food from the peasants to support all those activities."

Sound familiar?

Unlike Jane Jacobs, who describes cultural amnesia and the hollowing out of human relationships, Diamond's theme is driven by another form of short-termism - environmental decay. He details the inverse wealth of environmental problems in the US, including water restrictions in southern California, Arizona and the Florida Everglades, forest fires resulting from logging practices, farm land lost to salinisation, drought and climate change on the Great Plains, worsening air quality in the large population centres, problems with water quality, and inundations by exotic invaders such as harbour-choking zebra mussels.

"We have already lost American chestnut trees, the Grand Banks cod fishery, and the Monterey sardine fishery; we are in the process of losing swordfish and tuna and Chesapeake Bay oysters and elm trees; and we are losing topsoil."

Sound familiar?

The message in Collapse applies to the lethal combinations of consumerist excess and environmental ignorance that has occurred across cultures and ages. And his dissection of decline, along with the warnings contained in Dark Age Ahead, are far from unusual among American scholars. No less than six serious books about US imperial overstretch were published last year, in addition to dozens of anti-Bush, anti-war tracts. All the books appeared in the wake of the Iraq war and their collective message led the critic Tony Judt, in a review of all six books for The New York Review of Books to conclude: "With our growing income inequalities and child poverty; our underperforming schools and disgracefully inadequate health services ... our bellicose religiosity and our cult of guns and executions; our cavalier unconcern for institutions, treaties, and laws - our own and other people's, we should not be surprised that America has ceased to be an example to the world."

The world is biting back. As Diamond argues: "The cost of our homegrown environment problems adds up to a large fraction of our gross national product, even without mentioning the cost we incur from environmental problems overseas, such as the military operations they inspire. Even the mildest of bad scenarios for our future includes a gradual economic decline, as happened to the Roman and British empires. Actually [America's] economic decline is already under way. Just check the numbers for our national debt, yearly government budget deficit and unemployment statistics..."

Social anxieties in the West have cohered around the threat of terrorism, an anxiety fanned by the Bush Administration, but the toll of terrorism pales into relative insignificance when compared with the thousands of small tragedies that Western society deems acceptable for the convenience, efficiency, freedom and glamour associated with consumerism, above all, the motor vehicle. Australia is certainly no exception. Over the past 50 years, while the numbers of Australians killed in wars and terrorist attacks totalled less than 1000, more than 135,000 people were killed on Australians roads.

Today, instead of responding intelligently to the dangerous dependence on oil from the hair-trigger Middle East, consumers in the US and Australia, with the encouragement of government, have reacted with a historic boom in sales of four-wheel-drives and other heavyweight, fuel-guzzling urban combat vehicles that have become symbols of this era. If ever there was a metaphor for complacency...

Jane Jacobs regards the cultural addiction to the motor vehicle as the single biggest contributor to civic decline: "Not TV or illegal drugs, but the automobile has been the chief destroyer of American communities ... One can drive today for miles through American suburbs and never glimpse a human being on foot in a public space, a human being outside a car or a truck ... While people possess a community, they usually understand that they can't afford to lose it; but after it is lost, gradually even the memory of what was lost is lost. In miniature, this is the malady of Dark Ages."

Cultural amnesia, excess consumption and environmental decline are more dangerous than terrorism, but we are so awash with propaganda we don't even notice. Or care.

Warnings of mass migration

For 9000 years, the most advanced civilisation in the world was centred around the Fertile Crescent. Almost every major innovation adopted in Europe originated in the civilisation based on the Tigres-Euphrates river system. Today, the fertile crescent is a sinkhole, fertile only in creating trouble for the rest of the world. Today, most of the region goes by the names Iraq and Iran.

Decline began with environmental degradation. Excessive irrigation and land-clearing led to salinisation and desertification, a process that has been going on for centuries. As Jared Diamond predicted eight years ago in Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize: "Today's ephemeral wealth ... based on the single non-renewable resource of oil, conceals the region's long-standing fundamental poverty and difficulty feeding itself."

Stagnation is now accompanied by growing resentment of the West. "Cultural xenophobia is a frequent sequel to a society's decline from cultural vigour," writes Jane Jacobs in Dark Age Ahead (see main story). "A fortress of fundamentalist mentality not only shuts itself off from dynamic influences originating outside but also, as a side effect, ceases influencing the outside world."

In her study of the decline of civilisations, Jacobs found that significant population flux was a byproduct of decline. "The collapse of Rome and the onset of its famous Dark Age coincided with a great migration of peoples."

Today, the movement of people escaping economic, political and cultural suffocation has reached a scale that creates a form of reverse-colonialism.

Diamond, in his new book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, describes mass movement of people as one of the consequences of both disruption and globalism, which includes the export of problems, not just products, and people, what Diamond terms "unstoppable numbers of immigrants, both legal and illegal, arriving by boat, truck, train, plane and on foot".

The mass movement of people over and around sovereign barriers has prompted yet another big thinker to give yet another big cultural warning, this time from Samuel Huntington, the Harvard professor who became famous for The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order (1996). He has produced a sequel, Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity which portrays the United States as facing an unprecedented cultural challenge brought on by massive immigration from Latin America.

"Mexican immigration is leading toward the demographic reconquista of areas Americans took from Mexico by force in the 1830s and 1840s ... No other immigrant group in American history has asserted or been able to assert a historical claim to American territory ... American society and culture could eventually change into a country of two languages, two cultures and two peoples. This will not only transform America. It will also have deep consequences for Hispanics, who will be in America but not of it."

Ten years ago, Huntington predicted social tensions in Europe caused by the spread of Islam. Like Diamond's, his predictions have aged well. Europe's birth rates have plunged while the birth rate of Muslims in Europe is three times that of non-Muslims. The number of Muslims in the European Community has doubled in 20 years to 16 million, or 3.5 per cent of the population. By 2015, Europe's Muslim population will have doubled again to 32 million, while the non-Muslim population remains static or declines. By 2050, Muslims will constitute about 20 per cent of Europe's population, and 25 per cent in France and Holland.

Cultural fault-lines have already emerged in Holland, Sweden, Denmark and France, with a political backlash against rising crime and immigration in what were once the bastions of Western liberalism.

Editorial Notes: A quite good article, however I'm not sure if it was justified to end with the section on immigration as if that were the most challenging issue. Migration coinciding the with the fall of Rome seems more likely to be a product of resource depletion rather than a primary cause of the empire's decline. Feedback on this point from scholarly readers would be very welcome. -AF

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