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Decline and Fall: the end of empire and the future of democracy in 21st century America
John Michael Greer New Society Publishers, 2014
Very few people will read this book without bristling at least once at things Greer says; he is not one to pander to his audience! Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, you are sure to be offended at something in this book…which I regard as one of its virtues. After all, a tendency to seek out media offerings with which we already agree and to reject without real analysis anything that challenges the opinions we hold is one of the faults with which he charges us, with plenty of evidence.
If you follow John Michael Greer’s blog and read his books, or even if you’ve been following his posts here on resilience.org
for years, you probably won’t find a lot that’s new in his latest non-fiction book. But for anyone else, there is much food for thought in this book, which brings together the realities of oil depletion and the other elements of the impending age of limits with the evidence that America’s empire is in decline; add in the idea of anacyclosis, which he credits to the Greek historian Polybius, and you’ve got a complex crisis. Anacyclosis says that all states move in cycles between monarchy, oligarchy and democracy; Greer then adds in other elements and suggests that the United States has been through three full cycles since our founding in 1776 and is on the cusp of another major change (the cusps are the places where major change happens). The others, Greer says, happened in 1776, 1860 and 1933). The first two were resolved by wars, the third by the New Deal. He thinks the start of this one will be dated by future historians to 2008—I’ll buy that.
As our empire comes into its waning days, says Greer, we must cope with the end of the “torrent” of wealth derived from exploitation of those third-world countries on “the business end of the wealth pump of empire”…and not only that, but at the same time, our “empire of time” is also crashing—this is the huge helping of unearned wealth we got from fossil fuels. So we must also face the dwindling of the easy energy bonanza.
According to Greer, the American people face great handicaps in dealing with these immense challenges due to the decline in our education system, our inability to think and reason beyond primitive “linking of noises with emotional states” and the loss of skills such as running democratic meetings and conducting thoughtful debates. Very few people will read this book without bristling at least once at things Greer says; he is not one to pander to his audience! Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, you are sure to be offended at something in this book…which I regard as one of its virtues. After all, a tendency to seek out media offerings with which we already agree and to reject without real analysis anything that challenges the opinions we hold is one of the faults with which he charges us, with plenty of evidence.
As usual, Greer includes heavy helpings of history in his analysis, beginning with the first three chapters, Part One, in which he traces out America’s empire from its beginning to the present. In Part Two he looks at the implications of the coming changes in the political, economic, and military realms. Surprisingly, he thinks military defeat is the likeliest means of the dissolution of the U.S. In a whole chapter dedicated to military matters, he uses history to defend the ideas that technological innovation and recent military victories can be a handicap and recent losses an asset in confronting a new military challenge. The current stage in our political cycle means that decision-makers are unable to divert the flow of tremendous national wealth from outdated, useless weapons systems with “a constituency” to anything more useful. He also considers the likely fate of client states (Israel, Taiwan) that depend on U.S. largess, once we can no longer afford it.
Part Three is where he looks at the cultural and educational failings of today’s America and how they limit our ability to use the democracy he thinks we still have to make sensible preparations and changes. This is where I have my greatest disagreement with him, as he has much less respect for the average human, and more for our leaders, than I do—for example, “Despite popular rhetoric, America’s politicians are not unusually wicked or ignorant; they are, by and large, as ethical as their constituents and rather better educated—though admittedly neither of these is saying much.” In the final chapter, he shows why many proposals for dealing with all these problems are unrealistic, and even the good ones like relocalization are marred by a refusal to admit to the downsides. But then he demonstrates the many advantages that relocalization will bring—whether deliberately brought about through Transition initiatives and the like, or as the result of breakdown. He suggests that different localities can explore different systems and thus come up with many good ideas that can be replicated. He also echoes a suggestion made by Chris Hedges—that in a time of crisis, change is much more possible than at any more normal time—but what form that change takes is up for grabs, and depends on what ideas or visions for the future are “lying around.” Thus it behooves those of us thinking about these matters to craft and develop such visions. Greer himself has done fine work in breathing life into such visions by publishing an anthology of short stories set in a post-industrial future; he’s currently working on another, and has written a novel. Presumably he has also taken his own advice to use L.E.S.S.—that is, Less Energy, Stuff and Stimulation so as to prepare for the time when the world offers much less of all these.