It’s sunny in London (20°C!) and the days are getting warmer – all’s well with the world, so it seems. It’s my lunch break, I am sitting on the rooftop of my office basking in the glorious sunshine soaking up some much-needed vitamin D. Looking down onto the square below, the city’s hustle and bustle is in full swing: office workers taking the opportunity to gather in the park for a power meeting, dogs and their owners out on a leisurely stroll, construction workers enjoying their lunch breaks on the park benches and even some have joined in for a lie on the grass to catch some rays. The momentarily excitement for good weather is displayed in all walks of life. Human society as a whole is so fascinating to observe, isn’t it?
As the turn of the 21st Century, the Western civilisation appears to be in its greatest age. Societies in Western Europe and America have benefitted most from the consequences of exponential growth, post-Industrial revolution. As a non-native, I find it surprising that many people living in these societies believe that they can grow forever, consume as much as they can get their hands on, achieve more – better, faster. For many, they do not understand that this exponential growth is unsustainable – no society ever had. History has demonstrated that expectations of infinite growth have led to societal collapses. Nonetheless, few can fathom the thought that Western societies may be on the brink of collapse – but it is also doubtful that the Romans and Mesopotamians saw their own demise coming either.
Is history repeating itself?
Western societies as we know today succeeds many civilisations of our past; that have too developed the technologies and immunities which allowed them to dominate the world at one time. To truly appreciate, we need to understand the different types of societies which have existed and have been destroyed throughout history to understand how humanity, as we know of, will be headed.
If you have had the pleasure to read Jared Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed“, he identifies a framework on why he thinks some societies are more fragile than others, and attempts to answer the question, ‘What caused some of the great civilisations of the past to collapse into ruin, and what can we learn from their fates’. This framework consists of (i) human impacts on the environment & climate change, (ii) relationship with trade partners, (iii) threat of hostiles, and (iv) social and cultural impact.
I have to admit from a storytelling perspective, it is rather retrospective – focussing on classic and ancient societies such as the Mayans, the Easter Islanders, the Anasazi and so on. In his book, he explores in-depth to describe the symptoms of the problems faced in these societies but such as the Mayans and other society collapses throughout history, the possible signs are the same as the greatest strengths of Western civilisation today: democracy, capitalism, exploitation of natural resources for the betterment of the human condition and inequalities in political systems.
I hope to take a different approach here: rather than a book review but an adaptation of his framework to exemplify more familiar societies we know of today. I hope to highlight what we can learn by the study of the past, demonstrate where societies are headed and trust we are not too late for course correction.
What about the environment?
Easter Island was once a flourishing and advanced society. Easter Island had dense vegetation including extensive woods. However as the population slowly increased, trees were cut down to provide clearings for agriculture, fuel for heating and cooking, construction material for household goods, pole and thatch houses and canoes for fishing. As a result, the demands placed on the environment of the island by this development were immense. When it could no longer withstand the pressure, the society that had been painfully built up over the previous thousand years fell with it. Easter Island is a striking example of the dependence of human societies on their environment and of the consequences of irreversibly damaging that environment.
Many people hold to a belief that nature’s resources are unbounded, that the world’s ecosystems are simply just too large to be significantly impacted by the mere actions of humans. But in fact, man-made environmental catastrophes have occurred throughout human history, even resulting in collapses of whole civilisations. Yet, in the 21st Century we have learnt nothing. We are destroying the resource base we so depend on with such magnitude, causing increasing soil erosion, deforestation and dependencies on perishable energy sources.
With increasing urbanisation and mass production, societies today require more from nature than we’ve ever needed before. About half of the world’s tropical forests have been cleared to make way for housing, timber to create commercial items and new agriculture requirements¹. Then there’s depletion of natural resources for energy – while coal production and use has plummeted in America, in Europe large amounts of electricity is still being generated from coal – the most pollutant source of electricity with more greenhouse gas produced than any other fossil fuel.
We can see the response to the dominant environmental discourse in America today, which holds the protection of the environment secondary to economic and political stability. For example, take the controversial Keystone Pipeline project. Why this project has been in the political and activists spotlight is all too complex to get into and frankly am not an expert, but the fundamental issue remains that America shows little disregard to lead on environmental issues².
Climate Change: Scandal or Fact?
Having had a head start during the Industrial Revolution, America is the most advance society and the largest economy in the modern world today, yet they are not leading by example to emerging countries like China and India who are going through their own industrialisation. As evidence, America is not a member of the Kyoto Protocol, which is an international treaty on climate change (UNFCCC) that commits state parties to reducing greenhouse gases emissions – based on the premise that global warming exists and man-made carbon dioxide emissions have caused it. Additionally, the opinion among many Americans is that they do not believe in global warming and climate change. Have the destruction of El Niño or the conditions which affected Americans during the US Polar Vortex in the last three years not taught anyone, anything?
The only redeeming fact is many countries around the world will put America to shame by making the environment high on their agendas. For example Costa Rica, a relatively small country in Central America, is making sustainable renewable resources their priority. For many other societies, they have to rely on their own local communities and crowdfunding for conservation initiatives. By-passing state parties, large organisations are also coming to terms that sustainability efforts are necessary – to make good business is to make business good, and this is especially important if these organisations service the global community. For example, Apple today announced its plan to acquire upwards of 36,000 acres of forest land in the eastern United States to conserve it and exert tighter control of its paper supply chain. It just shows that sustainability is no longer a business’ opportunity, but a necessity.
Source: ¹The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, ²8 Things you should know about the Keystone XL pipeline
What if our friendly neighbours went away?
The Vikings (Norse) in Greenland were unable to establish continuous trade relations with the native people of North America, which left them with only one possibility for acquiring necessities such as building timber and iron and for maintaining/creating a cultural identity – to maintain trade relations with Norway via Iceland. However in exchange, there was dwindling demand for walrus tusks and seal skins, the colony’s most important export items. By the mid-14th century, regular ship traffic with Norway and Iceland had ceased, leaving this society increasingly isolated from their mother countries. It became more and more difficult for this society to attract merchants from Europe to the island and without trade, they didn’t survive in the long run. In the end, the Vikings abandoned Greenland in the late 15th Century to seek greener pastures in areas that are more promising economically.
In the case of the disappearance of the Vikings in Greenland, it reminds us that most societies are not self-sufficient and when the support by neighbouring societies is pulled away, the society can become fragile. Hence building relations with neighbouring friendly societies via trade is crucial to prop up a society. This is increasingly important and true through globalisation. Proximity is a large driver for trade and a country’s top trading partner is often its neighbour. Geography is also important – especially in many developing societies where the plight of landlocked countries is one of the most striking and societies here face a unique development obstacle: they must transit neighbouring countries to access seaborne trade. Therefore, it is becoming increasingly important to maintain security and stability within these societies with close geographical proximity as when such neighbours are in conflict, the cost of accessing international markets increases.
From 6 to 28.
A great example of this is the formation of the European Union (EU). The EU was initially set up with the aim of ending the frequent and bloody wars between neighbours, which culminated in the World War II. The prosperity which followed the six founding countries began to unite European countries economically and politically in order to secure lasting peace. Since its establishment (between 1945-1991), we have seen one of the longest periods without a war in the continent apart, from the Yugoslavian conflict.
Today, the European Union is a unique economic and political partnership between many European countries that together cover much of the continent. The EU has grown from its original 6 to 28 member states and is scheduled for even larger expansion in 2015 and beyond. By its strength in numbers, the EU prescribes to the following ideals: a peaceful, united and prosperous Europe. Nonetheless, the EU is still very much a contested institution. The increasing expansion as a united front is yet to be seen if it will be a success story.
When relation with neighbouring societies is jeopardized.
As a case in point, European Union members have extended economic sanctions against Russia until the end of 2015 to punish alleged Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine after the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over rebel-held areas in July 2014. This is an extreme example of the situation at which Russia has arrived to – Russia had broken the stability of the European order for the first time since the end of the Cold War by seeking enlargement at the expense of another country using force. By alienating its neighbours, Russia has deprived itself especially at a time where rising middle-class Russians are looking to fulfil their discerning tastes. In its eighth month under western sanctions, the Russian economy is starting to show signs of strain: fixed-asset investments have fallen in value, real income growth has slowed, rising prices and unemployment rates, all applying pressures on the devaluation of the Rouble.
Russia’s position in the world community too can hardly be called stable or high-standing, at least in Western societies. At the same time, the East, curious and observing, has been sitting on the fence: the interest with which it was watching the first phase of the crisis has given way to a wait-and-see approach. Russia certainly finds itself at another pivotal turn in its history and the fact that the search for a Russian strategy is taking place amid fundamental global changes adds significance to this historic period.
In the absence of peace?
The Western Roman Empire crumbled after a nearly 500-year run as the world’s greatest superpower when the last Roman emperor was deposed by a Germanic Barbarian chief. However, from our understanding of history, we know that Rome had been fighting successfully against the Barbarians for centuries. So why were the Barbarians successful in this occasion? Many reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire have been attributed to its internal economical, political and social problems. In its decline, Rome was facing economic troubles, overexpansion and military overspending, loss of traditional Roman values system and the weakening of the Roman legions. By the 4th Century, the Roman Empire became rife with divisions that it became impossible to repel outsiders who decided to take by force what they couldn’t get through the system.
When a society becomes weakened for example by its own internal economic or political problems, naturally that is the time when hostile societies can take advantage of this situation, create chaos and even invade. This makes it incredibly difficult for many Historians to determine whether the previous collapses of past societies were the result of military conquests or the underlying reason is that of internal problems faced by these societies.
New Dynamics in the Arab World.
Four years ago, the Islamic State (ISIS) did not exist; now it controls vast territories of Syria and Iraq and threatens to undermine stability and prosperity in the Arab Middle East for a long time to come. Today, ISIS is an unprecedented challenge that is taking spectacular advantage of state weaknesses – in particular, deep structural factors such as decades of poor governance and corruption, state failures and a decline in institutional power over the past decade. Middle East states have weakened: highly centralised states like Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and even Egypt are on the brink of collapse. The region as a whole has been plagued by declining state capability and the rise of non-state actors, as well as the revival of ambitions for empire.
However, no single Arab country will be able to deal with ISIS alone. Regional cooperation is necessary but combined military efforts are far from sufficient. Instead, a comprehensive and long-term political, economic and social effort is needed to counter these violent extremists. Societies must come together to realise that ethnicity and sect should not be factors which dictate the identity in the region.
Among the global communities, there is also much eagerness to see the region stabilise but this requires a balance between human security and state security. Radicalisation has been a consequence of challenging economic and political conditions – refugees and displaced societies are easy recruits for ISIS. Moderate Islamists are diminishing, while radicals and terrorists are gaining. Continuation of the civil war will only benefit ISIS. And this, needs to be acknowledged by the world powers.
What about values that worked well in the past, do not seem to be working well today?
Life in an Aztec society had been permeated by religious beliefs: each decision ruled by the laws of religion, observation of omens and human and animal sacrifices tied to sacred days in the Aztec calendar. So in the 1500s, when the Spanish arrived, led by Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortes with a small band of his men, naturally, they would have been captured and sacrificed immediately. But Moctezuma II, then the ruler, saw in Cortes the presence of their ominous god, Quetzalcoatl, in human form and interpreted that the end was approaching. You see, Quetzalcoatl was a very important god to the Aztecs, which had vowed he would appear when the end of the world was near – to save the Aztec people. So, Moctezuma II gave Cortes and his men gifts of gold as appeasement and thought that it would keep them from taking over the city, but these gifts just made Cortes want more. Eventually, Cortes took Moctezuma II captive within his own city which led to the ruler’s death. Cortes and his men fled but soon returned with more forces, allies and better weaponry to lay siege, and eventually conquered the Aztec empire. Diseases, which the Spanish too had brought with them finally defeated the Aztec society and soon the empire collapsed.
Religion or cultural belief systems which have been established since the dawn of mankind have much provided the inspiration to move individuals across societies to rapturous artistic and humanistic heights, but it has indirectly also provided divine mandate and the justification necessary for disastrous acts of violence. Throughout ancient civilisations to this modern-day, there is much evidence that religion is meant to provide a model for cooperation and social cohesion. However, the very nature of binding societies together under a similar faith system is now the cause of the world’s most violent clashes today. History has shown that when a society becomes morally corrupt, civility is destroyed, the society will eventually become unstable and will inevitably slide towards a collapse.
Today, many societies are multi-cultural yet in many societies, there is no requirement for assimilation. This is evident in much of Europe and America. Consequence of this is, rather than bringing social harmony, societies are creating new tribalism with groups organised along religious and ethnic lines – encouraging for more radicalism and reducing tolerance. Societies are slowly dividing and this gap is the dark future we will eventually face.
At the rate we are going now, we will soon see how these paradoxes are resolved: in pleasant ways of our own choices by taking remedial action, or by war, disease or starvation. The biggest problems we face in the world today are not things beyond our control, because these problems are entirely of our own making. Since we have made these problems, it is our opportunity and responsibility to solve them. No one is alone on this journey to correct our course from lessons learned in our history – even the tiny bit of probability of catastrophe is unacceptable, if it has global consequences. Don’t get me wrong, the fall of a civilisation is not the end of humanity. However, now with civilisations being as large as they are, the wipeouts or ends will be considered worldly disasters.
Therefore, we need to have the awareness of our immense future. If we were to compare just the last 50 years, the Earth’s appearance would have changed drastically: the patterns of vegetation have altered much faster than ever before signalling a change as human populations rose, the world’s species are already vanishing at an unnaturally rapid rate, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmostphere has risen ominously fast, the planet has become an intense emitter of radiowaves and human-induced alterations are occuring in a runaway speed.
And if there is one thing I’d like you to takeaway from this blog entry, it is: