In his very short book, Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail, William Ophuls demonstrates the ways in which civilization is a complex, adaptive system. He also makes a strong historical case for all civilizations having discernible life-cycles, which can be broken down into identifiable phases. These two features of civilization, taken together with other contributing factors, lead Ophuls to the conclusion that “civilization is effectively hardwired for self-destruction.” Metaphorically speaking, we are all aboard a (globalized) speeding train, and somewhere ahead is the equivalent of an unfathomably deep gorge with the bridge washed out. I don’t question the essential accuracy of Ophuls’ conclusion, or the interdisciplinary methods by which he arrives at his dire assessment, but I am nonetheless left with the question of what we should do when there is nothing to be done. Before addressing that conundrum, however, it might be well to review some of this author’s deeper insights.
Civilizations differ from other ways of organizing human society in a number of crucial, nonlinear ways. It is not a simple question of numbers, though numbers do matter. “Beyond a certain point, growth leads to a fundamental, qualitative change in the nature of systems.”(36) That certain point can be thought of as a threshold: on one side of the threshold life is relatively simple and reasonably predictable; on the other side, complexity sets in, and complexity has rules of its own: In traditional societies governed by elders who incarnate and enforce the rule of custom, material conditions are relatively unchanging. Thus the same moral code tends to prevail for generations. In civilization, however, change is incessant. This exposes morals, mores, and morale to a continuous undertow of entropy. Hence the moral core of the society steadily erodes until vigor and virtue have been entirely displaced by decadence and decay.(52)
Pre-agricultural societies tended to live in bands of twenty to thirty individuals, which might be loosely attached to a larger tribe and linguistic group, but were themselves essentially egalitarian and autonomous. Life at this scale, though interactive with complex adaptive systems, was not itself such a system. Amid the vicissitudes of a variable natural world, tribal man found stability and continuity by inhabiting a particular territory for generations and by seeking the wisdom of the ancestors who had lived in, and learned from, this very place. Bonded to the natural world, with a felt spiritual connection to the cycles of life, our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived their lives integrated into the Community of Life, and according to comprehensible Laws.
The adoption of agriculture changed everything–not all at once, but irrevocably: crossing the threshold into complexity and setting in motion a cascade of uncontrollable, but discernible, effects. Ophuls has consulted a whole range of writers on the subject of complexity and collapse, including Joseph Tainter and Jared Diamond, but finds most useful the insights of Sir John Bagot Glubb, better known as Glubb Pasha, an amateur historian with a good eye for pattern: In Glubb’s view, the history of civilization describes an arc that starts with an Age of Pioneers (or Conquests) and then moves successively through the Ages of Commerce, Affluence, and Intellect before terminating in an Age of Decadence. Two implacable forces propel this movement. First, in a process analogous to ecological succession, each age creates socioeconomic conditions favorable to the emergence of the next. Second, each new generation therefore grows up in altered circumstances that foster a changed way of thinking and acting. The outcome is a positive feedback loop in which changed material conditions engender mental changes that foster still more material changes, and so on until the civilization declines into decadence.(46)
With minor variations, depending on place and time, every civilization has historically followed this pattern. And no doubt every one of these has believed that it would be the exception to the rule, if it considered the matter at all. Is our civilization going to defy the familiar pattern? There are reasons to doubt this, reasons built into the nature of complex adaptive systems.
One thing leads to another leads to another. Ophuls says: “ I do not posit an absolute determinism,” and yet one thing does lead to another, or rather, in feedback loops of multiple causes and multi-faceted effects things tend to play out in recognizably orderly ways, but are nevertheless beyond our prediction and control: Societies struggling with the dilemmas of complexity risk being toppled by what Homer-Dixon calls ‘synchronous failure.’ When formerly separate problems coalesce into a problematique, the society does not face one or two discrete challenges, as in simpler times, but instead a swarm of simultaneous challenges that can overwhelm the society’s capacity to respond, thereby provoking a general collapse (i.e., a catastrophe that propagates rapidly across a globe that is ever more tightly coupled).(39) There is one way in which the coming collapse will be different from all the preceding ones: being now a global civilization, the collapse will be general.
But surely there is something we could do to avert at least the worst of what is to come. If so, it is not to be found in the usual places, such as in improved technology. “The idea that technology will allow us to do ever more with ever less is a delusion. The more humanity resorts to technology, the more it expedites entropy.”(25) Ophuls does point to one possible wild card, but not with a lot of conviction: “The only way out would be radically to transform civilization so that the human economy resembled the natural economy.”(29) But with so much already set in motion, even a universal change of heart and an immediate change in behavior, the natural world has been so radically altered and degraded, that even this cheeriest of scenarios carries with it little promise of a world in balance.
But is this instant global transformation of the human being into a benign, or beneficial, force in the world at all likely? Not really. Complexity is only one part of the challenge. As it develops, a civilization accumulates an investment in physical and social infrastructure that increasingly limits its freedom of action, and it adheres to a certain way of thinking that increasingly limits its freedom of choice. These entrenched habits, patterns, structures, institutions, ideologies, and interests prevent adaptation to changed conditions. In effect, civilizations suffer from a structural incapacity to respond to altered circumstances.(56) In this regard, one is reminded of the Greenland Norse, as recounted In Jared Diamond’s Collapse, who, when faced with radical climate change, clung ever more tightly to their traditional crops and livestock even as these continued to fail under changed conditions. Eventually, they either died or were driven out of Greenland. Meanwhile, the Greenland Inuit did adapt to the changed conditions and continued to thrive. The subtitle of Diamond’s book is How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, but, as Ophuls outlines above, choice is a rather optimistic assumption.
As most of us know by now, we have built a global population of seven-plus billion based on the availability of abundant, cheap, and easily accessible fossil fuels—and there could not be seven billion of us without this non-renewable resource. Peak oil–and the dawning realization that everything is peaking–including topsoil, water, and food—is beginning to cast its shadow over our rosy human future. We are beginning to notice that the way we live is fast-tracking entropy. Creating the amenity that elevates civilization over savagery therefore involves converting concentrated energy and matter into useless waste products while extracting a modicum of useful work along the way.(24) Natural systems make use of everything, and create little or no waste. We don’t come close to this. According to Ophuls: The human mind is still fundamentally Paleolithic—that is, it was hardwired for the life of the hunter-gatherer on the African savannah, a life centered on day to day survival in small bands of intimates and kinsmen. In practice, this means that human beings excel at concrete perception but are much less adept at abstraction. And they are quick to perceive the immediate and dramatic but likely to overlook long-term trends and consequences. They are therefore strongly present-oriented and tend to neglect or devalue the future.(17) Evidently, we are in way over our heads, and are meanwhile expediting entropy as well as our own (and many others’) extinction.
We have embarked upon enterprises of ever increasing complexity that we can neither understand nor control. And all this is compounded by what Albert Bartlett has called “the greatest shortcoming of the human race: our inability to understand the exponential function.” In our feckless ignorance and brassy hubris we have not only overpopulated a finite planet but continue to mine its resources unto exhaustion. So, I think it is fair to say that we are in a bad way: the future looks grim, if not downright hopeless, and, it seems, there is not much we can do about it. And this brings me to the existential question of our age: what do you do when there is nothing to be done?
I suspect that most people are going to go on just as they are, until that is no longer possible. But what about those of us who recognize the pickle we are in, and recognize too that whatever we might try to do to change an untenable future is likely to have no effect at all? Do we just give up? Collapse into despair? Do we party down? Surrender to a life of escape and distraction? Just what is the appropriate response to knowing what we think we know about the human future?
Probably everyone is going to have to answer this question for themselves, and in their own way. But I will share with you my own tentative conclusions on this subject. First, I see nothing to be gained by giving up. We don’t really know what the future will bring, no matter how persuasive our models, scenarios, and conjectures. For the same reasons that we can’t understand or control the complex adaptive systems that we have unleashed, neither can we comprehend nor predict all the variables that might come into play as the Earth Crisis unfolds. Black swans and white buffalo are rare, but they do appear now and then. Untried combinations of things could suddenly fall into place and create a synergistic effect that works toward non-extinction. If such a thing were to come about, it probably would not achieve the miraculous all by itself. In fact, it might require every bit of effort that every single one of us can contribute to the Cause of Life—which is to keep on keeping on.
Someone might object that I do not know this to be the case. And that is true, I don’t. But how would anyone know that this isn’t true, and what is to be lost by proceeding as if it were? Even if there is no planetary immune system that may yet kick in, and our individual efforts are absurdly insufficient to the task, what have we got to lose by fighting for Life as hard as we can? In terms of psychology and morale, we are better off, and remain healthier specimens when we cast ourselves in the role of Warrior for Life than when we capitulate to the role of helpless victim. For me, that is good enough reason to go on fighting. I may not be able to save the world, but if I can help reduce the number of trees that are logged in my own neighborhood in the central Oregon Cascades, I feel I am doing a good thing.
I have been a tree hugger for decades, taking a succession of stands to preserve forests from the unrelenting chainsaw. I don’t know if my actions have helped preserve a single standing tree–and probably never will know. What I do know is that I have been on the right side—the side of Life– in civilization’s war on Nature. David Brower has said that all environmental victories are temporary while all defeats are permanent. The way I see my job is to be an obstruction to the machine, the juggernaut that is devouring the living world. I know it is just a holding action, to keep something alive and healthy until the next assault. This strategy is based on the hope that something will happen to divert that next assault. I don’t know what that something might be, or when it might appear—or even if. But I want the Life Force to have something to work with when we handmaidens to entropy are either out of the picture or have matured into good planetary citizens. I have to believe that fighting for Life itself is a cause worth joining and giving my best. I’ll never know if ongoing Life and burgeoning biodiversity will overwhelm, for a time, the forces of entropy and death. In a dynamic Universe, there are no final victories, only changes in fortune. Not knowing what the future will look like, I want to remain committed to the best cause I know of: fighting to the very end for the possibility of a better world. Together with others, and unknown allies, we might just turn things around. You never know.