William Ophuls. December 28, Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail. Excerpts: My analysis suggests that there is very little that we can do. Most of the trends I identify are inexorable, and complex adaptive systems are ultimately unmanageable.
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Shelves: human-sciences , hx , political-theory Perhaps it started with a place called Manti, located in the countryside outside of my home town of Shenandoah. It had a small pond for fishing and a cemetery. The untended gravestones from the late 19th century lay overwhelmed by the exuberant grasses and weeds. You could walk among those gravestones, looking at the dates of birth and deaths of those long dead residents, and then look around and you see nothing but Nature.
A village of the dead. Im not alone in holding a fascination with the Perhaps it started with a place called Manti, located in the countryside outside of my home town of Shenandoah.
Crowds swarm through the grand ruins. We behold and contemplate. For us, for our civilization. For those interested in decay, decline, collapse—the terms vary, but the experience remains—the sources are legion. Plato and Aristotle, St. Augustine, Machiavelli, and just about every serious political thinker in the Western canon addresses this issue. Medieval Islam gives us the insights of Ibn Khaldun, while the Enlightenment provides us with Gibbon.
In the 20th century, we have Spengler, Toynbee, and Sorokin among a host of others, many of them writing today, such as Peter Turchin. The parade of reflection on this phenomenon continues. Some—those with the courage to look at our present situation and consider the real binds that we face—have a grim message for us.
In Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail Ophuls argues that decline is inevitable—discoveries of new fossil fuel reserves or reductions in climate change magnitude notwithstanding.
And there are several reasons why. The difference with Dr. Ophuls—and he really is a doctor—of the Ph. Ophuls does not develop any new or unique theories of civilizational decline in his book, but he does an excellent job of identifying and arguing the existing theories. Entropy, ecology, and complexity all entail natural, physical limits on human capacities. Each level of analysis—physical, biological, and social—faces tangible constraints.
At the most basic level, entropy requires any life form to feed upon outside sources of energy. Whether for our bodies or for our machines, we must continuously tap new sources of energy.
But the law of entropy establishes that energy degrades when used chaos replaces order and that eventually traditional energy sources will not yield a sufficient return on the investment needed to gather and use the energy. As Ophuls notes, Joseph Tainter builds his entire theory of civilizational collapse on the increasing marginal cost of a unit of energy, or conversely, on the declining energy return on investment EROI. Complexity may delay, but cannot avoid, this conundrum. But complexity, too, has its limits: those implicit in the environment and in the human brain.
As Ophuls notes:. We like to think about one or at most a few things at a time…. But we live in a world in which many causes routinely come together to produce many effects. In short, limited, fallible human beings are bound to bungle the job of managing complex systems. What they can neither understand nor predict, they cannot expect to control, so failure is inevitable at some point. Ophuls, William Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail p. Kindle Edition. And effort, the struggle for civilization, for civility, invariably decreases as civilizations grow more prosperous.
Add to this the common traits of humans, and we can see our problem. Ophuls quotes Edmund Burke: History consists, for the greater part, of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetite. With this situation, you have the making of a cascade of troubles on the horizon. Politicians are driven to the lowest denominator of popular prejudices and provide bread and circuses, entitlements and inflation, to stave off discontent.
Sound familiar? This near universality well, really speaking just of Earth means that nowhere in this world of ours will we find an apparent successor of equal power and glory to replace industrial civilization. No Rome to replace Greece, no Byzantium to preserve Rome. We face a new Dark Ages. Can we avoid this? And all civilizations are complex. The Table of Contents summarizes the 6 ways to fail. The Human Error chapters were less familiar for me. The chapter on Moral Decay was the hardest to read, as it seemed at times like a right wing rant.
But that is misleading as it is much deeper than a right wing rant. It relies mostly on the views of Sir John Bagot Glubb, who believed that "the history of civilizations 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 change, and so on, until the civilization declines into decadence.
Immoderate greatness : why civilizations fail
Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, , pp. Publication Date: December 28, List Price: Civilizations are hard-wired for self-destruction. They travel an arc from initial success to terminal decay and ultimate collapse due to intrinsic, inescapable biophysical limits combined with an inexorable trend toward moral decay and practical failure.
Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail