Monday, December 30, 2019

The Collapse of the American Empire. What Future for Humankind?

These notes are not supposed to disparage nor to exalt an entity that has a history that goes back to at least a couple of millennia ago. Like all Empires, past and present, the Modern World Empire went through its parable of growth and glory and it is now starting its decline. There is not much that we can do about it, we have to accept that this is the way the universe works. On this subject, see also a previous post of mine "Why Europe Conquered the World "

For everything that exists, there is a reason and that's true also for that gigantic thing that we call sometimes "The West" or perhaps "The American Empire," or maybe "Globalization." To find that reason, we may go back to the very origins of the modern empire. We can find them in an older, but already very advanced, empire: the Roman one.

As someone might have said (and maybe someone did, but it might be an original concept of mine), "geography is the mother of Empires." Empires are built on the availability of natural resources and on the ability to transport them. So, the Romans exploited the geography of the Mediterranean basin to build an empire based on maritime transportation. Rome was the center of a hub of commerce that outcompeted every other state in the Western region of Eurasia and North Africa. This transportation system was so important that it was even deified under the name of the Goddess Annona. It was kept together by a financial system based on coinage, Latin as lingua franca, a large military system, and a legal system very advanced for the time.

Like all empires, though, the Roman one carried inside the seeds of its own destruction. The empire peaked at some moment during the 1st century of our era, then it started declining. It was the result of a combination of related factors: the depletion of the precious metal mines that deprived the Empire of its currency, the growth of the Silk Road that siphoned the Roman wealth to China, the overexploitation of the North-African agriculture that fed the Roman cities. No money, no resources, no food: the Empire could only collapse and it did.

The old Roman Empire left a ghostly shadow over Europe, so persistent that for almost two millennia people tried to recreate it one way or another. But it was not possible, again it was a question of geography. The Roman intensive agriculture had so badly damaged the North-African soil that it could never recover -- still, it hasn't. The loss of the fertile soil on the southern shore divided the Mediterranean sea into two halves: the green and still fertile Northern part, and the dry and barren Southern part. Nevertheless, there were several attempts to rebuild the ancient economic and political unity of the basin. The Arabic caliphate built a Southern Mediterranean Empire based on Arabic as the Lingua Franca and on Islam as the common cultural ground. But the expansion of Islam never reached Western Europe. Its economic base was weak: the North African agriculture just couldn't support the population level that would have been needed to control the whole Mediterranean basin. The same destiny befell, later on, on the Turkish Empire.

On the Northern side of the Mediterranean sea, Europe was a region that the ancient Romans had always considered mostly a periphery. With the Roman Empire gone, Northern Europe was freed to develop by itself. It was the period that we call the "dark ages," a misnomer if ever there was one. The dark ages were a new civilization that exploited some of the cultural and technological structures inherited from Rome but that also developed original ones. The lack of gold and silver made it impossible for Europeans to keep Europe together by military means. They had to rely on subtler and more sophisticated methods that, nevertheless, were patterned over the old Roman structures. Cultural unity was insured by Christianity, with the church even creating a new form of currency not based on precious metals but on the relics of holy men and women. The church also was the keeper of Latin, the old Roman language that became the European the Lingua Franca, the only tool that allowed Europeans to understand each other.

In this way, the Europeans created a gentle and sophisticated civilization. They could maintain the rule of law and they gave back to women some of the rights that they had lost during the Roman Empire. Witch-burning, endemic in the Roman Empire, couldn't be completely abolished, but its frequency was reduced to nearly zero. Slavery was formally abolished, although it never actually disappeared. Material wealth was de-emphasized, in favor of spiritual wealth, art and literature flourished as much as they could in a poor region as Europe was at that time. Wars didn't disappear, but the early Middle Ages were a relatively quiet period with the Church maintaining a certain degree of control over the worst excesses of the local warlords. The Arthurian cycle emphasized how errant knights were fighting to perform good deeds and to defend the weak. It was put in writing only in the late Middle Ages, but it had been part of the European dreamscape from much earlier times.

But things never stand still. During the Middle Ages, the European population and the European economy were growing together exploiting a relatively intact territory. Soon, the gentle civilization of the early Middle Ages gave way to something that was not gentle at all. With the turn of the millennium, Europe was overpopulated and Europeans started looking for areas where to expand. The crusades started with the 11th century and were a new attempt to re-unify the Mediterranean basin. Europe was even equipping itself with international structures that could have governed the new Mediterranean Empire: the chivalric orders. Of these, the Templars were an especially interesting structure: in part a military society, but also a bank and a cultural center, all based on Latin as lingua franca. The idea was that the new Mediterranean Empire would be governed by a supranational organization, not unlike the old Roman Empire.

But the crusades were an expensive failure. The military effort had to be supported by the main economic resources of the time: forests and agricultural land. Both were badly overstrained and the result was an age of famines and pestilences that nearly halved the European population. It was a new collapse that took place during the 14th century. It was bad enough that we may imagine that the descendants of the Sultan Salah ad-Din could have stricken back and conquered Europe, had they not been stabbed in the back by the expanding Mongol empire.

The European Population: graph from William E Langer, "The Black Death" Scientific American, February 1964, p. 117 -- note how growth is faster after the collapse than it was before.

But Europeans were stubborn. Despite the 14th century collapse, they kept using the same trick they had been using before to rebuild after a disaster: patterning new structures on the old ones. The Europeans were good warriors, skilled shipbuilders, excellent merchants, and always willing to take risks in order to make money. They keep doing what they were good at doing and, if they couldn't expand into the East, why not expand West, across the Atlantic Ocean? It was a wildly successful idea. Europeans imported gunpowder technology from China and used it to build fearsome weapons. With their newly mastered gunnery skills, they created a new kind of ship, the cannon-armed galleon. It was a dominance weapon: a galleon could sail everywhere ad blast away all opposition. A century after the great pestilence, the European population was growing again, faster than before. And, this time, the Europeans were embarking on the task of conquering the world.

Over a few centuries, Europeans behaved as worldwide marauders: explorers, merchants, pirates, colonists, empire builders, and more. They sailed everywhere and wherever they sailed, they dominated the sea and, from the sea, they dominated the land. But who were they? Europe never gained a political unity nor it embarked on an effort to create a politically unified empire. While fighting non-European populations, Europeans were also fighting each other for the spoils. The only supranational governing entity they had was the Catholic Church, but it was an obsolete tool for the new times. By the 16th century, the Catholic Church was not anymore a keeper of relics, it was a relic itself. The final blow to it came from the invention of the printing press that enormously lowered the cost of books. That led to a market for books written in vernacular language and that was the end of Latin as a European lingua franca. The result was the reformation by Martin Luther, in 1517: the power of the Catholic Church was broken forever. Now, European states had what they wanted: a free hand to expand where they wanted.

As you may have imagined, the result of this "battle royal" historical phase was a new disaster. The European states jumped at each other's throat engaging in the "30-years war" (1618 – 1648). Half Europe was laid waste, plagues and famines reappeared, food production plummeted down, and with it population. Europeans were not just fighting against each other in the form of warring states. European men were fighting against European women: it was the time of witch-burning, tens of thousands of innocent European women were jailed, tortured, and burned at the stake. With its forests cut and the agricultural land eroded by overexploitation, there was a distinct possibility that the age of the European world empire was over forever. It was not.

Just like a stroke of luck had saved Europe after the first collapse of the 14th century, another nearly miraculous event saved Europe from the 18th century collapse. This miracle had a name: coal. It was a European economist of the 19th century, William Jevons, who had noted that "with coal, everything is easy." And with coal Europeans could solve most of their problems: coal could be used in place of wood to smelt metals and make weapons. This saved the European forests (but not for Spain, which had no cheap coal and whose empire floundered slowly). Then, coal could be turned into food using an indirect but effective technology. Coal was used to smelt iron and produce weapons. With weapons, new lands were conquered and the inhabitants enslaved. The slaves would then cultivate plantations and produce food to be shipped to Europe. It was the time when the British developed their habit of tea in the afternoon: the tea, the sugar, and the flour for the cakes were all produced in the British plantations overseas.

And the cycle continued. The European population restarted growing during the 18th century and, by the end of the 19th century, the feat of conquering the world was nearly complete. The 20th century saw a consolidation of what we can now call the "Western Empire" with the term "West" denoting a cultural entity that by now was not just European: it encompassed the United States, Australia, South Africa, and a few more states -- including even Asiatic countries such as Japan which, in 1905, gained a space among the world powers by force of arms, soundly defeating a traditional European power, Russia, at the naval battle of Tsushima. From a military viewpoint, the Western Empire was a reality. There remained the need of turning it into a political entity. All empires need an emperor, but the West didn't have one, not yet.

The final phase of the building of the Western World Empire took place with the two world wars of the 20th century. Those were true civil wars fought for imperial dominance, similar to the civil wars of ancient Rome at the time of Caesar and Augustus. Out of these wars, a clear winner emerged: the United States. After 1945, the Empire had a common currency (the dollar), a common language (English), a capital (Washington DC) and an emperor, the president of the United States. More than all that, it had acquired a powerful propaganda machine, the one we call today "consensus building." It built a narrative that described WW2 as a triumph of good against evil -- the latter represented by Nazi Germany. This narrative remains today the funding myth of the Western Empire. The only rival empire left, the Soviet Empire, collapsed in 1991, leaving the American Empire as the sole dominant power of the world. Also that was seen as proof of the inherent goodness of the American Empire. It was then that Francis Fukuyama wrote his "The End of History," (1992) correctly describing the events he was witnessing. Just like when Emperor Octavianus ushered the age of the "Pax Romana," it was the beginning of a new golden age: the "Pax Americana"

Alas, history never ends and, as I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, all empires carry inside themselves the seeds of their own destructions. Just a few decades have passed from the time when Fukuyama had claimed the end of history and the Pax Americana seems to be already over. The Western world dominance had been based first on coal, then on oil, now trying to switch to gas, but all these are finite resources becoming more and more expensive to produce. Just like Rome had followed the decline of its gold mines, the West is following follow the decline of the wells it controls. The dollar is losing its role of world currency and the Empire is under threat by a new commercial system. Just as the ancient silk road was a factor in the collapse of the Roman Empire, the nascent "road and belt initiative" that will connect Eurasia as a single commercial region may give the final blow to the Globalized dominance of the West.

To be sure, the Western Empire, although in its death throes, is not dead yet. It still has its wondrous propaganda machine working. The great machine has even been able to convince most people that the empire doesn't actually exist, that everything they see being done to them is done for their good and that foreigners are starved and bombed with the best of good intentions. It is a remarkable feat that reminds something that a European poet, Baudelaire, said long ago: "the Devil's best trick consists in letting you believe he doesn't exist." It is typical of all structures to turn nasty during their decline, it happens even to human beings. So, we may be living in an "Empire of Lies" that's destroying itself by trying to build its own reality. Except that the real reality always wins.

And there we are, today. Just like the old Roman Empire, the Western Empire is going through its cycle and the decline has already started. So, at this point, we could hazard some kind of moral judgment: was the Western Empire good or bad? In a sense, all empires are bad: they tend to be ruthless military organizations that engage in all kinds of massacres, genocides, and destruction. Of the Roman empire, we remember the extermination of the Chartaginese as an example, but it was not the only one. Of the Western Empire, we have many examples: possibly the most evil one being the genocide of the North-American Indians, but such things as the extermination of civilian by aerial bombing of cities during WW2 was also impressively evil. And the (evil) Empire doesn't seem to have lost its taste for genocide, at least as it can be judged from some recent declarations by members of the American government about starving Iranians.

On the other hand, it would be difficult to maintain that Westerners are more evil than people belonging to other cultures. If history tells us something, it is that people tend to become evil when they have a chance to do so. The West created many good things, from polyphonic music to modern science and, during this last phase of its history, it is leading the struggle to keep the Earth alive -- a girl such as Greta Thunberg is a typical example of the "good West" as opposed to the "evil West."

Overall, all empires in history are more or less the same. They are like waves crashing on a beach: some are large, some small, some do damage, some just leave traces on the sand. The Western Empire did more damage than others because it was larger, but it was not different. We have to accept that the universe works in a certain way: never smoothly, always going up and down and, often, going through abrupt collapses, as the ancient Roman philosopher Lucius Seneca had noted long ago. Being the current empire so large, the transition to whatever will come after us needs to be more abrupt and more dramatic than anything seen in history before. But, just like it was the case for ancient Rome, the future may well be a gentler and saner age than the current one. And the universe will go on as it has always done.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)