By Craig Axford | United States
The chaotic presidency of Donald Trump and the disruption that has followed closely in its wake is often described by the pundit class as “the new normal.” This is incorrect. The disruption we are currently experiencing indicates we’re a culture seeking fresh norms rather than one that has settled into a new status quo.
It’s easy to conclude that everything that has happened in the months since Brexit and the election of President Trump follows directly or indirectly from these electoral upsets. However, these events were merely the unmistakable signs that a social transformation that had been building for years had finally arrived.
Social and environmental change always leaves large segments of the population disoriented and alienated, creating fault lines that can release their stored up energy through major cultural earthquakes. In 2018 the aftershocks are still being felt and we’re still cleaning up the debris. It’s going to take a while for the dust to settle. Rebuilding is likely going to take a generation or more to complete.
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People are fond of comparing the postwar United States to the ancient Roman Empire. For neoconservatives like former Vice President Dick Cheney and Trump’s new National Security Advisor John Bolton, being the modern equivalent of ancient Rome is the point. For those more inclined toward international cooperation, however, imperialism as a means of spreading a nation’s influence is an approach that should be consigned to the dustbin of history and largely forgotten.
Regardless, recent events have produced a bumper crop of speculative articles about America’s decline by authors from both sides of the political divide. Many contain at least a few comparisons to Rome and suggest America’s current situation is at least somewhat analogous.
Broadly speaking, every civilization’s story follows a remarkably similar pattern. Understanding this pattern can certainly help us recognize shifts within our own society that need to be adapted to if we are to avoid complete collapse.
With that said, analogies to ancient empires only get us so far. For one thing, none of them were democratic. Even democracy in ancient Greece was extremely limited by modern standards. In that case, it lasted relatively briefly at a small scale within a city state.
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In addition, technological innovation in the ancient world moved at a snail’s pace by today’s standards. If it were possible to transport a sleeping Roman living under Caesar Augustus forward 200 years to the reign of Marcus Aurelius, they would certainly notice some architectural additions to their city when they woke up, but would still readily recognize the vast majority of the tools and other implements of daily living. These would virtually all be fundamentally the same as they were two centuries earlier, with changes being largely stylistic rather than functional.
During my lifetime, however, technology has changed far more than it did during the two centuries known as Pax Romana. In fact, there’s been far more technological and scientific development during my lifetime than occurred during the entire Roman period, or, for that matter, from the birth of agriculture to the fall of the Roman Empire.
My mother was born just a couple of years after Charles Lindbergh completed the first transAtlantic flight. I was born just a month before Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin landed on the moon. When my daughter was born, the Internet was just beginning to become widely available. In 2015, I received the news of my granddaughter’s birth on a device that makes the communicators held by the Star Trek characters that were on TV when I was an infant look positively primitive.
When I was in high school, there were nine known planets in the universe (they still counted Pluto as a planet at the time). As of this writing there are nearly 3,000 confirmed planets outside our solar system and roughly 2,600 more exoplanet candidates. Thirty of the confirmed planets are less than twice the size of earth and exist within their sun’s habitable zone. That we could find evidence of life elsewhere in the universe during my lifetime is hardly a remote possibility. That it will be found during my granddaughter’s lifetime now seems a near certainty. What the religious, philosophical, and social implications of this discovery will be are impossible to predict, let alone calculate.
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In the early 1970s, systems theory was still in its infancy. As a discipline it was arising from other fields that were themselves relatively new arrivals on the scientific scene. These included ecology, sociology, anthropology, and evolutionary psychology. All of these pursuits were heavily influenced by the discoveries of the nineteenth century and had spent the better part of the 20th century defining themselves.
If anyone felt that forest ecology had anything to teach us about how societies develop, breakdown, and ultimately either renew themselves or collapse completely they had kept it pretty much to themselves. Then, in 1973, a forest ecologist by the name of C.S. [Buzz] Holling published a paper that began to change all of that. By the end of the decade scholars like Joseph Tainter had taken the idea and begun running with it. The resulting cross fertilization between ecology, sociology, history and anthropology gave rise to what today is referred to as panarchy (Gunderson & Holling, 2001).
“Holling and his colleagues use a three-dimensional image to represent the relationship between a system’s rising potential and connectedness and its declining resilience. The shape looks like a distorted figure eight or infinity symbol floating in space. In the foreground is the growth phase-a curve that moves upward as the system’s potential and connectedness increase. At the same time, the curve moves forward in three-dimensional space-toward the observer-as the system’s resilience declines. Holling and his colleagues call this part of the adaptive cycle the ‘front loop.’ It represents a process of incrementally rising complexity. At the top of this curve, the system collapses. Things then happen fast as the system descends into the ‘back loop,’ where it undergoes a rapid process of reorganization before beginning once more the slow process of growth.” (Source: Our Panarchic Future, World Watch Institute)
The possibility that cultures and ecosystems might follow similar patterns of development, change, decay and renewal has, in retrospect, a certain slap to the forehead quality to it. As the years have gone by, the notion has become increasingly obvious in retrospect. Even though thinkers like “Buzz” Holling and Joseph Tainter have remained largely unknown outside of academic circles, their ideas have begun working their way into the zeitgeist.
The implications of panarchy for contemporary society are incredibly profound. Dramatic disruptions like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump look, even to those unfamiliar with the theory, like the kind of event which the panarchy model depicts as a systemic release. Such events mark the beginning of the breakdown triggered when a system has reached peak or near peak complexity.
Using Holling’s original comparison with a forest ecosystem, such occurrences are analogous to a fire or windstorm that takes out many older trees and disrupts (or in extreme cases destroys) the complex relationships that exist within a diverse mature forest. Ideally, this kind of event will stop short of causing a complete collapse. Instead, the release will make room for new growth and the formation of new relationships, causing the cycle to begin again following the exploitation and reorganization trajectories that eventually lead to the reestablishment of a highly complex interconnected system.
But sometimes ecosystems, like societies, collapse more or less completely. The void these failed systems leave behind is ultimately filled by something distinct enough from the previous system to qualify as a new system in its own right. This is widely considered to have been the case with the Mayan and Anasazi civilizations in the Americas, and ultimately with the Roman Empire as well. Naturally these civilizations still left a legacy that lives on to this day. However, for all practical purposes these societies were completely replaced by their successors.
None of this is to say that we are on the verge of collapse. Predictions of imminent societal collapse have consistently outnumbered the actual events themselves. More often than not, societies experience disruptions that trigger a period of breakdown followed by some kind of renewal.
A culture might even survive several such events before ultimately experiencing complete failure. When breakdown does occur, the society experiencing it might never regain its former glory, but will live to fight another day. The British Empire is a classic contemporary example. Britain did not cease to exist following its devolution from empire to titular leader of a commonwealth of former colonies. Its cultural influence in the world remains great even if its military power and political influence is substantially diminished.
The United States, in all likelihood, is headed for a fate more like Great Britain’s and less like that of the ancient Romans. Its role in the world will be permanently diminished, but it won’t be coming to an end. Internally, power has already begun to shift away from a substantially weakened federal government and back toward the states and local communities. We’ve seen similar movement toward decentralization in the UK as Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have gained greater autonomy from London.
In a 2006 paper on navigating complexity, the anthropologist Joseph Tainter argued, “It is important to emphasize that complexity is not inherently detrimental. If it were, we would not resort to it so readily.” Tainter continued, “Complexity is always a benefit-cost function. We increase complexity to solve problems because most of the time it works, and the costs either seem affordable, are not evident, or can be shifted onto others or the future. It is the cumulative costs of complexity,” Tainter warned, “that causes damage.”
Every challenge is, in the end, an opportunity. Resiliency is defined not by the ability to preserve the status quo, but the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. We have entered a period of heightened uncertainty and disruption. There’s no going back. For the United States the coming years will be about redefining its role in the world and reassessing its values at home.
The United States is hardly alone. Nations are no longer as isolated from one another as they once were. For the world too, old roles and values are being challenged. As the nation-state becomes less important and regional/international cooperation becomes more critical, continental organizations like the EU have a chance to emerge as new and influential players. China and India are also now far more likely to become central figures on the world stage given America’s recent abdication. Looming over all of these changes are global problems like climate change and mass migration, both of which are undermining traditional notions of sovereignty. These environmental and social disruptions will make moral, economic, and technological leadership far more important in the future than brute military power was in the past.
Growing up during the Great Depression, my mother could not possibly have imagined that just months after she turned 40 people would be walking on the moon. Likewise, I can’t begin to imagine what may be in store for the second half of my life, let alone the remainder of my daughter’s and granddaughter’s. In The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization, Thomas Homer-Dixon wrote, “In a moment of contingency, the struggle over how we should frame our options and our future is a battle of ideas.” We had better get busy thinking up and experimenting with some new ones, and get used to doing so for a while. This transition won’t be ending any time soon.
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