The End of the World as We Know It

I’ve occasionally offered some pretty depressing stuff in this space the last few months, so I thought I might as well take it to the next level. Remember that I am generally optimistic and rarely do I let things over which I have no personal control get me down. Even the possible collapse of society as we know it. I might lose my serenity if I mistakenly miss an appointment, if I gain five unwanted pounds, or if I feel I did not deal with an issue as professionally as I would prefer because I have control over those things. I can’t personally stop the forces of history (but collectively we can).

Predicting the future is an uncertain science, or art, because humans rarely behave the way we expect. Still, although the comparisons are far from perfect we do know that the Persian Empire, the Roman Empire, the British Empire and others eventually collapsed.  Can contemporary Western society escape that fate? Might there be a future without flat screen TVs, highways filled with automobiles, people living in poverty, drug abuse, environmental degradation, or all the other characteristics of society as we know it?

Several years ago political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued that capitalism and contemporary democracy, the current state of affairs in Western nations,  are the “end of history”. In other words this is a good, or bad, as it gets. I disagree. For better or for worse, I don’t think our current state of affairs is humanity’s permanent future and I think concluding otherwise is pretty darned egotistical (and more than a little depressing). The future offers a number of possible scenarios leading to the end of Western society as we know it. For example, although nuclear war is unlikely it is still a possibility when nine different countries  possess 14,900 nuclear warheads. And of course there is always that potential plague of locusts. Or a giant meteor. Or huge alien ships like those in Independence Day. Other possible causes of collapse are less obvious, however.

A 2014  study funded by NASA and others addressed just this issue. The research  introduced a new mathematical model, referred to as Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY), to explain the rise and fall of past empires and predict the collapse of existing or future ones. Importantly, the model could also be used to prevent collapse if governing bodies or people address several  critical factors.  I know it sounds dry, but unlike 98% of the scholarly publications these days, this one is actually sort of interesting (if you skip all the math and focus on conclusions). The authors found that during the last 5,000 years the collapse of advanced civilizations has resulted from “the stretching of resources due to strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity, and the division of society into Elites (rich) and Commoners (poor).” So…two common factors in social collapse: 1) Environmental degradation and 2) a society increasingly divided into rich and poor.

Several weeks ago I addressed our current environmental policies. My concerns regarding environmental destruction and the impact that may have on future generations are clear: we are slowly destroying the only planetary home on which we have to live. I do not believe this will cause human extinction, but without drastic change it may cost a large number of our planetary citizens their lives. I can see no way current Western society could survive rising seas and severely depleted natural resources such as oil and coal (but I also don’t foresee a “Waterworld” future).

The second cause of historical social collapse identified by HANDY is a society divided into elites and commoners. This is honestly not a new idea. Well-known writers such as Charles Dickins, Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau identified the loss of individual worth and other similar themes. Of course Karl Marx  offered the most well-developed account of the division between the classes and the consequences of that division.  Now don’t freak out; I’m not a Marxist. However, Marx’s analysis of 19th century industrial capitalism was right on target because he demonstrated how workers barely survived in factories and other workplaces while creating massive wealth for the owners (remember how Ebenezer Scrooge treated Bob Cratchit in Dickens’  “A Christmas Carol”?).

Has that changed? Many countries have improved the working conditions of laborers thanks to unionization and government regulation.  In the United States, for example, coal miners’ lives are now protected by a government agency (MSHU) and factories and other places of employment are made safer by OSHA, etc. Still, many countries don’t provide such stringent regulations and their workers sometimes die in horrific fires, children are harmed by working in what is often a dangerous environment, or employers are allowed to put their workers into otherwise poor working conditions. But the topic of this post is the possible decline of Western society and almost all the worst offenders are non-Western, so we are OK. Right? Well…

The amount of wealth on the planet has been increasing steadily in recent years. In 2014, for example, global wealth grew by 7%. The wealthiest of countries enjoy what we might refer to as western capitalism (China is the one possible exception, but it too is now very capitalistic although certainly not democratic). For perspective, in 2014 the United States possessed 41.6% of all wealth on the planet while the next nine nations combined only held about 42% of the collective wealth (and yes, that means the other 185 or so countries held only about 6% of planetary wealth). So in terms of humans living on this planet, wealth is certainly concentrated in the hands of a few countries with those of us in the USA possessing the lion’s share. This obviously means that most folks on the planet live in much poorer societies. There is, therefore, a clear line between the wealthier and poorer nations. But the story doesn’t end there.

A country’s income gap between rich and poor is calculated using the Gini coefficient (named for an Italian statistician who developed it). Very simply, the Gini coefficient is an index where a value of 0 indicates a nation has absolute equality (everyone lives the same quality of life and possess equal wealth) and 100 would be perfect inequality (one person would possess ALL the country’s wealth). Guess which country has the highest Gini score? Yep. The United States (80.56). This means that the gap between rich and poor is greatest in the country possessing the largest amount of wealth.

By now I’ve bored you to the point of tears with all the statistics. I apologize. Let me offer a quick summary. If the research resulting from the HANDY model is accurate, and it does appear to accurately explain the collapse of past empires, our current way of life may be in jeopardy.  The continued damage to our environment and the increasing gap between rich and poor do not bode well, at least according to the model. Of course only a relatively small number of our fellow Earthly inhabitants actually enjoy the lifestyle you and I enjoy, so I assume a good many of those folks would be OK with the collapse if something better for them emerged.

Are there ways to avoid this possible collapse? Of course, but the hour is late and we seem to be sitting on our hands. The environmental tipping point beyond which there may be no point of return may be near (or already reached). We probably need a massive global focus on the environment, and it needs to take place now.

What about that gap in wealth equality? That one may be even more difficult, to be honest. I don’t foresee the wealthy voluntarily sharing their wealth with those who have less (although the examples set by Bill and Melinda Gates and others are pretty cool). How can the gap otherwise be addressed? Education. Those who tend to be better off are almost universally better educated (this does not necessarily include folks who inherit their wealth), so providing quality education for everyone is at least one solution. The more controversial solution is having governments apply the Robin Hood principle by increasingly taking from the rich and giving to the poor, and this solution is also problematic for a number of reasons.

I would be interested in your ideas.