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When Empires Decay

Putting aside for a while a few admittedly problematical ambiguities, such as implied by the anthropic principle for example, homo sapiens appear to be the most advanced life form in this universe.

It has taken less than one hundred generations for around one-third of those who live on this planet to evolve a globally-connected, highly industrialized civilization of immense sophistication and complexity. All from a most implausibly diverse hotchpotch of cultures, tribes, religions, lands… And preceding societies.

Our fecund inventiveness and perseverance against the odds has rewarded us with a capacity to achieve almost anything we can envision – even the prospect (once pure fiction) of creating life and deferring death. But will this good fortune be sufficient to deliver our species from extinction?

Until recently at least we had learned to adapt to changing conditions, including those we ourselves instigated, by discovering and sharing new knowledge at an incredible rate. We also developed highly refined systems of ethics and morals and, for the most part, prefer to conform to a tacit code of respect in our dealings with each other. We’ve even witnessed occasional examples of wisdom and foresight from those pioneers, poets, politicians and philosophers among us.

In the process we have developed elegant languages, traditions, technologies and structures as well as grand works of intellect and overwhelming monuments to the human imagination. Furthermore this has all been realized with an enduring curiosity, passion and desire to grow beyond perceived limits. Our ability to intentionally design futures better than the one we currently have marks us out as remarkably sentient beings – able to go far beyond any such aptitude exhibited by other species.

Regrettably, we may have squandered this ability. Having prospered to such an extent from a voracious appetite for economic growth and development we’ve became arrogant and reckless. Blind to unintended consequences, the wealth we have so zealously accumulated has become a compulsion without cure – an addiction shared by growing numbers of people from the developing world. Once acquired it seems impossible to renounce. Yet this is an addiction we can least afford.

We are fast approaching a point where our insatiable desire for more of everything is on the verge of destroying an irreplaceable legacy; the natural capital we inherited and the cultural capital so conscientiously cultivated by our forebears. If we are serious about wanting our children and their children’s children to inherit a world worth inhabiting we must call a halt to the insanity, the toxic practices, the meaningless rituals and the incongruities. We know this. But still we cannot stop.

Although this is depressing I do not intend analyzing the list of crises besetting us here. Whether it be poverty, energy, pollution, global warming, war or injustice, other writers have done this with far more proficiency and persuasiveness than I can possibly muster.

Nor do I do not want to mislead or add to the scare mongering that so often postures as evidence when describing the issues confronting us. To do so invariably leads to disbelief and then to despair. Affirmative and optimistic community engagement is critical. Misinformation, however well intended, simply hinders progress.

But neither can I offer any unique ideas, novel solutions or startlingly original theories that might instantly alter the current situation. We must face the truth Our civilization is in a state of premature collapse and we need to redesign its very essence. This is something we have never before attempted and it is quite possible we will fail.

Many argue we already have the means to reverse the most destructive economic and environmental trends; that we already possess the tools required to conserve vital resources thus enabling even greater levels of material comfort and wealth. All we have to do is to put the pieces together and voila! Mission accomplished.

I disagree. It is not nearly so simple. If that were the case we would already have adopted more sustainable pathways. We would see clear evidence that the damage caused by human activities over the past few centuries was being reversed. Instead our situation is becoming more dire by the day. We hesitate, waiting for a consensus that can never occur and continuing our present destructive course, losing hope and missing crucial opportunities.

Indeed, while such practical activities may engender optimism and even partially restore much-needed hope (especially in liberating people from their dependency on others) it is a deception to suppose they can fundamentally nudge the system into a more benign state.

The reason for this is the existence of a cruel paradox: the system we must destroy in order to create a more sustainable and abundant society is the very thing we need in order to achieve that goal! This is a paradox that is insufficiently understood. But it helps explain why current attempts to change the world are simply making matters far worse.

So while individual activities, to reduce our ecological footprint for example, may well make us feel better, reducing anxiety and cushioning us from a harsher truth, I believe such efforts may well be just another way of delaying the most salient of transitions. Of avoiding the real issue. It could even be considered tantamount to taking a placebo in order to feel better. As experts readily accept, a placebo often works superficially. At a more profound level, however, nothing really changes. Except, of course, the delusion that everything is now fine. Which it is not!

Why am I so pessimistic? Because the whole system change we so urgently need to initiate is not just about applying the latest science, utilizing new tools or technologies or redesigning better processes. It is not about universal agreements, intergovernmental panels, acts of parliament or national sustainability initiatives. It is not even about community engagement, economic reform, environmental activism or switching to a hydrogen economy. On the contrary it is about cognition and the way we use knowledge.

Above all else it is to do with our thinking: particularly the frames and assumptions we use (both intentionally and inadvertently) to sense and make sense of reality. It is about the countless meanings we then construct and how we rationalize conflicting hypotheses. It is to do with how we seek out, comprehend and integrate new insights. And it is about how we explain and communicate our convictions to those who may have startlingly different versions of reality.

That is where the real changes have to occur. And we’re not even at the starting line!

Throughout the ages, in enlightened societies, mindful reflection invariably preceded action. Then society was led by the poets, the musicians, the architects and the philosophers. They were revered for their narratives were plentiful and inspiring. Bursting with moral symbolism, they told of human aspirations and promise alongside flaws and frailties. These were society’s leaders and their stories became a moral compass for engaging with reality.

In the bizarre Babel-like world we have fashioned, mindless action precludes deep reflection. Intellectuals are despised. Now there is space for only one story. We hear it on the television each night and on Bloomberg or CNN throughout the day. We have become deaf to most alternatives.

This story, of unrelenting economic growth and development, is repeated ad nauseum by market analysts, accountants, financiers, oil lobbyists, and industrialists. Moreover it is celebrated and perpetuated by partisan media moguls. This crowd, not the philosophers and poets, are now the arbiters of attentiveness. Wisdom has gone missing in this scenario. And civility runs riot as a result.

If we had been more conscious of the way we thought, more explicit in our preconceptions, more challenging of prevalent worldviews, (and less greedy), we could presumably have avoided the mess we find ourselves in today. We would have spotted the early warning signs of imminent collapse and our history would be different because we would have behaved differently. We would have used our ‘here and now’ to ensure a safe, healthy, abundant and sustainable world for future generations. Our focus would have been on other, less selfish, imperatives. And we would have used our knowledge and shared our resources more equitably.

And so, purely from the perspective of our ability to think differently, there are any number of profoundly disturbing reasons for believing that real change, transformative change on the scale required, will be almost impossible to achieve in time to avoid catastrophe. Thinking people everywhere, including the most eminent scientists, economists, investors, academics and ecologists of our generation are petrified. And with good reason.

A fundamental shift in human consciousness needs to occur on an unprecedented scale if we are to avoid the collapse of our civilization. This shift of consciousness will need to influence the thinking and behaviour of a critical mass of society. If it does not, we lose. Game over.

Unfortunately the cognitive frameworks, beliefs and thinking that gave rise to our present condition, which have conveniently been labeled human nature, are preventing such a shift. While the majority of people still believe it is inherently within our disposition to be divided, detached, dissimilar, competitive, combative, beholden to gods and beings more powerful or wealthy than us, the shift to higher levels of consciousness is, to all intents and purposes, denied us. We are our own worst enemy.

Although any number of examples would amply illustrate my concern I will confine myself to just three. All are templates in common currency that endure almost unchallenged yet persistently prevent real progress towards a viable global community and sustainable ecology:

  1. The model of the nation state as the pre-eminent institution of governance coupled with the endemic nature of competition
  2. The instruments of state that are assigned to work in domains totally alien to them
  3. The enduring global system of debt and capital markets that allow society to function as it does.

1. The competitive state
Amazingly, given that we have created such an intimately entangled world, the nation state remains our principal institution of governance. All matters related to citizenship, taxation, immigration, defence, trade and foreign affairs, for example, are decreed and arbitrated by individual states, which invariably act in their own interest. This, after all, is what they are designed to do.

The manner in which nations are conceived inevitably pits one state against another. Points of difference (of ethnicity, religion or access to resources, for example) rather than points of connection, are seized upon and accentuated.

Of course this fits perfectly with the premise of competition, emerging from Darwin’s studies into the evolution of species, where competitive behaviour is considered a vital contributing factor to human progress.

The fact that another amateur naturalist, the Russian aristocrat and anarchist Peter Kropotkin, saw mainly cooperation within and between species is neither here nor there. He did not have a propagandist of the stature of Thomas Huxley to spread the word. As a consequence the mistaken notion that competitive behaviour is both natural and necessary frames almost everything we do today. Without competition we would probably not have prisons, schools, hospitals, factories and companies - at least not in their present forms.

Given the prevalence of competition in society, it became justifiable for nations to compete with one another, mainly for resources and territory. This they did unflinchingly. Aggressive states conquered less hostile ones. This eventually gave rise to the most acquisitive nations creating great empires, asserting their authority by every means possible.

Usually this was achieved through a mix of economic and military supremacy underwritten by law. But some states quickly learned to apply more brutal tactics, ranging from discrimination, trade embargoes and tariffs to torture, covert destabilisation, assassination and preemptive invasion, in order to maintain their power. The epitome of prolonging the empire in this manner is nowhere more clearly evident than in the post-war policies of the US which, under the guise of spreading democracy and freedom, actually unleashed the contagion of death like no other state in history.

But that is another story. The key factor we should recognize is that the focus of the state is invariably on whatever is in the state’s best interests to preserve in order for it to remain viable. Ideology actually matters little. In order for the state to remain intact certain mechanisms, such as the military and the bureaucracy, for example, are obligatory. These mechanisms can be seen, with only subtle distinctions, in situations as diverse as the communist Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, democratic Britain and apartheid South Africa as well as Thailand’s constitutional monarchy and Singapore’s benign totalitarianism.

Even larger alliances that have sprung up since the end of World War II, such as ASEAN, APEC, NATO and the G8 for example, ultimately are concerned only with protecting their own vested interests.

It seems apparent that no new solutions to the many complex issues confronting us are likely to emerge unless nations can put aside their differences and overcome their short-term parochial interests so as to unite in a common cause; namely the renewal of our civilization primarily through redesigning the patterns of human production and consumption.

But the degree and scale of collaboration required to do this is unprecedented. There are unlikely to be many votes in that for politicians either. Sensing that they will cling like limpets, I suspect, to their ingrained competitive indoctrination and thus to the status quo.

In such circumstances as these it is difficult not to conclude that the concept itself is an impediment to change. Yet there seems to be absolutely no chance of reinventing the idea of the nation state, its role and responsibilities in the 21st century, in view of the tenacious degree of control state governments continue to wield over their own destiny. We are well and truly trapped in theses devices of our own invention.

2. States of confusion
This brings me to the various mechanisms used by the state to remain viable. Many of the numerous instruments embedded within each nation state, and that constitute the primary means for protecting what is perceived to be in the state’s best economic, trading and territorial interests, are also barriers to change.

Let’s take the bureaucracy for example. This is the system whereby national policies are planned, legislation is enacted and subsequent rules and regulations are administered on behalf of the country. That’s fine as far as it goes. But global warming, terrorism, pollution, poverty, tyranny and injustice are not orderly or well behaved phenomena. They do not restrict themselves and their effects to neat geographical boundaries.

Even commonly supposed national issues, such as the challenge to human rights in Tibet or the treatment of some Burmese citizens by the Myanmar junta, for example, are not national issues simply because they are framed that way by the media. Hence the need for international input and collaboration. I even question whether the term ‘foreign’ has a place in contemporary affairs. Perhaps it is time to expunge this and meaningless words like it from our vocabulary?

However, it was never intended that state bureaucracies should enact laws on behalf of other states, or coalitions of states. How could they? Collaboration across borders goes against the grain. It is difficult for state governments even to comprehend the suggestion. Why, they even find consulting citizens within their own borders difficult enough.

Nor are bureaucrats sufficiently agile or adept in dealing with the complex issues we are having to confront today. They simply do not have the resolve, let alone the intellect, or even the tools, to do much other than to stumble around in the dark offering platitudes rather than hope.

Though blind to their own shortcomings, these same officials become delegates, (often assuming the mantle of experts) to speak and decide on behalf of their governments in most global negotiations to do with crises such as climate change, energy, food production, and the like. Of course in such circumstances they tend to adhere to what they know best: protecting the interests of the state they represent. It is nigh impossible for them to escape the gravitational pull of their conditioning. Thus they continue to apply familiar agendas, targets, processes and principles, expecting that new global issues can be solved, much as before, if only the others would listen to them!

But these issue that scare us are not simple problems. They cannot be solved simply because their nature is systemic, ambiguous, uncertain and paradoxical. As a result little progress is made at anything resembling the speed required to resolve the current human condition.

Another state mechanism can be found in the exercise of control over people, usually under the euphemistic pretexts of public safety, security or defence. This includes everything from justifiable policing activities to the far more problematic tactics of espionage and deployment of military power abroad. With few exceptions instruments such as these can be found in every developed nation on the planet.

Our apparent inability to cast aside our love affair with controlling other people’s lives (often using preposterous rationalizations, fabricated rules and armed hostilities where deemed necessary) is an experiential frame of reference to which we constantly return. By reaching first for a gun rather than dialogue our ability to pursue common goals in the cause of all humanity is fast disappearing.

Since the tragic circumstances surrounding 9/11 the idea of using brute force, torture, terrorism and a host of covert operations rather than the rule of international law has absolutely destroyed the pretence of moral human ascendancy. More than that, it has greatly diminished the pursuit of a common purpose and, with it, the potential of a social accord to tackle our shared predicament.

The dogged insistence of some governments (and most terrorist organizations) that they have an inalienable right to attack others, including innocent women and children, with increasingly destructive weaponry and through unspeakable atrocities, is simply further evidence of our civilization’s collapse.

At some stage in the recent past we lost the plot. And that is my point. By clinging to obsolete institutions, their mechanisms and the assumptions that may, just may, have given them some kind of legitimacy in the shadowy recesses of our evolution, we distance ourselves even further from the possibility of being able to resolve today’s most critical issues - issues requiring more profound consideration, cooperative dialogue and collaborative design. Not more killing.

Yet the killing goes on and on. As a direct result of the hubris, hatred, bullying and belligerence adopted by tribes who have so much more to gain from peace, we waste trillions of dollars each year sponsoring a succession of wars without end, arms trading, government lies and the indiscriminate killing of inoffensive civilians. And all in the conviction that our military operations are noble and necessary to ensure freedom.

As before I can only conclude that the instruments of the nation state are an obstacle to change that urgently need to be reformed and refocused.

3. It’s the stupid economy
The narrative of the global economy subsumes almost everything else that concerns us in our lives including leisure, energy, politics, food, sport, travel, education, health care – even the nation state. Elections are won and lost on the basis of the economy. Economic management is considered the prime fiduciary function of company directors while executives constantly fret about it.

That part of the evening television news not devoted to war, weather or crime is inevitably about some aspect of the economy: mortgage rates, the sub-prime crisis, the stock market, the collapse of iconic banks or the rate of inflation. It has been estimated that during our waking hours almost 92 per cent of what we hear, discuss and pay attention to is connected in some way to the economy.

But what is this obsession of which we speak? What is the economy? In truth we are referring to a system that has been deliberately nurtured over the past few centuries by an elite group of nation states from the developed world that, unjustly, impose their desires, values and principles on the rest of us.

Roy Madron and Jon Jopling in their book Gaian Democracies refer to this system of capital-debt flows as the global monetocracy. The core purpose of global monetocracy is the continuation of unbridled economic growth and development in order to perpetuate itself.

The major interconnected components supporting the stability of this system, and its intent, are corporate capitalism and capital markets, key financial and legal instruments, national policies and state agencies, international treaties and, naturally, propaganda.

Undeniably, it is a system that has delivered enormous benefits for a great many people. And misery for many, many more.

This system governs the way contemporary society works, from daily incidents to major historical events and disruptive shocks. A case can be made that the fall of communism in the Soviet bloc was largely due to a growing awareness on the part of ordinary citizens that their counterparts in the West were considerably more affluent. The rise of China, it might be argued, followed a not too dissimilar path.

But the global monetocracy has also pushed the world’s social and environmental systems to a point of imminent collapse. These systems are stressed beyond belief. There are several reasons for this. Paramount among them is that fact that the planet’s escalating population is using up stocks of natural resources at a rate much faster than they can possibly be replenished. Particularly oil, gas and water. We are also polluting the natural environment on a scale that endangers almost all life, not just our own.

Because many scientists, technologists and industrialists are petrified of speaking out, while politicians are more troubled at the prospect of mass panic and civil disobedience, most journalists remain quiet on the matter, completely oblivious to the magnitude of the problem.

If they did choose to speak the truth it could trigger massive social unrest and dislocation. The automotive and aviation industries, to take just two obvious examples, would be thrown into ruin by conceding the truth or attempting any large scale mitigation initiative. As a result most people are still blithely unaware of the critical nature of the impasse we face.

Vital intelligence is stifled, debate curtailed and significant dangers played down in order to focus public attention on less scary things like the cost of transport, food production, changes to work practices and the promise of alternative energies. But please understand – most of these issues, though important, are a distraction to the main game. At a superficial level, that is the mainstream level of public attentiveness, these things conceal a far more disturbing dynamic. Civilization’s end game.

For the real quandary is about how we endeavour to redesign and reconstruct global society when the resources that enable our current civilization to function become just scarce enough to tip everything into chaos. We don’t need to wait for oil to run out for this to happen. If the past is any indicator even a 10 to 15 per cent shortfall between demand and supply will be enough to blow apart an oil-dependent economy such as ours, thereby pitching millions of people into poverty.

Oil isn’t just about cars you see. Petrochemicals fuel civilization as we know it. Nearly all forms of modern technology, including food, cities, medicine, water distribution, construction, transport, agriculture and even alternative means of clean energy, like wind turbines and solar panels for example, are dependent on an abundant supply of cheap oil.

And banking too. The relationship between the supply of oil, coal and natural gas and the smooth functioning of the global financial system is arguably the most critical issue in preventing a massive societal collapse. Indeed one might suggest that this relationship is of even greater consequence than alternative sources of energy, energy conservation or the development of new energy technologies.

Resilient and efficiently functioning global capital markets must exist in order to power the process of transition to a new economy. Unfortunately the current system of global monetocracy is entirely dependent on a constantly increasing supply of oil and natural gas!

Furthermore, many well-intentioned efforts to conserve or to use alternative forms of energy are actually making our predicament far worse. Installing solar panels or a water tank will most probably benefit you as an individual, reducing your energy budget over time. Paradoxically, though, because of the investment-debt flows in our system of global monetocracy, you will be contributing to a worsening situation in terms of society as a whole.

Barely a decade ago many of us had high aspirations for the future. We genuinely assumed the 21st century might have been the time for the human race to advance issues of moral decency; to establish a more permanent, international peace; to tackle the crises of climate change, food production and energy; to share resources more equitably and to see that relations between states could be governed by law and not by power.

It was not to be the case. Instead, we have presided over a period of tragic and serious errors, an age of prolonged and bitter prejudice and of a refusal to learn from history. The world is a more dangerous place today and the keys to the prison have been thrown away.

Is there any hope at all beyond this catastrophic scenario? Possibly. For a start it is feasible that the world economy could function on a suite of alternative sources of energy.

For that to happen we would need some immediate technological breakthroughs; an unprecedented degree of political will, honesty and bipartisan cooperation; international collaboration involving most nation states; a massive amount of investment capital; reform of the global banking system and assistance, rather than interference, from the oil industry.

We would also need about 30 - 40 years of international stability, peace and prosperity in order to redesign all aspects of the global economy to be able to run on alternative energy sources and wise people capable of managing this kind of transition over such a long time frame. Furthermore it is probably essential for a community of new minds to bring fresh insights into a more purposeful design. Current leaders have too many vested interests in maintaining the status quo. But such an upgraded global consciousness would also need power and at this stage of our evolution we are so suspicious of any powerful lobby that is not elected by citizens.

If all these conditions were to be met we might be able to wring out the energy equivalent of 3-5 billion barrels of oil per year from alternative sources. This would have been acceptable in the 1950’s. However the world currently requires over 30 billion barrels of oil per year to support economic growth. That requirement will substantially increase as time goes on due to population growth, debt servicing, and the industrialization of nations such as China and India.

Which leads me to only one conclusion. As far as the fate of civilization or the world as a whole is concerned I am unable to see a viable way forward. Our political processes are entirely controlled by massive corporate elites in the petroleum, defence, automotive, agribusiness, construction, and media industries.

Most of the systemic responses to our predicament that would be favourable to individuals are at odds with the interests of these corporations. Thus, there is little realistic hope that the conditions required for serious change will ever be aggressively pursued until it is far too late. The end result is likely to be a large scale societal collapse not completely unlike that which befell the Roman and Mayan empires.

Perhaps there will be a few communities left who can start all over again. Hopefully from an entirely different premise.

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