I hope you have a joyous and rewarding Christmas and a safe, interesting and stimulating (in the best sense) new year. It has been some time since I participated actively with the Gaia Preservation Coalition, but you are often in my thoughts and I find your analyses very accurate for the problematique of our times.
I have since the 1960s been appreciative of the work of Johan Galtung. Those unaware can see his biography here Johan Galtung – Wikipedia. I had the chance to meet him when he taught briefly at the Curtin Centre for Human Rights. Galtung is interesting in that he was one of the few commentators who in 1980 correctly predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union within the decade. He also has predicted the collapse of the US imperial system as a result of its internal structural contradictions from 1996, by 2020, and he stated that there would be a period of fascist pseudo dictatorship on the way down. With the rise of Donald Trump, he is looking particularly prescient.
His article on the “Decline and Fall of Empires; the Roman Empire and the Western Imperial System Compared” (here) written in 1978, which underpinned his predictions about USSR and USA, grew from a study he did for the UN on the collapse of Empires throughout history. He found that although the proximal causes of imperial collapse (and their consequences) varied immensely, there is a common pattern. Imperial systems are all centre-peripheral systems of socio-economic, politico-military, and techno-environmental exploitation, beset by structural contradictions which cannot be resolved within the imperial system. At best they may be contained temporarily, but to resolve these contradictions will require the end of the empire. Given our current impasses regarding climate change, peak oil, and the corporate economy’s impossibility in generating a life renewing, non-polarising distribution of wealth, these structural contradictions all are perfect characteristics of Galtung’s defined structural contradictions.
I attach as a Christmas present for you all, an animated powerpoint on the Western Imperialist System, adapted from Galtung’s imperial comparison, (above). Play it and you will get a feeling of his insights.
Taking Galtung and Immanuel Wallerstein’s “World Systems Theory” seriously, shows in fact a three tier system based upon civilisations as a “core, hinterland and periphery” system. The core of a civilisation is where one finds the socio-economic and politico-military “elite”, that survives through the extraction and transfer of the economic (and ultimately what are seen as ecological) surpluses. The elite is characterised by the fact that it operates through command and control of the whole system. Historically four types of elites have existed
1. Military elites – work through Coercion – their surpluses are extracted through a system of Tributary payments (MCT)
2. Bureaucratic elites – work through Control – their surpluses are extracted through a system of Taxation payments (BCT)
3. Sectarian elites – work through Conditioning the believers – their surpluses come through Tithing (SCT)
4. Commercial elites – work through monopolising Commerce and credit – their surpluses come through Trade (CCT)
Civilisations have used all four and the mix of these varies over time. The hinterland in a civilisation is “farmed” for its resources, to a greater or lesser degree, with the resources continuously extracted through rural to urban flows under the control of the elite. Peripheral areas are “mined” for their resources, usually in an extractive unsustainable fashion. Peripheral areas are typically where the structural contradictions of the imperial system is most visible. In this way the civilisation produces what the historian Arnold Toynbee in his monumental “The Study of History” has called the “internal” and “external proletariat”, the people at the bottom of the socio-economic, and politico-militaristic pyramid. The “internal proletariat” is found at the core and hinterland of the civilisation, “external proletariat” come from the periphery. The intervening “middle class” is important for maintaining the intervening viability of a civilisation. These people depend on their livelihood on the spending of the elite, what has been called “the trickle down effect”. They are sustained in their loyalty to the imperial system, through the dream of an aspiration to elite status through social mobility. Simultaneously, the loyalty or at least the acquiescence of the proletariat is maintained by the dream of social mobility to the middle class. As a result of this the civilisation, if it is to be sustainable over the medium term, has to grow, because only then is the conditions required for upwards social mobility met. Thus the Jemdet Nasr early Sumerian phase of the shores of the Persian gulf expanded into the mercantile-military Uruk (Biblical Erech, Arabic Iraq) culture, occupying the whole of Mesopotamia until the Mediterranean, with the first city core in the world with over 50,000 people. Expansion thus may be geographic. It also may be demographic, with a growing population, but growth may also be through technological intensification in the use of resources. We see this trend also in Egypt which grew from the Naqada culture of the middle Nile into the military-bureaucratic Civilisation of the Old Kingdom. Athenian culture grew from the commercial exploitation of the olive, the maritime importation of grain, and the domination of the Delian league, for instance.
But the expansion of imperial civilisation is never sustainable. The military, bureaucratic, sectarian and commercial structures each have their own internal contradictions. For example, as in the case of Rome, as Galtung shows, the military cost of maintaining geographic control, and its dependence on growing proletarian numbers through institutional slavery reduced the possibility of social mobility by any other means than military promotion through the ranks. Urban economies in the west stagnated and shrank. Demographic collapse through the Aurelian plague, and the consequent increase in intra-elite competition saw a partition of the empire and the subsequent fall in the west to an external “barbarian” proletariat, with a centrifugal tendency into subsistence successor kingdoms. Nevertheless, the expansion has seen local civilisations like Egypt, Babylonia and the Indus expand through culture contact into the Late Bronze Age global system. Its collapse saw the recovery of Iron Age regional civilisations stretching from Han China, Mauryan and Gupta India, Persian Parthans and Sassanids and hence to Rome. The classical collapse ushered in the medieval period linking Western Christendom, the Muslim world from Spain, the Sudan, Mozambique to the Indus, Hindu/Buddhist South and South East Asia, and the Confucian Civilisations of China, Korea and Japan. These systems based upon confessional religions allowed an expansion to new heights, that in crusades and religious wars, ushered in the modern world system of corporate commercialisation, creating a single world system with a growing population of over 7 billion and a fossil fuel dependent technological economy. The world contradictions that the Gaia Preservation Coalition has demonstrated over the years shows that we have passed the apogee and are approaching collapse.
What should we do? Currently 8 scenarios are visible.
1. BAU, Business as Usual. This is the neo-liberal consensus, just keep doing what we have been doing, but do it better and all will be well. But as climate change, peak oil (peak everything) and growing disparities with a declining middle class shows, this will hasten collapse.
2. PNAC. Program for a New American Century – expand military expenditure and US to maintain dominance as the only world superpower. This has led to Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, the Sudan, the Congo, and will hasten collapse.
3. The hi-tech revolution, transhuman singularity, nanotech, AI. This too is unsustainable and threatens human and biological survival in easily understood ways
4. The Green Substitution, argues that we can build a sustainable high tech culture by substituting fossil fuels with renewable energies, wind farms, electric vehicles etc. But it doesn’t address the inbuilt requirement for expansion.
5. The New Barbarism of Ian Angel at LSE London. He shows how the trend will be for 70 billionaires to control more wealth than 70% of the world’s population, employing 700 million people, with 7 billion left to fend for themselves. Nation states in this system cannot survive and the world will be divided into hi-tech fortified city states, with mobility between them and the intense resources upon which they depend,
6. The High Frontier, Gerard O’Niel’s theory that an industrial civilisation is incompatible with the functioning ecosystems of a living world. He proposes lifting industry off the planet to space habitats and terraforming other planets and moons. But the resources required for this will just vanish long before it becomes available.
7. General systems failure, and failed states. Go to Aleppo and see what is happening. That this spreads further and further and becomes a Mad Max world scenario.
8. The Transition (see https://transitionnetwork.org/) and through Ecolise (see Ecolise). The Transition movement plans for high quality low consumption lifestyles through Energy Descent Action Plans (EDAP), and with the synergistic emergent systems of Dragon Dreaming, Global Ecovillages (See Global Ecovillage Network | “Connecting Communities for a Sustainable World”), Permacultural Systems, Renewables etc.
So what of the future? I see these 8 scenarios as not alternatives, but all symptoms of the forthcoming collapse, with a different mix occurring in different places according to different conditions. In any case, as climate change, Anthropocene biodiversity loss, economic difficulties, employment loss and political instability kick in a demographic decline in the 21st century of almost 6 billion (from a possible predicted peak of 11 billion) is inevitable.
So what to do.
We are approaching the necessary death of civilisation as Carolyn Baker (“Sacred Demise”), Guy McPherson (“Game Over”), and Derrick Jensen (in “Endgame”) show. This is an inevitable planetary dark age.
What to do
A comparative study of Dark Ages has shown me that we require a seven-fold strategy.
1. The people who survive best in a dark age are those that living in a caring and sharing community. We need to build community as hard and as fast as we can because in a dark age our lives depend upon it, literally.
2. Secondly we need to reevaluate our dependence upon complex systems. Before a dark age complex systems may increase your quality of life but as the dark age approaches we cross a threshold and dependence upon complex systems will reduce your quality of life. We have crossed this threshold. Cultivating simplicity will now improve the quality of your life, and it will give you time again. But to cultivate simplicity, it is easier if you are living in a sharing and caring community.
3. Thirdly, maximise your creativity. Research shows that the people who cope best in a dark age are the most creative. Creativity in one sphere increases creativity in others. We need social and political creativity, economic and technical creativity, artistic, cultural and spiritual creativity. But to be creative we need time, and simplifying your life will create time and that depends upon creativity.
4. Fourthly we need to cultivate non violence. In a dark age violence increases, but that doesn’t solve problems it just makes matters worse. We need non violence within and between families, within and between neighbourhoods, within and between communities, within and between regions, and within and between nations. But to be truly non violent we need to maximise non violence.
5. Fifthly, in a dark age wisdom disappears, and becomes confused with knowledge. We mistakenly believe knowledge is mere understanding and then confuse understanding with information. Today we have so much information that it becomes a sea of data, and we lose the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood. The best way to preserve truth, knowledge and wisdom is by authentic non-violent communication amoungst creative individuals in supportive and caring communities.
6. Sixthly we need forms of ecological spirituality based upon mystery not on dogma, to avoid the warring fundamentalisms that beset dark ages. Spiritualities based upon the mystery of the human being enables us to recognise the authentic diverty of ‘the other”, builds wisdom and knowledge and fosters creativity.
7. Finally we need socio-economic, and a political system that supports the other six.
If we do this, the dark age that is coming may be shortened, lessened and not very dark. Don’t do this and you will find it is a long way to the bottom!