1984 Bad, 2016 Worse (Part 1)

It is time to review 2016. A brave undertaking, to be sure, but someone has to do it. Across two episodes, The Aidan Project humbly presents a review of the most significant events of the year. Part one includes Brexit, Stop Funding Hate, the British press, the decline of the left, Labour’s impotence, Jihadism, Nigel Farage, David Cameron’s disappearance, and more. You can catch Aidan on Twitter @theaidanproject. And remember, ‘tis the season to share and subscribe. Thank you for listening.

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The Collapse: Why Societies Fail

The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.

Donald Trump
November 6 2012

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The US-born civilization scholar, Jared Diamond, says there is not a single, easy answer to the question of why seemingly stable societies collapse. Diamond, educated at Cambridge and Harvard, with an impressive background in evolutionary biology and geography, points more broadly to five common factors that, if left unchecked, precipitate a societal collapse.

Diamond’s not to do list

1. A society ruins its own resources through human impact
2. Unfavourable climate (man-made or otherwise)
3. A lack of support from allies
4. Poor relations with hostile forces (war/trade blocks)
5. Political, economic, social and cultural factors

Diamond argues that whilst it seems incredible that previously successful societies did not take steps to fend off their collapse as problems mounted, it is less remarkable when considered in a modern context. For example, there is no unanimous world view on how to tackle the intertwined points one (resources) and two (climate). Emerging countries are economically motivated to assiduously compete with the West by burning through natural resources, espousing the argument that what was fair game for the West is now fair game for them.

Countries such as China can plausibly argue that it was treated harshly by imposed Western treaty edicts whilst the US and Britain were all-powerful and China was far from becoming the industrial juggernaut of the 21st century. Developing nations do not appreciate being told they should focus greater attention to environmental concerns during their development. Certainly, such concerns did not apply to the nations leading today’s environmental debate back in the time of their industrial ascension. Particularly in the case of China, this issue is complex and divisive – an inconvenient truth, if you will – confounded as it is not only with environmental factors, but also with a delicate political and cultural legacy. Naturally, or indeed, unnaturally, industrialisation, as the much-contested evidence suggests, leads inexorably into that most modern of challenges: climate change.

An undeniably efficient, though frankly less than scientific, way of dealing with the problem is to take the view that it is not a problem at all. With climate change dismissed by the next United States President as propagandist “nonsense”, the future looks bleak unless there is a change of opinion at the top of the incoming administration. It could of course be true that Trump’s populist statements regarding climate change were classic examples of his trademark rabble-rousing. Surely, he does not believe what he said…

Another controversial Donald Trump policy is his stated approach to foreign diplomatic and economic relations, which falls head-first into another of Diamond’s pitfalls. With Trump at the helm, we may see the ushering in of an era of a lack of support from allies, point three on the checklist. Trump’s penchant for isolationism may not be realistic, but if 2016 has taught us anything, it is that anything is possible. It does seem readily apparent that the US is unlikely to work especially well with its southern neighbour, Mexico, unless concessions are made which pull back from the incredible rhetoric of bricks, mortar and cultural stereotypes. According to Thomas Wright, writing in the Financial Times on March 22 2016, an isolationist US under Trump is set to “pose the greatest shock to peace and stability since the 1930s”.

Hostility, which is a tragic, almost numbing, presence in every image we see from Syria, is Diamond’s fourth factor. Statistically, however, we are living through the safest time in human history, though this will be of little comfort to the beleaguered citizens of Aleppo. Whether the Americans, with Trump and Putin taking practical policy action stemming from their supposed mutual admiration, take the fight to ISIS in partnership with Russia remains to be seen. If so, using Diamond’s framework, it could be argued that a proactive détente between the former Cold War rivals (perhaps qualifying as a reversal of point three) would cancel out, or at least mitigate, the factor of increased hostile enemies. We could see the US and Russia gain a new ally – each other – with the cost of a stronger, more determined enemy. This concept is an interesting, uncertain challenge to Diamond’s thesis. However, we can realistically surmise that such a partnership would have implications not only in the Middle East, but across the West, especially in the fertile Islamic extremist ground of central Europe.

Examined in a modern context, Diamond’s fifth factor, political, economic, social and cultural issues, raises seemingly unlimited probing questions. Indeed, with Brexit, mass migration from the Middle East, a new, almost Third Party US President, and Russia’s unpredictable posturing, it is simply too early to fully appreciate the precise challenges that societies will face in the near and longer term.

What we can see, in as far as we can see anything on the subject of unknowns and variables, is that the principles of Diamond’s thesis for a societal collapse are all in play. Arguably this is true only to various degrees in different parts of the world, and it is not necessarily the case that all of Diamond’s factors all sitting ominously on the doorstep of any one society. Regardless, Diamond’s framework uncompromisingly dictates that society as a whole has been summoned to take robust action.

Diamond argues that many societal disasters were a direct consequence of the folly of powerful elites who sacrificed the long-term viability of their domains for short-term, personal gains. This includes corruption and the pursuit of personal glory, factors which are far better understood in the public sphere today than in years past. Of course, the social media age of unlimited information does not seem to disqualify a candidate from running for high office, or even from winning the highest political office imaginable. Electioneering is no longer as simple as saying your opposite number is corrupt. The system has morphed into a bizarre, heightened state of climbing the immoral high ground. A candidate today, whilst they may admit to not being as pure and virtuous as the “Incorruptible” Maximilien Robespierre, will point out, without the slightest hint of shame, that in comparison to their opposing candidate, they are at least less corrupt (or less crooked).

Diamond explains that a society is especially vulnerable to events spiralling out of control when it is unable to adapt, especially from outdated reservoirs of its initial strength. Diamond uses the example of Australia, arguing that its success as a fledgling nation, succeeding against the odds, was derived from its steadfast British identity, but being unable to evolve from this identity has caused it to struggle to keep pace with the developments within Asia. It could be that America finds new strength and vigour in its next leader, but that the nation’s bold, idiosyncratic approach to forging a new path leads it eventually into an unforgiving ravine.

Diamond says that societies must solve all of his five stated problems to avoid disaster. Four out of five will not suffice. The entire framework must be resolved. The good news is that Diamond speaks positively for the chances of such a resolution, despite the challenges. Diamond says that these problems are solvable; that whilst the issues we must face were our making, they can also be “our solving“. But Diamond also warns of another commonality of formerly flourishing societies, one which we would do well to remember. A society, when it has overreached beyond its ability to defeat the five factors of decline, will collapse quickly and ignominiously, with no deference to past achievements. Over. Finished. That’s your lot.

The clock is ticking.

Aidan

Further reading

J. Diamond, Collapse, (New York: Penguin, 2005)