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Imperial Evanescence

How Long will the U.S. Empire Stand?

May 3rd, 2006 · Written by · No Comments

USA falls

The limited perspective offered by the relatively short human lifespan has been cause for much observational error. Even in a postmodern existence where constant change has become the norm and the term progress rendered redundant, the common individual still acts as though – substantively, at least – things have always been and will always be just as they are now.

But there’s no reason to believe that the world we know will endure any longer than the world our ancestors knew. The Mesopotamian, Roman, and British empires were all once rulers of the largest chunk of the known world, a distinction now flaunted by the red, white, and blue. The question is not if the U.S. Empire will fall but when, and whether that fall will be an outright collapse or just a diminishment in population and/or global influence.

The Five-Point Framework

Pulitzer prize-winner Jared Diamond, in his bestseller Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, introduces a five-point framework for evaluating potential causes of societal collapse.

To test the framework, Diamond explores a number of past and present societies in immense detail, the most striking being the oft-referenced Easter Island and the mysteriously vanished Maya.

Polynesian settlers arrived at Easter in the latter half of the first millennium, bringing with them farming techniques and some forms of animal husbandry. It’s a common myth that the Islanders deforested Easter just to erect giant statues – in reality the Maoi sculptures were just one factor that contributed to the island’s complete deforestation. Trees were cut for firewood, canoes, mulch, thatching, and various other purposes. The consumption of the Island’s resources was a gradual process, but the culture’s decline into cannibalism and a drastically reduced population was abrupt. Diamond uses several other collapsed Oceanic island societies to illustrate the devastating effect of the loss of a strategic trading partner, but deforestation remains the theme throughout.

The Maya remain a slightly more perplexing case, at least in regard to what kept the population from rebounding after what is referred to as the “Classic Maya Collapse” around 700 A.D. But the conditions leading to their decline were over-farming, poor crop rotation, and civil war, resulting from a population density greater than present-day Western Europe.

Diamond orders his case studies by increasing complexity, first profiling Easter’s simple negligence before working up to the complex factors that led to the fall of the Anasazi and Greenland Norse. What kind of picture does Diamond’s five-point framework paint for America?

A Look in the Mirror

His first set of factors is the damage a people inflicts upon their environment. Although the U.S. now boasts hundreds of thousands of acres of national parkland and increased social awareness, the nation remains foremost in the world in solid waste and air pollution, refuses to join the Kyoto protocol, and still depends on unsustainable amounts of logging and mining to meet its raw material needs.

The second set of factors is climate change. The U.S., with its enormous dependence on imports from around the world, is especially susceptible to climate change – both natural and manmade – that could affect its food supply as well as the flow of other vital materials. If the more dire predictions about global warming come to fruition, or a natural climate change occurs, the U.S. is not well-positioned to react.

The third consideration is hostile neighbors. Some would say the U.S. is overly prepared for this threat with a defense budget far exceeding reasonable limits. And the application of Diamond’s framework would support that view, as outside threats are probably the least of America’s concerns. Terrorists and rogue states may always threaten peace of mind, and their actions are certainly visible, but the fact remains that no rival currently wields the kind of power needed to overthrow a juggernaut like the U.S.

The next set of factors that could lead to social collapse is the decreased support of friendly neighbors. This is likely the most salient short-term concern, as America’s energy infrastructure is not prepared to meet demands should Kuwait or, now, Iraq, turn off the oil spigot.

Few non hunter-gatherer societies have proved to be sustainable even in the short-term

The final point of consideration is how a society responds to its problems. Diamond details a so-called “tragedy of the commons,” where the most potent problems are either too far off or too unwieldy for a common citizen to confront. Certainly, the U.S. approach to its problems seems, well, problematic. America is neither small enough to employ a “bottom-up” approach nor centralized enough to confront its environmental challenges with rigid governmental regulation. The empowerment of corporations and citizens who to seek to fulfill their individual needs nearly takes precedence over the necessary response.

The Verdict

Few non hunter-gatherer societies have proved to be sustainable even in the short-term, and the U.S. is at risk with regard to at least four of Diamond’s five sets of factors. Even the author’s self-termed “success stories” tend to either employ artificial population limits (such as the various methods of suicide, abortion, and infanticide used the by Tikopian Islanders) or the outsourcing of environmental degradation (as done by, for example, the Japanese). The U.S. has shown no inclination toward such self-limitation; its moral system actually precludes it.

Diamond is careful to not liken past collapses too closely to modern societies, nor to suggest a deterministic method for predicting a society’s success or failure, pointing out the existence of many considerations unique to the modern world. One such factor, and a condition that complicates the analysis greatly, is globalization. Beyond the reliance on neighbors and trading partners discussed in Diamond’s framework, globalization verges on rendering borders completely obsolete. In fact, Easter Island as a model is quite possibly more relevant when applied to Earth as a whole rather than a single nation, as Easter’s isolation in the Pacific creates a strong parallel to Earth’s isolation in space. The interdependence of a global economy helps safeguard against the collapse of individual nations, but it also blurs international boundaries so that the fall of nations could merely be viewed as a stage in a natural power-cycle.

Super-efficient agriculture and the insurances of globalization make it likely that the U.S. will maintain a sizeable population. But the specter of infighting, external threats, and the scarcity of vital imports could diminish American global influence greatly. The most apt model may be the contraction of the British Empire; in such a case American influence and culture would imprint the globe long after its power had cycled to another giant. But that reality may provide little solace to generations accustomed to their country’s global reign, one that by Diamond’s model – backed by empirical evidence – warns will not last forever.

Tags: Essays · Nonfiction · ·

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