While Nero fiddled, Rome burned, it is said. The legend paints a clear picture of neglect, perhaps even malevolence. The failure of Rome’s empire after hundreds of years is the stuff of legends.
Today billions of people around the world fiddle with phones, Facebook, friends and fancies. We’re rabid sports fans, party fans, even survival-runs-through-the-mud fans. The question is, What’s happening to Rome—and the rest of our civilization—while we’re too busy to pay much attention?
Collapse, the sequel
The course of civilization has been a clumsy, start-and-stop affair, from simple agricultural societies to great empires, collapsing in sequence. A subsequent retreat from technology was labeled the Dark Ages not only for what might have occurred then, but for how little we knew about those ‘lost’ years before the Renaissance. How we governed ourselves was the determining factor in the levels of sophistication each society experienced.
We grew from tribal to feudal to royal to imperial pretensions. Trade eventually emerged as the true governing power, and capitalism the altar of prosperity. Freed from constricting rules, it allowed everyone to compete and prosper, like the opening of a flood-gate, the start of an enormous marathon.
The new boom of civilization required tapping the store of resources our world contained.The industrial age introduced the machinery that made it all possible. Oil fields were drained, coal was mined, ore was refined. Fertilizer deposits were strip-mined, and animal species became commodities, which we harvested in large numbers.
Whales and dodo birds and a thousand other species were pursued to the brink of extinction.
What, me worry?
At the outset the resources seemed limitless, enough to last the entire population of the planet for a thousand years. Beyond that, of course, was just too far in the future to imagine.
The formula changed, however, when the population of the planet grew from one billion to seven billion. Mechanized agricultural and fishing practices provided plentiful food for the rapid reproduction of humans. Thousands of new products made it possible to consume the planet’s resources at a pace many times faster than ever imagined, while at the same time distracting society from the accounting of them.
‘Modernity’ is now dependent upon all the luxuries that make us oh, so different from those who lived in the 1800’s. We enjoy computers, self-starting cars, MONSTER trucks, and artificially cooled buildings. We grab a bite on the way to someplace else, never stopping to consider the fragility of the system that delivered that meal, or the fact that hundreds of millions of other people are dependent upon that same system.
Got to take the bad with the good
Capitalism has served a great purpose in the course of human history, allowing the blossoming of human potential, the development of technology, and the exploration of near space. While it permitted all to compete, however, the clever, fortunate, corrupt or manipulative soon outpaced the rest, and began to accumulate wealth.
In the United States, by 1970 the average corporate leader was earning, on average, about 25 times the salary of an average worker. In 2011, that figure is around 500 times. Eventually the power they thus accumulated allowed them to gain even greater wealth. The fabric of modern society began to resume the shape of pre-industrial times.
The concentration of ever-greater wealth and power in the hands of a small minority has taken our society beyond the promise created by capitalism and free markets, and led us to the edge of a new form of feudalism. The race is almost over, and, as in other races, not everyone wins.
Our resources will never allow the great mass of society to achieve the mountaintop. The disparity between the haves and have-nots already approximates or exceeds that of the early Middle Ages, and we are blessed with a new form of royalty, the uber-wealthy, with annual incomes measured even in billions of dollars. Those in charge of planet Earth are doing quite well, thank you. So what’s a little mass-starvation around the edges?
The great regression
The question that now looms before us is the shape our future is assuming. Present indicators have mostly turned negative. Despite more affordable technology, available to ever more of the planet’s people, the underpinning resources that allow their production are rapidly thinning. Counter to the increases in food production during the 20th century, the current depletion of water, fertilizers, fish, and fuel for the machinery of food production promise steady declines.
Even as the marginal societies of the planet slip into chaos, the stronger ones are feeling unprecedented strains. The time of peak oil is intersecting with that of peak fertilizer, peak rare earth, and many other commodities. As these essential elements disappear from our economic diets, it is inevitable that a form of monetary malnutrition will become increasingly severe. It would take an incredibly deft turn from our present course to sustain the societies to which we have become accustomed.
A clear-eyed reading of the leading indicators will lead any astute person to this disturbing observation. Our New Feudalism is perhaps little more than a symptom of the arrival of a new Dark Age.
— R.J. Connors for Transition Voice