“Forward, the Light Brigade!”Was there a man dismay’d ?Not tho’ the soldier knewSome one had blunder’d:Theirs not to make reply,Theirs not to reason why,Theirs but to do & die,Into the valley of DeathRode the six hundred.
— “The Charge Of The Light Brigade,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1854
How will poets memorialize us? How will we be remembered if, like the British light cavalry charging a well-prepared Russian artillery battery in the Crimean War in 1854, we don’t reason why, we just keep on our current path even though it is self-evidently suicidal.
“It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.” So ends Field Notes from a Catastrophe, the terrific 2006 book by Elizabeth Kolbert, one of the country’s most thoughtful climate journalists.
Certainly as we hit 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in human existence, with not even a plan to avoid 600 ppm, 800 ppm, and then 1000 — not even a national discussion or an outcry by the so-called intelligentsia — it is worth asking, why? Is there something inherent in homo “sapiens” that makes us oblivious to the obvious?
In his latest analysis, uber-hedge fund manager Jeremy Grantham points us in the direction of a new book, Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail, by William Ophuls. Grantham, a self-described “die hard contrarian,” is one of the few leading financial figures who gets both global warming and growing food insecurity (see “Welcome to Dystopia”: We Are “Entering A Long-Term And Politically Dangerous Food Crisis”).
Ophuls’ treatise, a synthesis of various analyses for civilizations fail, is well worth reading, though it isn’t a sunny book. Grantham’s analysis is a short, marginally-more optimistic version of the book, augmented with his own thinking. Grantham begins:
The Fall of Civilizations
The collapse of civilizations is a gripping and resonant topic for many of us and one that has attracted many scholars over the years. They see many possible contributing factors to the collapse of previous civilizations, the evidence pieced together shard by shard from civilizations that often left few records. But some themes reoccur in the scholars’ work: geographic locations that had misfortune in the availability of useful animal and vegetable life, soil, water, and a source of energy; mismanagement in the overuse and depletion of resources, especially forests, soil, and water; the lack of a safety margin or storage against inevitable droughts and famines; overexpansion and costly unnecessary wars; sometimes a failure of moral spirit as the pioneering toughness and willingness to sacrifice gave way to softer and more cynical ways; increasing complexity of a growing empire that became by degree too expensive in human costs and in the use of limited resources to justify the effort, until the taxes and other demands on ordinary citizens became unbearable, so that an empire, pushed beyond sustainable limits, became vulnerable to even modest shocks that could in earlier days have been easily withstood. Probably the greatest agreement among scholars, though, is that the failing civilizations suffered from growing hubris and overconfidence: the belief that their capabilities after many earlier tests would always rise to the occasion and that growing signs of weakness could be ignored as pessimistic. After all, after 200 or even 500 years, many other dangers had been warned of yet always they had persevered. Until finally they did not.
The bad news is that as I read about these varied scenarios — and I have missed listing several — they all appear plausible and each seems to be relevant to several earlier collapses of empires and civilizations both large and small. Very recently, one of these scholars, William Ophuls, wrote a new book, Immoderate Greatness (a quote from Gibbons’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), with the subtitle Why Civilizations Fail. It is a straightforward summary and synthesis of all of the ways to fail in 70 small pages, yet with extensive notes and references. It is written in remarkably accessible, simple language and divides the causes of failure into six categories. Unfortunately, all six seem to apply to us today in varying degrees, and where one factor might be manageable — although often has not been — he makes the chances of our managing all six seem slight. It is persuasive and needs to be read. It takes about two hours.
William Ophuls’s conclusion is that we will not resist the impressive list of erosive factors and that, in fact, we are in the fairly late stages of our current civilization’s race for the cliff edge with nothing much to head us off. His study of history leads him to believe that civilizations are actually hard wired to self-destruct: programmed to be overconfident, to keep on pushing for growth until limits are overstepped and risks accumulated to the breaking point. His offer of good news is that after the New Dark Ages, when civilization again rears its head, presumably with a much smaller population, we will have acquired the good sense to be less overreaching, less hubristic, a lot humbler about growth and our use of resources, and more determined to live in balance with the natural energy we receive from the sun and the heat, food, and water with which we can sustainably be provided.
Humanity isn’t making a suicidal charge into an artillery brigade, of course. And what we are accelerating toward is less a cliff than a brick wall — but it is no less self-evident how self-destructive it is:
Wikipedia says of the infamous charge, “The semi-suicidal nature of this charge was surely evident to the troopers of the Light Brigade, but if there was any objection to the orders, it was not recorded.” How like Wikipedia to try to deglamorize the whole thing!
I fear our generations’ Wikipedia entry will read much the same. But one can hold out a hope that future generations, when they are done cursing our names, will think we are at least worth a good poem … though not, I think, one celebrating our benighted honor:
Cannon to right of them,Cannon to left of them,Cannon behind themVolley’d and thunder’d;Storm’d at with shot and shell,While horse & hero fell,They that had fought so wellCame thro’ the jaws of Death,Back from the mouth of Hell,All that was left of them,Left of six hundred.
When can their glory fade?O the wild charge they made!All the world wonder’d.Honour the charge they made!Honour the Light Brigade,Noble six hundred!