A Case of the Mondays: Books About Decline

Environmentalists have been writing apocalyptic books for decades, but in recent years, more mainstream figures have written about the possible decline of current civilization. Jared Diamond’s Collapse concentrates on environmental pressure; Jane Jacobs’ Dark Age Ahead (largely motivated by the same work as Collapse—Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel) is more economic. Yet other works moralize about the fact that Western civilization may be heading the way of Islamic and Chinese civilizations in the late Middle Ages.

When you come right down to it, the main issues are not overarching narratives about population pressure or economics, but concrete social problems. Not coincidentally, Jacobs and Diamond, who proceed from almost diametrically opposite approaches, end up talking about very similar pathologies in American society: specific failures of government responsibility, failure to adapt to changing conditions, bad economic planning.

Jacobs starts by listing five problems in American society, corresponding to the erosion of five basic pillars: family/community, higher education, science, governmental responsiveness, and self-regulation of expert organizations. As it turns out, none of the five is really the problem. Rather, Jacobs applies her work on cities and economic growth to all of those factors. For example, when talking about the decline of the family and of communities, she never goes into any of the problems mentioned in any number of books moralizing about the future of the American family; instead, she writes about how car culture constricts economic development.

When talking about higher education, she identifies the problem as one of “credentialing versus educating”—that is, university education is more about getting a degree than about learning. That in itself, she says, is really just a problem of flooding universities with people who aren’t serious about learning, partly because of the GI Bill. Her complaint about science is that engineers and social planners aren’t practicing it seriously, so for example traffic controllers talk about road closures by analogizing them to blocking the flow of water rather than by gathering real-world evidence. Her complaint about governmental responsiveness boils down to mistreatment of city resources. And her comments about self-regulation are most applicable to Enron.

So in fact, what she says is that the United States has a large supply of incompetence, greed, corruption, and bad government. Essentially, that’s exactly what Diamond says. Collapse is largely about why societies decline—they can fail to adapt to changing climate conditions, or deplete their natural resources, or promote decision-making procedures that encourage the elites to ignore the people, or increase their population beyond what is sustainable—but Diamond can’t resist concluding by evaluating the United States and the world based on the same criteria. Globally, he talks about environmental damage in the standard terms that are climate change, habitat loss, overpopulation, and so on. But within the US, the social problems he identifies are almost the exact same ones Jacobs’ boil down to. For example, when talking about the way the American upper class segregates itself into gated communities he is basically repeating Jacobs’ points about self-regulation and responsiveness.

Now, you could make a convincing case that the US is indeed in decline. But such a case would necessarily have to involve new problems, rather than problems that didn’t prevent the country from keeping ascending in the robber baron era and that it ultimately weathered in the 1970s. For example, take a recent example neither Jacobs nor Diamond uses: the breakdown of public health in the US, exemplified by the e. coli outbreak in US spinach products. That indicates that the US is falling behind the rest of the world, even regressing to third-world status (in the normal sense of lack of social and economic progress, as in Delhi, rather than in Jacobs’ sense of economic passivity, as in rural areas everywhere), but not that it’s about to collapse or go into a dark age.

A distressing number of the books I’ve looked at try to interpret decade-long trends in modern times in terms of centuries-long ones in history. To some extent it makes sense, insofar as things are happening a lot more quickly lately than they used to. But still, a trend isn’t something that happens on a ten-year scale—at least, not on a scale that determines a civilization’s fate. Between 1500 and 1800, China clearly fell behind Europe, in a gradual process that bears little to no resemblance to what Jacobs and Diamond describe. It just happened that technological advancements helped Europe more, and in the very long run, Europe’s fractured political system and inhospitable environment proved more conducive to growth than China’s unified government and good climate.

I tend to have little trust in people who extrapolate from short-term trends. A good system of predicting civilizations’ fates should at least be good enough to, for a start, retrodict the Soviet Union’s collapse. And yet so far I haven’t seen anyone tackle what must be the greatest failure of the modern prophets.