There was a letter in the Financial Times this week that caught my mood on the day. It cited an excellent book, Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, summarizing its argument about populist situations like this: “This was characterised by dislike of the elites and their institutions and indifference to the fate of society if it came under attack (as with the Roman empire). Another feature was the inability of national treasuries to fund essential infrastructural maintenance and improvement or to raise significant additional revenue without taxing the less well off more heavily or reducing their benefits such as subsidised food.” The letter was of course drawing parallels with Trumpism and Brexitism.
Tainter’s book often comes to mind – as in this 2014 post, The Unsustainable is Never Sustained. To the extent we have any agency, the choice is about how things turn out to be not sustained. I do find myself tending to gloom these days. Every time I peep from behind the sofa at the news, there is fresh horror, like Trump’s gangsterism against the Morning Joe journalists this week, or the thousands of people rescued from the Med (and who knows how many not rescued).
The FT letter emphasizes the economic strains that lead to collapse. Jared Diamond’s work Guns, Germs and Steel, and especially Collapse emphasize environmental pressures. Check, we have that too. Charts of polar ice melt are even scarier than the news bulletins.
To cap it all, I read Cixin Liu’s excellent SF novel The Three Body Problem this week. The collapse of civilisation is only a matter of time…..