Orson Scott Card discusses How Our Civilization Can Fall.

Card describes the historical fall of civilizations, concentrating on Rome. He tries to find the general principles behind the fall and comes up with this: complex economies are very robust under normal circumstances but are very fragile when attacked.

Once the economic flows are disrupted, specialization comes to an end. Then society is reduced to autarky and poverty. As he says, “In the crash, you fall farther”

Card explains how the United States is vulnerable to the same kind of disruptive attacks. Niall Ferguson concurs, and worries about “Sinking Globalization”.

Card begins with a lengthy discussion of the Fall of Rome using the two latest historians as reference – Peter Heather and Bryan Ward Perkins. I discussed the same topic in Fall of Rome, and the fall of the economy. Card’s version is a much faster read, that’s for certain.

The fall of Rome was not the only civilization that collapsed. The Charioteers destroyed the early agricultural empires of Babylon, India, Greece, and Egypt. The Spanish invasion of South America destroyed much of the native civilization (mostly through disease). The Mongolian invasions devastated the Chinese and Iranian economy.

Historians in the past greatly underestimated how much damage was caused by these invasions. Post-modern “historians” prefer to talk about cultural exchanges rather than quantitative history. The facts remain – advanced economies were reduced to extreme poverty, populations collapsed, and intellectual achievements came to a halt.

The main points of a great economy seem to be:
-Economy of Scale
-Comparative and Absolute Advantage
-Specialization
-Sufficient Diversity
-Law and Order

Once these conditions are met, economies flourish. The population can be fed and it can grow. People can specialize in advanced professions and productivity rises.

Such economies are very robust. They can withstand economic recessions, poor farming seasons, disease, minor outbreaks of civil war.

But such an economy cannot withstand a direct and concerted attack. It is fragile.

Trade breaks down as merchants lose confidence and markets are disrupted by barbarian invaders. When this happens, specialization becomes impossible, local areas must become agriculturally and militarily self-sufficient again, and between disease, famine, war, and emigration, populations crash.

Once key trade routes, resource hubs, and services are disrupted, there is a cascade failure throughout the system. It’s a ripple that tears across the entire area. Every society is affected by each attack. And as the attacks continue, civilization collapses into a Dark Ages.

And its a general principle. The fall of Rome was not an historical anomaly.
Card:

It happens that there are other examples of this kind of collapse. In the opening chapter of Michael Grant’s The Rise of the Greeks, Grant, like Ward-Perkins, looks at the archaeological evidence surrounding the fall of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations.

What Grant finds, though, is that an international economic system that functioned smoothly throughout the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean, despite blips like the Trojan War, staggered to a complete collapse.

Starting in the late 1200s bce, a “prolonged series of destructive movements of peoples” (i.e., barbarian invasions) swept through the area….

What is unarguable is that a high level of arts and crafts staggered downward, getting shoddier all the time; meanwhile, pollen counts showed a drastic drop in crop production, suggesting an equally drastic crash in populations sustained by local farming.

Once again, as with the fall of the Roman West, there were areas that held out a little longer or that recovered more quickly. But in this case, the collapse came in an international system. In other words, it wasn’t a single empire falling, it was a mutually dependent system of neighboring nations and city-states that plunged into chaos.

The whole eastern Mediterranean felt the shock…

And the principle holds for any economic system. Civilizations collapse when the economic is attacked.

Many groups today, like al-Qaeda, seek to bring down the US economy. Can they end society?

It’s up to the thin red line of professional soldiers who guard the frontiers.

The result, over the past sixty years, has been a pax Americana covering much of the world. And the world has prospered fantastically wherever the American military sustained it.

Let me say that again: As with Rome, the American military has been the wall behind which a system of safe trade has allowed an extraordinary degree of specialization and therefore mutually sustained prosperity.

America has not been imperial — we have not been stripping other countries. On the contrary, those nations that were able to sustain the internal peace necessary for production, and that have joined the economy presided over by America, have all been able to join in the prosperity as equals.

We don’t tax them — quite the opposite. We have taxed ourselves to pay for the military protection that maintained the safety and perception of safety that allowed the European community and Japan to flourish. Their welfare economies are only possible because they did not have to pay for their own defense at anything like the levels we have paid.

The US military guards the Global Commons. It protects shipping routes, communication and transportation hubs. It stands vigilant over the International Chokepoints of the world.

And it is understretched. A massive world economy is sustained by the US spending just 4% of its GDP on security. Countries like China face massive demographic instability in the coming years. The current war with Islamism will grow much worse as the Middle East Youth Bulge matures over the next two decades.

So welcome to the possible nightmare world of a 21st century Dark Age. So imagine that the US walks out of the Middle East. It gets tired of spending pocket change in this part of the world. The radicals can have their caliphate, the Sunnis and Shia can have their regional civil war, and the Iranians can make their nuclear weapons. What happens then? The Middle East is disconnected from the world economy.
Card:

And when the oil stops flowing, Europe and Japan and Taiwan and Singapore and South Korea all crash economically; Europe then has to face the demands of its West-hating Muslim “minority” without money and without the ruthlessness or will to survive that would allow them to counter the threat…

America doesn’t crash right away, mind you. But we still have a major depression, because we have nowhere to sell our goods. And depending on what our desperate enemies do, it’s a matter of time before we crash as well.

Why? Because we’re that Syrian village. Except that what we make is food — enough to feed half the world.

What we don’t make for ourselves anymore is … everything else. We don’t produce steel. We don’t make most of our own computer equipment. We have exported our textile industry.

That’s when we find out just how much of our new “service” economy is smoke and mirrors, dependent entirely on the surpluses generated by the global system of trade.

It doesn’t have to come from the Middle East either. What about a collapse of the Chinese Communist government? What if China falls into a civil war like it did at the start of the 20th century? What about the twenty million other weak points in the international economy?

Cascade failure. The US economy is fantastically wealthy because it is dependant upon world commerce. That world economy can be torn down within a few years.

Not that anyone cares:

Our enemies and most of our “allies” and many of our own citizens are working as hard as possible to bring the whole thing crashing down, though that is not at all what they intend.

People forget how close civilization was to collapse at the start of the 20th century. World War I brought an end to the first era of modern globalization.
Niall Ferguson:

From around 1870 until World War I, the world economy thrived in ways that look familiar today. The mobility of commodities, capital, and labor reached record levels; the sea-lanes and telegraphs across the Atlantic had never been busier, as capital and migrants traveled west and raw materials and manufactures traveled east. In relation to output, exports of both merchandise and capital reached volumes not seen again until the 1980s. Total emigration from Europe between 1880 and 1910 was in excess of 25 million. People spoke euphorically of “the annihilation of distance.”

Then, between 1914 and 1918, a horrendous war stopped all of this, sinking globalization. Nearly 13 million tons of shipping were sent to the bottom of the ocean by German submarine attacks. International trade, investment, and migration all collapsed. Moreover, the attempt to resuscitate the world economy after the war’s end failed. The global economy effectively disintegrated with the onset of the Great Depression and, after that, with an even bigger world war, in which astonishingly high proportions of production went toward perpetrating destruction.

It may seem excessively pessimistic to worry that this scenario could somehow repeat itself–that our age of globalization could collapse just as our grandparents’ did. But it is worth bearing in mind that, despite numerous warnings issued in the early twentieth century about the catastrophic consequences of a war among the European great powers, many people–not least investors, a generally well-informed class–were taken completely by surprise by the outbreak of World War I. The possibility is as real today as it was in 1915 that globalization, like the Lusitania, could be sunk.

Indeed, only North America emerged relatively unscathed from the almost nihilistic total wars, and even it suffered through severe recessions and depressions. American force of arms saved the tiny bit of civilization and provided a financial and industrial base for reconstruction. This victory was never a sure thing.

If there was no America in the 1940s – I believe Western civilization would have come to an end just as surely as Rome.

One has to step back and wonder. What were the ancient Babylonians thinking when they first heard that the chariot had been invented? The Sumerian and Babylonian Empires were two of the great early empires of mankind in the fetile crescent. They had an advanced and wealthy economy and grew into a real civilization.

At the far fringes of human existance, some shepherds cut a cart in half. So ended civilization 6000 years ago.

What is the chariot of our era? The pace and proliferation of Biotech has greatly expanded. Perhaps, some radicals are already thinking about building their chariot.

Today there is a fresh way of waging war. Some are calling it 4th generation warfare. At its best, 4GW engages in economic system disruption to tear down the nation-state system. Combine that with virulent radical ideologiest that hate the current global system. Give these non-state radicals biotech weapons and kiss civilization goodbye.

Once the crash starts, you will fall down further and further.

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