The Indiana Jones of collapsed cultures: Our Western civilization itself is a bubble

Photo by Flickr user marcos fernandez.

In this one-on-one conversation, two Vanderbilt anthropologists explain how our society’s greatest strengths are also its greatest weaknesses. Photo by Flickr user marcos fernandez.

Editor’s Note: How can you spot an economy, indeed a civilization, in collapse? Anthropology gives us some answers.

Ted Fischer, a professor of anthropology and director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Vanderbilt University, studies the ways cultural values influence economic decisions. Today on Making Sen$e he interviews the “real Indiana Jones,” aka Arthur Demarest, about the fate of our own society. Demarest, also an anthropology professor at Vanderbilt University, sees signs of collapse.

Demarest has written 20 books, including “Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization and Region and Empire.”

Fischer’s most recent book is “The Good Life: Aspiration, Dignity, and the Anthropology of Wellbeing.” He is the founder of Maní+, a social enterprise combating malnutrition.

Without further ado, we now present a one-on-one with Fischer and Demarest about why Western civilization is in trouble. You can listen to the full audio of their conversation on Fischer’s website.

Simone Pathe, Making Sen$e Editor

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, there has been much debate among economists and policy makers on how best to prevent systemic collapses. Yet there is little data to go on: these are unprecedented times of sustained unemployment, fiscal stimulus, and price-earnings ratios. Perhaps, as Alan Greenspan recently suggested, we need to look to anthropology to see the really long-term trends.

With this in mind, I interviewed one of the world’s leading archaeologists, Arthur Demarest, who studies the collapse of ancient civilizations, from Greece and Rome to the Maya and Aztecs. Demarest, the Ingram Professor of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University, has been called the “real Indiana Jones” (see, for example, “The Real Indiana Jones and His Pyramids of Doom and “A 1,200-Year Old Murder Mystery in Guatemala”) for his daring explorations and spectacular finds in the Maya jungles. But from his tent in the Guatemalan rainforest, Demarest grapples with the big question of what causes collapses.

I ask Demarest, given his study of the fall of societies, what are the lessons we should take away for our own system. His answer: “We are in trouble.” But the reasons why might surprise you.

Ted Fischer: Is there a common theme in collapses, or is each one different?

Arthur Demarest: Paradoxically, the key strengths of civilizations are also their central weaknesses. You can see that from the fact that the golden ages of civilizations are very often right before the collapse.

“I just heard Bill Gates say that we are living in the greatest time in history. Now you can understand why Bill Gates would think that, but even if he is right, that is an ominous thing to say.”

The Renaissance in Italy was very much like the Classic Maya. The apogee was the collapse. The Renaissance status rivalry between cities through art and science and warfare and architecture was a beautiful disaster, and it only lasted about 150 years. The Golden Age of Greece was the same thing: status rivalry with architecture, literature, and all these wonderful things—along with warfare—at the end of which Greece was conquered by Macedonia and remained under the control of foreign powers for 2,300 years.

We see this pattern repeated continuously, and it is one that should make us nervous. I just heard Bill Gates say that we are living in the greatest time in history. Now you can understand why Bill Gates would think that, but even if he is right, that is an ominous thing to say.

Ted Fischer: We talk a lot about sustainability these days, but your work raises the question: Is collapse inevitable?

Arthur Demarest: On the future of the U.S., or of Western civilization in general, I tend to be quite pessimistic. Perhaps that is simply because “collapse” is what I do. As an archaeologist, I have excavated single trenches, just a few meters deep, in which you can see stratigraphic levels of several civilizations. We find layers of artifacts and evidence indicating periods of great prosperity, but always separated by levels of burned earth, ash and artifacts that reflect the epochs of social disintegration, chaos and tragedy that seem to conclude the achievements and aspirations of every society.

With that caveat about my gloomy perspective, I would say that today I see most of the symptoms of societies on the brink of collapse, not just in the U.S., but in the tightly interconnected societies of Western civilization – now essentially world civilization.

Ted Fischer: You have observed that in a crisis, leaders “do what they always do, just more of it.” Could you explain?

Arthur Demarest: When there is pressure for leaders to respond to problems or crises, they often simply intensify their efforts in their particular defined sphere of activity – even if that’s not relevant to the real problem. To do otherwise requires taking on entrenched practices and asserting power in areas where it often will not be well received. And leaders tend to see major crises more as threats to their own position rather than as systemic challenges for the societies that they govern or the institutions that they manage.

Frenzied grand constructions, wars and great rituals are among the common responses of ancient leaders to crises. These demonstrate powerful responses by the leaders (enhancing their threatened hold on power), but almost never really address the problems themselves. A cynic might characterize the giant U.S. stimulus bill of 2009 as such an effort.

“The possible signs of a coming collapse are the same as the greatest strengths of Western civilization.”

Leaders may recognize that they are not addressing the real problems, but they rationalize their actions with the argument that they must first politically survive in order to later address the hard problems and sacrifices. Of course, they usually don’t ever actually get around to addressing the fundamental problems later, either because they don’t make it through the initial crisis or because, even later, they are not willing to risk sacrificing their own position (or “career”) with needed measures that usually require tough sacrifices by the population.

Ted Fischer: You are currently excavating the Classic Maya city of Cancuén. Do you see these trends at play there?

Arthur Demarest: Yes. The divine kings of the Classic Maya civilization led their societies in religion, religious constructions, and enormous rituals, as well as warfare. When that civilization ran into problems of overpopulation, environmental damage, drought and economic competition in the late eighth century, they could only respond with ever greater rituals and temple construction to appease the (clearly unsatisfied) deities, as well as responding through warfare against other states.

These steps were actually counterproductive, imposing additional costs and damage and not addressing the real problems. Yet, any really helpful response would have involved political change to redefine the very nature [of] leadership and its roles and institutions.

Rarely can societies in crisis conceive of such great structural changes (and often those might not be accepted by various interest groups). So, the situation just deteriorates at the same, or even at an accelerated, rate.

Ted Fischer: Are there observable symptoms of an impending collapse? Do people know when things are about to crumble?

Arthur Demarest: The surprising, seemingly contradictory, truth is that most civilizations do not meet their end after a slow decline and do not collapse because of late developing “weaknesses.” The ample record of failed societies chronicles systems at their peak of success, then rapidly disintegrating.

“The challenge that we face is similar to that of the Classic Maya civilization: we have set in motion a ‘runaway train’ of success.”

The possible signs of a coming collapse are the same as the greatest strengths of Western civilization: democracy, capitalism, the generally peaceful linking of world economic systems, our amazing success in harnessing the powers of nature to the betterment of the human condition (in health, subsistence, longevity). These are the hallmarks of our society — its most successful elements.

These strengths, and our civilization in general, have reached an apogee with the end of the apocalyptic threats of the Cold War and the end—or at least waning—of less successful, and ultimately less “just,” political and economic systems. At the turn of the 21st century we appear to be entering our greatest century, a golden age. The challenge that we face is similar to that of the Classic Maya civilization: we have set in motion a “runaway train” of success.

Ted Fischer: You have also cautioned that the interconnectedness of globalization is dangerous.

Arthur Demarest: Yes, “hypercoherence” is one of the most dangerous threats to the long-term survival of our civilization. Hypercoherence is the close efficient linkage of all parts of the world economic, communication and transport systems. It has been crucial in the spread of great innovations, the rise of world wealth, and even the dissemination of democratic concepts and ethical values and the defeat of oppressive regimes.

However, this strength is, again, one of the most common symptoms of impending collapse. Perturbations, even small ones, immediately radiate throughout the entire system. Today there are few, if any, refuges against international crises of any kind. Thus, our brilliant communication, information, and transport systems, which will be remembered as the hallmark of our age, are also a point of great fragility.

Ted Fischer: You mentioned that short-term thinking plagues many leaders in the face of crisis.

Arthur Demarest: It is short-term thinking and decision-making that is the most universal factor leading to collapse. Yet, such short-cycle evaluation is a fundamental characteristic, and a basic strength, of both democracy and capitalism. In democracy, the competition which “short-cycle evaluation” generates in government, and the limited tenure of leaders, assures responsiveness to the needs of the people and a protection against oppression.

However, such competition, and the expensive campaigning that it entails, has led to an unrealistic evaluative process that consistently sets aside long-term problems and consequences in order to try to achieve some short-term successes, so as to survive reelection in two, four or six-year cycles. The result is a growing burden of multiple long-term problems in the decades to come.

Driving the ever-shortening cycle of evaluation of political leaders is the growing immediacy of expectations by the peoples of democratic states. There is an explicit promotion of such short-term egocentric values. “It’s the economy stupid” and “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” have become the mantras of contemporary democracy. The latter is a sure recipe for collapse.

Our other great strength, world capitalism, is the most successful economic system possible, but has also become one of shorter and shorter cycles of evaluation. CEOs, companies, stocks, profits and debits change at an ever more accelerated pace in response to the demands of stockholders and the market. We have already experienced some consequences of the shortening cycle of decision making in business, but those are minor in relation to the grand systemic collapse that always eventually results from such accelerating and shortening periods for leadership goals.

Ted Fischer: But [what] if these short cycles lead to continued growth?

Arthur Demarest: Well, that need and the capacity for continual growth is also a diagnostic of eventual collapse. No society can sustain unlimited growth – none ever has. History demonstrates that expectations of infinite growth lead to collapse. Unfortunately, millennia of evidence also indicates that needed attempts to stabilize such societies run counter to the expectations of the populace and of interest groups. For that reason, such attempts at stabilization frequently fail.

“With apologies to the green movement, ‘sustainability’ is a myth.”

With apologies to the green movement, “sustainability” is a myth. History and archaeology show that societies are always moving to the edge of crisis, “falling forward” through growth, but then responding (often successfully) to the problems created.

What we can hope for is that with a somewhat more controlled level of growth, and with longer-term preparations for change, we can keep responding to the inevitable smaller crises, as they arise, and continue to postpone until later and later the (perhaps ultimately inevitable) end of our civilization.

Ted Fischer: Any last words of advice?

“As voters and stockholders, we need to expect less of our leaders and we need to begin thinking in terms of longer periods, and slower processes, for judging success.”

Arthur Demarest: I can say, in general, that the answer to our problems—or at least the first steps—do not lie in the direction of specific economic or political actions. Rather it must begin with ideology—with a change in general expectations.

The answers and specific policies will only begin to emerge after voters and workers, as well as politicians and CEOs, lower their expectations a bit for prosperous societies to a somewhat lower level of growth (and opulence). As voters and stockholders, we need to expect less of our leaders and we need to begin thinking in terms of longer periods, and slower processes, for judging success.

Such an ideology of long-term thinking and lower expectations — a change in world “attitude”— seems to me to be the only way out of the 21st century giant and precarious “bubble” that now is Western civilization.