My grandparents were born in the lands of the Austro-Hungarian empire, during one of history’s great cultural flowerings – a glittering golden age that gave the world Einstein, Freud, Kafka, Wittgenstein, Klimt, Tesla, Schrodinger, Rilke and dozens more of history’s greatest artists, scientists and inventors.
By the time they were teenagers, it was all over: the empire had disintegrated, kicking off two world wars and an unimaginable genocide in the process.
To a certain type of mind, it ALWAYs feels like society is collapsing; folks everywhere and always are convinced that theirs are the end times.
So no, I don’t truly think we’re on the verge – but even so it feels more than usual as if some form of societal collapse just might be imminent, or already be underway, in the Western world.
It’s easy in our day-to-day lives where things still mostly work to think of collapse as comically impossible, but in fact societies crap out all the time – think of the fall of the Soviet Union, one of the big bois of the 20th century, a mere 30ish years ago, or Venezuela, or the Kaiser’s Germany for that matter.
To paraphrase the anthropologist Joseph Tainter: societies are basically problem solving systems, and when new problems crop up they evolve new subsystems to deal with them, until one day the whole edifice becomes extremely complex and unwieldy and then some scary new problem comes along – environmental degradation and pandemics are common culprits – and it all starts to come apart.
Oppressed minorities start getting more vocally restive, maybe there’s a war, waves of emigrants/refugees head for the exits, a big mega-state is carved up into smaller fiefs, and a newer, simpler and often poorer way of life emerges from the ashes.
Oddly enough, collapse frequently has a silver lining, especially for the weak and exploited – when the Roman Empire melted away to nothing, many folks lower down on the economic ladder found themselves suddenly free of burdensome taxes, unfair laws, and murderous emperors breathing down their necks.
It is wrong to treat such events lightly, but the fact is that regimes ultimately end when people walk away from their overlords, literally or figuratively in favor of a different life.
Today I look around and I see a lot of people who are fortunate enough to have the option drifting towards a low key form of internal exile – a move to the country, a downshifted work-from-home arrangement, an early retirement, a life of both less and more.
“But we are so innovative and well off here in the West, it’s unimaginable that we are on the brink” – which is absolutely true, but then again so was the Austro-Hungarian empire, a beacon of high culture, tolerance and innovation, right up until the end.