Saturday, July 23, 2011

...pushing civilization over the edge

By kay.e.strong

I picked up Jared Diamond’s tome, Collapse, a few days ago as a distraction from the dog-days of summer.  Diamond treatise identifies twelve environmental triggers that, either singularly or in combinations, set the stage for civilizational collapse.  The historical narrative tracing the collapse of lost civilizations such as the Island peoples (Easter, Henderson), Native Americans societies (Anasazi, Maya) and north Atlantic neighbors (Vikings, Nordic) weaves the trigger’s role into the larger context of societal decision-making and their subsequent implications.  Ultimately, Diamond tackles the question of what pushed once flourishing societies over the edge.  Four categories of failure are posited: failure to anticipate a problem before it actually arrives, failure to perceive the problem once it does materializes, failure to attempt to solve the problem once perceived and failure to succeed once attempts have been made (421).  By my estimation we as a society are deep into the failure territory of category three…attempting… with a firm foothold in four…succeeding. 
Explanatory factors for a category three failure parallel well with today’s hot climate—hot politically, not environmentally…Debt Ceiling Talks Collapse as Boehner Walks Out NYT 22 July.

A small, highly motivated and well-finance group (the decision-making elite) hijacks national well-being, sacrificing the interests of the many to self-interested power clashes. 

…“rank-and-file House Republicans would not agree to raise revenues on wealthy Americans as part of a debt-reduction deal.”

…the nation’s unemployment rate remains stuck above 9 percent since May 2009, while applications for unemployment benefits have now topped 400,000 for 15 straight weeks (BLS).
… in June employers took 1,532 mass layoff actions involving 143,444 workers, about the same for May (BLS).
…the employment-to-population ratio hovers at 58 percent, meaning only one out of every two people in the US has job—of any kind.

The most vulnerable are offered up to the god of ideology. 

“If we're going to avoid any type of default and downgrade—if we're going to resume job creation in America—the president and his allies need to listen to the people and work with Republicans to cut up the credit cards once and for all (Hensarling).”

The offering,
…millions of seniors (in 2010 nearly 53 million Americans) not receiving their Social Security checks in the mail…troops not receiving paychecks (Pryor).
…39.6 million aged 65 and older, and 7.9 million disabled people (2010) not covered by Medicare. (Trustees Report)
…42 percent of US children in poverty (2009) (
…14.7 percent of US households food … insecure at least some time (2009), essentially unchanged from 14.6 percent in 2008. This remains the highest recorded prevalence rate of food insecurity since 1995 when the first national food security survey was conducted.

It is possible to bypass a category four meltdown.  Crucial in tipping outcomes toward success or failure, according to Diamond, are two types of choices: courage to practice long-term planning and willingness to bend on core values in the interest of survival.

“This debate boils down to a simple choice.  We can come together for the good of the country and reach a compromise; we can strengthen our economy and leave for our children a more secure future.  Or we can …” (Obama)

The power to write future history is within reach.  Do we have the courage and willingness to make our place in the coming sequel, Collapse in 21st Century Societies, conspicuous by our absence?

Kay Strong, Ph.D., Southern Illinois University, M.T., University of Houston, M.A., Ohio University; Associate Professor at Baldwin-Wallace College; Areas of expertise: international economics, contemporary social-economic issues, complexity and futures-based perspectives in economics. E-mail:

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This blog lives under the auspices of the Department of Economics whose mission has been to hold high the lantern beaming an "economic way of thinking" onto the world. Selfishness, rationality and equilibrium have been central to the teaching of an economic way of thinking rooted in the Renaissance. And, in this regard, the department has faithfully stayed the course. The intent of this blog, thinking out loud..., however, is to entertain exchanges which may challenge the centrality of economics as we teach it.