Oh, I don’t think the world is ending, any more than it ended after Rome fell, or after Egyptian civilization came to its close. My point is far more subtle than a cartoon characterization. Rome fell largely because the complexity of its society outstripped the ability of people to understand the inter-dependencies. Thus self-serving short-term gains resulted in longer-term widespread harms. If we look at today we see everywhere we look mindless populism promising that the complex issues of today can be avoided if we all run away and hide under the bed of an illusory yesteryear. It’s a consequence of the fact the complexity of our civilization has dramatically out-paced the average person’s ability to comprehend. Today our technologies amplify our inherent limitations and follies, making things happen faster and in a more widespread manner while confusing more people more completely. And unlike in Rome, there’s a mass media eager to sensationalize everything in order to drive ad revenues, which further amplifies things.
Stephen Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature makes the point that today things are, statistically, far better than they’ve ever been for a larger percentage of people on the planet and I’d concur. I also note, however, that precisely the same legitimate claims were made in 1913: the world was rich from global trade, educational levels were higher and more widespread than at any previous time in history, health was significantly improved over conditions pertaining a hundred years previously, and so forth. The primary difference between 1913 and now is that technology has resulted in far greater inter-dependence yet at the same time made it far easier to disrupt the essentials of life. While many people worry about China, I suspect the real problem lies at home: we’re complacent, easily manipulated, ignorant and thus incapable of analyzing issues and taking suitable action, and increasingly eager for simple-minded “solutions” that make things worse and worse. Our civilization won’t fall to a Golden Horde; it will collapse in on itself.
One could argue that the USA is quite close already, with the worst health outcomes per dollar in the OECD, near the bottom for primary and secondary education, awful domestic gun violence that kills tens of thousands but traumatizes tens of millions, generalized ignorance about affairs beyond the lower 48, a totally dysfunctional political system incapable of addressing even urgent immediate needs, a homelessness problem that is per capita the highest in the OECD, and on and on.