[Paleopsych] Asia Times: Spengler: Why nations die (fwd)
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Fri Aug 26 01:35:26 UTC 2005
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Date: Sat, 20 Aug 2005 15:44:42 -0400 (EDT)
From: Premise Checker <checker at panix.com>
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Subject: Asia Times: Spengler: Why nations die
Spengler: Why nations die
Asia Times Online :: Asian News, Business and Economy.
Why people read a certain book often contains more information than
the book itself, and there is rich information content in the brisk
sales of Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or
Succeed. Diamond picks out of the rubbish bin of history a few cases
of nugatory interest in which environmental disaster overwhelmed a
society otherwise desirous of continued existence. According to the
publisher's notice (I do not read such piffle), Diamond avers that the
problem was in breeding too fast and cutting down too many trees.
The silly Vikings of Greenland refused to eat fish, disdained the
hunting techniques of the Inuit, and consumed too much wood and
topsoil. As a result their colony collapsed during the 15th century
and they all died. One feels sorry for the Greenlanders, though not
for their cousins on the Scandinavian mainland, who just then stood at
the cusp of their European power.
Something similar happened to the Easter Islanders, who chopped down
all their palm trees and the Mayans of Central America, who burned
their forests to build temples. Diamond thinks this should serve as a
warning to the inveterate consumerists of the United States, who
presumably also face extinction should they fail to erect legal
barriers to suburban sprawl.
Ideological reflex is too mild a word for this sort of thinking;
perhaps the term "cramp" would do better. Given that America returns
land to the wilderness each year, the danger to American survival from
deforestation must be on par with the risks of being hit by a large
asteroid. The world is not breeding too fast - birthrates are
everywhere falling - and the industrial countries (except for the
Anglo-Saxons) fail to reproduce at all.
Why should the peculiar circumstances that killed obscure populations
in remote places make a geography professor's book into a bestseller?
Evidently the topic of mass extinction commands the attention of the
reading public, although the reading public wants to look for the
causes of mass extinction in all but the most obvious place, which is
the mirror. Diamond's books appeal to an educated, secular readership,
that is, precisely the sort of people who have one child or none at
all. If you have fewer than two children, and most of the people you
know have fewer than two children, Holmesian deductive powers are not
required to foresee your eventual demise.
After rejecting revealed religion, modern people seek an sense of
exaltation in nature, which is to say that they revered the old
natural religion. If you do not believe in God, quipped G K
Chesterton, you will believe in anything. It is too fearful to
contemplate one's own mortality, so the Green projects his own
presentiment of death onto the natural world. Fear for the destruction
of the natural world - trees, whales, polar ice-caps, tigers, whatever
- substitutes for the death-anxiety of the individual. I discussed
this under the title, "It's not the end of the world - it's just the
end of you," and am told that Rush Limbaugh read the whole essay aloud
on his radio program. 
In fact, the main reason societies fail is that they choose not to
live. That is a horrifying thought to absorb, and the average reader
would much rather delve into the details of obscure ecosystems of the
past than reflect upon why half of Eastern Europe will die out by
Suicide is a rare occurrence at the individual level, but a typical
one at the level of nations. Even among the most stressed populations
in the world, eg the Neolithic Amazon people of the Guarani, the
suicide rate is small compared to the total population. According to
Survival International (survival-international.org), 330 of the 30,000
Guaranis killed themselves during the past 17 years, a sad response to
the shock of engagement with modern culture.
We know little of small peoples who died out in antiquity or even
Medieval times, but the case histories that have come down to us are
compelling, precisely because they include the most successful
civilizations of the West, namely classical Greece, Rome and
Byzantium. Countless small tribes disappeared into the hands of the
Roman slavers, doubtless quite against their inclinations. As Robert
Marcellus wrote in The Human Life Review:
The Greek geographer and historian Strabo (63 BCE-21 CE) described
Greece as "a land entirely deserted; the depopulation begun since
long continues. Roman soldiers camp in abandoned houses; Athens is
populated by statues". Plutarch observed that "one would no longer
find in Greece 3,000 hoplites [infantrymen]." The historian
Polybius (204-122 BCE) wrote: "One remarks nowadays all over Greece
such a diminution in natality and in general manner such a
depopulation that the towns are deserted and the fields lie fallow.
Although this country has not been ravaged by wars or epidemics,
the cause of the harm is evident: by avarice or cowardice the
people, if they marry, will not bring up the children they ought to
have. At most they bring up one or two. It is in this way that the
scourge before it is noticed is rapidly developed. The remedy is in
ourselves; we have but to change our morals." 
Sparta, the model of slave-based military oligarchy, had 5,000
land-owning families at the time of the Peloponnesian War, but only
700 by the third century AD after Epiminondas broke the Spartan hold
over its helot population. Rome's population fell to perhaps 100,000
during the seventh century from 1 million in the second century.
Between 150 AD and 450 AD, the population of Rome's Western empire
fell by about four-fifths. Constantinople held 250,000 people in the
ninth century and between 600,000 and one million during the 12th
century, yet it had fallen to only 100,000 when the Turks took it, at
least in 1453. After Constantinople, the world's largest city west of
the Indus, well may have been the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan.
Estimates of the annual number of humans sacrificed by the Aztecs
range from 20,000 to a quarter million per year. Although Aztec
civilization was overthrown by the conquering Spaniards, it could not
have lasted indefinitely given such practices.
There is endless debate about such data. Roman population data are
somewhat conjectural, and Strabo's estimates have been disputed by
some scholars. Explanations have been forwarded that range from the
collapse of the slave-based agricultural system to mass infanticide
and venereal disease.
Nonetheless, it seems clear that the Romans did not so much conquer
Greece as to occupy its shell; that the Germanic tribes did not so
much conquer Rome so much as to move into what remained of it; and
that the Arabs did not so much conquer the Byzantine hinterland as
migrate into it. On this last point, a new book by Yehuda Nevo and
Judith Koren argues convincingly that the Byzantines ceded frontier
territories to Arab foederati in the mid-seventh century and that the
famous battles of the Islamic conquest in fact never took place. 
In one form or another the antecedents of Western civilization died of
existential causes, rather than external ones.
No doubt Diamond's Greenlanders wished to keep on living. They ate
their dogs when other food ran out (although apparently they continued
to refuse fish for reasons that are hard to explain). Perhaps the will
to live among 17th century Easter Islanders burned brightly as they
chopped down their last palm tree. It is hard for us to fathom, for we
have very little in common with the Easter Islanders. But we have a
great deal in common with the residents of classical Greek polis and
with the Romans as well as their Byzantine offshoot.
 Crossroads to Islam, by Yehuda D Nevo and Judith Koren.
Prometheus: New York 2003.
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