[Paleopsych] Asia Times: Spengler: Why nations die (fwd)

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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. [1]
     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." [2]

     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. [3]
     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.
     [i] http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Front_Page/FB03Aa01.html
     [2] http://www.humanlifereview.com/2001_winter/demarcellus.php
     [3] Crossroads to Islam, by Yehuda D Nevo and Judith Koren.
     Prometheus: New York 2003.

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     1. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Front_Page/FF03Aa07.html
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    17. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/War_and_Terror.html
    18. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/others/spengler.html
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    20. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/others/Escobar.html

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