How Civilizations Fail

Dec. 8th, 2022, Houston, TX, US

Since writing this, and one other on the breakup of Russia, which I will get posted here shortly, Henry Kissinger has advocated Russia not be broken up or even significantly defeated. I’ll get around to rebutting that too. One thing at a time.

This story just appeared, related to my comments about opposition to an actual Russian defeat.  In addition to making you aware of the self-serving Ukrainian remarks, and the additional background on those who resist Russian defeat, I wish to provide my own response.  First a summary of the already short article:

Ukraine Says Western Allies Shouldn’t Fear Russia Falling Apart – WSJ

  1. Ukraine FM urges allies not to fear breakup of Russia, defends their right to attack bases on Russian territory.
  2. Though united on preventing Ukraine defeat, not all support re-acquisition of territory lost in 2014.
  3. Some of these allies worry that such an outcome could profoundly destabilize the nuclear-armed Russian state, potentially leading to its fragmentation and wide-scale unrest, with unpredictable consequences for the rest of the world.
    1. Anthony Blinken claims US supports re-taking all territory
    2. But we know US limited HIMARS to not attack Russian bases, and Miley does not support full re-take
    3. I have urged you to call for Miley’s replacement.  If you value civilization on Earth, write now.  That I have largely given up urging you (only a few respond) does not mean I don’t write myself.
    4. In “Chicken Kiev” speech of 1991. Then, President George H.W. Bush in a speech to Ukrainian lawmakers warned against “suicidal nationalism,” urging Ukrainians to preserve the Soviet Union and abandon their quest for independence from Moscow.
      1. GHW Bush was former director of the CIA and the only person in America who does not remember where he was when JFK was assassinated.  Photos place him on a street corner in Dallas.
  4. “I’m calling on the world not to be afraid of Russia falling apart. If the wheels of history begin to turn, no human will change it,” Mr. Kuleba said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal in Kyiv.

I can’t help but like Kuleba.  He calls them as he honestly sees them, and that is right.  IF the wheels of history begin to turn, no human will change it.

I believe we have choices.  I suspect, strongly, on evidence, that millions or billions of civilizations in the Universe have made choices that limited their lifespans to a few thousand years, and went kaput.  As Mr. Kuleba points out, we have to make those choices before the wheels start to turn.  Once turning, no human will stop them.

I do not believe the present crisis is existential.  It is reminiscent of the qualities of an existential crisis, and thus I “chronicle the end times”.  But most likely there will be no nuclear war, Russia will be left intact, and will rot from within.  Russia or China or other countries will take ambiguous lessons, and the wheels will turn unexpectedly on another day.

If you have thought about this for a few years, without dismissing it as hopeless or irrelevant, you will have reached the same conclusion I have, which is the only logical conclusion to reach:

  1. We must act in the moment in an entirely unpredictable manner, in a way no responsible civilization would act.  Any reasonable action has already been tried by the millions of civilizations that failed.  Better to be a cockroach dodging at random than a genius who is wrong.
  2. We must in the long run seek to understand the dynamics of civilization in a novel way, not biased by our own accidental survival (which reveals nothing of our future chances), or on our over-confident narrow-specialist academic disciplines, or our politics which amount to everyone for themselves, nor our idealism which amounts to everyone for anyone but themselves.  None of the things which didn’t work for other civilizations are relevant.

Natasha was wondering today about North American Indians, which didn’t leave any big cities.  They had them.  But there are almost no stones in the Mississippi River Valley, so when de-occupied these cities disappeared except for the mounds on which buildings were built. 

Ancient Native Americans Once Thrived in Bustling Urban Centers – HISTORY

Cahokia: North America’s massive, ancient city – Big Think

Mound Builders – Wikipedia

There aren’t great and stable river valleys in Central America or in the narrow land west of the Andes in South America.  Cities there were based on either cisterns or natural aquifers.  The weather in the Western Hemisphere is horrible.  Decades of drought are followed by decades of flood.  The mountain configuration causes the jet stream to rise to the north pole, then dip down all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.  The cold winters and sweltering summers shocked the hell out of early European Settlers, destroyed the first colony, and 90% of the second.  Check out the tornado frequency map:

North America is the only place in the world that has “violent tornadoes”.  South America, Central America, Africa and Asia are nearly tornado free.  Europe’s tornadoes are mild.  You may wonder why I continue to risk Hurricanes here south of Houston and north of Galveston.  Just 10 miles north of me most of the violent weather peters out.  Hail storms cease.  Tornadoes disappear.  I am balanced on a knife edge of moderate weather.  To improve my situation I’d have to go north to central Canada, or west to the desert.  Some of the places that have fewer tornadoes have loads of hurricanes:

Notice that most of the category 5’s are in the Pacific and threaten Asia.  Here they mostly go to New Orleans or Corpus Christy, and all rapidly dissipate in south central Texas (those curving toward Mississippi last longer over land).

This is not something I just observed after living here half a century.  I checked flood plain maps when buying a house.  I was aware of the quiet region from my first couple of years here.  By the time Claudette flooded all the high-value homes I admired near me in 1979, I resolved never to move.

The Mound Builders had a Great River Civilization.  With NO STONES for hundreds of miles in any direction, they build no lasting structures.  With the WORST WEATHER ON THE PLANET what they did build, except the mounds themselves, was rapidly wiped away once they were no longer maintaining it.

In the Amazon Basin, you can’t have a Great River Civilization.  The Jungle will swallow up any such thing.  There are too many insidious and ferocious things wanting to eat any pile of stored grain.  Grain was wealth in the early civilizations.  If you can’t store it, you can’t build wealth, and you can’t have civilization.  Harsh, but I tell the truth.

In Central America, cities dependent on stored water were wiped out by periods of drought.  After a couple hundred years at the most, inhabitants would return to their plots of land or the jungle. 

In the American West, a similar strategy of stored water was adopted to supply cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles.  How did the much-vaunted Europeans do at managing what was essentially the giant cisterns of Lake Powell and Lake Mead?

Hmm, not any better than the Central Americans, I see, and in less time.

River civilizations are stable as long as there is rainfall anywhere in the river basin, and the civilization learns to withstand floods (thus the commonality of flood stories).  The longest lasting one that I know of is the first really large one, Ur.  Founded in 3800 BC and abandoned on 500 BC when the river changed course, it lasted 3300 years.  Yet it was unknown in biblical times.  Completely forgotten by the ancient Romans and Greeks. 

Rome was founded in 753 BC and became a republic in 509 and the most powerful empire on Earth in the first century BC.  By 400-something AD Rome was sacked and the empire in the west gone.  In Constantinople it lasted until 1453.  Giving the benefit of the doubt, the Roman empire lasted at most 2000 years, only locally important for much of that time, barely half as long as Ur.  Athens remained a great power for only 180 years.  The British Empire lasted about 400 years if you really stretch the end dates.

Civilizations do not last long in the grand scheme of archaeological time.  Where is the new knowledge that would suggest we are different?

Ah, yes, that.  There isn’t any, is there?  When our river dries up, we’ll be gone.  I think you should not even worry about man-made disasters.  And if defeating a genocidal expansionist extortionist empire seems a little bold, like a reasonable civilization would not take such a risk, it’s probably the right thing to do.