Those afflicted by hubris [immoderate greatness] become the agents of their own destruction. Like a tragic hero, a civilization comes to a ruinous end due to intrinsic flaws that are the shadow side of its very virtues….Indeed, civilization is a kind of Moloch whose demands for material and human sacrifice grow in proportion to its greatness.
New programs within the old paradigm will simply recreate the old problems in a new guise. Moreover, my analysis suggests that there is very little we can do. Most of the trends I identify are inexorable, and complex adaptive systems are ultimately unmanageable.
William Ophuls, Immoderate Greatness
Civilization as I saw it ended recently, and I am relieved. Its demise brings an end to my judgments of it and I feel immeasurably lighter as a result.
I’ve just finished two great books written by William Ophuls, “Plato’s Revenge” and “Immoderate Greatness.” Ophuls, a brilliant observer and incisive thinker, has had a front row seat and broad view of humanity’s global progress since the 60’s.
In the first book he leaves open at least some bare hope and possibility for humanity’s rescue from itself, by itself. In the second, building upon what he learned and delineated so clearly in the first book, he arrives at a fully developed conclusion with an objective, dispassionate resignation to fact: a massive collapse of human civilization is imminent and unavoidable. It will likely not be an extinction level event, but it is definitely going to be unprecedented in human history.
If you want to disagree or argue the point, don’t take it up with me, take it up with Mr. Ophuls. I’m convinced, I do agree with him. My own observations, thoughts and experience ratify his conclusions. I suggest that before taking up an axe and bringing it to the grinding stone you read the books first.
We humans are motes. Hubris aside, we are motes in the juggernaut of life. We are motes of life surging in the veins of the universe. Yet we have become a current-caught crowd of motes of death, infecting the lives of each other and our planet. The tide has changed, as tides do. Humanity’s flow is done and the ebb begun. It is nature’s turn.
This feeling of relief is an odd thing, but I understand at least part of it.
When I was young I used to fight and revile and be depressed about the human ways and means proscribed by the civilization I was born into. What a mess, I would think, this cluster of complex, gluttonous, selfish delusions!
I asked my civilization how do I live, what do I do, what are my ways and means in this life to be? The answers were unsatisfactory to me. The great engine of my civilization followed a narrow track; my spirit did not conform to the arrangement. I found happiness in simple things, and my civilization offered me a complex labyrinth.
Ophuls’ analysis of what happens when human civilization veers away from the essence of humanity rings loud and true. When the mind becomes separated from that essence it develops hubris and wanders off from its place in creation on a self-managed misadventure. Mind disconnected from essence loses its balance and humility. It forgets what humans are, how they have evolved, what they are best at doing.
What are the good answers to give to the young person who asks the questions we all ask when we are young? Ophuls clearly delineates an essential trinity: Simplicity, Thriftiness, and Community.
When I was a child thriftiness was a happy thing to me, that simple frugality of life and love which requires no more than the beloved, the loaf of bread, the waters of earth, a warm comforter beneath an open window beneath a roof beneath the moon and stars, and work and play in all the fields of the earth with the people and animals there. My civilization offered me ways and means of profligacy and waste.
When I was a child community was a happy thing to me, I danced and played and sang there. Yet soon civilization informed me with its own confusions. I was to put away these childish things and seek faith, hope and love in a place where faith and hope and love were lost, a place where ideology and strife and competition were more important than spiritual commonality and peacefulness and cooperation.
Simplicity. Thriftiness. Community. Ophuls concludes the abandonment of these three guiding principle social virtues is the precursor to the fall of civilizations, in part because they are also spiritual virtues. Unmanageable complexity, wastefulness, and isolation are deadly to human society, just as they are deadly to the spirit. The very characteristics which humanity has evolved in order to survive – the abilities to adapt and manipulate – have within them a naturally self-adjusting seed of correction if they become separated from the essence which birthed them.
Humanity is part of nature and shares the path of all life on earth, back to the beginning of life. The ocean and sun and moon, the earth and air, the cycles of forces which interplay between them, it all imbues our substance down to the cellular level. We have evolved into the most complexly adaptive and manipulative organism present upon the earth, yet the ancient memory of our development – and our kinship with every form of life – remains with us.
Mind looks at life and categorizes according to difference; kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. What mind can lose sight of is what all life has in common. In order to think toward the unity of life, mind must allow itself to be informed by the essence in and of life.
The human cortical complex is useful but not special or exclusive or separate from other life. Consciousness, sentience, individuality – attributes humanity considers superior and exclusive to itself – are present in nature now, and would be there even if humanity were not. We are natural beings, a form of life sharing life itself with every living thing.
Now, seeing from the perspective that what we have evolved in our civilization is a genetically mandated return to the garden of balanced humanity from whence we came and where we lived so happily, it all makes sense. Dissolution is natural and normal in these circumstances. There’s nothing to resist anymore. The only question left is, “How shall we conduct our lives amid this?”
We live in unmanageable complexity, waste too much, have become isolated from each other. The fall from grace is self evident. It seems likely the deluge is unavoidable, an oncoming global tsunami which will scourge human society. Yet as the wave, ever-rising and inevitable, approaches our shore, we still have a choice. We can continue to live as we are, or live as we are naturally conformed to live, reconciled to our circumstances, aware of our divinity. The choice may not matter to many who see the jaws of nature opening before them.
It matters to me.