In recent weeks I have become convinced of an inconvenient truth: not only is the United States an empire in decline, but we are in the final stages of collapse. It is neither pessimistic nor paranoid to tell the truth about where we are. It is kind honesty. Speaking the truth enables us to plan and prepare together, instead of wasting time and energy in denial and unproductive activities that approach irrelevance. Now is the time for radical imagination and purposeful action.
Speaking truth also invites connection. For about fifteen years, I’ve noticed signs which felt to me like symptoms of decline, but sharing this interpretation was rarely met with empathy or curiosity. Things have changed. In the last few months, most people to whom I’ve mentioned collapse aren’t rejecting the idea outright, but embracing it with appreciation and relief. They feel validated that their increasing struggles with the chaos, multiple pressures and bizarre behaviors around them have an explanation. They feel empowered by the notion that VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) isn’t a temporary glitch of the software the world is running right now, but an integral feature. Such knowledge doesn’t relieve anxiety, but it does provide direction and an opening for creativity.
Others have written about the signs of our impending collapse, most recently political journalist James Traub and most notably (in my world) organizational consultant and researcher Meg Wheatley. Wheatley wrote an entire book comparing our current state to patterns scholars have identified in the collapse of empires around the globe across time, and discussing how true leaders can respond. Current examples of the narcissism, materialism, fanaticism, cynicism and frivolity characteristic of end-stage collapse include:
- Deep, increasing income inequality and reduced economic mobility. Starting with Generation X, we no longer do better than our parents.
- Increasing gaps, and a general decline in, our health, basic level of education and quality of life
- The election and presidency of Donald Trump.
- The declining belief in fact and science. Large percentages of Americans believe Obama is African and Muslim, the earth is flat, climate change doesn’t exist and Sandy Hook was a hoax.
- The rise, number and power of “reality” shows (starting with Jerry Springer).
- The rise, number and power of talk shows (and more talk, less action generally).
- The rise in popularity of celebrities, including “personalities” like the Kardashians who lack talent and achievements.
- Education has become highly specialized and valued as a means to economic mobility and employment – not as the worthwhile pursuit of knowledge, or a path to becoming a well-rounded, excellent human being.
- Epidemic addiction to smartphones and video games (as well as opioids, Pharma, caffeine, adrenaline, and dopamine).
I am no economist, but I am a social scientist and historian by training and avocation. Examples I’d add from my own observations include:
- In the early 1990s, I earned $22,000 per year and rented two different apartments in Los Angeles for $599 and $550 per month. Apartments in the same neighborhoods are now $2500-4000, while social workers aren’t making $100,000 (proportional increase). This is a national and generational trend.
- Products are the same price, or cheaper, than they once were, but poorer quality (especially clothing and household goods).
- It’s significantly cheaper, and easier, to buy a new product than repair or refurbish the old.
- No standardization of product quality or sizing (one can order the exact same item in the same size but different colors, and they don’t fit, or look the same).
- Extreme decline in the quality of customer service, with the exception of very small businesses and very high end ones.
- The popularity and omnipresence of dollar stores, as well as the poor economic, emotional and mental state of those who work and shop there.
- The prison industrial complex — mass incarceration, the privatization of prisons, and the widespread use of prison (slave) labor to produce (cheap) products.
- Trials have become public forms of theater (starting with OJ Simpson).
- Celebrities are not only seen as viable political candidates, they win elections (starting with Reagan).
- The popularity and stratospheric budgets of epic movies and TV shows, many of which focus on archetypal battles of good v. evil, or harken back to times of American greatness, or other empire shifts (superhero movies, World War II movies, Eurocentric epics like Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings).
- The extreme rise in popularity and lucrativeness of stand-up comedy.
- Extreme policing of language across the political spectrum.
- Those who stand up for what’s right are often ostracized and belittled instead of supported and praised.
- Holding people accountable for bad behavior is considered in poor taste. Those who are called out often respond with outrage and indignation instead of guilt.
- One’s word means little-to-nothing, from “I’ll be there” to “I read these documents” to “I won’t cheat on you”.
- Extreme cultural relativism – little-to-no agreement about what is “right”, what is “wrong” and what it means to be an “American”.
- The racist, incompetent lack of adequate response to Hurricane Katrina (during and since).
- The government’s admonition to shop as a response to 9/11.
- Taking no meaningful political action to curtail guns after Sandy Hook.
- Militant obsession with individual and national “freedom” above all else, despite deeply painful consequences.
- For-profit healthcare (coupled with multiple systemic barriers to wellness).
It’s important to note that not all these examples may be “bad” – speaking as a diehard fan of Game of Thrones and stand-up comedy – but we must understand them as cultural phenomena in the proper context. Just as some characteristics of societies in the final stages of collapse (such as increased equality and the rise of the “welfare state”) are arguably positive and highly beneficial for many, historically they are features of decline, not rise.
We must also bear in mind that no one can say for sure what “collapse” will look like. It doesn’t necessarily mean the U.S. will disappear in a mushroom cloud or devolve into the horrific world of The Road. Descendants of former empires still exist and even thrive. The Romans drive mopeds, shop, dine with friends, create art, raise healthy families and go to work among the ruins of their former empire. The same is true in Great Britain, Spain, France, Egypt, Mongolia and Tenochtitlán – these former world powers are still with us, and still contribute to global greatness. Some are even doing better than the U.S. when it comes to quality of life.
However, history teaches that the process can be painful, devastating and even bloody. Horror and mushrooms clouds are a distinct possibility. Unfortunately, the history and personality of the U.S. don’t inspire confidence in our collective ability to gracefully accept defeat or make wise decisions about how to live together in sustainable community. The potential therefore lies with individuals who can create what Wheatley calls “islands of sanity” wherever we find ourselves – in our families, neighborhoods, communities and organizations. I believe the quality of the future depends on those of us who can embody a better way of being – through clear and noble purpose, service to the common good, deep integrity, personal discipline and the application of what I call The 6 C’s: courage, consciousness, curiosity, compassion, (self) control and changeability.
These times will continue to test us greatly. “Apocalypse” actually means “the unveiling”, and our response to the end of the world as we know it will reveal who we really are, individually and collectively. It’s up to us to decide who we are, and act accordingly. The future hangs in the balance, and awaits our answer.