Wednesday, January 16, 2008

End of Empire

I’ve been reading Robert Kaplan’s book “An Empire Wilderness,” about the future of America and the changes transforming the country. The book was written ten years ago, so part of what Kaplan predicts as the future has already come to pass, or at least is much clearer now. But he’s always interesting to read, so it’s been worthwhile anyway.

Kaplan tends to be quite pessimistic about the state of things. His other books, “Balkan Ghosts” and “The Ends of the Earth,” were both terrific, but as I recall they were the same way. Everywhere he goes he sees dust, howling winds, empty landscapes and poverty -- or a rampant consumerist wealthier class depleting the world’s resources.

Pretty accurate, I know.

In this book, he travels through the American west, bemoaning the sprawl of cities into ecologically sensitive areas where there’s no water -- think Nevada and Arizona. He also dissects the precarious relationship between the U.S. and Mexicans, who congregate on the border in unstable migrant communities or, if they can cross, immigrate illegally. The book definitely makes Mexico seem like no picnic.

I’ve heard people say they believe the era of American global dominance is coming to an end, that our “empire” is falling. We’ve built an unsustainable society, dependent on resources that are doomed to run out and only half-heartedly searched for solutions. We ought to be thinking about what it really will take to turn this ship around -- cutting our energy consumption, pruning back our consumerism and crazy spending (both personally and governmentally) to what we really need, and finding a way to get along with our neighbors.

Globally, I’ve always thought the root cause of all our problems, particularly the environmental ones, is that there are just too many of us. Addressing that is the biggest challenge of all.

(Photo: Long Island City, Queens, Dec. 2007)


Anonymous said...

You know of course that I'm one of the people who talks about the fall of the American empire. But I''m not as quick to blame the particulars of our society for the fall.

Empires are never sustainable. They puff themselves up and then collapse ... like dying stars, kind of. Building empires is entirely natural for our species (we've been doing it forever) and follows similar patterns throughout the natural world.

Just like populations of various animals, or "invasive" plants, human empires always get too big for their britches.

Mouse Medicine's blog today is about pizza. Did you know that Americans eat 100 acres of pizza a day? Talk about getting too big for our britches. Sheesh!!

What I'd like to do is get into a space of acceptance that the American empire is falling, but resist the urge to blame us for all our flaws and problems. A long fall from dizzying heights is always frightening. I'm hoping to cultivate compassion for us and the rest of the world, too, with which we are now inextricably connected.

Anonymous said...

When you talk about the over-consumption of water in Arizona and Nevada, you are really talking about Phoenix and Las Vegas, the eight-hundred pound gorillas. The rest of us a small potatoes.

Besides the sheer volume of water they use, the per capita consumption of water in Phoenix is about twice that of Tucson. Phoenicians, like the residents of Las Vegas seem to think that they have unlimited water resources.

The biggest users of water in Arizona are the copper mines and the cotton farmers. Farming the desert is just idiotic, and happily it is dying enterprise.

With respect to your comment on Mexico, the reality of life for most Mexicans is very stark. Mexico has long been a land without a middle-class.

Anonymous said...

Reya: Absolutely! I thought of you when I wrote the phrase "end of empire." I also think blame is not the route to go, but at the same time, I don't think we should consider backsliding as an inevitability. I think we should recognize the problems and do our best to address them -- and we haven't done that yet, because it means sacrifice. Americans, at least lately, seem hesitant to sacrifice their conveniences and unable to take in big-picture views.

Merle: Actually, I hate to say it, but one of the places Kaplan visits in his book is Tucson. You should give it a read -- I'd be interested to hear your take on it.

Anonymous said...

Great discussion but I have nothing new to add to it because you and Reya have covered my thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Dennis says to watch the movie "Masked and Anonymous" Dennis says it takes place after the super power dies.

Anonymous said...

Dennis is giving you the link to watch the trailer