A friend gave me William Ophuls’ Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail to read a couple years ago and it sat on my shelf until just recently. At only 93 pp. (with bibliographical recommendations and endnotes), it’s a slender volume but contains a good synopsis of the dynamics that doom civilizations. I’ve been piecing together the story of industrial civilization and its imminent collapse for about eight years now, so I didn’t expect Ophuls’ analysis to break new ground, which indeed it didn’t (at least for me). However, without my own investigations already behind me, I would not have been too well convinced by Ophuls’ CliffsNotes-style arguments. Armed with what I already learned, Ophuls is preaching to the choir (member).

The book breaks into two parts: biophysical limitations and cultural impediments borne out of human error. Whereas I’m inclined to award greater importance to biophysical limits (e.g., carrying capacity), particularly but not exclusively as civilizations overshoot and strip their land and resource bases, I was surprised to read this loose assertion:

… maintaining a civilization takes a continuous input of matter, energy, and morale, and the latter is actually the most important. [p. 51]

Upon reflection, it seems to be a chicken-and-egg question. Which comes first, increased and unmet demands for inputs or exhausted and/or diminished inputs due to human factors? The historical record of failed empires and civilizations offers examples attributable to both. For instance, the Incan civilization is believed to have risen and fallen on the back of climate change, whereas the fall of the Roman and British Empires stems more from imperial overreach. Reasons are never solely factor A or B, of course; a mixture of dynamic effects is easily discoverable. Still, the question is inevitable for industrial civilization now on a trajectory toward extinction no less than other (already extinct) civilizations, especially for those who believe it possible to learn from past mistakes and avoid repetition.

So the question is actually pretty simple: have we finally reached not just a hard ceiling we cannot rise above due to straightforward limits to growth but the crest of a wave that has by necessity an upslope and a downslope, or have we done to ourselves what all civilizations do, namely, mismanaged our own affairs out of greed, stupidity, and incompetence to the point of unrecoverable fragility? In Immoderate Greatness, Ophuls argues the latter with surprising vehemence and indignation, whereas geophysical processes are more “aw, shucks ….” Here’s a good example:

Human beings … manage their affairs by muddling through—a mode of operation that has many virtues and advantages but that also postpones dealing with fundamental issues until they become intractable. At worst, they actively prepare their own downfall through greed, arrogance, obstinacy, shortsightedness, laziness, and stupidity. [pp. 55–56.]

This dour assessment is repeated throughout the second part of the book in various forms, so I can only surmise that Ophuls shares my misanthropy.

One detail worth bringing forward is Ophuls’ acknowledgement of a large body of work on cultural decline and civilizational collapse:

That civilizations decline has been understood since ancient times. Many historians, philosophers, seers, and poets have attempted to describe the cycle of history and capture its driving forces. Hesiod, Plato, Polybius, Ibn Khaldun, Giambattista Vico, Gustave Le Bon, Oswald Spengler, Pitirum Sorokin, and Arnold Toynbee are just a few of the most noted. [pp. 45–46]

Add to that pantheon Joseph Tainter, Edward Gibbon, and Jared Diamond. Spengler is known to me by virtue of my glacially slow reading and blogging of The Decline of the West. In addition, Ophuls’ offers Sir John Bagot Glubb (a/k/a Glubb Pasha) as perhaps the most succinct description of decline. Glubb identifies five successive ages of civilization (not unlike Hesiod’s Ages of Man or Spengler’s mapping of civilization onto the four seasons): the Ages of Pioneers (or Conquest), Commerce, Affluence, Intellect, and Decadence. Dividing civilization into phases is similar to dividing an individual lifetime into phases and predictable crises, as in Gail Sheehy’s Passages. (I made my own division some years ago, which like the rest of my blog got no attention.) Accordingly, misalignments and mischaracterizations are bound to arise even as the larger arc of civilization remains intact.

Like the ill-conceived happy chapter that concludes many articles and books that diagnose our difficulties and offer prescriptions, Ophuls makes a half-hearted curative gesture, sounding a faint note of optimism at the end. Such pablum fails to jibe with his otherwise negative assessment, but as part of a rhetorical frame, it seems inescapable. Perhaps seeking solutions where none exist (e.g., immortality) ought to be part of the book’s description of human error, but after outlining why civilizations fail, Ophuls suffers a failure of nerve to say what seems obvious from his own analysis: we’re doomed.

  1. Brian says:

    You are a better critic than I. Immoderate Greatness, for me, has been one of the favorite books to suggest to friends who seemed at a starting point in considering the ramifications of our human project. It’s short, concise essay form on collapse seems an easier starting place for most. And, I applauded his conclusion which seemed to me devoid of the usual pablum of hope found in other works. I’ll need to sharpen my critical toolkit, apparently. But I take your points.

    Keep ‘em coming.

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your comment. I can’t say how the book registers on others, but a couple Amazon reviews I barely glimpsed gave standard gushing praise. Considering how collapse is so unpalatable and difficult to get one’s head around, I would expect resistance to Ophuls’ synopsis from newcomers to the issue. Ophuls is accurate in the sense of an executive summary. I just don’t find the book wholly convincing on its own merits because it needs the support of a lot more information. I agree with his conclusions, some of which are plain jeremiad, but I am also disappointed in his final remarks, which peter out. I don’t like the truth served cold, hard, and brutal any more than the next person, but I’m way past the point of hoping for rescue if only we get serious right now (COP21) about … It’s just noise at this point.

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