The Myth of Empire

A spark, a hiccup. That’s all that humanity has ever been on the planet’s geological timescale. A brilliant colorful flicker, a burnt fuse, then time carries on.

As they grow and expand, all civilizations are deceived by their own momentum.  Once they reach a certain size, they become arrogant enough to begin calling themselves “empires”, crafting their own myths: that they are too big to fail, that “there is something special about them” as a nation, that they followed a “new recipe”, whereas in fact the truth is much more boring:  they grew in the same exact way as all empires before them: by aggressively engulfing their closest neighbors, much like an amoeba.

Although empires may indeed be powerful for a short while in the beginning of their journey, for the better part of their lifecycle they are sustained purely by their own artificially propped-up optimism, which in turn stirs enough fear into their colonies to keep them subjugated.  But this is always a sensitive balance that comes with an expiration date.  And even though the complacent, bureaucratic empire has already entered a period of decline, it doesn’t know it.  It never does.  Its vision is impaired by the most devastating of ocular diseases: optimism.  The onset of blindness is immediate: a “bull” market, a superficial sentiment, an unjustified hope bubble filled with blood that can burst any minute now. 

The fairy tales at least manage to maintain calm throughout the empire, for now: the economy will expand, the population will expand, the country will be bigger, better, stronger.  We will go to outer space.  The more this empire grows, the blinder it becomes.  Arrogance and complacency become part of the culture, the system. 

Every single one of our previous civilizations failed to recognize, time and time again, that it actually takes an ever-increasing amount of effort, and an incredible amount of luck, to sustain any growing civilization – let alone a complex, multicultural empire for any given length of time.  Civilizations and empires grow blindly, into the space of the vacuum that surrounds them.  They never really “know” what they are expanding into, and what awaits them. They just expand. And then one day suddenly, to their surprise, they don’t.

The more complex a civilization becomes, the more difficult it is to sustain daily, in much the same way a complex animal has so many more needs compared to a monocellular organism.  A human has hundreds more ways to die compared to a bacterium.  If any one of our organs stops functioning, we quickly reach a near-death situation.  This is why when an ecosystem is under stress, it is the complex organisms and predators higher up the food chain who face the biggest long-term existential risk, have the biggest needs and are the most sensitive to perturbations.  All empires are doomed once they have reached a level of complexity that is unsustainable.  They are incredibly complex organisms.  With their delicate supply chains, political volatility, dense urban populations susceptible to pandemics, complicated food and water supplies that come from far away, civilizations are very easy to destabilize even if just one of these elements suddenly goes off the rail, as countless historical examples have demonstrated. 

Empires usually delay their demise by engulfing other smaller civilizations, parasitizing foreign food, natural, financial and human resources.  They set up empire-wide tax systems, slave trades and so on, so that they can desperately cling onto life by relying on the growth and work of others.  They have an arrogant, lazy, voracious wealthy upper class to feed by now, and these classes become the slave masters.  Where there are natural resources, there will be capitalism. Where there is capitalism, there will be slavery.  Where there is slavery, there will be empires. 

But as soon as serious problems emerge somewhere in this food chain of taxation, exploitation, bullying and slavery, a chain reaction is set in motion which can bring down the entire apparatus pretty quickly.  Clinging to its myths and mantras, the empire is unable to wake up, but it has also become too big to maneuvre itself out of the storm.  There are just too many vested interests by now, too many fat cats who will do anything to hold on to their seats, even as the ship sinks.  As long as the world order is dictated by rich people, there will never be a sense of emergency towards any existential issues.   The so-called “elites” would prefer that it all goes downhill as long as they can hold on to their positions, rather than level with the people and build a world without privileges: a world where they know very well they wouldn’t be part of the elite anymore.  Any suggestions that propose challenging our failed socioeconomic system will always be met with fierce resistance by those who have the most power in this system.

This is why the oligarchy that runs this planet will try to keep its wine freezer stocked and party till the end, as the climate crisis accelerates, and people die.  They will try to hide behind airbrushed and greenwashed campaigns that aim to portray them as thoughtful, compassionate, and innovative “leaders” rather than the selfish privileged slave masters that they are.  When the kings and queens of this world actually manage to convince you that they are “servants to their country”, then you begin to understand how marketing and propaganda work on planet Earth. 

Whether another class battle is on its way doesn’t even matter.  When the entire system goes down the poor may die first, but the rich follow very soon, killed by their own guardsmen while drinking the last reserves of champagne in a fortified bunker.  The reality is that collapse is always surprising, even to those who expect it and prepare for it  The latter, ironically, are always the most surprised.  On the other end of the scale, even “collapsitarians” and “doomers” can maintain a naïve and normalized impression of collapse, as they try to come to terms with it.  The truth is that collapse will always involve an element of exponential surprise, THAT precisely which you cannot come to terms with.  You never have time to.  It’s here already.

So, the end of empires always involves a surprise factor, a denial issue, and of course division, which has accompanied us throughout our history.  In a wildflower meadow, hundreds of different species coexist within a crowded space. In a human city, members of the same species are embraced in toxic power relationships, competing like weeds. 

As the empire comes to an end, the value of all resources, services and basic goods rises.   And as the cost of these items skyrockets, the value of human life itself plummets, resulting in war. Whichever way one looks at it, war is and will always be part of the biology of every species. But total annihilation is an ability that only humans possess.

But please, at least let’s keep the show going just for a little while longer.  Self-deception and nationalistic arrogance were always key ingredients in keeping the fairy tales and myths going for any civilization.  As long as the patrons in the restaurant have no idea that there is a fire back in the kitchen, they can continue eating their last meal.  As long as the house of cards grows taller, it doesn’t matter that it is beginning to wobble in the breeze.  It all looks good right now, right at this minute.  And then suddenly, it doesn’t. 

Denying the truth only delays and enlarges the avalanche of karma that has been accumulating high up above.  For a very brief moment the mirror breaks, and all becomes clear.  But it’s already too late.  Human civilisation is a shooting star.

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George is an author, researcher, podcast host, chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons , listen to his Spotify podcast George reads George, sign up for blog alerts below, or enjoy his books

3 thoughts on “The Myth of Empire

  1. Unfortunately you are so right. Those that rise to the top are the chimpiest among us and we who would prefer a more realistic way to survive get trapped on their runaway train. A cultural story that is set up to maximize the self interest of one species. Controlled by the use of a system of private property and a symbol system of trade that we call money because we don’t know how to share ourselves with each other at the scale of population that we have grown into. Overshoot is a bitch. Best of luck all. Love Rick

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