The Arrogance of Empire

A spark, a hiccup. That’s all that humanity ever was 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 easily deceived by their own momentum.  After reaching a certain size, they become arrogant enough to call themselves “empires”.  A web of narratives is woven to reassure citizens that the all-powerful empire will never fail, despite history repeatedly dictating otherwise.  The rise and fall of an empire is as predictable a lifecycle as the lighting of a match.  Unavoidably at some point, it runs out of fuel.

Whatever the century, all previous empires grew in pretty much the same way: by aggressively engulfing resources and closest neighbors, much like an amoeba.  While they may be powerful for a short while during this growth period, for the better part of their lifecycle empires are sustained mostly through terrorism and propaganda, as long as this propaganda is enough to stir enough fear into their colonies to prevent any revolt.  The empire gradually becomes complacent, arrogant and impossibly bureaucratic.  It is at this point that it enters a period of decline, but it doesn’t know it yet. 

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, a hope bubble filled with blood that can burst any minute now.  The fairy tales manage to maintain calm throughout the empire for the time being: the economy will expand, the population will expand, the country will be bigger, better, stronger.  We will go to outer space.  The more the empire grows, the blinder it becomes.  The more signs of an end appear on the horizon, the more the cognitive dissonance becomes part of the culture.  This is how all empires live their last days:  in denial.

Every single one of our previous empires failed to recognize that it takes an ever-increasing amount of effort, and an incredible amount of luck, to sustain a complex civilization for more than a fixed length of time.  Civilizations grow blindly into the immediate space that surrounds them, much like amoebas.  They never really “know” what they are expanding into, and what awaits them beyond their immediate borders. They just grow, and then suddenly one day, they don’t.

The more complex a civilization, the more difficult it is to sustain daily, in much the same way that the more complex an organism is, the more needs it has compared to a monocellular life form.  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.  Therefore, 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. 

All empires are doomed once they have reached a level of complexity that is unsustainable.  With their delicate supply chains, political volatility, dense urban populations susceptible to pandemics, complicated food and water supplies that come from far away, mature civilizations may look invincible, but are extremely easy to destabilize if just one of their vital life support functions suddenly fails, 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 taxation 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. 

It is not the collapse of empires that should be either worrying or surprising. It is the fact that they rose to power through the collapse of nature and the collapse of the human.  As long as the world order is dictated by economic interest, the empire will always follow the lifecycle of a freshly lit match.  The world’s existential issues will always be brushed away by elites who would rather sacrifice the empire than step down, much like CEOs of a dying corporation would rather take the golden parachute option than re-draw the company organizational chart. The so-called “elites” would prefer that it all goes down as long as they can hold on to their positions, rather than level with the people and build a world without privilege: a world that they know very well they wouldn’t be a part of.  Any proposals that challenge our failed socioeconomic system will always be met by fierce resistance by those who hold the most power and vested interest.

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

Collapse does not discriminate between rich and poor.  When the entire system goes down, the poor may die first, but the rich follow soon, killed by their own guardsmen while drinking their last reserves of champagne.  But collapse will always be surprising, even to those who expect it and prepare for it.  The latter, ironically, are always the most surprised.  But even on the other end of the scale, “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 the element of exponential surprise, THAT precisely which you cannot come to terms with.  You never have enough time to.  It is 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 cost of all resources, services and basic goods skyrockets, just as 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 complete 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 Arrogance 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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