In October 2016, former Spanish Foreign Minister Javier Solana wrote an article for The New York Times, titled “The Decline of the West, and How to Stop It”. In this somewhat optimistically constructed op-ed, Mr. Solana asserts that “The West”, which he describes as The United States, Canada, and Much of Europe, (one could also include Australia) as having set an example for regional cooperation, and served as a mainstay for “the liberal world order” throughout the past seventy years. While Mr. Solana’s decision to assert the term ‘world order’ as a positive arrangement is slightly disturbing, it is perhaps his total ignorance toward both history, and contemporary environmental concerns, that is more troubling.
In the 21st century, it has become standard to view ‘The West” as being a set of individual nation-states which are banded together by free-trade agreements in the pursuit of the fantastic prosperity promised by unfitted neoliberal capitalism. In this sense we can view ‘The West’ as a sort of globalised empire, using power and wealth to create a transnational metropolis that exploits and conquers its less fortunate neighbors in the global south. For much of the twentieth century, this centralised model of conquest (and capitalism) has delivered unprecedented wealth to those in power, while at the same time delivering the greatest levels of inequality and concentration of wealth ever experienced by mankind. (Saez & Zucman, 2016) Solana conveniently ignores the vast expanses of data available regarding the concentration of wealth. Perhaps more troubling though is that Solana ignores the history of empires, which tell us we have seen this all before – and that there is no stopping the decline.
When we look at the history of empires we can see striking similarities between previous examples throughout history and the modern transnational empire of ‘The West’. In his essay titled “The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival” Sir John Glubb analyzed the lifecycle of empires, from the early pioneers to the pervasive consumers that become a burden unto themselves. (Glubb, 1978) He found remarkable similarities between them all, particularly the six ages of an empire. These six ages of civilisation are defined as the age of pioneers, the age of conquest, the age of commerce, the age of affluence, the age of intellect, and ending in finally the age of decadence. (Four Horsemen, 2013) Glubb also found that the lifecycle of an empire almost always lasts around 250 years (see table 1). We can see the six ages of an empire occurring in the Western Empire, except in this iteration we can see them occurring, in some instances, simultaneously. Most importantly though we can see that western civilization has now rapidly advanced to the age of decadence. There are certain characteristics that define the age of decadence, particularly the age of decadence, that defines he current empire. An over-extended and undisciplined military, conspicuous displays of wealth, massive (and in this case unprecedented) disparity between rich and poor, a desire to rely upon the state, and an obsession with sex.
Exploitation of resources and a continued desire for expansion is the key characteristic that we must address, as it bears strong correlations with the age of decadence. These characteristics were evident in the Roman Empire, among others, and today we are seeing them in the Western Empire. (Fulford, 2010) In the Western Empire expansion is viewed primarily as the expansion of population, and the exploitation of resources. When the population of an empire grows, the economy must continue to expand in order to support it. We have seen the unprecedented population expansion throughout the course of the 20th century and in to the 21st. The global population has expanded from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 6 billion at the turn of the century, and to over 7 billion in 2017. (Kremer, 1993, U.S census bureau, 2017) At the same time the population in the Western Empire has expanded to over 900 million as of 2016. (Solana, 2016) This rapid expansion of population correlates with an ever-growing exploitation of resources.
Here we will use The United States as a primary example of the over-consumption and exploitation of resources by the west. “The United States, with less than 5 % of the global population, uses about a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel resources—burning up nearly 25 % of the coal, 26 % of the oil, and 27 % of the world’s natural gas”. (World Watch Institute, 2017) These troubling figures are unparalleled elsewhere in the world, although other western states do attempt to emulate the US model. Many rich European countries, including Canada, Australia, Brittan, and other wealthy European states, are responsible for the massive exploitation of resources. All of the above mentioned states are ranked within the top 25 top resource users on earth. (Pappas, 2012) This shows that the west is responsible for a large percentage of the world’s resource consumption. Perhaps this phenomenon is best described by reiterating that 20% of the global population uses 80% of its resources, consuming 30% more than the planet can regenerate. (The End of Poverty, 2008) The majority of the richest 20% percent of the earth’s inhabitants are found in living in Javier Solana’s idea of the Western civilization.
This information is not ground-breaking. In fact, it has been known to the west for many years, and to indigenous peoples for even longer. We are exploiting the earth’s natural resources as a exponential, and absolutely unsustainable rate. What is perhaps most troubling about these figures is our collective reluctance to change our behaviour. Many politicians and various people in power like to be seen to be implementing change, yet much of this is speak is little more than political hyperbole. For instance, President Obama’s decision to address the topic of “sustainable development” in 2015. (Obama, 2015) In deciding to counteract global inequality and poverty with ‘sustainable development’, Obama was essentially declaring his unwillingness to accept our fate and in turn propose necessary fundamental changes to our way of living. The term ‘sustainable development’ is central to this idea, because the term itself is an oxymoron. Development by it’s very nature is not conducive with sustainability practices. (Latouche, 2003) This idea that sustainable development is attainable is reminiscent of Javier Solana’s fantastic statement in his above-mentioned New York Times article that “For globalization to be politically sustainable, it must be more economically equitable. Measures like these would begin to persuade a critical mass of people at global, regional and national levels that they, too, can share in a new wave of prosperity”. Both Obama and Solana ignore (or are uneducated on) the impossibility of endless expansion and development from within an empire. Rather than ignoring the inevitable negative environmental consequences of expansion and development, leaders in the west (currently US president Donald Trump) should be looking at implementing radical alternative ways of living, especially now that we have arguably reached the point in which the western empire has advanced to the age of decadence, and impending collapse.
The tributary empire has always been a flawed concept. It has proven itself time and time again to be unsustainable and self-defeating, yet today we seem stuck in a paradigm where the West has developed a sort-of transnational tributary system that has reincarnated the concept of an empire, but on a global scale. This is fundamentally important as the global reach of the western empire is unprecedented, and the impacts of the eventual demise will no doubt be profound. Unlike previous empires which have collapsed soon after arriving at the age of decadence, we now find ourselves in a paradigm in which we have firmly cemented ourselves in the age of decadence, but the impending tipping point may also prove to be the point of no return. Sustainable alternatives to the empire are being proposed and even implemented in some localized environments, however, it is yet to be seen whether even true sustainability can withstand the effects of a failing West in the modern world.