Whether by war, famine, resource depletion, socioeconomic failure, or destruction of the natural environment, all empires eventually crumble. What will happen when the collapse of the American empire culminates?
By Max Wilbert
History is a graveyard of civilizations: the Western Chou, the Mayan, the Harappan, the Mesopotamian, the Olmec, the Chacoans, the Hohokam, the Mississippian, the Tiahuanaco, the Mycenean, the Roman, and countless others.
These societies were overrun by disease, or war, or famine. In most cases, they undermined their own ecological foundations—a situation that may sound familiar.
“Collapse,” writes archaeologist and historian Joseph Tainter, “is a recurrent feature of human societies.” But there is an important distinction to be made between societies that create an ideology of growth and an economy of ecological imperialism, and those that do not.
To choose two examples, both the San people of the Kalahari and the various Aboriginal Nations, in what is now Australia, existed in a more or less stable-state for tens of thousands of years. But these were not civilizations, according to the definition I am using. In other words, they were not ecological imperialists, but rather ecological participants.
For the average person living today in Washington D.C., Beijing, or London, the collapse of civilization is hard to fathom. Similarly, the people of ancient cities could not imagine their world crumbling around them—until it did.
With the globalization of capitalism and the neoliberal free-trade economy, industrial civilization now dominates the entire planet.
Goods and services are traded around the world. The average dinner plate contains ingredients grown in five different nations. Rather than living in an empire with discrete boundaries, we live within a global civilization. It feels stable, permanent.
At least, it did until recently. The past month has upended many of our preconceptions. And the reality, of course, is that modern civilization is neither stable nor permanent. This society is destroying the ecological foundation that not only allows it to exist, but supports the fabric of life itself.
People living in rich nations are insulated from the reality of this ecological collapse, since our food no longer comes from the land where we live, but is imported from far away. Technology allows us to ignore the collapse of fish populations, of plankton populations, of topsoil. When the cod fisheries collapse, the industrial fishing corporations can simply begin to fish another far-flung corner of the globe, until that ocean too is devoid of fish. When the soil is lifeless, desiccated, and eroded, industrial farmers can simply apply more chemical fertilizers.
Modern life is based on the use of non-renewable resources, and on the over-exploitation of renewable resources. By definition, this cannot last.
The decline and fall of the American empire has already begun.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges, in his book America: The Farewell Tour, estimates that the Chinese will overtake the United States for world hegemony sometime around 2030. Historian of empire Alfred W. McCoy, in his latest book In the Shadows of the American Century, agrees with Hedges.
McCoy estimates that, no later than 2030, the US dollar will cease to the currency of global trade. This “reserve currency” status makes the US the center of the global economy, and directly provides the US economy with more than $100 billion in “free money” per year. As McCoy writes, “One of the prime benefits of global power is being on the winning side of grand imperial bargain: you get to send the nations of the world bundles of brightly colored paper, whether British pound notes or US Treasury bills, and they happily hand over goods of actual value like automobiles, minerals, or oil.” A fall from reserve currency status will lead, McCoy says, to sustained “rising prices, stagnant wages, and fading international competitiveness” in the United States.
“Will there be a soft landing for America thirty or forty years from now?
Don’t bet on it. The demise of the United States as the preeminent global power could come far more quickly than anyone imagines. Despite the aura of omnipotence empires often project, most are surprisingly fragile, lacking the inherent strength of even a modest nation-state.”
The mechanics of the decline and fall of the U.S. American empire have been well documented by others. But what hasn’t been discussed, and what I am interested in exploring here, is the implications of this decline and collapse for revolutionaries.
What will the decline of the American empire mean for those of us fighting for justice?
As revolutionaries, we must be “internationalists.” That is, we must understand and design our strategy in a way that confronts capitalism, civilization, and empire as global systems, not merely national ones. So in this sense, a reorientation of global power is nothing more than that—a shifting of polarity.
We need to be prepared for the international impacts, but also the domestic implications of these shifts. As the axis of global power moves away from Washington and towards “the world island”—Beijing, New Delhi, Moscow—we are seeing a rise in imperial impetuousness, racism, and reaction typified by Trump. Author Richard Powers calls this “a tantrum in the face of a crumbling control fantasy.”
How will the collapse of American empire play out?
Will it (ironically) mirror the decline of the USSR, where Russia now has the most billionaires per capita in the world, an ex-KGB dictator, and an economic system dominated by collaborations between organized crime and corporate capitalism? Will it mirror the more gradual, socially moderated collapse of the UK? Will we see a full-on Children of Men or Elysium-style dystopia?
As society becomes more volatile, those who have best prepared themselves will be the most likely to survive and influence the course of the future. As Vince Emanuele has written, “the next recession will be the icing on the cake. Once the economy collapses and the American Empire is forced to retreat from various parts of the globe, immigrants, Muslims, blacks, and poor whites will be the targets of state and non-state violence. The only way we’ll survive is through community and organizing.”
Vince wrote those words months ago. Now, that recession has now arrived. Times have changed faster than minds have changed.
How should we respond to the current situation?
In crisis lies opportunity. Emergencies clarify things. Bullshit gets less important and truth becomes more self-evident. That is the case now, as well. Reality is imposing itself on us. Any faith in capitalism, in globalization—hell, in the grocery store—has been shattered. The ruling class is weakened. And the lessons are clear.
Globalization is dying. Sure, the system might repair itself and reassemble transnational supply chains. Coronavirus is unlikely to end it all. But the fragility and unreliability of just-in-time industrial food delivery is now obvious. We need to build robust local food systems using sustainable, biodiverse and soil-growing methods.
Organizations already exist that are doing this work. They need funding and support to rapidly scale up. Local governments should be pressured to direct funds towards these projects and make land available for urban and peri-urban gardening, and people should begin volunteer brigades to do the labor.
Food is just the beginning. Globalization isn’t a threat just because it will collapse; it is a threat if it continues as well. Local production of water, clothing, housing, healthcare, and other basic necessities must begin as well. There are cooperative and truly sustainable methods with which this could be done.
Mutual aid is the new rallying cry of the 21st century. There will be no individual survival. Our best hope for creating a better world—and for survival—lies in banding together, building small-scale, localized communities based on human rights and sustainability, pressuring local governments to join—or simply replacing them if they cannot respond—and preparing for the challenges to come.
The longer business as usual continues, the worse off we will be. Governments are already descending into fascism in a vain attempt to be “great again.” Expansions of the surveillance state, police powers, and repression will only deepen as ecological collapse undermines stability.
Each day more forests logged, more carbon in the atmosphere, more species driven extinct. More wealth in the hands of the elite and more poverty, disease, and hopelessness for the people. Remember: the air is cleaner now than you have ever seen it. It can only remain that way if these global supply chains do not re-start.
The sooner we dismantle industrial supply chains, the better off the people and the planet will be. Tim Garrett, a climate scientist at the University of Utah, says that “Only complete economic collapse will prevent runaway global climate change.” He bases this conclusion on climate models he designs. Garrett’s calculations show that industrial civilization is a “heat machine,” and only the total collapse of industrial civilization will permit life on Earth to survive the ongoing mass extinction, and global warming.
To borrow Marxist language, we need to not only seize the means of production away from the ruling class, we need to destroy much of the means of production, because what it produces is ecocide.
Collapse Does Not Have to Be Bad
Some people inaccurately view collapse as a state of total lawlessness; in other words, the disintegration of society. More accurately, collapse refers to a rapid, radical simplification in society, such as the breakdown of “normal” economic, social, and political institutions.
Under this definition, a more or less global collapse of industrial civilization within the next 50 or 100 years—possibly much sooner—is almost a certainty. A NASA-commissioned study in the journal of Ecological Economics found a few years ago that “the system is moving towards an impending collapse” due to destruction of the planet and economic stratification. They write that their model, using conditions “closely reflecting the reality of the world today… find[s] that collapse is difficult to avoid.”
This does not have to be a bad thing. A managed collapse, or reduction in complexity, is the best way to ensure human rights and sustainability moving forward. In the book Deep Green Resistance, the authors advocate for a political movement that could help speed up certain aspects of collapse, while fighting others, to maximize good outcomes. As the book explains:
“Many different mechanisms drive collapse, not all equally desirable. Some [can be] intentionally accelerated and encouraged, while others are slowed or reduced. Energy decline by decreasing consumption of fossil fuels is a mechanism of collapse highly beneficial to the planet and humans, and that mechanism is encouraged. Ecological collapse through habitat destruction and biodiversity crash is also a mechanism of collapse, but is slowed or stopped whenever possible… The collapse of large authoritarian political structures allows small-scale participatory structures. The collapse of global industrial capitalism allows local systems of exchange, cooperation, and mutual aid.”
Uncontrolled collapse is a dire alternative. Even now, local and regional collapses are occurring around the globe. This is especially true in places like Syria, Libya, Pakistan, and Iraq where ecological destruction has combined with war.
But the problems are global. Water shortages, refugee crises, religious extremism, exploding population and consumption, toxification, mass extinction, soil drawdown, desertification, and extreme weather are all driving increased instability. It is emerging first in the poorest countries, but it is spreading fast.
Consider: there may be 1 billion climate refugees by 2050. That’s 30 years from now.
Like revolutions and climate change, collapse is an organic process driven by the interplay of countless human and non-human factors, not a single event.
The world is changing.
We need to plan for tomorrow rather than building strategies purely based on the past. These times call for a two-pronged approach. First, we must build additional resiliency into our communities, relocalizing our food systems and reducing and eliminating reliance on big business and national/state government alike. Second, we must be prepared to take advantage of coming shocks to the economic and political system. We can use these breaks in normality as openings to dismantle oppressive systems of power and the physical infrastructure that is destroying our world.
Max Wilbert is a political organizer and wilderness guide. His essays have been published in Earth Island Journal, Counterpunch, and elsewhere. His second book, Bright Green Lies, is scheduled for release in early 2021.
Featured image by the author.