Scenes from the Fourth Rome

Many thanks to Billy Newton for showing me and the lady around Dumbarton Oaks yesterday.

The house was covered in scaffolding and the gardens were battened down for winter, so picture-taking conditions were sub-optimal, but these two pieces from the pre-Columbian Mesoamerica section caught my eye. The first is Mayan, the second is an Olmec transformation figure of a man-jaguar:

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Reading Tainter on collapse at the moment so here’s a related excerpt for you:

Although this is a recent development, it has analogies in past collapses, and these analogies give insight into current conditions. Past collapses, as discussed, occurred among two kinds of international political situations: isolated, dominant states, and clusters of peer polities. The isolated, dominant state went out with the advent of global travel and communication, and what remains now are competitive peer polities . Even if today there are only two major peers, with allies grouped into opposing blocs, the dynamics of the competitive relations are the same. Peer polities, such as post­ Roman Europe, ancient Greece and Italy, Warring States China, and the Mayan cities, are characterized by competitive relations, jockeying for position, alliance formation and dissolution, territorial expansion and retrenchment, and continual investment in military advantage. An upward spiral of competitive investment de­velops, as each polity continually seeks to outmaneuver its peer(s). None can dare withdraw from this spiral, without unrealistic diplomatic guarantees, for such would be only an invitation to domination by another. In this sense, although industrial society (especially the United States) is sometimes likened in popular thought to ancient Rome, a closer analogy would be with the Mycenaeans or the Maya.

Peer polity systems tend to evolve toward greater complexity in a lockstep fashion as, driven by competition, each partner imitates new organizational, technological, and military features developed by its competitor(s). The marginal return on such developments declines, as each new military breakthrough is met by some counter­ measure, and so brings no increased advantage or security on a lasting basis. A society trapped in a competitive peer polity system must invest more and more for no increased return, and is thereby economically weakened. And yet the option of withdrawal or collapse does not exist. So it is that collapse (from declining marginal returns) is not in the immediate future for any contemporary nation. This is not, however, due so much to anything we have accomplished as it is to the competitive spiral in which we have allowed ourselves to become trapped.

Here is the reason why proposals for economic undevelopment, for living in balance on a small planet, will not work. Given the close link between economic and military power, unilateral economic deceleration would be equivalent to, and as foolhardy as, unilateral disarmament. We simply do not have the option to return to a lower economic level, at least not a rational option. Peer polity competition drives increased complexity and resource consumption regardless of costs, human or ecological.

I do not wish to suggest by this discussion that any major power would be quickly in danger of collapse were it not for this situation. Both the primary and secondary world powers have sufficient economic strength to finance diminishing returns well into the future. As seen in the cases of the Romans and the Maya, peoples with sufficient incentives and/or economic reserves can endure declining marginal returns for centuries before their societies collapse. (This fact, however, is no reason for complacency. Modern evolutionary processes, as is well known, occur at a faster rate than those of the past.)

There are any number of smaller nations, though, that have invested quite heavily in military power out of proportion to their economic base, or in development projects with a questionable marginal payoff, that might well be vulnerable. In the world today they will not be allowed to collapse, but will be bailed out either by a dominant partner or by an international financing agency. Such instances lower the marginal return that the world as a whole experiences for its investment in complexity.

Peer polities then tend to undergo long periods of upwardly-spiraling competitive costs, and downward marginal returns. This is terminated finally by domination of one and acquisition of a new energy subsidy (as in Republican Rome and Warring States China), or by mutual collapse (as among the Mycenaeans and the Maya). Collapse, if and when it comes again, will this time be global. No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilization will disintegrate as a whole. Competitors who evolve as peers collapse in like manner.

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