Published on Monday, June 5, 2006 by CommonDreams.org
The Bushite Regime and the Collapse of Civilizations
by Andrew Bard Schmookler
From Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail, Americans of today should learn one main thing: that a civilization whose leadership chooses a wrong-headed course on the basis of defective ways of thinking can destroy itself.
America’s present leadership has sought to cultivate our fears-- and indeed we should be afraid. But our fear should be directed much less toward the terrorists against whom our leaders have made their much-heralded war than toward the possible disasters toward which these leaders themselves are taking us.
We should not delude ourselves, in our complacency, that history can give us nothing worse than gasoline at $5 a gallon, or too many people in our midst who do not speak our language.
No, we should recognize that our civilization, mighty as it now is, is not immune from the kind of catastrophe that, as Collapse shows, obliterated the societies of the Norse on Greenland and of the inhabitants of Easter Island.
Indeed, with today’s America –as the dominant nation in this much more shrunken and interdependent world—the catastrophes with which we should be most concerned could entail the collapse not only of our own society but of the entire civilized system of humankind.
For there are two great threats that now endanger the human species at our point in history: 1) environmental catastrophe as the result of reckless human activity in the biosphere; and 2) the perpetuation of the system of war –of might makes right rather than law—in the intersocietal system in an era when weapons of mass destruction are spreading among nations.
And with respect to both of these threats, the present American regime has been driving our civilization toward the abyss.
The Environmental Threat
Human beings have become so much bigger a bull in the ecological china shop –so many more people, within an industrial civilization with so much larger an impact, wielding new technology whose repercussions are so uncertain—that it is unclear whether civilization can adjust its ways of dealing with the earth in time to avoid environmental catastrophe.
For all our technological development, human life still entirely depends on the health of the larger biosphere. But America’s present rulers act as if they either do not understand, or do not care about, this basic reality.
This Bushite regime has not only failed to advance the already troublingly slow human adaptation to this new challenge. It has actively worked to turn back what progress this nation, and the wider global society, have made toward meeting that challenge.
At home, it has turned environmental policy over to the corporate industrial giants whose ecological impact is most urgently in need of regulation. It has actively abetted those vested interests that seek to sow confusion in the public mind with the promulgation of pseudo-science, so that the people will not be able to see clearly the true nature of the choices we face. And they ridicule as inconsequential and un-American the ethic of resource conservation.
And meanwhile, on the global level, the Bushites have scuttled the agreement the international community had managed to put together as a collective response to our mounting collective problem of climate change, and have offered nothing in its stead.
In recent decades, a much deeper understanding has emerged concerning the synergies by which all the various elements of the biosphere work together to maintain the viability of the earth’s living systems. But the Bushites either care more about short-term profit than about long-term viability, or they lack the flexibility of mind to understand that ways of thinking that served adequately in earlier eras will likely prove disastrous under our present, changed conditions.
These rulers, and the greedy forces whom they serve, persist in seeing the relationship with nature not in terms of synergy and sustainability but in terms of dominance and exploitation. It seems as though the only games they know are “win-lose” games.
But as Gregory Bateson wrote years ago, “No animal can win against its environment for long.”
Whether out of ignorance or indifference, like those who guided many of those societies that failed to avert collapse in earlier times, these Bushites persist stubbornly on their short-sighted course while the signs of impending disaster grow steadily more visible. They choose simply not to deal with that “inconvenient truth” to which the melting of the arctic ice and the growing severity of hurricanes are pointing.
And precious time for humankind to adapt and to change directions is being squandered.
The Threat of War in an Age of WMDs
The second major challenge to humankind has been visible since the invention of nuclear weapons more than sixty years ago.
War had always been a nightmarish part of the history of civilization, one of the Four Horeseman of the Apocalypse. But with the emergence of weapons of such vast destructiveness, war began to become unthinkable.
After millennia during which civilized societies –in the absence of any just order in the international system-- have habitually resorted to war to resolve their conflicts, the leaders of the most powerful nations were challenged to change long-established ways of thinking and acting.
For two generations, the possibility that the Cold War might become a hot one threatened the continuation of human life as we know it. But humankind managed to navigate successfully that unprecedentedly dangerous historical passage. Yet great dangers remain.
In the generations since World War II and the dawn of the nuclear age, the nations of the world have attempted to supplant the anarchy of the international system with forms of order that provide non-violent means to resolve conflict and that supplant the age-old disorder of “might makes right.” The United Nations Charter and the system of international law and of treaties are components of this effort to create an international system where law and justice, rather than raw power, can govern.
While the Cold War –with its imposition onto the whole world of the dynamic of conflict—greatly retarded progress toward the rule of law, the end of the Cold War created a historic opportunity. And the first two post-cold-war American administrations (the first Bush, and Clinton), albeit to a very limited degree, did help the world move in the direction of greater international order.
The Bushites, however, saw the post-cold-war era as an opportunity of an altogether different sort.
With their lust for power, their infatuation with dominance, their concept of life in terms of win-lose games, the Bushites saw America’s having emerged as the world’s only superpower as an opportunity to lead humankind not forward toward an international order but rather backward deeper into the old disorder where raw power rules.
If you’ve got the might, they seem to figure, why shouldn’t might make right?
Coming into office with a doctrine of extending American hegemony over the entire planet, the Bushites have proceeded to shred many of the most constructive elements of the international order their predecessors had helped to create.
In the early months of this administration, it rejected and abrogated treaties. It treated its traditional friends around the world with careless disdain and disregard. It used the attacks of 9/11 as an opportunity to advance a doctrine of preventive war, in which the United States entitled itself to attack any nation that it judged might in the future constitute a threat to the United States.
And then, of course, it used that same traumatic 9/11 experience as an excuse to employ that doctrine in invading Iraq –contrary to the expressed will of the international community, on the basis of assertions that quickly proved false, and without any serious attempt to provide legal justifications for what may reasonably be regarded as an imperialist war of aggression.
The results of such conduct on the part of the world’s leading nation have been the increased barbarization and splintering of the world system.
The degree of tension and animosity between Islam and the West has been exacerbated. The bonds of alliance and allegiance among the world’s industrial democracies have attenuated. The other nations of the world, seeing America less as a leader to be trusted and more as a threat to their security, have begun banding together as an anti-American counter-weight.
The festering mess in Iraq provides a continual reminder of how brute force and violence are the historic means by which great powers have imposed their will on lesser powers.
Whatever vision may have been arising of a better era for humankind, for a displacement of the system of war, has now been blown away by the winds unleashed by the Bushite regime in its ambition to extend its power.
How able humankind may be to revive its aspirations and dreams for progress toward a world in which justice trumps power, rather than vice versa, remains to be seen.
Choices and Destiny in the Future of Our Civilization
One of the most vivid images in Diamond’s book, Collapse, involves the island of Hispanola. This is the island whose eastern half consists of the Dominican Republic while the western half is the nation of Haiti.
From the air, one can see the border, the Dominican side being largely forested and the Haiti side being practically stripped bare. Same island, but the historical difference in the governance of the two halves shows how nations choose their fates. And the divergent fates of the forests mirrors the fates of the peoples.
The poor, afflicted people of Haiti can just look at the other side of their island to behold a palpable image of a better course things might have taken had the powers in their society made different choices.
Now in America, under the Bushite regime, our history has taken a Haiti-like turn toward disaster. But for us, when it comes to envisioning how much better our course might have been, there is no equivalent of the Dominican Republic to give us a palpable embodiment of “it might have been” had the tally of votes in Florida in 2000 gone the other way.
Envision it we must, however. For perhaps this better, alternative future is not just an “it might have been” but remains an “it still might be.”
This regime has greased the skids of our civilization’s plunge into environmental upheaval, but the extent of the disorder and our readiness to cope with it are not yet beyond our capacity to effect.
The Bushites have inflicted profound damage on the international order, as well as on the standing of the United States to lead in its mending, but here too the possibilities for choosing a more constructive course and working to repair the damage remain open.
The first step in repairing all this damage, however, is for the American people to recognize how profoundly wrong –how deeply destructive—have been the choices of the current ruling regime in America on those two vital challenges on which the future of human civilization depends.
Andrew Bard Schmookler's website, NoneSoBlind.org, is devoted to understanding the roots of America’s present moral crisis and the means by which the urgent challenge of this dangerous moment can be met. Dr. Schmookler is also the author of such books as The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution (SUNY Press) and Debating the Good Society: A Quest to Bridge America’s Moral Divide (M.I.T. Press). He also conducts regular talk-radio conversations in both red and blue states. Email to: email@example.com