The Beginning of the End of Western Civilization Guest author Umair

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If you’re a regular reader, a certain idea’s familiar to you by now. We face three to five decades of apocalypse, increasing in intensity, culminating in…
First come the 30s, when climate change goes thermonuclear, and megafloods, megafires, and megatyphoons become regular events — disrupting everyday life in ways that make Covid look like a cakewalk. Then come the 40s, the age of mass extinction, when the dying off of species we depend on creates megafamines, megadroughts, massive, chronic, global shortages, which cause everything from depression to hyperinflation to social implosion. Then at last comes the Final Goodbye — the planet’s great ecosystems finally die off — the ones our civilisation’s basic systems of food, air, water, medicine, and money all depend on. Bang. There goes everything.
The next few decades are an era of apocalypse, culminating in the collapse of a civilization. You can see it with crystal clarity in basic megatrends now: rising carbon emissions, rising rates of annihilation, rising rates of exploitation, already savage inequality skyrocketing. These trends aren’t turning around — they’re only getting worse. And all that locks our civilisation into a trajectory, which, every day, becomes ever more inescapable. A catastrophic one. If you think I’m exaggerating, go ahead and think about the last five years — of rising fascism, violence, warming, and plague. None of this is a joke, a drill, or hyperbole. It’s just a fact. This civilisation is beginning to self-destruct.
Which civilisation, though? The question arises — and it’s one with an uncomfortable answer. Western civilisation is what’s collapsing. Let me put that point to you in an even more uncomfortable way. 15% of the globe’s population lives in the rich West. This handful of countries alone has the power to alter the path of self-destruction our civilization is on. What would it need to do?
Well, to avert tomorrow’s pandemics, it’d need to give everyone on earth healthcare. To stop tomorrow’s fascism, education. To stop tomorrow’s depressions, an income, savings, a nest egg. To prevent tomorrow’s social upheavals, dignity, meaning. To stop global warming, it’d need to invest massive amounts in ecosystems and infrastructure. And so on.
There’s a formal way economists put that. The world needs global public goods — clean air and water, sanitation, education, medicine, healthcare, retirement, money, and so on. All these are the key to our civilisation not self-destructing in an orgy of chaos, fascism, and despair, as the planet melts down, and billionaires, who’ve hoarded all the money, jet off to Mars, watching life, democracy, and the future all burn. And the rich West is the only part of the world that can invest in global public goods — because, of course, it’s the rich West.
The problem is that it won’t. The rich West won’t even offer the rest of the world a paltry few billion to get vaccinated — a tenth of a percent of its GDP — and frankly, nobody much in it even cares. Forget about giving the world an education and an income. And the plants, animals, forests, oceans, skies? If people can’t get anything from the rich West, what hope do insects and fish and trees have? None whatsoever.
It’s in that sense that we live in a “Western” civilization. I don’t mean it in the absurd sense that conservatives do — that we’re the intellectual descendants of Locke and so forth. I mean that the planet we live on is controlled by and for the rich West. It alone has the power to alter the destiny of the planet. And instead, it’s locked into a course of self-destruction — and the rest of us are just along for the ride.
You can think of the global public goods the rich West should invest in — clean air, food, water, education, income, and so on — as a form of reparations, if you like. For enslaving and colonising the rest of humanity — and hunting and destroying much of the natural world to extinction. The problem is that the rich West doesn’t see it that way. In fact, it doesn’t see much of a problem at all. Self-destruction? So what?! We’ll still have Facebook and reality TV and poverty and disaster porn! Yay!! That seems to be the general level of awareness in the West these days. Like I said — it’s locked into a trajectory of self-destruction.
This is the beginning of the end of Western civilization. And when I think about why, three reasons spring to mind. Three fatal mistakes, paradigmatic ones — ones that define the “Western” in “Western civilization.”
The first is what you might call the Cartesian error. During the Enlightenment, its thinkers committed an original sin. They divided the world up. They made grand hierarchies. Of species — and then things called “races.” The hierarchies went, basically, like this. At the top were “white” men — “white” being a newly invented thing called “race.” They were at the top because they were the most logical, the least emotional — they had Cartesian minds, big analytical brains.
Below them came “white” women — more emotional, less reasonable. Then came the other “races.” Asians were cunning, but ruled by their emotions. “Black” people were barely capable of rational thought, if at all — hence, they deserved to be enslaved.
All that, from the Cartesian error. But it didn’t just stop there. If white people were “real” human beings, and “Black” people barely people at all — then what about animals? Well, then they were just animals. Lesser things, fully deserving of exploitation, death, and abuse. They couldn’t think or reason at all. Therefore, they were not deserving of dignity or equality.
There is a straight line between the Cartesian error — and today’s mass extinction. There is another between it and centuries of slavery, hate, and genocide. It is the biggest single mistake in human history, this idea that beings are divided into “races” and “kinds” which make up hierarchies. It’s caused literally billions upon billions of needless deaths. Do we see it that way yet? Does the West see Cartesianism as an error at all?
The East does — but I’ll come back to that.
The Cartesian error gave way to the Darwinian fallacy. White men “reasoned” that if they were at the top of hierarchies because of their powers of “logic,” well, then competition was what mattered most. The fittest should survive, because they were the most “competitive” — meaning the most self-interested, cunning, ruthless, and materialistic. They took Darwin’s great leap of insight — evolution — and began applying to social and economic systems. They built societies which were grand arenas of competition, and made it the driving force of the world.
Economics, politics, social institutions, individual virtue — all these were only to be ruled by the central idea of competition. People were only “smart” if they could dominate others, win the most for themselves. Only the fittest deserved to survive — and everything and everyone else was a liability, a burden, to be eliminated. That line of thinking justified everything from a lack of universal suffrage to colonisation and slavery and warfare which lasted for centuries.
The problem is that nature is not just competitive. It is profoundly cooperative. It is mutualistic just as much as it is antagonistic, probably even more so. You wouldn’t exist if your cells couldn’t cooperate with the bacteria in your gut. Most animals are deeply social beings. Trees share roots. Rivers pour into the sea. The trees turns sunlight into energy and air, which they respire, and you breathe in. And so on. Nature isn’t just some kind of bloody arena of competition.
The world never should have been made to be one, either.
There’s a straight line from the Darwinian fallacy, to the rich West refusing to invest in global public goods today. The rich West, even now, appears incapable of understanding the necessity of cooperation. Of sharing, of giving, of endowing. Reciprocity is not a norm that matters to the rich West at all. It doesn’t seem capable of grasping even the simple idea that its own future depends crucially now on giving back much of what it stole, plundered, and took, with centuries of violence, to educate and feed and clothe and nourish the globe, not to mention the animals and oceans and forests. The rich West doesn’t understand that because it’s still one-dimensionally competitive. It can’t grasp the notion of a world in which it must play a cooperative, equal — not a dominating, extractive — role.
The Darwinian fallacy led to the third great mistake of Western Civilization — Nietzschean nihilism. Where do you end up if you believe the Cartesian error and the Darwinian fallacy — that life, existence, being is some kind of hierarchy, and brutal, relentless competition is it’s sole essential defining nature?
You end up where Nietzsche did. He said, essentially, that there were two kinds of beings, ubermen and undermen, and that ubermen defined themselves as such by subjugating and exploiting undermen. It was the cruelty and brutality and rage and violence that made a man a man. The uberman exerted his “will to power” this way, and power was the only point of life. Power — as in the capacity to dominate, enslave, and annihilate. That was said quite literally — Nietzsche divided the world up into “masters” and “slaves,” and argued that we were “beyond good and evil,” because “God was dead,” and therefore, only the attainment of one absolute power over others mattered.
There’s a straight line between Nietzschean nihilism and where the West is today. Take a hard look at America. Nothing matters to Americans. The American Idiot is legendary the world over, because nothing matters. Nothing real or worthy, anyways. All that seems to matter to them is money, power, fame, and sex. Kids get shot at school? Young people drowning in debt? Sick people dying without basic medicine like insulin? Americans don’t care. They say they do, which is only really proof they don’t know what caring is. Most go on addicted to their Facebook and their reality TV and their stock markets. They wonder, in between ads and celebrity gossip, how they ended up broke and desperate and dumb. Trumpists march down the streets, wielding machine guns. Billionaires laugh and bank more money. Nothing matters. The world is astounded at the nihilism of what America’s become.
Nietzsche would have been proud of America, because it was his more sole and only disciple — Ayn Rand — who helped make America the bizarre, nihilistic dystopia it is today. But it’s hardly just America’s that’s nihilist.
What’s the rich West saying when it refuses to make even the tiniest investment in global public goods? When a rich West says: “sorry, we won’t even invest 0.01% of our GDP to vaccinate the world, which is all it needs, which would benefit us, too, tomorrow, by actually stopping this pandemic”…that’s nihilism. Just like it is when the rich West refuses to really do much to stop climate change, mass extinction, ecological collapse, to avert coming decades of catastrophe.
You know how Americans don’t care about much of anything — including themselves? Maybe only guns, reality TV, big houses, and big cars? That’s where the world is, too. The rich West doesn’t care about anything. It doesn’t even really care about its own survival. If it did, it’d invest what was necessary today. A piffling amount in vaccines. A larger one to educate the globe. A larger one still to give the animals a chance at life. A bigger one still in the forests, oceans, skies. It isn’t doing any of that, and remember, no one else on earth has the resources, because the rich West got rich by taking everything away from the rest of the world.
That, my friends, is the beginning of the end of a civilization. When it’s power centres and elites won’t make the investments necessary to give it a future. For reasons of selfishness, greed, hubris, and sheer bloody-mindedness. That’s where we are today. Our power centre and elites are the rich West — and it’s in that that sense that we’re a “Western” civilization. Centuries of not reckoning with three paradigmatic mistakes — mistakes which caused supremacy, slavery, genocide, war, endlessly — are catching up with us now. The Cartesian error, the Darwinian fallacy, Nietzschean nihilism — these led the West to global ascendance. But the West’s inability to transcend and learn from these mistakes is also a reflection of it’s lack of sustainability as a civilization.
You can’t be predatory and exploitative and violent forever. Sooner or later, you will be left with nothing to burn down but your own house. That’s where the West is now. The civilization after this one? It won’t be Western. It will probably be Eastern — much more attuned to nature, less hierarchical, more cooperative. It will be Southern — more communitarian, more empathic, less individualistic. It’ll be, also, rooted in the deeper wisdoms of the ancient past — traditions which emphasised reciprocity, interconnectedness, equality, and dignity. It’ll be a mirror image, probably, of the West.
And the West? My guess is that it won’t even rank up there with Greece, Rome, and Egypt, in the end. It’ll just be remembered, at least on its current trajectory, as the most destructive civilisation of them all, the one whose destructiveness ended with self-destruction, while the planet melted down, the world cried out in pain, democracy burned, and life died off in a great wave of death.


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