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To err is human, to fisk divine

Tim Newman does a fine job of fisking at length an article by Rachel Nuwer on the BBC (natch!) titled: How western civilisation could collapse.

Spoiler alert:

Tim is not impressed…

Here’s my suggestion: allow British citizens to keep their money in their pockets instead of forcing them to shell out £3bn per year for the BBC to publish garbage like this. A more humane gesture I cannot imagine at this juncture.

Read the whole thing.

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23 comments to To err is human, to fisk divine

  • Sam Duncan

    Take, for example, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.

    The Empire tried to maintain its core lands, even as the army ate up its budget and inflation climbed ever higher as the government debased its silver currency to try to cover its mounting expenses.

    Eventually, it could no longer afford to prop up those heightened complexities. It was fiscal weakness, not war, that did the Empire in.

    The mind absolutely boggles. How can someone know this and still claim that “neoliberalism” is a threat? Panem et circenses, Rachel, panem et circenses

  • Sean

    A contender for the “Malthusian Drivel of the Year” award – no?

  • Julie near Chicago

    Well, but didn’t anybody read the first few paras? I mean, at least she gets that Climate Change is one of the biggest Doomers of our Civ. Where she got that from I couldn’t say … likely straight from the horse’s rear — so to speak. :>))

  • Regional

    For anybody in the Western World nominate just one politician you came across in the ocean floundering you wouldn’t throw an anvil to, hypothetically speaking.

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    But the average British citizen (Britizen?) would just waste the money on selfish concerns, instead of spending it on the correct causes! Labour needs the BBC, or it would have NO supporters! (And that can’t be good for the economy, can it?)

  • Laird

    An excellent fisking, as Perry says. Well worth the read.

    One small point which thoroughly amused me: The BBC article quotes one “Jorgen Randers, a professor emeritus of climate strategy at the BI Norwegian Business School.” Why does a business school have any professor of climate strategy, let alone one who is senior enough to have attained emeritus status? If I were a Norwegian businessman looking for some entry-level management trainees or financial analysts, I would be extremely reticent to hire anyone with a degree from that particular institution. But perhaps that’s just me.

  • Rich Rostrom

    I’m not impressed.

    For instance:

    The ecological category is the more widely understood and recognised path to potential doom…

    With the possible exception of Easter Island, where has this ever led to the breakdown of society?

    Though I’m no expert in the field, I immediately recalled the case of the Mayans, whose unsustainable slash-and-burn agriculture allowed the establishment of substantial cities, all of which had to be abandoned a few decades later due to soil exhaustion. There are other cases in North Africa and the Middle East of desertification, due to overgrazing and salination, leading to abandoned cities.

    Then there’s this gem:

    but the war in Syria is largely between the government of Bashar al-Assad and those who oppose him. It’s not Muslims v Christians v Kurds, is it?

    So he never heard that the government is largely based on Alawites? That many Christian Syrians are allied with the government, because they fear the Sunni Moslem majority; that Daesh is exclusively Sunni (and murders Christians), but Daesh is also opposed by the Sunni Kurds, while the regime draws on Hezbollah, which is Lebanese Shi’a? That the anti-Assad Syrian Liberation Army is also fighting Daesh?

    As to economic stratification and the accumulation of wealth in a relatively small unproductive class – isn’t that what libertarians see in crony capitalist regimes and bloated state sectors?

  • Richard Rostrom,

    Permit me to respond, if I may?

    Though I’m no expert in the field, I immediately recalled the case of the Mayans, whose unsustainable slash-and-burn agriculture allowed the establishment of substantial cities, all of which had to be abandoned a few decades later due to soil exhaustion.

    It’s a shame you didn’t write the article, because I wasn’t saying it *never* happened, I was asking for examples of *where* it happened. But given the subject is on the collapse of Western civilisations, perhaps citing the fate of the Mayans wouldn’t support the argument much. Which is probably why the author didn’t mention it.

    There are other cases in North Africa and the Middle East of desertification, due to overgrazing and salination, leading to abandoned cities.

    Whole civilisations? Really? Which ones? I’m not talking about cities or regions, the article is talking about the threat to Western civilisation. Some relevant, named examples would be nice.

    So he never heard that the government is largely based on Alawites? That many Christian Syrians are allied with the government, because they fear the Sunni Moslem majority; that Daesh is exclusively Sunni (and murders Christians), but Daesh is also opposed by the Sunni Kurds, while the regime draws on Hezbollah, which is Lebanese Shi’a? That the anti-Assad Syrian Liberation Army is also fighting Daesh?

    Perhaps I was a little loose with my language. What you have described is the situation now, whereas I was responding to the article’s theories as to the origins of the Syrian Civil War. I should have said “the war in Syria began…” The protests which were part of the Arab Spring, which transformed into armed opposition, were not formed along ethnic lines. True, Assad is an Alawite but they weren’t protesting Alawite rule, they were protesting his rule. Unlike other conflict zones, Syria didn’t have many ethnic tensions and a lot of the hardcore religious fighters – ISIS being the best example – are imports. In case anyone thinks I am backtracking here, in January I wrote a blog post about how, as governments in the Middle East collapsed, its residents were forced to pick sides in what transformed into an ethnic clash having lived relatively peacefully alongside one another for decades:

    In previous years, Arab nationalism was the big thing. Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan defined themselves firstly by their nationality and only perhaps as a secondary concern did they bring ethnicity or religious affiliation into play (with the exception being they were absolutely opposed to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Israel). Nasser’s Egypt didn’t promote itself on the basis of religion or ethnicity, but as a regional power allied to the Soviet Union. Colonel Gaddafi spent years trying to set up and lead some sort of African Union grounded in nationalism and anti-colonialism, not a common religion or ethnicity. I am told in Syria people were Syrians first and Muslims and Christians second. Despite his growing a beard and waving the Koran around once he’d been captured, Saddam Hussein ran a largely secular regime based on nationalism and (in theory) socialism via the Ba’ath party, which they shared with Syria. These countries were based on political doctrines, not on religious or ethnic ones.

    That’s not to say that Christians didn’t face discrimination in Egypt, the majority Shia were not oppressed in Iraq by the minority Sunnis, and the Kurds didn’t get gassed by Saddam Hussein. And one must also look at Saudi Arabia – a nation whose foundations are religious – and the Lebanese Civil War which saw all the different religions and sects fighting one another. My point is not that one’s religion or ethnicity didn’t matter at all, but that they were considered of secondary importance to the political entity that was the nation state (or, more accurately, the guy in charge). Provided you were prepared to pledge your loyalty to the political regime, you stood a good chance of being left alone. Saddam Hussein didn’t gas the Kurds because he objected to their religious beliefs, he did so because they were not sufficiently loyal and didn’t want to live under his rule. One must remember that Tariq Aziz, a long-serving minister in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, was Catholic.

    Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the sectarian fighting that followed, and then the Arab Spring, all of that has gone out of the window. The Muslim Brotherhood popped up in Egypt and promptly won an election; jihadists ran rampage in Libya once Gaddafil was removed; ISIS tore through Iraq and Syria, ethnically cleansing any territory they captured as they fought a religious war for control of the Levant. The two regional superpowers – Saudi Arabi and Iran – are fighting a proxy war in Yemen and fuelling the conflicts elsewhere with money and weapons as each backs their own religious brethren. No longer are Iraqis, Syrians, Egyptians, and Libyans allowed to state they are nationalists first and foremost and want only what’s best for the country: they must pick a side and in a lot of cases fight for that side. Within a relatively short time ethnicity and religion has become the determining factor in one’s identity across swathes of the Middle East, taking over from nationality.

  • Stonyground

    I was slightly surprised to find that the doomsayers are still banging the climate change drum. I was thinking that climate change doom had got to the point where it had been completely discredited, so many predicted disasters having failed to materialise. The part about the prohibitive cost of sea walls was particularly baffling, don’t they have sea walls in other parts of the world then? You know, with them being so costly to build?

  • Rob

    If only it was £3bn. I think it is north of £4bn now. BBC turnover is over £5bn, and I don’t think they rake in as much as a billion from commercial activities.

  • Rob

    It was fiscal weakness resulting from war which did the Western Empire in. They lost the most lucrative regions (Gaul, North Africa) and didn’t have the revenue to support an army large enough to take them back.They were also fighting organised enemies, not tribes any more, and on several fronts, as well as each other with the odd civil war.

    What certainly wouldn’t have saved them was “MOAR TAX!”, as there was no-one left to tax who wasn’t already being so.

  • “Take, for example, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire … inflation … the government debased its silver currency …”

    A very noticeable feature of the late 300s AD Roman Empire was its decision to stop assimilating all immigrants and instead admit foederati: immigrant tribes who maintained their distinct identities as visigoths, ostrogoths, germanic tribes, etc. The relation of that to the fall of the empire is much discussed in histories from Gibbon on. Rachel says:

    While some scholars cite the beginning of collapse as the year 410, when the invading Visigoths sacked the capital

    but fails to note that they ‘invaded’ (with Imperial permission) more than 30 years earlier, seeking refugee from the Huns.

    The empire’s destruction of the value of its low-denomination coinage in the mid-200s did mark a real change between the principate and late-empire periods – a permanent change as it was never rectified. But the empire did survive that crisis, just in sorrier state. The foederati are much closer in time to the empire’s death and are much more obviously major players in actually killing it.

  • Watchman

    I’d suggest the Roman Empire never fell, but simply that it suffered extreme devolution, as various regions/cities started to retain their own produce rather than pay taxes to an inefficient and corrupt central bureaucracy, and as individual producers (read farmers) generally became wealthier as taxes were not collected and entire levels of government disappeared. Certainly there is no evidence of economic collapse at a local level – all that disappeared were the ‘Roman’ symbols (stone buildings in much of the UK (where wood is as efficient), cities (which were centres of display and power) and a few long-distance industries (mostly linked to supplying the army)). And where Christianity took root, then they preserved some aspects of Roman systems (stone buildings, cities (as religious centres) and long-distance industries (related to the need to supply the church with oil and wine)).

    In general, civilisations ‘fail’ (that is the characteristics that we associate with a civilisation stop being used – it’s not as if the Maya have gone anywhere, and the Romans are still around) but individuals survive. There might be an agrarian disaster that destroys a civilisation, but that seems to be limited to isolated agrian civilisations – to destroy modern capitalism would require a worldwide disaster (hence the interest in climate change?). The obsession with civilisations seems rather nineteenth century to me – historians have generally given up on assuming civilisation is a meaningful term (BBC journalists less so – mind you, she’s talking about history with computer modellers rather than historians, and modellers are notoriously bad with individuals…).

    Indeed, an interesting question here is what exactly are the characteristics that make ‘western’ civilisation – because I’m pretty certain the western civilisation of say 1900 would, from an archaeological perspective, be seen as having fallen.

  • I’d suggest the Roman Empire never fell

    I think that is an excessively loose definition of ‘fell’. If roads are no longer being patrolled, aqueducts are falling into disrepair, you can no longer get an amphora in Britannia for love nor money, and it is no longer safe for a trader to set off on a journey from Verulamium and expect to end up in Pola or Athens without getting killed or plundered on the way, then yeah, that civilisation has come unglued.

  • Gene

    I was slightly surprised to find that the doomsayers are still banging the climate change drum. I was thinking that climate change doom had got to the point where it had been completely discredited, so many predicted disasters having failed to materialise.

    Surprised, really? My friend, they are just getting warmed up (pun intended). We’re generations away from the day that drum is retired.

  • Watchman –

    Rome’s fall was made more likely by climate change. Rome was thriving during the Roman Warm Period, but this was followed by a cold period. The cold may or may not have triggered the volkswanderung, but weren’t there a lot of tribes moving into each others’ territory, ending up at Rome because there wasn’t really much further south in the neighborhood?

    The world is filled with troubles, but barbarians at the gate is one of the classics. When your governing classes are incompetent, well, there you go.

    Of course Rome (the city) is still there. And the Eastern Roman Empire centered on Constantinople took much longer to fall – but Constantinople (the city) is now named Istanbul, and Turks live there.

    The modern world is also vulnerable to weather – Solar weather. One enthusiastic Carrington Event, and there goes electricity. If our electricity goes, so goes the nation. The only question is how far we’d fall, and who’d live through it.

  • Concerning Ellen’s view of another Carrington Event, the world is now a different place on both its vulnerability and its anticipatory ability.

    We certainly should not ignore the puny insignificance of humanity and its society. Asteroid strike and massive solar flare are but the better known possibilities that indicate our status.

    But a massive solar flare can be seen coming. We just need a plan to switch off everything electrical for 2 or 3 days: the various national grids most particularly.

    Do we have the governments to do this: well, good question. I think we probably do.

    And if/where not, the rewind is a mere 1.4 centuries, for so long as it takes to rebuild. So maybe a decade or less.

    Asteroid strike is the one that really worries me. Even if we had the protection system (we do not), we currently are even further away from the necessary detection system – with sufficient (early) warning.

    It’s interesting though for a serious fisk to lead to these questions, especially stepping through causation of the fall of the Roman Empire.

    Best regards

  • Laird:

    I could see somebody trying to teach people how to deal with the roadblocks the State is trying to put in the way of businesses in the name of “Fighting Climate Change”. (I don’t know if the professor was involved with that at all.)

    It’s sad that compliance is such a big industry, but there we are.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Nigel Sedgwick @ April 20, 2017 at 5:55 pm:

    But a massive solar flare can be seen coming.

    The Carrington Event was a Coronal Mass Ejection which struck the Earth.

    A solar flare is a magnetic convulsion on the Sun’s surface, which emits ionized radiation in all directions. A CME is a blob of ionized gas spewed out of a solar flare in a specific direction – possibly at the Earth.

    Sunspot observations can reveal that solar flare activity is imminent, but cannot with any reliability predict the exact time of associated CMEs, much less the direction. They are slow, so there could be several days’ warning in theory, but I wouldn’t rely on it, nor do I see how such a warning could be usefully acted on.

  • Laird

    Nice try, Ted, but unfortunately that’s not the case (although you did force me to look him up). According to his bio at the school, he “lectures widely at home and abroad on sustainable development issues – particularly on the future and climate change”; he “chaired the Commission on Low Greenhouse Gas Emissions” for the Norwegian government; he “co-authored The Limits to Growth in 1972 and its sequels in 1992 and 2004” and is “a full member of the Club of Rome”. I’m pretty certain his interest is not in helping businesses “deal with roadblocks”; he has spent his career erecting such roadblocks!

  • Chester Draws

    Though I’m no expert in the field, I immediately recalled the case of the Mayans, whose unsustainable slash-and-burn agriculture allowed the establishment of substantial cities, all of which had to be abandoned a few decades later due to soil exhaustion. There are other cases in North Africa and the Middle East of desertification, due to overgrazing and salination, leading to abandoned cities.

    Well, yes, you are no expert. You’re wrong on almost everything.

    The Mayans didn’t practise slash-and-burn. They had a sophisticated rotational system for soil maintenance, and preferred wetlands anyway. Yes, they burned before some sorts of planting, but then so do modern farmers.

    Their civilisation wasn’t abandoned after decades. All the major centres lasted centuries and thrived — virtually every site has major works, which is impressive for a stone age technology. There are thousands of temples. The main centres moved over time but the civilisation was going fine when the Spanish arrived. Using the techniques you say exhausted the soil. (When people talk of the Mayan collapse they mean the Classical period Maya of south Yucutan, but North of there and South of there into Guatemala flourished. There was no overall “Mayan Collapse”)

    The soil in the Yucutan is very thin and there’s not much else can be done with it. It’s pretty much exhausted to start with, but how the Mayans farmed was not the problem.

    The case for why the centres moved is difficult, and climate change (over centuries) is one theory. Mostly it centres around drought, because the area has no rivers. But the same sort of collapse occured in central Mexico too for some cities, yet almost certainly wasn’t climate change. And some parts of the Yucutan are tropical, and they really won’t have had climate change issues. We really don’t know for sure, and advancing theories to bolster modern day arguments is not warranted with the evidence we have.

    The case for overgrazing of North Africa is stronger. However modern methods are pretty much geared to having that not occur. There is zero chance the UK will be over-grazed, for example. You might as well argue the Roman Empire collapsed because they couldn’t fight off large armies of mounted nomads. That is true, but not really relevant to how we live today.

  • bobby b

    Chester Draws
    April 21, 2017 at 4:24 am

    “Well, yes, you are no expert. You’re wrong on almost everything.”

    CD, this ain’t my fight, but my education re Mayan culture included the concept that Tikal, at least, was abandoned after its slash-and-burn agricultural methods left it unable to survive drought conditions.

  • Thanks to Rich Rostrom for the correction to my sloppy use of terminology concerning solar flares etc.

    Best regards