Conflict and Change in the Era of Economic Decline: Part 2: War and peace in a shrinking economy
December 12, 2012
The following is Part 2 of an essay which was originally an address to the International Conference on Sustainability, Transition and Culture Change, November 16, 2012, by Richard Heinberg
Will increasing conflict lead to expanding violence?
Not if neuropsychologist Stephen Pinker is right. In his expansive and widely praised book The Better Angels of Our Nature: the Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes, Pinker claims that, in general, violence has waned during the past few decades. He argues that this tendency has ancient roots in our shift from peripatetic hunting and gathering to settled farming; moreover, during the past couple of centuries the trend has greatly intensified. With the emergence of Enlightenment philosophy and its respect for the individual came what Pinker calls the Humanitarian Revolution. Much more recently, after World War II, violence was suppressed first by the “mutually assured destruction” policies of the two opposed nuclear-armed sides in the Cold War, and then by American global hegemony. Pinker calls this the Long Peace. Wars have become less frequent and less violent, and most societies have seen what might be called a decline of tolerance for intolerance—whether manifested in schoolyard fights, bullying, or picking on gays and minorities.
But there is a problem with Pinker’s implied conclusion that global violence will continue to decline. The Long Peace we have known since World War II may well turn out to be shorter than hoped as world economic growth stalls and as American hegemony falters—in John Michael Greer’s words, as “the costs of maintaining a global imperial presence soar and the profits of the imperial wealth pump slump.” Books and articles predicting the end of the American empire are legion; while some merely point to the rise of China as a global rival, others describe the looming failure of the essential basis of the U.S. imperial system—the global system of oil production and trade (with its petro-dollar recycling program) centered in the Middle East. There are any number of scenarios describing how the end of empire might come, but few credible narratives explaining why it won’t.
When empires crumble, as they always do, the result is often a free-for-all among previous subject nations and potential rivals as they sort out power relations. The British Empire was a seeming exception to this rule: in that instance, the locus of military, political, and economic power simply migrated to an ally across the Atlantic. A similar graceful transfer seems unlikely in the case of the U.S., as economic decline during the 21st century will be global in scope. A better analogy to the current case might be the fall of Rome, which led to centuries of incursions by barbarians as well as uprisings in client states.
Disaster per se need not lead to violence, as Rebecca Solnit argues in her book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. She documents five disasters—the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; earthquakes in San Francisco and Mexico City; a giant ship explosion in Halifax, Canada; and 9/11—and shows that rioting, looting, rape, and murder were not automatic results. Instead, for the most part, people pulled together, shared what resources they had, cared for the victims, and in many instances found new sources of joy in everyday life.
However, the kinds of social stresses we are discussing now may differ from the disasters Solnit surveys, in that they comprise a “long emergency,” to borrow James Kunstler’s durable phrase. For every heartwarming anecdote about the convergence of rescuers and caregivers on a disaster site, there is a grim historic tale of resource competition turning normal people into monsters.
In the current context, a continuing source of concern must be the large number of nuclear weapons now scattered among nine nations. While these weapons primarily exist as a deterrent to military aggression, and while the end of the Cold War has arguably reduced the likelihood of a massive release of these weapons in an apocalyptic fury, it is still possible to imagine several scenarios in which a nuclear detonation could occur as a result of accident, aggression, pre-emption, or retaliation.
We are in a race—but it’s not just an arms race; indeed, it may end up being an arms race in reverse. In many nations around the globe the means to pay for armaments and war are starting to disappear; meanwhile, however, there is increasing incentive to engage in international conflict as a way of re-channeling the energies of jobless young males and of distracting the general populace, which might otherwise be in a revolutionary mood. We can only hope that historical momentum can maintain The Great Peace until industrial nations are sufficiently bankrupt that they cannot afford to mount foreign wars on any substantial scale.