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Yetanotheruser's avatar

Is "Western Civilization" at the end of its course?

Asked by Yetanotheruser (14166 points ) December 12th, 2013

I have a lot of details to present with this post, so if you find yourself pressed for time, please come back.

During a recent conversation about the current state of the American-European civilization vis-a-vis the rise of powerful transnational corporations, and some of the parallels between the current civilization and the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, as depicted in the documentary Four Horsemen, I was made aware of a series of paintings by 19th century artist Thomas Cole entitled “The Course of Empire”. It consists of five paintings: The Savage State,
The Arcadian or Pastoral State,
The Consumation of Empire, The Destruction, and finally Desolation

According to the Wikipedia article, Cole was inspired for this series by Canto IV of Byrons Childe Harold Pilgrimage. He included the following passage in his advertisements for the series:

There is the moral of all human tales;

‘Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.
First freedom and then Glory – when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption – barbarism at last.
And History, with all her volumes vast,
Hath but one page…

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16 Answers

talljasperman's avatar

East becomes the new west.

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

Well, this question is very in-depth and my answer is the condensed version, but I say yes, we have about run our course. And the reason I say that is because throughout history, when the rulers become so powerful and so corrupt as to be oppressive to the people, the people have picked up their skirts and moved to a whole new area to start over. From Europe to England to America, the people constantly running away from evil, corruption and opperssion. Now it is time to do it again, but we are running out of places to go.

stanleybmanly's avatar

To be replaced by what? There are certainly movements afoot in the corporate world to establish a universal government of commerce, eliminate national sovereignty over trade matters, and establish the rights of capital to take first priority in the conduct of human affairs.

JimTurner's avatar

There seems to be two scenarios that might play out.

The first is that a few major catastrophes could happen all at once that would force entire cities to suffer.

The second could be we slowly eradicate our moral compass with debauchery and shamelessness.

Change is inevitable but time is a mystery.

pleiades's avatar

Next is globalism. Shortly after Chinese citizens realize their government cares not one bit about the smog situation and then the citizens up rise and become a democracy.

DWW25921's avatar

I like Chinese food. I can adjust.

kritiper's avatar

Yes, but not totally for historical reasons. Climate change and sicknesses akin to MRSA will be our end. And much sooner than we might like!

gorillapaws's avatar

I’m really not worried about China. You can’t have a strong country with a prosperous middle class that doesn’t have free access to basic information. China will either have a major revolt, or it will follow in the footsteps of the old USSR and peacefully evolve into a modern nation.

Coloma's avatar

I think so, yes. Time for mother earth to purge humans and return to the garden, pre-hominid IMO. Humans, what a worthless species we are overall. We have managed to do more harm, cause more suffering and wreck more havoc on this planet than any other creature ever.

DancingMind's avatar

I happened upon an article recently about crazy ants. I don’t think I would have believed it, if it had been printed by just about any place other than the New York Times. It just sounds so impossible, some terrifying fantasy stripped out of a bad horror film: that there could be so many ants, mounds of pounds of the tiny six-legged marchers, enough to take out just about anything. In their crazed abundance and zealousness, these ants decimate wherever they frenzy to—literally they’re smothering the ecosystems. And we have no idea what to do. As a species-entity, these ants so contend with the current global balance, what can and should we do?

I remember a passing thought I had a while ago, about how fortunate it is that most of the most poisonous species are also the most remote/rare/reclusive. And then I stopped that thought and added another one—is that really such a coincidence? Or was just simply evolution, that the most common/interactive venomous species have been encountered with enough frequency that we have some level of tolerability, where the ones we consider deadly now were too rare for that to happen… and so then, is a black widow’s toxins really more toxic than [a less venomous, more common spider]? For us, yes it is more toxic, simply because it harms us more, and that’s the measure we use… would there be any other? They hide in the dark and usually retreat. A balance was found.

My point is that what we’re doing isn’t, in the larger sense, destructive or productive. It’s just what we do, and how everything reacts, and how the balance is shifted. But how it affects the individuals (who gets swarmed, who gets bit,) matters a great deal. When there were just bacteria, billions of years ago, a species overpopulated the earth and created so much oxygen waste that they killed themselves off. And this was the end of their rule of the earth, as humans see life, in reigns.

But specifically Western Civilization, and will it die… Are the Romans not a part of Western Civilization’s reach? After all, even though the Roman Empire died, Roman culture did not—its influence propagates the “Western Civilization” of today, as does that of the ancient Greeks before, as do the tribes before them. Our arts, our sciences, our beliefs of the world… go back far enough, and they have bodies buried with flowers at the time of the Neanderthals. “Western culture, sometimes equated with Western civilization, Western lifestyle or European civilization, is a term used very broadly to refer to a heritage of social norms, ethical values, traditional customs, belief systems, political systems, and specific artifacts and technologies that have some origin or association with Europe” (wikipedia); this is very broad. Perhaps certain reigns of power, specific people or specific families, will be extinguished. Revolutions the centuries over have demonstrated this—but that is no more than the vanquishing of a few generations within the culture. Didn’t ancient Egypt have several different pharaoh dynasties? And within the western scope, England was invaded by the Germanic tribes, and then by the French, and then it revolted and gained independence again, but not before its language shows the influence of both other cultures; yet all three different cultures fall within the scope of Western Civilization.

In another sense, Western Civilization is just a name. In this way it’s somewhat arbitrary, and up to us to decide when it no longer applies, and what historical marker we’ll use. Think of all the changes of names and political stances by the US’s Democrats and the Republicans each throughout history, as well as the establishment of ‘new’ parties that mostly function as subsets of the larger. Yet they claim their parties continuous.

I don’t think that the relatively recent creation of enormously booming corporations can be considered all of Western Civilization; there’s so much more to any civilization, as described in the wiki quote—and anyway, large corporations are no longer distinctive of the western civilizations.
Yes, the modern drive towards an endless growing economy is inherently unsustainable in its concept. In that sense, yes, it will have to change. But this doesn’t have to be catastrophe.

The spiders are poisonous by evolution; this is how they catch their pray—but their venom has been a design of time, and time works indiscriminately; so in that same time, creatures have evolved defenses. The ants are massive and swarming suddenly, invading ecosystems that are without any evolutionary counter. We like to think of our economy as our own creation of evolution. And we like to think of evolution in mechanistic terms. Poisons and the frenzying swarms of other creatures are pretty much out of the hands of us—either as individuals or by communal human will. But even here, our reactions to these problems are within our control, and that’s part of the point of evolution. If we want to consider our system its own evolutionary structure, then we have to remember that evolution is run entirely by the individuals, the summation of the individuals. There are no rules or ruling order other than, ‘how are you going to respond, given what you have?’

I watched a Nat Geo on Netflix on Stress a while ago. One part of it talked about a particular family of baboons. They were affected by a disease that wound up killing all of the super aggressive males in the group (their raised cortisol levels, constantly aggressors to remain in charge, left them more susceptible) and leaving the more passive females. Given this freak opportunity the females stepped up and kept everyone in this more peaceful state, and for a few generations now this baboon tribe is a calmer and noticeably kinder one. Researchers had, before this group, thought it impossible for the baboons to change their behavior so drastically. They thought it was inevitable that baboons would be nasty. The physiology of these calm baboons is identical to any other groups, except they have lower stress hormones. Their baboon knowledge and communication and technology is identical. The inner-group strife is gone. A change happened, something was overthrown. What? What part of their lives do would we call their civilization?

And then, if we humans have a problem of endless growth, if we have a problem of destructive/stressful behaviors, what do we want to call those—the civilization itself, modern characteristics, unfortunate missteps? To know if “Western Civilization” is at its end, we need to know that first.

And what do we want to do about it? Let’s just not chalk everything up to inevitability and doom.

LostInParadise's avatar

In the words of Yogi Berra, “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” The past never repeats itself exactly, and the changes made by technology introduce factors that never existed before. Consider some of the things going on.

1. Climate change. How bad will it get before something is done about it, and how much will the world have been altered? It is impossible to answer this, but it sure looks like global warming is going to be a game changer.

2. Computerization. To what extent are humans going to be replaced by computers? At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, machines mostly replaced tedious and repetitive work and allowed people to move on to jobs that required more skill. Computer skills have been catching up to those of people. Where is this going to end?

3. The end of fossil fuels. To what extent will we be able to replace them with renewable energy sources? What will be the impact?

4. Biotechnology, including genetic engineering. Genetic engineering of humans is coming. People will whine and scream about how awful it is, but there is no preventing it. It will start with ways of eliminating genetic defects and then subtly move on to human enhancement. What will be the impact? Will we end up with computer components? How much of our humanity will we lose in the process?

I would not hazard a guess on how any of this will play out. All I can say is that there is a brave new world facing us, and the world will be much different from what it is now.

mattbrowne's avatar

On the contrary.

The thirst for democracy and freedom and new opportunities is greater than ever. Why is there an Arab Spring for example? Why do Ukrainians take to the streets? People want what we Westerners take for granted. Western civilization has become a role model for the entire world and some of us don’t seem to realize this. It’s not perfect, but I can’t think of anything better. The Tea Party is not Western civilization in case anybody wonders.

Bill1939's avatar

Western civilization has had fewer periods of democracy than periods of despotism. It is less a thirst for democracy than a desire to be free from oppression that motivates a social upheaval. When a people living under conditions that are extremely adverse witness the opulence that a powerful minority has, revolutions, such as the Arab Spring, are inevitable.

MadMadMax's avatar

No no. It’s just changing yet again. We as humans have been shuffling all over the planet for hundreds of thousands of years. We are all concoctions of our ancestors.

We may be in for another Dark Age but we will pull out eventually and if the planet is permitted to heal, we’ll climb up yet again. It could take a thousand years or fifty thousand years – but it will happen.

Bill1939's avatar

A Caterpillar becomes a butterfly. Who misses the caterpillar? Western Civilization (which seems to me to be an oxymoron) is a way-station some distance down the cultural evolutionary trail. Barring stupidity and/or bad luck (asteroids, solar flares, ... ), the human race will continue through time. However, The New Kingdom of Egypt, the Ramesside period, which existed approximately from 1600 BC to 1100 BC, is better known by the average person today than will Western Civilization likely be known in a few millennia.

LostInParadise's avatar

Your post reminds me of what Gandhi said when he was asked, “What do you think of Western Civilization?” He said, “I think it would be a very good idea.”

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