The Scarecrow in the Cucumber Field – ISIL, Ebola, and the End of the World (Order) As We Know It


In his best-selling book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Penguin, 2011), popular science author Jared Diamond meticulously and relentlessly plunges into a wide variety of historical case studies using what he terms the “comparative method” in order to answer the question that has preoccupied scholars from Edward Gibbon through Oswald Spengler – why do societies decline and ultimately disappear?

Diamond makes it clear that he is not a “determinist,” particularly one of the ecological variety, although he does stress environmental issues, even in his earlier publishing writings, in an outsize way.

As the title of the book implies, history is in many respects like a game of cards.  Each people, nation, or cultural aggregate is dealt a certain hand with particular endowments, talents, or possibilities.  Yet it is how one plays the hand that counts.

Environment itself, or the pressure of powerful neighbors (think Poland), are constitutive factors.  But they are not destiny.  Destiny lies in the kinds of  “decisions” societies as a whole are apt to make.

As I write two of the four apocalyptic horsemen – pestilence in the form of the deadly Ebola epidemic and war in the guise of the unimaginably brutal, but militarily successful armies of the Islamic State – are  galloping across the global dais and shaping the destiny of many peoples and nations, including the United States.  If one takes seriously the doomsayers who are increasingly blogging on the internet and occupying the talk show air waves, the end of society as we know it may be looking less like the product of an ignited imagination and more like some kind of imminent reality.

Yet, as Diamond reminds us, the destruction of civilization is only conceivable these days at the planetary level.  “Globalization makes it impossible for modern societies to collapse in isolation…Any society in turmoil today, no matter how remote … can cause trouble for prosperous societies on other continents and is also subject to their influence (whether helpful or destabilizing). For the first time in history, we face the risk of a global decline. But we also are the first to enjoy the opportunity of learning quickly from developments in societies anywhere else in the world today, and from what has unfolded in societies at any time in the past.”

The End of the New World Order



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