Why civilization is in decline – and what can reverse it

By most accounts, 2016 was an annus horribilis – a year that saw brutal terrorist attacks around the world, the hottest year on record at the time, and a disturbing amount of upheaval in order world politics with Brexit and Donald Trump.
It was widely proclaimed the worst year ever.

So did 2017, 2018, and 2019. Finally, 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic and a world that seemed even more upset than ever, seemed as bad as a year could get.

But 2021 suggests things could get even worse.

Andrew Potter, associate professor at McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy, says that if each successive year seems worse than the year before, it may be because our civilization is on a long downward slope.

In his new book, In decline: stagnation, nostalgia and why every year is the worst everPotter argues that the West’s two centuries of progress and prosperity – underpinned by liberal democracy, abundant energy and natural resources, and economic growth – have stalled and are even reversing.

IDEAS Host Nahlah Ayed spoke to Andrew Potter about what decline really looks like, the issues that jeopardize our civilization and why our political, economic and social reality today does not seem up to the task of addressing them. to resolve.

This is an excerpt from their conversation.

NA: What exactly is declining?

AP: Broadly speaking, civilization — more narrowly the West. Generally what I’m saying is that the whole trajectory of modernity, of economic growth, of liberal democracy, you know, the general idea that things are getting better everywhere has probably peaked and is most likely in terminal decline.

Give us an idea of ​​what exactly this terminal decline is. How do you define decline?

So it’s not the apocalypse, is it? It’s not a Hollywood thriller where, you know, the moon explodes or there are comets crashing down. What I’m arguing is that what we call civilization – progresses through the process of figuring out how to solve larger and more complex collective action problems, [and] the various problems that have kept us for centuries or millennia at something close to subsistence living standards – we have figured out how to solve these problems and expand our networks of trust and build the economy and build a society and make it more inclusive in any number of different ways.

[But] we have come up against the limits of our ability to solve these collective action problems.

I think climate change is an effect of our civilization, but it becomes a problem when you lose the ability to do anything about it.-Andre Potier

Much of your discussion, and everyone’s discussion of how we’re doing globally, is about the COVID-19 pandemic. It continues. And yet, our science and technology have found answers and solutions. But what about the political responses to the pandemic and the refusal of so many people as we have seen to get vaccinated or wear masks that make the pandemic seem like a declining case study to you?

One of the things that struck me was this rather striking discrepancy between what science has been able to accomplish in a very short time, and our abilities, through our politics and our bureaucracies, etc., to use this science and not only to use of it, but just stay away. There were logistical issues early on with the test and trace update.

There are all sorts of ways to say “was a pandemic handled well?” And the answer is: not really. Part of this can be attributed to the difficulties of the onset of the fog of war. But it’s been a year and a half and there are still a lot of issues that we just have to get things done. And I think ultimately our political and logistical response to the pandemic is only symptomatic of the problem.

Annual wildfires, floods, you know, extreme weather events that happen with increasing frequency – are climate change and environmental degradation a byproduct of our decline, or are they pushing us to a deeper decline? Or maybe it’s both…

Children holding signs during a global strike against climate change in Nicosia, Cyprus. (Yiannis Kourtoglou/Reuters)

It is essentially the result of the modern world. I mean, people were predicting some kind of climate change 100 years ago because if you start burning enough coal, the climate will change. There just wasn’t much we knew what to do about it. And of course, because it’s such a slow process, you don’t do anything about it. So I think climate change is an effect of our civilization, but it becomes a problem when you lose the ability to do anything about it.

The book’s argument is that the true nature of our decline is not an event, it’s a process. That is to say: what have we lost? We have lost the ability to solve the problems we face. And I think climate change is the most important.

It’s the world getting tougher for everyone, grosser, rougher and things generally wear out.-Andre Potier

Considering writing this book and the argument you make, is there any danger in declaring that we are in decline like this? You know, the comfort one derives from a sense of moral or intellectual superiority, perhaps still ultimately hopeless and alienated. I mean: is there a danger in that?

There are. This is important because first of all, decline is not apocalypse. And decline is not extinction. It’s just decline. This does not mean that no one can be happy. That doesn’t mean there won’t be anything worth doing. This does not mean that there is no moral progress. It’s the world getting tougher for everyone, grosser, rougher and things generally wear out.

I wonder if you think this is a decline in the West or a real global decline.

More or less, it’s a bit West in that West is where things seem to have gone off the rails. And so if the West is running out of steam, it’s partly. But also, more broadly, if the general argument is right, it will eventually happen to everyone.

There’s a part of me that wants to see some kind of optimism. I know there is no magic bullet, but is it an individual action or is it something much bigger?

It’s fundamentally about institutions, and large-scale trajectories… There are three big issues: economic and technological stagnation, political polarization, and the toxic effects of social media stirring the pot and making things worse. Any of these things could either turn out to be overdone, reverse, or resolve on their own.

If we can find new, cleaner forms of abundant energy, then many problems simply evaporate. On the more political front, social media may be wearing thin, and with it the toxic effects it is having on our politics that make collective action more difficult. This could help resolve the populist movement we find ourselves in.

I have no illusions about the direction democratic politics will take, but anything that reduces the toxicity and partisanship of our politics would be a step forward.

* Questions and answers have been condensed for clarity. To listen to the full interview, click on “listen” above. This episode was produced by Chris Wodskou.