Thursday 15 January 2009

Landing, bailing and crashing

In his column – one of the few I read every day – the admirable Rod Dreher links to this Wall Street Journal article, and notes that the U.S. may go the way of the British Empire. I was going to post a comment, but my writing became too long for that, so I will expand here.

I am a patriot – if an expatriate one – and I don’t want my country to collapse, but there are worse options than going the way of the British.

U.S. government and business communities have made some bad choices. Money and investment have become ever-further removed from the realm of tangible infrastructure. The government has become the world’s largest importer of energy in exchange for accumulating the world’s largest debt, while sinking to the bottom of the West in health care, education and services. The United States government currently runs hundreds of overseas bases and spends more on the military than the other 194 countries of the world combined, and while many Americans have died keeping the government in that position, it has not made us a richer or better people. U.S. residents’ food increasingly comes from vast centralized businesses and their goods from the Third World, circulating in fleets of trucks that rumble past vacant lots and vacant factories.

Before I left my home country, long before the Wall Street turbulence, I saw a society increasingly strained and fragile: towns with crumbling buildings and boarded-up storefronts, friends and relations working several jobs to get by. That said, the country is still fabulously wealthy compared to most populations in most eras, many Americans are decent and intelligent, the country has been through worse, and collapse – in the Zombie Apocalypse sense -- is not inevitable.

The United States will not remain the world’s dominant military force when the sun goes nova a few billion years from now, so at some point we will “fall,” in the same way that a plane, held aloft by a massive infusion of temporary power, must fall. The stratosphere is not that iron’s natural home. We are already falling fast, but there might be other options than crashing.

The more mainstream environmentalists and peak oil activists are lobbying governments and corporations to take the massive initiatives needed to avert an energy and ecological collapse -- in other words, to land the plane. Many in the Green movement -- crunchy cons, "back-to-the-landers," the original Green Party, people taking the "Benedict Option," whatever you call them -- are taking parachutes and giving them to their fellow passengers. In our case -- and here's where the plane metaphor breaks down -- we need both, and will benefit from a combination.

Personally, I wouldn’t mind the U.S. “fall” in the way that British empire has since the Second World War – letting go of its colonies, often gradually and peacefully, leaving them largely prosperous and amicable. Their empire continued undeterred after my own country’s rebellion in the 1700s, but I wonder if they learned a great deal from the Irish rebellion, and especially from Gandhi’s courteously iron resistance. That may explain the way they dealt with Cyprus, South Africa, Rhodesia, the Carribbean, Canada, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.

These countries all have vastly different circumstances and histories, of course, but they tend to be roughly better off than neighbours of comparable population and history -- even troubled Zimbabwe has a literacy rate of 90 percent, which according to this might be better than the U.S. Many British perceive their country to be a better place now, and speak of the loss of their empire with gentle humour rather than bitterness.

My fear is that the country will crash as Spain did after briefly, if only theoretically, owning virtually the entire planet. Spain clung to its fortresses and oppressed populations, straining its capacities, running up debts, and losing its possessions one by one after centuries of bloodshed, until it was among the poorest of Western nations. Much of the population of the Western Hemisphere was left with a legacy of poverty and violence, speaking Spanish and carrying the Y-chromosomes of the tiny country that they look back on with rancour.


Anonymous said...

Britain also involved itself in the affairs of Afganistan back in the 18-19th centuries. Now, we too are involved in the affairs of Afganistan, "The Graveyard of Empires."

Unknown said...

I can only hope that January 20 will mark the rebirth of logic and knowledge in the American presidency. Unfortunately, I fear our country doesn't learn quickly or meaningfully from its mistakes. Otherwise we would have collectively rejected the "refund-and-spend" Norquistians in 2004 who brazenly chose to misdirect their paranoia in Iraq.

Obama is a beacon, but our country has become intellectually lazy. Until that turns, we are in for a bad ride. You're in a good place, Brian.