Our doubts are traitors, and makes us lose the good we might oft win, by fearing to attempt. ~William Shakespeare
Question #92164 posted on 05/12/2019 8:12 a.m.

Dear 100 Hour Board,

I've been thinking about the rise and fall of civilizations. Rome, Greece, and the like. The pattern seems to be that a fall comes because of complacency and decadence; if you see something different, I'd like to hear another angle.

I worry that America may be on the same path. 243 years we've stood, now possibly at the invisible precipice of our end.

My question here is: has any major civilization been able to avert its end? Broken the cycle, or at least forestalled its doom and extended its life? What can America do to forestall the fall of our culture and civilization? What does our future look like?

-Thinking Emoji


Dear Emoji,

Technically every country in world if you think about it. Some are more stable than others but by default none of them have met their end.



Dear Thinker,

While complacency and decadence may have been trends you've noticed, the actual causes associated with the falls of great empires are much more complex. It's so complex that huge, fat tomes written on the subject still can't comprehensively address the issue. 

I think a common tendency people have is to break down large, complex matters into single pithy statements. While the simplification sometimes is useful and describes the most fundamental aspects of the bigger concept, it often misses crucial elements that would completely change perceptions about the concept. Real life is messy and complex, and we can't always simplify it in nice ways. The point of this paragraph is that I don't think it's reasonable to identify a couple of common themes from history and hold them as the standard for what is doomed to happen. Yes, we should learn from history, but we should also be wary of portraying connections as either stronger or more tenuous than they really are.

Anyways. I'll step off my soap box now.

We often talk about the fall of the Roman Empire as having happened in 476, when the emperor was killed on a battlefield. But really it was still going strong in the East: the Byzantine Empire was just as 'Roman' as the traditional Western Roman Empire. I think this actually serves as a nice example of an empire "forestalling its doom", so to speak. The Byzantine Empire faced a lot of the same issues as the Western Empire, and had the same origin. Yet it lasted for hundreds of years longer.

Honestly, I don't feel qualified enough to even offer conjecture for the trajectory of America's future. I'm not up to date on current events (I don't follow any news sources), and haven't taken a single history class in my college career (unless you count history of philosophy). But I do have a resource I think you'd be interested in: The Fall of Rome podcast hosted by Patrick Wyman. Wyman is a PhD in history, and did his thesis on an aspect of the fall of Rome. I think you'd find it enlightening and interesting.



Dear Sage,

The United States already has, multiple times. Most notably, I think the Civil War certainly felt like the end of the civilization of America. I mean, our country literally broke in two. Now, what people posit is that the "Second American Civil War" will occur along the blue-red divide, which is probably what you're thinking about too (I could be wrong.) And some people definitely agree. For example, I listened recently to a podcast called It Could Happen Here, episode "The Second American Civil War." While definitely a left-leaning argument (even for my personal taste), there is some interesting (and terrifying) information and prediction in there. Now, it's not a doomsday prophecy, necessarily. (And let's be real, it wouldn't last very long because only the people with guns would live anyway, so we all know how that would go.) But I agree with you - it feels like we're standing at the end of an era. 

One thing I disagree with is the idea that complacency leads to the fall of a civilization. Sure, you could twist it that way, but I think it has more to do with violence, expansion beyond maintainability, inability to support citizens, and/or acting contrary to the vision of the masses. Rome died and broke apart because it got so big it just couldn't stay together anymore. 

So what about the U.S.? We're seeing a lot of violence, riots, brutality, verbal abuse, etc.... but is it any more than in the past? Not really, it just looks a bit different and is more visible. Are we too big to maintain our existence? I don't think so, that's the point of having state and municipal governments - it breaks things down. We're still 'able' to support our citizens, though we're currently favoring only a handful of people while leaving most to struggle, but that's not something we can't work through with new policies. And, because of our periodic elections, it's not very often that someone who acts contrary to the wishes of their constituents lasts very long in politics. So basically, I don't think America is going to fall any time soon. We've made it through the Civil War, the Gilded Age (not unlike what we're in now), The Great Depression, both World Wars, the Cold War, 9/11, and more. All of those events felt like the end to the people that lived through them. Whatever this thing is we're living through, I doubt it will be the end. It may change the world as we know it, but it won't be the end. (And anyway, climate change will probably kill us all first, so why worry about it?)

At the end of the day, I think most of us do care about our country, we just have different visions for what it ought to look like. We want to solve certain problems and ignore other ones, put money into certain projects that other people disagree with. I think the young adults and kids that are growing up right now are seeing what's happening and we're trying to do something about it, and we're trying to learn to be diplomatic and respectful in our discussions (or at least, I hope we are.) Furthermore, the world is more connected than it ever has been in the past, so there is global reliance, which makes everyone just a bit more stable (sure, it can also cause wars and terrorism and other bad stuff too, but that happened before anyway, so let's think positive.)

I can't predict what our future will look like. I doubt it will look like anything we've seen in the past or present, but that doesn't mean it's wrong or bad. Just different. We aren't "stalling" before meeting our demise, we're just embracing each new day and changing over time. Even if someday the idea of "America" as we imagine it now doesn't exist, I expect that "America" as a civilization will be pretty indefinite. Also, 243 years isn't much. The British Empire has been around for WAY longer than that and gone through LOTS of radical changes, but it hasn't ever really fallen. 

Anyway, that's my two cents. 




Dear thinker,

I was advised this last week to read Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. If I had immediately followed the advice I would have been able to give you a fantastic answer about why nations fail and others don't and where America seems be be standing. Unfortunately, I have not taken any steps to get the book yet. But I suggest you do; it seems like it would answer your question perfectly.

-guppy of doom