California Author Warns Against ‘Immoderate Greatness’

Published on October 21st, 2013

"Desolation," 1836, from the "The Course of Empire" series by American artist Thomas Cole.Author William Ophuls is a California native and former U.S. Foreign Service officer who also taught political science at Northwestern University. Through the decades, he has written and published several insightful, provocative books about the profound ecological and philosophical predicaments confronting modern civilization.

In 1977, Ophuls authored Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity, which won the International Studies Association’s Sprout Prize and the American Political Science Association’s Kammerer Award. I read this influential and controversial classic when I was in grad school not long after it came out, and today it seems prescient.

Ophuls’ long-awaited, equally challenging sequel to Ecology was published in 1998. In Requiem for Modern Politics: The Tragedy of the Enlightenment and the Challenge of the New Millennium, he argued that the modern political paradigm – concepts and beliefs inherited from the Enlightenment – was obsolete.

Ophuls criticized the welfare state, feminism, multiculturalism and other sacred cows of the progressive intelligentsia. At the same time, he showed he is not just another neoconservative or reactionary, but more of a transcendentalist in the tradition of Thoreau.

Ophuls’ latest book is Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail (2012). He borrows his title for this succinct work – slender in size but heavy in scope – from a passage in British historian Edward Gibbon’s magisterial History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, first published in 1776.

The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay … and … the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.

Ophuls says that from a “long and complex historic record” he has culled six factors that inherently drive civilizations towards collapse:

  1. Ecological exhaustion
  2. Exponential growth
  3. Expedited entropy
  4. Excessive complexity
  5. Moral decay
  6. Practical failure

Ophuls lumps the first four under the heading of “Biophysical Limits” and the second two under the heading of “Human Error.” Many readers will already be familiar with some of these factors, but Ophuls is a compelling and readable writer, and his accessible discussion of the various topics is absorbing.

Here is part of Ophuls’ discussion of inflation in the “Practical Failure” chapter:

Inflation is always an evasion of reality – an attempt to maintain an artificial prosperity that objective conditions would not otherwise allow… Charged with governing a populace accustomed to living well beyond its means, overwhelmed by a multiplicity of difficult problems, hemmed in by a host of vested interests, burdened by a deteriorating physical and social infrastructure that is increasingly costly to maintain, encumbered with ecological, thermodynamic, and fiscal debts that have come due, rulers bereft of backbone, ingenuity, and capital attempt to postpone the impending crisis by inflating, whether this takes the form of clipping coins, printing money, or loosening credit.

Dysfunction in Sacramento and Washington, anyone?

Immoderate Greatness is the latest in a series of prominent books and articles warning of civilizational collapse, starting with The Limits to Growth in 1972, and including The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter (1988), Jared Diamond’s Collapse (2005) and Debora MacKenzie’s 2008 article "Why the demise of civilisation may be inevitable" in New Scientist.

Some of these authors are guardedly hopeful, others not. Groups like CAPS would not exist without hope there may still be time to alter our tragic trajectory, avoiding the predicament described by one of the chroniclers of antiquity cited by Ophuls:

…little by little, we have been brought into the present condition in which we are able neither to endure the evils from which we suffer, nor the remedies we need to cure them.

– Livy (Titus Livius Patavinus), 59 BCE – CE 17

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