Andrew Potter: More Thoughts On Decline
Author Andrew Potter shares more gloomy observations ahead of the Serbian edition of his prescient manifesto On Decline.
Introduction to the Serbian Edition
This book was commissioned in the summer of 2020, and was written over the course of the following Fall and Winter, during the depths of the initial COVID-19 lockdown in Canada. The darkness of that winter, both literal and figurative, no doubt contributed to the gloomy mood and pessimistic tone of the manuscript. Yet when the book’s publication date was pushed back from June to September 2021, I confess that I was a bit concerned that by the time it finally came out, it would be seen as obsolete. I expected that the newly-developed vaccines would have ended the pandemic, that the economy would be roaring back to life, and that a book about our civilization’s coming decline would be seen as a preposterously overwrought.
I need not have worried. When On Decline was released, it was into the teeth of the hyper-contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 that was fuelling a global fourth wave of the pandemic. The week of publication, the Afghan government collapsed following the final pullout of American troops, with the Taliban returning to power in Kabul almost twenty years to the day after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Here in Canada, an unprecedented “heat dome” in late summer saw temperatures soar to an all-time Canadian high of 49.6 degrees in the interior of the province of British Columbia. All things considered, the book’s argument seemed even more relevant than when it was originally conceived.
But it is worth keeping a few things in mind. The first is that events are not an argument. As we are frequently reminded when talking about global warming, the weather is not the climate, which is why we should be cautious about drawing any conclusions about climate change from a given weather event or even season in a specific part of the planet. One of the key messages of On Decline is that it is almost impossible to discern the shape of the forest by inspecting individual trees, and if the claims of this book have any merit at all, it does not hinge on things that can be described as “contingencies” — the emergence of extra-contagious COVID-19 variants for example, or a once-in-a-century heatwave in the west of Canada.
This brings me to a second point, which is that symptoms are not the disease. While we should be concerned (very concerned!) about things like extreme weather events, global pandemics, and the collapse of democratic governments, what we need to focus on is understanding why these things are happening, what is their cause, and — most importantly — how we should, and are able to, respond.
This is because the central argument of On Decline is that while we are currently suffering through a number of challenges — including a stagnating and strangulated economy, a decline in trust in expertise and faith in political institutions, and an increasingly polarized information ecosystem shot through with fake news, conspiratorial thinking, and magical beliefs — these are all just symptoms of a bigger disease, which is the decline of reason. More specifically, what is in decline is our capacity to respond to the challenges we face through collective action. Civilization is fundamentally about the resolution of increasingly large scale and complicated collective action problems, and to the extent that our capacity to do so is failing, we face the prospect of falling back into barbarism.
Yet it would be silly to argue that the symptoms are unrelated to the disease. If the symptoms are getting lighter or more infrequent, that is a sign you are on the mend. If they are getting more severe or more frequent, that is a sign the patient is doing worse. So consider again two areas of global concern: climate change, and the global COVID-19 pandemic.
As I write this, the Canadian province of British Columbia is once again suffering under a major climate emergency. Instead of a heat wave, this time they have been struck by devastating floods and mudslides caused by a series of “atmospheric rivers” flowing in from the Pacific that have brought torrential downpours. Roads have been washed away, railways have collapsed, and entire regions of the province — which is four times the size of the United Kingdom — have been cut off from supplies of food, oil and gasoline.
The series of climate emergencies that has affected Canada recently are scary enough, but what is more worrisome is how badly prepared the provincial and federal governments have been. This mirrors a similar lack of strategic preparedness for the pandemic, despite warnings going back years, and it clearly reflects a fundamental absence of state capacity to deal with the consequences of a long-foreseen crisis. Canada is far from alone in this: the failure of state capacity across the developed world has been a recurring theme of COVID-19 commentary and analysis. When you add in the recent failure of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow to come to an effective agreement on curbing global emissions, what we are facing is a world where we are failing on two fronts: we don’t have the political will to prevent climate change, but nor do we have state capacity to prepare for its effects.
Also at the time of writing, the world is facing the rise of a new variant of concern (VOC) of the COVID-19 coronavirus. It is not known if this variant, which was first identified in South Africa and has been dubbed Omicron, is more transmissible or more dangerous than previous variants. What has alarmed the scientific community is the high number of mutations in the virus’s spike protein, which could affect how easily it spreads.
These questions about this new variant will be resolved by the time the Serbian edition of this book is published, and there is a good chance that it will turn out to be a false alarm. But what we should be worried about is not the relative threat of this VOC; it is that it is coming as the world is struggling to get enough people vaccinated to choke off the spread of the virus and end the pandemic. In some cases, it is a matter of vaccine equity — we simply haven’t provided the less developed countries with sufficient doses of vaccine.
But in many other cases, the problem is not lack of doses, it is lack of willingness on the part of the population to get vaccinated. In places such as Austria, Germany, Greece, and much of Eastern Europe, vaccine skepticism or outright refusal is the major factor keeping vaccination rates low. This speaks to a combination of lack of trust in science and expertise, magical or conspiratorial thinking, and general self-interested behaviour, and is a classic collective action problem. If Omicron turns out to be nothing much, great. But as the virus continues to circulate it will continue to mutate, and eventually one these variants could prove more deadly, and would wreak havoc on our substantial unvaccinated populations.
Our coming decline will manifest itself in many ways including uncontrolled pandemics, environmental degradation, collapsing birth rates, and economic stagnation. But it is at its heart a political problem, caused by our increasing inability to confront and resolve the myriad collective action problems that bedevil our species at our current stage of development. I see little reason to hope for an end to the spread of political rot across the Western world, which is why the pessimism that informed the writing of this book has only grown deeper since its publication.
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