William Ophuls’ Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail

William Ophuls was a recent discovery of mine, and reading him made me deeply grateful for the introduction. He is a political scientist by training, with degrees from Princeton and Yale, but an ecologist in practice, one of the earliest champions of the American environmental movement. His writings have concentrated themselves on the intersection of ecology and politics, and his criticisms of modern polities could be summed up in a single sentence: that we have fatally disregarded the environmental foundations that nurture and sustain our civilization. While concerned with this neglect, Immoderate Greatness is broader in scope, arguing for two other key contributors to civilizational collapse: the growing complexity of our societies and the moral decay of our citizenry.

In his Preface, Ophuls posits a painful thesis: that “civilization is effectively hardwired for self-destruction.” The title of his book gives some clue as to why this might be so; it comes from Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.

Or, as Ophuls has it, our very triumphs beget our downfall, by spurring us to achievements beyond what our humble origins can sustain, and every ascent of the civilizational ladder inevitably takes us further from an understanding of what enabled the first step upwards, towards the rudiments of civilization. “Most of the trends I identify are inexorable, and complex adaptive systems are ultimately unmanageable. To the extent that we can do something, the required measures are far outside the bounds of what is feasible or even thinkable today.” He goes on to quote Livy (Titus Livius), another great historian of decline, who argues much the same thing:

Rome was originally, when it was poor and small, a unique example of austere virtue; then it corrupted, it spoiled, it rotted itself by all the vices; so, 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.

What, then, are these spoiled virtues?

Ophuls’ first chapter focuses on what he calls “Biophysical Limits,” which begins with a whirlwind tour of all the excesses human civilization can be accused of, from deforestation to deteriorating soil conditions to damaged watersheds. Neither our brains – focused on short-term benefits at the expense of long-term sustainability – nor our economic systems (which rarely factor in the hidden environmental costs of business) are well-equipped to put the brakes on our excesses. He goes on to invoke the second law of thermodynamics, which states that entropy in a given system tends to increase: “energy tends to decay into less and less useful forms.” The log we burn for warmth contains a certain amount of potential energy, but when we set it ablaze, we enjoy only a fraction of that energy in the form of heat – the rest is wasted. Civilizations, Ophuls argues, exponentially increase the effects of entropy, on a much larger scale:

Civilization is trapped in a thermodynamic vicious circle from which escape is well nigh impossible. The greater a civilization becomes, the more the citizens produce and consume – but the more they produce and consume, the larger the increase in entropy. The longer economic development continues, the more depletion, decay, degradation, and disorder accumulate in the system as a whole, even if it brings a host of short-term benefits. Depending on a variety of factors – the quantity and quality of available resources, the degree of technological and managerial skill, and so forth – the process can continue for some time but not indefinitely. At some point, just as in the ecological realm, a civilization exhausts its thermodynamic “credit” and begins to implode.

There is a potential escape to this trap, or at least a possibility of delaying its frightening conclusion, but it would entail radically transforming civilization “so that the human economy resembled the natural economy.” And civilizations throw up yet another barrier to such a transformation, a kind of social entropy that Ophuls terms “Moral Decay.”

Ophuls invokes the historian and soldier Sir John Bagot Glubb, whose short work The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival (1978) has become legendary, as commonly cited in the literature of civilizational decay as Gibbon or Spengler. Like Spengler and Arnold Toynbee before him, Glubb divides the history of civilizations into various Ages: an Age of Pioneers or Conquests, followed by an Age of Commerce, Affluence and Intellect, and concluding with an Age of Decadence. Each age begets the next, in a series of escalation that culminate in a kind of paradox: affluence and ease breed immorality, and immorality cannot sustain itself: civilizational collapse ensues. Take the precursor phase, the Age of Conquest: here Glubb predates the bio-historian Peter Turchin in pointing out that military conquests are the great preconditions for civilization, requiring hierarchical leadership, a unified purpose, and a strong resolve. The Age of Conquest makes possible the Age of Commerce, by creating the political and social stability that makes commerce possible. Commerce, in turn, leads to the arts, to science and technology, and to great wealth. Gradually, the heroes of society shift: they are no longer the great warriors, as in the Age of Conquest; now it is the wealthy merchants and businessmen, the captains of industry, who are revered. The wealth generated is immense, enough to create a life of ease and plenty for ever-larger numbers of people, but their very ease brings about their downfall, for in the absence of adversity, human beings seek pleasure in the baser pursuits.

Immoderate Greatness first appeared in 2012, warning of an impending collapse. In his studies of human civilizations, Glubb calculated that the average life cycle of a civilization, between its Age of Conquest and its inevitable Decadence, was 250 years. Today, in 2021, we celebrate the 245th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and even the blindest among us have not escaped a sense of foreboding about what the remainder of this decade will bring.