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All Societies Die – Slow


Societies can die fast or slow.


Most die slow.


We worry the most about the fast deaths.


Nuclear war is a fast death.


If the Ukraine situation blows out of control, and someone decides to push a nuclear button, we could all die. It is possible that diplomacy and cool heads could prevent the destruction of the world if one party merely fires off a small tactical nuke. But there is no guarantee that will happen. Mutual assured destruction is absolutely possible – particularly if one side or the other believes that the other side has struck first.


That would be about as fast as societies ever die.


However, most societies die slow. Rome was in decline from 200 AD till its final fall 276 years later. Byzantium was never the same after Constantinople fell in 1204. But it limped along for another 249 years until the Ottomans ended the Eastern Empire once and for all.


Societies die of economic decline. They die of increased corruption in government ranks. They die of factional infighting between domestic contenders for power. They die of being unable to raise enough taxes to pay for their military defense. They die of stagnation of their educational and technological capacity. They occasionally die of ecological self-destruction.


These are slow processes. Their very slowness makes them “non-newsworthy”. Newspapers, television and the internet all sell entertainment. They all sell fast-breaking exciting events. The media loves elections. The media loves brand new wars. (As the war bogs down, the media loses interest). They love big purchases of big companies. If they cover economic news, they cover the day-to-day fluctuations in economic indicators or the market that are of particular interest to active traders or speculators.


Watching the news is important. Watching the news is particularly important at any time that a conflict is occurring that could go nuclear.


But following newspapers or televised news programs or the internet leads to an obsession with short-term fluff. The long-term trends that matter are pushed off the radar.


Reading history books and social science books is a better way to get a grasp on the long-term trends.


Reading gloom-and-doom social science books about societal death is a an even better way to get a grasp on the long-term trends that could destroy everything.


You don’t have to believe everything you read in the gloom-and-doom social science books.


When I started reading gloom-and-doom books, I dismissed one third of them as utter nonsense. Many others got partial plaudits and partial raised eyebrows. (I will avoid naming names here in order to protect the guilty.)


When you find a book you like, it gives you a clear sense of what is important and not important in politics. What issues need to be fought for? What issues can be ignored? What news in the news media is really important? What aren’t you being told that you need to monitor yourself?


My own preference – not surprisingly – is for my own book:  All Societies Die: How To Keep Hope Alive. (Cornell University Press, 2021.) You may have other books you like better.


But societal death is a real thing. Rome fell. The Old, Middle and New Kingdoms of Egypt fell. Byzantium fell.


Human beings don’t live forever. Neither do societies.


We keep ourselves alive by reading books on human health. We watch our diet, give up smoking, exercise and get the medical tests we are supposed to get precisely because we know what kills human beings, and we would prefer to stay alive.


The same principle applies to societal health.


People may disagree about what leads to human health. (See recent debates on vaccines and masks.) People are equally likely to disagree about societal health.


But they ought to at least get an opinion on what causes societies to live and die. All of those history and social science books have an important role to play.


If you want to read All Societies Die by Samuel Cohn, I would of course be thrilled.


But read something – even if it is an author I can’t stand.


The world is coming upon hard times. The slow forces that underlie societal decay will become more and more manifest as American society ages.


Come to an opinion about what causes that decay.


You may actually decide to do something about the problem.

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