Nowhere to go but down? Past year proves civilization is in decline: author

Each year seems worse than the one preceding. For Andrew Potter, author of On Decline, these events indicate that our entire civilization is in decline. And he argues we're left without the social cohesion, economic growth and political leadership that we'd need to turn things around.

'We've lost the ability to fix the problems we face,' says Andrew Potter


In September 2021, author Andrew Potter spoke with IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed about his book, On Decline: Stagnation, Nostalgia and Why Every Year is the Worst One Ever. He argues that our entire civilization is in decline. Not quite a total apocalypse but a slow, grinding descent into less prosperity, lower quality of life, and diminished prospects for a better world.

Nine months later, dire news has borne out his argument. 

IDEAS wanted to check in again with Andrew Potter to see what his outlook is now.

"You can't be that optimistic because states everywhere seem to be failing — not just in what they're actually trying to do, but also in the faith that people have in the capacity of states to do anything."

Add the dreaded combination of inflation and economic stagnation to an enduring climate crisis and Potter bluntly says he's scared.

"My concerns about economic stagnation, largely revolve around concerns about otherness, indifference, immigration and so on. And I rely quite heavily on the work of the economist Benjamin Friedman, who argued that one of the underrated virtues of economic growth is how it makes us more tolerant, because as long as everyone expects that things are going to get better overall for everybody, they are more open to immigration, more open to be more tolerant."

*Originally published on September 29, 2021.

By most accounts, 2016 was an annus horribilis — a year that saw brutal terror attacks around the world, the then-hottest year on record, and an unsettling amount of upheaval in the global political order with Brexit and Donald Trump. 
It was widely proclaimed the worst year ever.

As were 2017, 2018, and 2019. Finally, 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic and a world that seemed even more full of turmoil than ever, seemed as bad as a year could get.

But 2021 suggests things may yet get even worse. 

Andrew Potter, an associate professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University, says that if each successive year seems worse than the year before it, maybe it's because our civilization is on a long downward slope. 

In his new book, On Decline: Stagnation, Nostalgia and Why Every Year is the Worst One Ever, Potter argues that the West's two centuries of progress and prosperity — underpinned by liberal democracy, plentiful energy and natural resources, and economic growth — has ground to a halt and is now even going backwards.

IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed spoke to Andrew Potter about what decline actually looks like, the problems that imperil our civilization, and why our political, economic and social reality today don't seem equal to the task of solving them. 

This is an excerpt of their conversation including.

NA: What exactly is in decline?

AP: Broadly speaking, civilization — more narrowly the West. In general, what I'm arguing is that the whole trajectory of modernity, of economic growth, liberal democracy, you know, the general idea that things are getting better all around has probably peaked and is quite possibly in terminal decline.

Give us an idea of what that terminal decline is exactly. How do you define decline?

So it's not the apocalypse, right? This isn't a Hollywood thriller where, you know, the moon explodes or there are comets crashing. What I'm arguing is that what we call civilization, — advances through the process of us figuring out how to resolve increasingly larger and more complicated collective action problems, [and] the various problems that kept us for centuries or millennia in something close to subsistence-level living — we figured out how to sort of resolve those problems and expand our networks of trust and build the economy and build a society and make it more inclusive in any number of different ways.

[But] we've hit up against the limits of our ability to resolve these collective action problems.

I think climate change is an effect of our civilization, but it becomes a problem when you lose the ability to do anything about it.- Andrew Potter

A large part of your discussion, and everybody's discussion about how we're doing globally, is the COVID-19 pandemic. It continues. And yet our science and our technology have found answers and solutions. But what is it about the political responses to the pandemic and the refusal of so many people as we've seen to get vaccinated or wear masks that make the pandemic seem like a case study in decline to you? 

One of the things that struck me is this quite striking divergence between what science was able to accomplish in a very short period of time, and our abilities by our politics and our bureaucracies and so on to make use of that science and not just make use of it, but to just stay out of its way. There were logistical problems from the very start with getting testing and tracing up to speed.

There's any manner of ways in which you might say 'was a pandemic well-managed?' And the answer is: not really. Part of that can be chalked up to early fog of war sort of difficulties. But it's been a year and a half and there are still a lot of problems we have simply getting things done. And I think ultimately our response to the pandemic politically and logistically is just symptomatic of the problem.

Yearly wildfires, floods, you know, extreme weather events which are happening with increasing frequency — is climate change and environmental decay a byproduct of our decline, or is it pushing us into deeper decline? Or maybe it's both…

Children hold placards during a climate change rally
Children holding placards during a global climate change strike rally in Nicosia, Cyprus. (Yiannis Kourtoglou/Reuters)

It's an outcome of basically the modern world. I mean, people were predicting some kind of climate change 100 years ago because if you start to burn enough coal, the climate is going to change. There was just not much we knew what to do about it. And of course, because it's such a slow process, you don't do anything about it. So I think climate change is an effect of our civilization, but it becomes a problem when you lose the ability to do anything about it.

The argument in the book is that the real nature of our decline is not an event, it's a process. That is: what have we lost? We've lost the ability to fix the problems we face. And I think climate change is the biggest one. 

It's the world getting more difficult for everybody, coarser, rougher and things sort of generally wearing down.- Andrew Potter

In contemplating writing this book and the argument that you're making, is there any danger in declaring that we're in decline like that? You know, the comfort that one gets from a sense of moral or intellectual superiority, perhaps yet ultimately hopeless and alienated. I mean: is there a danger in that? 

There is. This is important because first of all, decline is not the apocalypse. And decline is not extinction. It's just decline. It doesn't mean nobody can be happy. It doesn't mean there's not going to be anything worth doing. It doesn't mean there's not any moral progress. It's the world getting more difficult for everybody, coarser, rougher and things sort of generally wearing down. 

I do wonder whether you think that this is a decline in the West or a truly global decline. 

Most proximately it is kind of the West insofar as the West is where things seem to have gone off the rails. And so if the West is sort of running out of steam, that's one part of it. But also, more broadly, if the general argument is right, it's going to come to everyone eventually.

There's a part of me that wants to see some kind of optimism. I know there are no silver bullets, but is this about individual action or is this about something far bigger? 

This is fundamentally about institutions, and it's about large-scale trajectories ... There are three big problems — economic and technological stagnation, political polarization, and the toxic effects of social media that stirs the pot and makes it all worse. Any one of those things could prove to be either overstated, or they might reverse themselves, or they might just resolve themselves.

If we can figure out new, cleaner forms of abundant energy, then really a lot of problems just simply evaporate. On the more political front, it may be that social media might burn itself out, and with it, the toxic effects it's having in our politics that make collective action more difficult. That could help resolve the populist movement we're in. 

I don't have any illusions about where democratic politics will go, but anything that reduces the toxicity and the partisanship of our politics would be a step forward.

*Q&A has been condensed for clarity. To hear the full interview, click 'listen' above. This episode was produced by Chris Wodskou.

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