January 11, 2012
Monuments of Collapse

A huge investment bank has discovered something anthropologists have known for decades: a society is never in more trouble than when it is building something triumphant. My old college adviser talked a lot about this. Cross-culturally, without fail, when people get busy building huge monuments their society is just moments from collapse.

In the old days, the collapse would be total. Human societies simply weren't wealthy enough to weather a real crisis, and so the world is chock full of abandoned giant statues, titanic temple complexes, and monstrous cities. Hell, even cultures without the wheel got into the act. The cultures which built these magnificent monuments are now gone, some so completely destroyed we have no clue as to what they might have really been like.

Nowadays, rich beyond any sane person's wildest dreams compared to our ancestors, we're able to consistently survive such overreach. This has allowed us to learn from each crisis, and build institutions which make a repeat of any one of them unlikely if not impossible. Being humans, this has not stopped us from trying, sometimes very hard, to trigger a civilization-collapsing crisis. We came dangerously close to it in the 20th century. But we didn't, and we've learned, and thanks to Gutenberg and all his technological descendants, we don't forget things like we used to.

But that's not to say our urges have gone away. We are not fundamentally different than our ancestors, and we are endlessly inventive when it comes to hysterical, unsustainable, gloriously doomed ideas. Which is why I've always taken massive monuments, especially those funded from public treasuries, not as the signal triumphs our all-too-credulous media make them out to be, but as harbingers of doom. Certainly not of a scale to extinguish a civilization, but definitely enough to bring a government, corporation, or state to its knees.

Keep that in mind, next time you see one of those wondrous Gulf housing projects, hear about some ridiculously large public works project, or watch an unprecedentedly huge statue being raised. The people who create these triumphs are taking money away from people doing good, honest work to build a tower tall enough to touch the face of God.

The fate of such a tower is, and always has been, instructive.

Posted by scott at January 11, 2012 12:02 PM

eMail this entry!
Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember info?