The Coming Dark Age (a pragmatic warning)

The rise and fall of empires
The Rise and Fall of Empires
Symptoms before each collapse: ignorance, superstition, religious fundamentalism, xenophobia, intolerance, rejection of science.
  1. The chart above was published by Marc Widdowson in 2003 to illustrate the rise-and-fall of six major empires.
    • Marc's chart is from a European perspective. The Persian, Indian and Chinese empires are conspicuously absent.
    • Marc's publication warns us of the following problems before each collapse: ignorance, superstition, religious fundamentalism, xenophobia, intolerance, rejection of science.
    • The only positive information seen in Marc's chart is this: both "amplitude" (height) and "period" (horizontal length) of each wave are decrease over time. This chart still delivers bad news for anyone living during a decline, including now, as modern citizens continue to transition from best-effort fact-checked newspapers to zero-checked social media. Now all I ever hear from American news is "ignorance, superstition, religious fundamentalism, xenophobia, intolerance, rejection of science" which is proof of a collapse in the making.
    • 20 years later (2023), I suspect the American curve would already contain a noticeable dip just due to the 6 trillion dollars wasted on Middle East wars over the past 2 decades.
      • Additionally, the Trump administration reduced taxes (beginning in 2017) which added 2 trillion in US debt. The Trump administration also increased spending by 3 trillion dollars. RESULT: the actions of one administration created an additional 5 trillion of debt, while so-called fiscal conservatives in the Tea-Party / Freedom Caucus remained conspicuously quiet. Perhaps political dogma is replacing religious dogma as a national pastime.
      • Not to be out done, the Biden administration requested 4 trillion dollars for the Inflation Reduction Act which congress wisely reduced to 1 trillion dollars. Like other presidents, the Biden administration increased the American defense budget every year (842 billion dollars for 2024), but I suspect that defense budgets are designed to be exceeded because this official document states that the Department of Defense (DOD) has redistributed 1.6 trillion dollars just in 2023.
      • History informs that the Roman Empire eventually collapsed primarily because it was unable to reduce military spending. The USA appears to be headed in the same direction, and no amount of warning seems to take hold ("we're special" is the response of hubris)
      • All this reminds me of the quote by E.O.Wilson who said "Humans have Paleolithic Emotions, Medieval Institutions, and God-Like Technology" which explains a lot.
      • Food-for-thought: a magnifying glass held over the end of Marc's chart might look like this: The 15th century belonged to the Portuguese; the 16th to Spain; the 17th to the Dutch; the 18th to France; the 19th to Britain; and the 20th to the USA. It seems likely to many that the 21st century will belong to China.
    • In To Govern the Globe (2021) historian Alfred McCoy informs that the documented number of empire collapses is closer to ninety. He also claims that China will overtake the USA in world affairs by 2030. (I recently read an article claiming that the BRICS plus countries surpassed the G7 countries in 2020. In 2024, the BRICS plus countries were responsible for 33% of world commerce  whilst the G7 countries were only responsible for 29%) 
    • The third gray box from the left labeled European 'Dark Ages' is much too narrow because author Edward Gibbon (a contemporary of Adam Smith) provided convincing arguments that the 300-year rise of Christianity resulted in a thousand year dark age which Europe did not recover from until the beginning of the Renaissance, or perhaps the Enlightenment.
      • For example, compare the culture of Jesus' time with these earlier events in Greece:
        • Aristarchus introduced the correct heliocentric model of our solar system 250 years before the birth of Jesus.
        • Eratosthenes proved the Earth was round two hundred years before the birth of Jesus, then used trigonometry to compute the size to within 10% of the currently known value.
      • Did the Christian mob who murdered the astronomer Hypacia of Alexandria in 415 AD know that Jesus was a pacifist?
      • How would today's world if the Roman emperor Constantine had chosen to emphasize natural philosophy of Greece rather than the religion of Judea?
    • The Vatican trial of Galileo (1632) is proof that religion delayed scientific progress by more than 1,800 years (200 BC to 1632 AD).
    • So why did Greek culture not prevail?
      • Greek decline began with political, religious and cultural differences between Sparta (conservative, religious, pro-war, pro-slavery) and the Athenians (liberal, less religious, pro-education). Sparta and Athens supported each other from foreign attacks until Sparta went to war against Athens then won. From that time on, neither was able to offer collective protection to each other against outsiders.
      • Then a series of wars on the Greek peninsula caused everything to come under control of Alexander the Great of Macedonia. This area was later annexed by Rome then renamed Achaia.
      • I think about this whenever I hear dogmatic religious American conservatives criticizing pragmatic less-religious American liberals.
    • Is BREXIT an example that the British Empire is still collapsing? Many think so.
    • Does the current political divide in the USA signal the decline of the American Empire? (these authors think so). In fact, Americans refuse to use the word "Empire" (probably because their president would be branded an Emperor) and yet they maintain more than 1000 military bases outside of the United States which fits the classic definition. But what about the religious divide? Look at the changes over the past 60 years. Presidential candidate, John F Kennedy, gave a speech to the Southern Baptist Convention (1960-Sep-12) stating that a vote for him would never involve his Catholic faith or the Pope. By 2020 we see that 5-out-of-9 supreme court justices are Catholic and are siding with the religious right on many issues (a clear violation of the separation between church and state). In American society we now see Christian Evangelicalism being overtaken with a newer form of Christian Pentecostalism. I wonder if Jesus would recognize these offshoots.
  2. Declining empires sometimes will attempt to reassert power though military adventurism which can produce unpredictable results. For example:
    • The wars of Greek city-states (conservative Sparta conquered liberal Athens for political reasons) weakened both for easy conquering by Macedonia. The whole area eventually became a province of Rome.
    • The Spanish-American war can best be explained as the Spanish Empire in decline going up against an American Empire on the rise. This is how the USA came to own property in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
    • World War One is best explained by European Empires miscommunicating (how else does an assassination of an Austrian in Serbia trigger a worldwide conflict?)
    • American president Woodrow Wilson tried to help fix this problem having the USA join The League of Nations but this plan never passed congressional approval.
    • World War Two (in Europe) is best explained as a continuation of World War One where a combination of "steep German reparation payments" combined with "the great depression" created a perfect storm for right-wing populism.
    • World War Two (in the Pacific) can best be explained as the Japanese Empire in decline going up against an American Empire on the rise.
    • Anthony Eden's self-made Suez Crisis resulted in the world's reserve currency to be shifted from the British pound to the US dollar fir years later.
    • Margaret Thatcher's Falklands War helped make some think she was Making Britain Great Again but this did nothing for the general economy. It did stimulate the British weapons manufacturing industry (an example corporate welfare?)
    • The USA continues to borrow/print trillions to support a +20-year continuous conflict in the Middle East while propping up American defense contractors and NATO and now their interests have shifted to Ukraine. Only a cancer cell would think this is sustainable.

Is Political Dogma now more popular than Religious Dogma?

Food-for-thought: it is entirely possible that humanity's future will be a world without empires, but we will not experience any progress in that realm until we actively suppress our tendency toward ignorance, superstition, religious fundamentalism, xenophobia, intolerance, rejection of science. This will only be possible with massive increases in public education. The proof of my argument can be seen through the transformation of China under Deng Xiaoping (pronounced: dung siao ping) which resulted in more than 350 million Chinese citizens being elevated from poverty into the middle class (note: this number is larger than the current population of the USA). Deng started this transformation by sending more than 1.3 million Chinese students to western countries in order to receive a modern education THEN BRINGING KNOWLEDGE HOME. The USA was a recipient of this business which I personally witnessed as a computer field engineering student in Boston during the late 1980s. Kudos to the Chinese for embracing education. Meanwhile, here in the west, conservative governments are reducing their financial support of public education while, at the same time, attempting to privatize it (extreme capitalism running amuck?). Many students now graduate with a huge amount of personal debt which makes me think that the West is moving backwards. Heck, some conservatives refer to people with an education as "an elite" as if that is a bad thing.
2024-Update: according to some academic China watchers, the number 350 million should be amended to 800 million which is larger than the 2024 populations of the EU and USA combined. Some binary thinkers might begin by comparing communism to capitalism but that would be a mistake. Perhaps westerners would be better off looking at the way capitalism is practiced in the west. There are some obvious differences between capitalism in the USA vs the EU (with the EU version being closer to Adam Smith)

Supporting Material

  1. The Phoenix Principle and the Coming Dark Age (418 pages) by Marc Widdowson (British military analyst and educator)
    subtitled: Social Catastrophes – human progress 3000 BC to AD 3000
  2. The Coming Dark Age by Roberto Vacca - 153 pages.
    • This book was first published in 1973 then updated in 2000.
    • Quote from reviewer, Isaac Asimov: I read this book in a palsied fascination of horror. I have never read a book that was at the same time so convincing and so frightening.
       
  3. While there are many complicated and interacting reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire, I am convinced that Edward Gibbon was correct when he stated that the primary reason was due to the effect of organized religion. There are many ways that religion can affect society, but the most obvious influence is to induce society into reliance on magical thinking. We know from the writings of Roman historians (Pliny the Elder is one of many) that Ancient Rome began its decline not long after Romans began to replace observational science given to them by the Greeks with so-called common sense. Roman civilization stagnated then decayed from within. Without science, we, too, should all prepare for increased incidences of malaria, cholera, typhus, and plague (diseases that ancient Rome and medieval Europe were all-too familiar).
      
    • Religious Method (dogma): Fiction, Assertion, Suppression.
    • Scientific Method (pragma): Observation, Hypothesis ('hypo thesis' literally means 'below thesis'), Experiment (test), Publish your prepared thesis, Debate in the community, repeat.

    Perhaps western government handling of corona virus COVID-19 will be one wake-up call for voters but I doubt it. Humanity mostly ignored other corona viruses like SARS (2002-2003) and MERS (2012). On top of that, we quickly forgot the lessons learned during influenza pandemic on 1918 by jumping into the roaring twenties.
     
  4. Many westerners were once fond of the expression "If we can go to the moon then why can't we (fill in the blank)?" but today some people now joke "If we can go to the moon then why can't we go to the moon?" To be clear, it was only the Americans who were able to send twelve men to the moon between 1969 and 1972. The rest of humanity was merely sharing in their triumph. But after Richard Nixon gutted the American manned space program to help keep America solvent while it fought a pointless war in Vietnam, and Ronald Reagan cozied up to Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority to win the presidential election of 1980, America has barely been able to put humans into orbit. Since the demise of the space shuttle program, Americans can only visit the ISS (International Space Station) by hitching a ride with their former cold-war enemy, Russia. So, it is now apparent that America's place in the original space race was nothing more than a cold-war political stunt (paraphrased: we think science and technology are important because the Russians think that way). I'm not sure why Americans love their smart phones and tablets while simultaneously hating the pure scientific research which enabled the technologies behind them.
     
  5. But the situation is now much worse. Many North American's who identify with the Christian Right (which masquerades as the Religious Right) only possess a Sunday-school understanding of the English Christian bible (comment: many own bibles but have never read one word from them while others take the English translation literally) and yet believe they are doing god's work when they publicly argue with highly educated scientists about such topics like: evolution, the age of the earth, and climate change to only name three topics of many. This has been going on for a long while and is only getting worse. Here are two examples of many:

    e1) In 1963, Richard Hofstadter published his book Anti-intellectualism in American Life which was awarded the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction (comment: since 1963, the world has watched the rise of American TV Evangelists, the opening of Christian theme-parks, the Ark Encounter in Kentucky, and the re-branding of "creationism" as "intelligent design" so that religion could be taught as science. These are only four examples of many attributed to "American Protestantism's anti-intellectual tradition" described in Hofstadter's book)

    e2) This quote from author-educator Isaac Asimov (PhD Biochemistry) perfectly describes modern life in North America where citizens become uninformed and misinformed by accessing social media sites like Twitter and Facebook (run by billionaires like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg) or politically biased outlets (run by publishing billionaires like Rupert Murdoch or the Koch Brothers). The graphic reads:
     
    "There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."

    Isaac Asimov (Newsweek, 21 January 1980) 

    A cult of ignorance
  6. When I first read this quote from Carl Sagan in 1995, it seemed to me to be an unlikely prophesy (but it is already true with the advent of mobile-social-media starting in 2007)
    There's another reason I think popularizing science is important, why I try to do it. It's a foreboding I have -- maybe ill-placed -- of an America in my children's generation, or my grandchildren's generation, when all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when we're a service and information-processing economy; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest even grasps the issues; when the people (by "the people" I mean the broad population in a democracy) have lost the ability to set their own agendas, or even to knowledgeably question those who do set the agendas; when there is no practice in questioning those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and religiously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in steep decline, unable to distinguish between what's true and what feels good, we slide, almost without noticing, into superstition and darkness.

    The dumbing down of American is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.

    Carl Sagan 
    "Wonder and Skepticism", Skeptical Enquirer 19-1 
    (a similar quote can be found in his book: The Demon-Haunted World

  7. Recent news:
     
    • The Dark Age symptoms (ignorance, superstition, religious fundamentalism, xenophobia, intolerance, rejection of science) which were published 5-years before the 2008 American-caused worldwide financial debacle now seem shockingly accurate
       
    • A British referendum on 2016-06-23 voted 51.9% to leave the European Union (an organization formed to bring peace to Europe) which is now colloquially referred to as BREXIT.
      • There have been allegations that politicians in the LEAVE camp may have played fast-and-loose with facts resulting in poorly informed voters (see "ignorance" above)
      • It appears than many people now get their news from social media (Facebook, Twitter, and blogs) rather than traditional sources like newspapers, magazines, or fact-checked news programs on television (see "ignorance" above)
      • It appears that many people under age 40 are upset with the result even though only ~ 30% of that group bothered to vote (see "ignorance" above)
      • Google tells us that the most searched phrase in Britain the day after the vote is "what is the EU?" (see "ignorance" above)
      • Time and time again I heard radio interviews claiming that Britain now contains too many immigrants (see "xenophobia" above)
      • Other radio commentators claimed this was a vote against "the elites" (if this refers to "well educated politicians" then this could be interpreted as political fundamentalism; if this refers to "well educated scientists" then this might be considered a rejection of science)
      Now it appears that Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar wish to exit the United Kingdom in order to stay within the European Union. Whatever way you view it this is not an example of Britain's Finest Hour
      Question: is BREXIT a further example of the decline of the British Empire?
       
    • In her recent book SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, author Mary Beard tells us that Rome changed for the worse after 60 BCE. Prior to this, any educated wealthy man (like Cicero) could become a consul of Rome. But ten years later only extremely wealthy men (like Cassius, Pompey, and Caesar) were able to do so.
      Comment: Americans have flirted with wealthy presidential candidates for a decade or two now with the names "H Ross Perot", "Mitt Romney", and "Donald Trump" springing to mind. But with Trump as president, and with many buildings in Washington D.C. looking like ancient Rome, it makes me wonder about the future of American democracy. Perhaps it is time to stop telling American school children "you might be president one day"
       
    • If you are worried about the rise of populism in western politics, or are worried about the next economic crash then I suggest you read the 2018 book America: The Farewell Tour by Chris Hedges. If you do not have the inclination to read another book at this time, then watch one of these video interviews with the author.
So now I urge you to return to the chart at the top of this page and ask yourself "am I comfortable living on the most recent decline?"
If the answer is "no" then I suggest you suppress your expressions of ignorance, superstition, religious fundamentalism, xenophobia, intolerance, rejection of science. Then tell everyone around you to do the same.

Speculation on how the American Empire might end.

Executive Summary: Political ideology can be polarizing. So much so, that you might see your closest ally as an enemy while the both of you are surrounded by true common enemies. Many people do not believe this is possible, but it has happened before.

A few years back I finally got around to reading The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War (1998) by Robert B. Strassler. The book weighs in at ~ 800 pages (a whole lot less than the original eight books written by Thucydides) but even this publication was something only academics and historians could love. Nevertheless, I muddled my way through. Here I present several oversimplifications to make my point.

The 3km (10,000 foot) View

But it gets worse.

Questions:

  1. Why did Athens and Sparta focus more on their political and cultural differences while failing to notice that they were both surrounded by common enemies?
  2. If Athens and Sparta had put aside their political and cultural differences, could they have prevented the military expansion of Macedonia?
  3. If yes, then might the world have been spared the bloody activities of Alexander the Great?
  4. If yes, then the Macedonian General Ptolemy (under Alexander) would not have transformed Egypt into something which could be later exploited by Rome (Cleopatra was a twelfth-generation ancestor of Ptolemy making her Macedonian rather than Egyptian)
  5. This is a lot of "ifs" but now for the big question: would the Greeks have been able to hold their own against a less-strong Rome?

Speculation

If the Greek Empire fell, and the Roman Empire fell, and the British Empire continues to fall (BREXIT will trigger the departure of Scotland, Northern Ireland, and British Gibraltar) then who among us can claim that the United States won't fall or at least decay from within? It seems to me that politics and populism instill a kind of madness in us all.


Sparta Athens Rome USA
1 conservative liberal conservative everyone is becoming more conservative, including the liberals
2 oligarchy democracy 500 years as a democracy republic
500 years as an empire
democracy
3 superstitious less so superstitious superstitious (perfected conspiracy theories)
4 religious less so religious religious
5 militaristic more interested in developing philosophy, logic, mathematics, science militaristic mixed but appears to become ever more militaristic starting with the end of world-war-2
6 army navy (during times of war; merchant marines otherwise) army + navy army, navy, air force
7 institutionalized slavery (required so that Spartan men could join military schools starting at age 7 rather than working in other ventures like agriculture) slavery was frowned-upon institutionalized slavery (approximately 1 in 4 citizens was a slave) slavery allowed up to 1866; people of color treated very badly for following 100 years
8 kept no written records (everything we know about Sparta comes from others; so, in the eyes of Romans the Spartans were barbarians) kept written records about themselves and others kept records; developed philosophy and law; no began as a liberal bastion for enlightened thought (at least for white Europeans); now appears to be attacking science and scientists whenever they disagree with the political zeitgeist (e.g., in 2017 the USA announced NASA budget cuts for gathering climate-change data)

Thoughts on alternative-facts (from Skeptic Magazine)

Have you ever noticed that when you present people with facts that are contrary to their deepest held beliefs they always change their minds? No, me neither. In fact, people seem to double down on their beliefs in the teeth of overwhelming evidence against them. The reason is related to the worldview perceived to be under threat by the conflicting data. Creationists, for example, dispute the evidence for evolution in fossils and DNA because they are concerned about secular forces encroaching on religious faith. Anti-vaxxers distrust big pharma and think that money corrupts medicine, which leads them to believe that vaccines cause autism despite the inconvenient truth that the one and only study claiming such a link was retracted and its lead author accused of fraud. The 9/11 truthers focus on minutiae like the melting point of steel in the World Trade Center buildings that caused their collapse because they think the government lies and conducts “false flag” operations to create a New World Order. Climate deniers study tree rings, ice cores and the PPM of greenhouse gases because they are passionate about freedom, especially that of markets and industries to operate unencumbered by restrictive government regulations. Obama birthers desperately dissected the president’s long-form birth certificate in search of fraud because they believe that the nation’s first African American president is a socialist bent on destroying the country. Click here to read more.

Americans Love to Kill (they always have)

Everyone was shocked to learn that 20 children were fatally shot in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School (Newtown, Connecticut). But when I heard that right-wing conspiracy nuts were claiming the whole thing was staged by the government, that is when I realized "That Americans Love to Kill" and it no longer mattered if children were involved. Around each mass shooting (there have been many more since 2012) you always hear outrageous statements by uneducated or uninformed Americans about such topics like "second amendment rights". So here are a few facts.

Second Amendment to the United States Constitution

Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution

Amending the Constitution

Links

Final words

In the early 1950s, Isaac Asimov published his science-fiction magnum opus colloquially known as The Foundation Trilogy which introduced the fictional science of psychohistory (where statistics, history and sociology were combined in computer-based models) to guide humanity's future with the intent of minimizing a potential dark age from 30,000 years to just 1,000. While I am no Hari Seldon (I think Asimov filled that roll neatly), I do hope that the content of this web page nudges you into the direction of doing something in order to avoid this potential human catastrophe.

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Neil Rieck
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.