Monday, November 7, 2011

An "Oh Sh*T" Moment or Three!

I was moved to title this post with an asterisk censored exclamation borrowed from the title of a recent post by Niall Ferguson, Author and Professor of History at Harvard University. Ferguson pulls no punches in a hard hitting essay that traces the decline of civilizations to a sudden drop off a cliff than a slow gradual decline over centuries. He explains the decline in these terms.
In my view, civilizations don’t rise, fall, and then gently decline, as inevitably and predictably as the four seasons or the seven ages of man. History isn’t one smooth, parabolic curve after another. Its shape is more like an exponentially steepening slope that quite suddenly drops off like a cliff.
If you don’t know what I mean, pay a visit to Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas. In 1530 the Incas were the masters of all they surveyed from the heights of the Peruvian Andes. Within less than a decade, foreign invaders with horses, gunpowder, and lethal diseases had smashed their empire to smithereens. Today tourists gawp at the ruins that remain.
Note these examples of how the great civilizations of the past ended their running with the bulls.
The Roman Empire didn’t decline and fall sedately, as historians used to claim. It collapsed within a few decades in the early fifth century, tipped over the edge of chaos by barbarian invaders and internal divisions...

The Ming dynasty’s rule in China also fell apart with extraordinary speed in the mid–17th century, succumbing to internal strife and external invasion. Again, the transition from equipoise to anarchy took little more than a decade.

A more recent and familiar example of precipitous decline is, of course, the collapse of the Soviet Union. And, if you still doubt that collapse comes suddenly, just think of how the postcolonial dictatorships of North Africa and the Middle East imploded this year....Here yesterday, gone today.
Ferguson lists five institutional innovations that he dubs "killer applications" that allowed the West to surge ahead of all of the Rest, beginning in 1500.

Western Civilization's Killer Apps
COMPETITION Western societies divided into competing factions, leading to progressive improvements.
THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION Breakthroughs in mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology.
THE RULE OF LAW Representative government based on private-property rights and democratic elections.
MODERN MEDICINE 19th- and 20th-century advances in germ theory, antibiotics, and anesthesia.
THE CONSUMER SOCIETY Leaps in productivity combined with widespread demand for more, better, and cheaper goods.
THE WORK ETHIC Combination of intensive labor with higher savings rates, permitting sustained capital accumulation. 
Ferguson presents troubling statistics to back up his view that we are hurtling like the train above, towards that cliff, and our own "Oh ShiT! moment. He then turns to describe what can be done to "reboot the system" and do, what he says Americans have always done;  kick start our instinctive loyalty to those "killer applications" of Western ascendancy.
Now if you want a couple of more possible "Oh Sh*T" moments to wake up too; try these possible scenarios. IAEA says foreign expertise has brought Iran to threshold of nuclear capability
And Israel's possible response. Will Israel attack Iran's nuclear capabilities?
Finally, for a real slide down a mile long razor blade into a pool of alcohol is this story from The Atlantic. Read about how Pakistan moves their nukes and our plans for keeping them from ending up in the wrong hands.
Pakistan lies. It hosted Osama bin Laden (knowingly or not). Its government is barely functional. It hates the democracy next door. It is home to both radical jihadists and a large and growing nuclear arsenal (which it fears the U.S. will seize). Its intelligence service sponsors terrorists who attack American troops. With a friend like this, who needs enemies?

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