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It’s not the end of the world Fantasies of decline can make you powerless

He probably does (Photo by Sundance/WireImage)


December 29, 2021   5 mins

Theories of decline are on the rise: we are inundated with stories about impending civil war and looming climate apocalypse; studies show that civilisation could collapse within a few decades; eccentric “cliometricians” warn of a miserable decade ahead.

Sounds like bad news, right? Perhaps. But it has always been this way. Historian Arthur Herman’s 1997 book The Idea of Decline in Western History describes declinism from its nineteenth-century origins in concepts of racial and intellectual degeneration to its late twentieth-century manifestations in the eco-pessimism of Al Gore and Ted Kacyznski. Herman’s major point — that theories of decline evolve in a dialectical fashion both with theories of progress and with competing theories of decline — is about as unexciting a perspective as any author can offer, so it should hardly come as a surprise that his work failed to stem the tide of warmed-over apocalyptic literature.

As a historian, I always regard with bemusement the various attempts at laying down universal “laws of history”, much less writing the history of the future. The former, even in the hands of individuals such as Peter Turchin or biophysicist Jared Diamond, seems too close to writing an adversarial legal memorandum: first you state the laws, then you fit the facts, which at any rate are always disputed. The latter is closer to fiction than to history, more interesting for what it tells us about an author than for the validity of its claims.

“The collapse of the world is a young man’s game,” Peter Karsten, my dissertation advisor, used to tell me, citing both the history of English property law — which historians F.W. Maitland and Frederick Pollock framed as a perpetual conflict between parents seeking to protect their estates and children interested in selling them to experience fleeting material pleasures — and his own experience as a young officer on a destroyer during the Cuban missile crisis. His point was: no matter how apocalyptic the times, life goes on, much as it always has, for good and (mostly) for ill.

Scattered along the stages of life’s way are, of course, a handful of catastrophic events, born of weather or war or whatever other time and tide-tossed horrors mankind must face. More common are tiny tragedies such as the closing of a family business, the diminution of a hometown, the untimely death of a breadwinner — all collapses of a sort, setting lives on downward trajectories, and sometimes difficult for even the sharpest minds to distinguish from broader trends that might actually imply planetary extinction or the “passing of a great race”, whatever those concepts would entail.

The discourse of decline and collapse, then, plays out primarily on this personal level. For example, Peter Turchin first theorised “elite overproduction” as the source of societal collapse in his 2016 book Ages of Discord. But the idea that there were too many would-be elites floating around was at the front of my mind five years earlier, when I was applying for tenure-track history positions. And even after I secured one of these coveted jobs, the effort left me scarred; I came to regard the humanities as a dying field enthralled by mumbo-jumbo, an ember near extinction that served as a microcosm for the world itself.

Beyond the realm of the personal, at the level described by Herman, decline and collapse represent a topic with perennial appeal for public intellectuals and their publishers. Books on the subject are always among the best-selling releases in any given year: The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Earth in the Balance, The Twilight of Democracy, The Democracy Trap, Democracy on Trial, Giving Up on Democracy, The Frozen Republic, The Selling of America, The Bankrupting of America, The Endangered American Dream, and Who Will Tell the People all appeared within a ten-year span between 1985 and 1995, during which time the United States continued to hold peaceful federal and state elections while my own household priorities were related to bare-minimum subsistence and survival.

It is simple enough to explain the public’s thirst for this material — personal setbacks of any sort can make a person feel as if the whole world is coming to an end. For public intellectuals, the incentives to produce it are irresistible. Predictions and forecasts are some of the easiest pieces to write, particularly if their reckoning is far enough in the future that their author can change directions if the winds begin to shift. And as Pierre Bourdieu noted in his essay “The Metamorphosis of Tastes”, intellectual work constitutes a field where supply — increased as colleges and universities graduate more would-be public intellectuals — creates its own demand. Elite overproduction of this sort might not serve as a bellwether for social unrest, as Turchin argues, but it represents a useful shortcut when determining how much writing will be published relating to the relationship between social unrest and elite overproduction.

After all, the prophets of decline rely heavily on the work that came before them. One of the most obvious genealogies runs from Friedrich Nietzsche, whose pioneering work in its expurgated, pro-German form prompted Oswald Spengler to write his own historical analysis of concepts like “race”, “blood”, and cultural creation in the West. Spengler in turn inspired Arnold Toynbee to produce an even longer series of works, which borrowed Spengler’s concept but welcomed the West’s gradual decline. All the while, everyone else was reading them in order to respond to their work, with a 1928 Time review of the second volume of Spengler’s The Decline of the West noting that “it was imperative to read Spengler, to sympathise or revolt”.

When one views declinism at a far remove from its truth or falsity, its professional function becomes apparent: it is a fun and easy thing for intellectuals to argue about. These ideas become mere pieces on a chessboard, with the moves of the authors improved and refined over the course of their careers. This is not necessarily good or bad, but rather the nature of the marketplace of ideas.

However, this work, when consumed carelessly and in bulk, can exact a significant toll on members of an already-atomised society. Even sophisticated readers of decline and collapse literature find themselves reacting to it on the personal level — more personal than ever before in a society of extremely siloed “selves” and “identities” four decades past the “culture of narcissism” examined by Christopher Lasch. In such a world, even people far removed from poverty struggle to imagine their posterity. Millenarian fantasies of death and hellfire sell well when the people building society cease to imagine a future. The idea of the world ending in one’s lifetime certainly offers a romantic prospect for some melancholy souls.

But the world, even the world of recorded history, will likely outlast these naive notions. The Annales School of historical writing’s concept of the “longue durĂ©e”, with its emphasis on the impact of slow-changing factors such as geography and climate, offers a mature counterpoint to “histoire Ă©vĂ©nementielle”, the event-driven historical approach that popular historians struggle to avoid, given the ease with which every minor political scandal or protest march can be laden with significance and transformed into a portent of the end times.

My own perspective on the matter aligns most closely with G.K. Chesterton’s, as articulated in his short essay “A Much-Repeated Repetition”. There, Chesterton noted that “although the life of man is a terrible thing at many times and in many places” and “he has much to put up with in any case”, he “has not to put with the horror of history repeating itself”. The future outcome of human history remained a mystery to him, but he was sure that tyrants laid to rest did not rise from the ground again like blades of grass. “In history a thing recurs,” he wrote, “but it never recurs quite exactly.” The story of mankind remained “literally a story: that is, a thing in which one does not know what is to happen next”, and thus a narrative in which one still has an active role to play throughout their lifetime.

A heavy dose of declinism can ease an anxious mind by providing a compelling justification for passivity and quiescence, but this is also its most invidious side effect. Under its influence, one might sneer at small things you can do right now, focused interventions that can turn the tide of this or that event.

But we are never quite as powerless as we assume. For example, the campaign against critical race theory in education was largely the work of one man, Christopher Rufo. His efforts, love them or hate them, appear to have played a part in the outcomes of several 2021 American elections.

Mind you, victory or defeat in a process as mundane as an off-year election hardly means the end of world. But this, thank heavens, is precisely the point.


Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work

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Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
2 years ago

Nice piece from Oliver, a timely antidote to blackpilling. I do feel though we are a pretty dark place. In my country, Ireland, silly women scream hysterically for more abortions while our fertility rate plunges, tv programmes feature nonsense debates about the “right to die” and so on. But it is the seemingly small things people can do to resist are perhaps the most important. Hope and optimism are disciplines. “Doing the work” in whatever way we can

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago

If you’re that worried about Ireland’s declining birth rate maybe you should churn out a dozen kids yourself rather than complaining about other women choosing not to have them. Maybe that can be your resistance, rather than trying to force your beliefs onto others

Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Nowhere above did I try to force my beliefs on anyone acshually. Women can be free to have as many abortions as they want if they wish..I’m just pointing out the consequences…I know consequences and facts are alien to the progressive mind but it is useful to think about them sometimes.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago

I’m far from progressive darling, so stop trying to use insult in lieu of reasoned arguments.
I may be wrong, but I get the impression you’d want to see Irelands strict abortion laws return. You’d like to see other women denied the option of ending a pregnancy, even though that decision doesn’t affect you, simply because you don’t believe it’s the right thing to do.
To me that’s forcing your beliefs onto others

Matt B
Matt B
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

She’s entitled to her view too. This is Unherd. She was forcing no-one to think as she does.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt B
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt B

If she wants to see the return of Irelands strict abortion laws, and voted to prevent others from having a choice about their pregnancy despite the decision not affecting her then she is trying to force others to live as she does

Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

We live in a society. This nonsense that individual choices have no effect on wider society is just such obvious bullshit one would have to have an IQ below room temperature to not understand it. People have been propagandised so much they don’t even realise it. Honestly that word “choice” hypnotises the vacant brains of progressives. You could tell them they had a “choice” to sell the children they didn’t kill into sex slavery and they would be lining up to do so. Like I said, have all the abortions you want. “Choose” to have them all.. you will learn the hard way that you can’t have it both ways

Last edited 2 years ago by Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago

Insults add nothing to your reply, try to carry yourself with a touch of decorum and you’ll find people will look at your views more seriously.
Tell me how a woman you’ve never met deciding to either continue or end a pregnancy affects you? You could argue that forcing her to have a baby she can’t afford actually affects you more as the state and your tax euros then has to help support her and her offspring.
I’ve no problem with people being anti abortion, I completely understand the reasons they’d morally object to it. What I do find irritating is the air of superiority that some people have in believing that others should be forced to live by your opinions.
Suggesting people who believe abortion should be a choice for the potential mother to make would also sell their offspring in into slavery given the chance is also nonsense. I’d wager they’d be more likely to do this if they’re forced to have a child they neither wanted or could afford personally

Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

People who believe abortion is a social ill support state benefits for mothers and families. You still don’t get it. I’ve said numerous times to have as many abortions as you wish, but that there are also consequences. Stop seething and go for a run. You people can’t make connections between actions and consequences at all.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago

Who are my people? I’m intrigued to see what you think my social and political beliefs are

Penny Adrian
Penny Adrian
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Thank You, Billy Bob! “Pro Lifers” are the biggest hypocrites around.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago

Enabling the right for a person to choose a more dignified death is an extremely important issue. Implying the subject is “nonsense” does not help intelligent debate

Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

Cop on. Stop repeating nonsense propaganda liquidised and fed to you. Everyone is free to choose to end their life if they wish, we don’t criminalise suicide anymore – no one is stopping you. To involve other people in it is weak and shows lack of courage, not to mention the fact that assisted killing will result in people being pressured by greedy weak relatives. Also, all deaths are dignified, if you think a death by Nurse Ratchet injecting you with poison is more dignified than a shotgun you’re an idiot.

Last edited 2 years ago by Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

It is particularly difficult to commit suicide effectively i.e. doing the job properly, quickly, with no chance of maiming and very importantly without leaving a mess for others (often loved ones) to clean up. You clearly haven’t thought this through.

Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
2 years ago

Leaving a mess for loved ones to clean up? What do you think happens to the body of someone killed by doctors? People succeed in committing suicide all the time. If really people want to do something, and take the full responsibility for their actions rather than trying to make someone else responsible for them, they will do so.

Last edited 2 years ago by Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago

Have you ever seen somebody who has committed suicide? Even done relatively cleanly it’s not a pretty sight

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago

“Stop repeating nonsense propaganda liquidised and fed to you”

This coming from the person whose views just happen to align perfectly with those that were fed to her by the Catholic Church?

Also yes, I’d say there is more dignity in choosing to end your life surrounded by your loved ones at your time of choosing rather than in pain, doped up on morphine and $h1tt1ng the bed or doing a Kurt Cobain and having family members find you without a head.

Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Ah stop. Much of Catholic teaching is sensible, even those who don’t believe or doubt the existence of a deity… my generation have been fed non stop neoliberal globalist anti human propaganda for decades..you should read Desmond Fennell

Last edited 2 years ago by Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
John Tyler
John Tyler
2 years ago

I know very little about you, Annemarie, and disagree with some of your views. Nevertheless, GOOD FOR YOU for sticking up for yourself and not being bullied into submission!

Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
2 years ago
Reply to  John Tyler

Thank you!

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago

I’m not denying that most of the stories in the bible have good morals, and I appreciate how Christianity has shaped society.
However I was pointing out your hypocrisy in accusing others of unthinkingly and uncritically believing what they’ve been told when you clearly do the same thing. The only difference is the source of information

Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Well here is what you don’t know. I am extremely unusual for Irish people my age ( born late 1970s, early 1980s) in that I supported all the abortion nonsense, lgbtiqrsp crap until a few years ago.when I realises how much it was damaging people and I started to research where all this nonsense came from and who funded it. My position on Catholicism and abortion/euthanasa etc is one born of reason. I don’t know if you are Irish or not but if you are you should surely have noticed that some of the most prominent repweel activists are now suffering from a range of mental health issues, writing articles complaining that they have to pay 400 euros a month for “therapy”, marching for more abortions then waddling home to stuff their faces to rented bedsits to fill the holes inside. The only meaning in their lives is posting silly photos on instagram wearing size xxxl sweatshirts with “repeal” and silly badges. They can’t make the connections between things. The so called abortion “rights” movement has been funded for decades by philanthrocapital. That’s why you see the same slogans, the same campaign tactics adopted in all countries. The media, the ngo industrial complex and the rest of the useless idiots have been pushing it for decades in Ireland.

Last edited 2 years ago by Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
JP Martin
JP Martin
2 years ago

The desperate quest to fill the emptiness of their souls will inevitably drive them to a new cause. Most seem to have settled on transgenderism. Instead of focusing on interventions in utero, they are now cheering mastectomies and castrations for adolescents.

Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
2 years ago
Reply to  JP Martin

Transgenderism and euthanasia are the big pushes now. And their therapy bills will increase, and nobody will explain to them why these things are connected and why all that “activism” and scweaming angrily about the “patwiarcy” and “evil nuns” hasn’t made them happy or secure in themselves

JP Martin
JP Martin
2 years ago

Sometimes it does feel like they are determined to give proof to the concept of sacramental liberalism.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago

So it isn’t abortion that has caused them to be depressed and in need of therapy is it, it’s the fact they’ve tried to find meaning in their lives through various protest groups. That coupled with the fact many are now horrendously in debt from a university education that hasn’t delivered the graduate premium on their wages they were promised, and are stuck paying extortionate rents which means they have little chance of financial security.
To try and link their miserable lives to the abortion debate is drawing a very long bow in my eyes

Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I think you will find that the same billionaire ideologues that push and fund abortion rights nonsense are the same ideologues who push housing prices through the roof. Abortion is just one facet of this ideology, they want atomised, deracinated people who they can sell stuff too while keeping them in a state of precarity and financial insecurity – deracinated untethered people make the perfect consumers. Anyway thanks for the engagement and challenges to my comments. I’ll bid you good night

Last edited 2 years ago by Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
Penny Adrian
Penny Adrian
2 years ago

I agree about housing prices, but disagree about abortion and euthanasia. No woman should be forced to endure pregnancy and childbirth against her will, and no one should be told they can’t die as painlessly and peacefully as possible. I only respect your opinion if you agree that we shouldn’t make laws preventing those choices.

Laurence Siegel
Laurence Siegel
1 year ago

It is also pretty hard to criminalize suicide successfully. What do you suggest? The death penalty? Maybe a short prison term would suffice, or a “stiff” fine. (Sorry for the graveyard humor. In my country a stiff is a dead body.)

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago

“Hope and optimism are disciplines.”
Thank you for that, a timely reminder much needed by me.

Gunner Myrtle
Gunner Myrtle
2 years ago

I read a Vietnam war memoir and the most interesting part was that the writer witnessed some of the 1968 riots. His description of it, the role played by various parties, reminded me that we have been here before. In fact the division in the US seemed worse then – as did the rioting.

Laurence Siegel
Laurence Siegel
1 year ago

Although I see nothing inherently wrong with early-term abortion and fully support the right to choose, celebrating abortion as if it were a sacrament or an achievement is silly indeed. Have these people no common sense?
As an older fellow, though, I am increasingly sympathetic to the right to die.

Last edited 1 year ago by Laurence Siegel
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

Well, if that is what History Professors write, then the take on University education being dead rings true. What is it, something like 98% of Liberal Science and Arts University Teachers are Hard Left to Extreme Left? Naturally they cannot see the utter disaster they wreak on the world – as it is what they are doing, useful idiots that they are.

“Sounds like bad news, right? Perhaps. But it has always been this way.”

??????????????!!!!!!!!!!!!! And you are a historian? Back in 1926 – 1929 there was a feeling, it was high flying, prosperity – but a feel which was called the ‘Uneasy Feeling’ was there too – high flying times, to good to be true, and then the Stock Market Crash.

The mood in 1932 – 39 was a dark and oppressive cloud where most saw the things brewing – they knew the disaster of WWI, the feel of impending WWII loomed. But as you would tell them, ‘not to worry, it always feels this way, but nothing happens’. Well Germany armed, the French built the Maginot Line, and Chamberlain said ‘Peace In Our Time’, but only fools like yours believed him – the ones who said:

“Sounds like bad news, right? Perhaps. But it has always been this way.”

As Napoleon began building his ships, having the factories churn out uniforms and guns – the people felt it, Dickens talks of the feel – the looming disaster… and it came crashing on. People felt WWI Looming, the talk was of The Bosh, and interlocking Treaties, and the dark, satanic, Mills were – everywhere blasting out smoke as armaments were produced by the hundreds of thousands of tons…People felt it coming….

The Dot Com Crash of 2000, The GFC of 2008 almost plunged the world into the biggest depression ever seen – it was saved at the 11th hour!, the GFC Giving us Quantitative Easing of Trillions to keep the lumbering and over leveraged Equities and finance markets afloat, and interest down – Well that was 100% ‘Kicking The Can Down The Road’. Every kick makes it much worse, then the 30 Trillion in printed money and lost productivity in the last 2 years – the can will soon not be kick-able again… The biggest Crash in history is Looming. We saved the Boomers with Trillions of $$$, and soon it will be time to pay the piper.

Like the Covid Response destroyed and indebted the young and middle aged so much their pensions are gone to pay for it. We spent the kids future to keep the infirm another few months.. to add some months to the life of the Oldies – well it was Several Tens of $ TRILLIONS! And on top of the largest debt the world had ever seen by a huge margin already in 2019. But so much more is happening – the decline of the West, the Rise of China, and 1000 other issues…

You are not much of a historian, – nothing is happening? This is just Normal? WTF????? It always feels like a disaster is coming? No – disasters come, and people feel them building, as they do now, as it is coming soon.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
2 years ago

I think this is a load of rubbish. The Roman Empire declined and collapsed as did others before and after. The two world wars and the holocaust are not just events that we had to face.
Now, the human caused climate catastrophe is nonsense, not supported by any science or empirical evidence. The problem is that it is being made real by politicians who are creating an energy and economic crisis based on fake science. They have also responded to a supposed pandemic for which there is no evidence in the all-cause mortality data creating more economic decline but massive profit for Big Pharma and investors all funded by increasing government debt.
It is not the end of the world, but like all other events it will result in misery for the poorest of us created by politicians. Historians don’t appear to understand this.

Matt B
Matt B
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Thorpe

“Now, the human caused climate catastrophe is nonsense, not supported by any science or empirical evidence.”

Really? Is this the sum total of your research? Publish.

The last time anyone was invited very publicly to back up such notions as yours in public – specifically their attacks on Prof Phil Jones over “Climategate” – they backed down and slinked back to well-earned obscurity. Were they wrong too?

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt B
Gunner Myrtle
Gunner Myrtle
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt B
Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago

The idea that there can be “Laws of History” has always struck me as absurd. The future, except in the most immediate and trivial sense, is unknowable. It appears to be the case though, that civilisations, like individuals, grow old and die, or simply get run over by a bus. But as I can’t do anything about either eventuality I don’t bother to read books about them.

Matt B
Matt B
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

Fortunately there are more optimitic figures in history: those who have stood up against insurmountable odds have managed to prevent as well as cause the worst – on numerous past occasions outlined in books (which really can be worth reading and are therefore the first target of dictators and depots).

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

‘Galeti Tavas
right now
Awaiting for approval’

I seem to be on the watch list – but I am amazed I have not been banned yet – this long here is already a record for the usual internet BTL place….. Good night mods….

Matt B
Matt B
2 years ago

A good, well-linked overview as antidote to the hopeless and humourless B-movie “Don’t Look Up” with its nihilistic offering of cynicism-as satire this Christmas: a mix of truths, tropes and no hopes masquerading as a visionary lens in what is really a panopticon of celebrity know-all doom. However, historians and many others have lamentably little science grounding too – and I see little credited and contextualized here. It cannot be brushed aside by argument alone: climate science amongst many other threats are real on best available knowledge, and risks and impacts – combined with others – are increasingly evident. But, agreed, the way forward requires some unity of purpose around ideas that are less data-robotic, paradigm-fixed and misanthropic, and more aware of hysteresis ecology than hysteria. And so, to 2022.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt B
Elena Lange
Elena Lange
2 years ago

This is great, Oliver. Another G.K. Chesterton fan here.

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
2 years ago

I am so pleased that I have some shopping and cooking to do to take my mind off impending doom.

jonathan carter-meggs
jonathan carter-meggs
2 years ago

Sargeant Frazier had it right – “were all doomed!”.