Suicide or Burning Out?

Massive stars — ten times or more larger than our sun — burn much more brightly, but quickly exhaust the high mass of hydrogen that fuels their fusion. Once without ready hydrogen, they fuse helium, then even heavier elements in their core, before either exploding (nova) or collapsing into very dense stars (neutron stars, black holes). In a way, small, dim stars are more sustainable than bright ones.

I.R. is International Relations, and in Nightmares of an I.R. Professor, admittedly conservative historian Walter A McDougall recalls:

In Spring 2003 I had the privilege of teaching U.S. diplomatic history to one of those brilliant students for whom every answer conjured new questions. Following the last lecture, which occurred just ten days after the fall of Baghdad in Operation Iraqi , she praised my course for helping her to appreciate how swiftly the United States had become the mightiest nation in history. But then her voice fell and she asked how long I thought it could last? How long would America remain number one?

At first I was tongue tied. Historians are not given to bold predictions and anyway it seemed unwise to encourage either smugness or despair in a future leader. Then it came to me. It all depends, I replied, on whether Americans are as “exceptional” as they want to believe. If they are not—if the United States follows the pattern of all previous powers—then demographic trends, new foreign threats, technological revolutions, shifts in comparative advantage, foolish leadership, imperial overstretch, domestic decadence, or sheer loss of will must knock the United States off its predominant perch, maybe within fifty years. If, however, Americans’ institutions, values, and character really are a new order for the ages, a potent mix enabling them to adapt constantly, invent the future, and force other nations to adjust to their challenge, then their asymptotic trajectory may continue. I stopped there, but walking to my office I recalled Arnold J. Toynbee’s law that civilizations die by suicide, not murder.

From my reading of the collapse literature, I would say that civilizations die from scarcity, or complexity, or from making poor choices in response to changing conditions. Call that suicide if you will.


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