Downfall: Lessons for Our Final Century
By Ilhan Niaz
Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research, Islamabad
In Downfall: Lessons for Our Final Century, historian and professor Ilhan Niaz makes a profound and brave argument that is succinctly drawn together through a series of essays.
This bleak, stark and realistic argument pulls no punches about the author’s assessment of the challenges confronting humanity at this moment in time, and Niaz’s ability to draw on broad swathes of history is what makes these insights particularly relevant.
As the author makes clear, it is crucial to develop an understanding of the complexity of the issues involved in order to perhaps even begin to craft a response that will equal the scale of the challenge: the very survival of human civilisation in anything close to the form that we could agree as desirable.
Sector specialists, in particular, must build up contextualised and historical knowledge to be able to situate their actions and develop a sense of urgency about the work they are engaged in, as a self-understood matter of the survival of human civilisation.
Ilhan Niaz’s book paints a grim picture of human beings’ future on Earth, but also argues that this pessimistic realism is exactly what is required to confront it, rather than optimism and illusions
Scholarship such as this needs to be read widely, both outside and within academic settings around the world, and it is hoped that Downfall will find wide purchase. I would urge readers to pick up a copy of the book to see how the interlinking argument unfolds, from a review of historical lessons to the frailty of human reasoning. Then, individually as well as in collaboration with others, we may be able to craft an adequate response. For now, in the hope that you will read the book yourself, let me give you a short overview.
But before I do, let me state that, overall, Downfall is a beautifully and accessibly written book and the author’s power of expression and ability to capture deep ideas succinctly make for a great reading experience. For a sense of what you will encounter, consider this particular sentence: “The state response is skewed towards dealing with a bad headache, while the planet is headed towards a cardiac arrest.”
And this, for it may describe your task ahead in reading Niaz’s book: “To save the planet and, incidentally, ourselves, humans, especially the rich and clever ones, need to stop being optimistic and embrace realism, scepticism and pessimism.”
In essence, Downfall makes the argument that the present moment is a confluence of historical factors that make it a particularly favourable time — at least for the fortunate — in which to be alive. However, the author also makes the point that, because of our actions and the evolutionary reasons for our evolved instincts, coupled with where history has brought us, these good times will not last.
In short, the relatively easy terms on which even the “winners” of these historical processes thrive are about to change beyond recognition, into a future too dystopian to even speculate about in any depth. In making this bold claim — and despite his sincerest wish that his stark predictions may not, after all, be realised — the author nevertheless goes where the evidence leads him and draws uncomfortable conclusions.
The scale of what Niaz proposes humanity must collectively do to avert planetary calamity is so vast, and the lack of leaders who can guide us so clear, that — in the spirit of the author himself and his stark conclusions — let’s be blunt: it is exceedingly unlikely that we will succeed.
So, this is not a positive, ‘can-do’ book in any real sense. It does not offer an optimistic attitude in the face of massive evidence to the contrary. Instead, devoid of illusions, it is an attempt to shake us from our complacency.
After painting a dire portrait in essays that range from the relevance of historical lessons and thinkers, to the deficiency of economic growth ideology on a planet we are depleting at rates such that its regenerative processes cannot keep up with the crisis being perpetuated by optimistic thinking, the author offers suggestions for what we need to do to avert humanity’s downfall.
But even if broad social agreement can somehow be generated around the author’s suggestions as to what can, in fact, be done, a big lift will be required to realise them — given the current state of our thinking and institutions in an ever-fracturing world, in which strategic blocs will matter ever more and resources will continue to move upwards towards those who already have the most.
Essentially, what Niaz proposes to tackle the crisis is itself so immense that it is almost as if we functionally cannot, and will not, be able to come together in time (essentially, now) to construct any semblance of a response that would be up to the task.
Thus, despite his sincerest hopes, after laying out a clear-headed analysis from what ails us, to what needs to be done to overcome where we find ourselves, Niaz is essentially saying that human society is doomed. We cannot effectively respond to impending climate tipping points and the crisis of habitability of vast regions of the planet that, once unleashed, will cascade into ever-growing catastrophes.
He’s also saying that the world which survives in the end will not resemble anything close to the structures of our present unequal, much less more equitable and desirable, societies. And he holds no hopes that humanity will actually be able to build the “ecologically regenerative and wellbeing-oriented system” he thinks we need to urgently move towards constructing.
Niaz focuses on the critical role of the “truth-telling leader”, highlighting British statesman Winston Churchill for his “heroic realism” in warning against the dangers and futility of Nazi appeasement, even in the face of the then tide of public and political opinion.
The author draws from this the much-needed inspiration to be a truth-teller, and thereby the hope to inspire us to understand and then work to overcome the scale of the challenge we face. This is the overall tone, tenor and message of this book and of the lessons we need to learn from history.
To overcome humans’ evolved tendency toward optimism, humanity must overcome the very same evolutionary behaviours, mindsets and patterns of thinking that have made us the most successful species on the planet. As can be imagined, these are very big challenges and will require immensely clear, unforgiving and uncomfortable thought.
A big ask, indeed.
From his reading of history, Niaz points out that empires have always declined and disappeared; some more quickly and others, such as Rome, unravelling over the course of centuries. His important coda is that the elites are incapable of recognising when their civilisation is at a high. This leads to the making of all kinds of ill-considered decisions that — if only the decision-makers could look back upon as turning points — they may rue.
Before the advent of the globalised world we now inhabit, in which no found resource is off limits to extraction if it is needed to derive “growth”, the downfalls of previous civilisations were more geographically self-contained. Hence, their decline, too, had relatively more limited impacts. But their kind of decline is not at all what will unfold when it comes time for the collapse of the current interlinked world that is so intent on “growing” on a dying planet.
Course correction must involve renewing the very systems by which global elites, and the ways in which they think, are produced — which is really about the need for the reimaging and design of institutions. It means developing deep, intense global cooperation.
Are we wise enough to learn these lessons and change our ways? Niaz closes his book with a concise historian’s insight. His stark warning is that, if we do not begin to seriously confront the lessons he has drawn together, then by the turn of the century — the year 2100 — there will be no one left to learn them. A grave challenge that we do not rise to at our peril.
The reviewer has a doctorate from Harvard Law School.
She tweets @erumsattar
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 12th, 2023
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