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History tells how civilisations can fall suddenly & catastrophically

Collapse-of-civilizationCHRIS OVERLAND

ADELAIDE - I think that the article, ‘UBS loan to PNG government may have breached 15 laws’ attracted no comment from PNG Attitude readers, speaks volumes for the state of mind of ordinary Papua New Guineans.

They are now so used to hearing about the skulduggery, corruption and malfeasance of their political leaders that they no longer react to evidence of even the most egregious bad faith, self-interest or outright criminality.

I have recently read Nigel Tranter's lively book, ‘The Story of Scotland’, in which he relates in a non-academic and accessible way the centuries of chicanery, deviousness, vengeance seeking, theft and murder that are a feature of that country's historic heritage.

The Scottish ruling class devoted their time and energy to an endless real life version of The Game of Thrones, where they schemed and manoeuvred to seize the throne or, at least, achieve great influence over its current, usually hapless or despicable occupant.

All this was done, not for the public good, but in their interests and those of their fellow clansmen.

The ordinary Scots were helpless bystanders in this incessant struggle for power. Their interests were ignored and their role restricted to that of humble supplicants to the supposedly great and good.

They were, of course, expected to serve as soldiers in the endless succession of violent and bloody battles that were a feature of Scottish politics. Naturally, they bore the brunt of such battles, being cut down in droves.

Scotland's long and dreadful centuries of anguish only really shuddered to a halt when the country was, very unwillingly, brought into union with England. The internecine fighting died away if for no other reason that the Scots were united in their suspicion of the Sassenach southerners.

It is a great puzzle to me that the current crop of Scottish nationalists know so little of their own history that they seem to discount utterly the possibility that with independence may come the resumption of such struggles, although perhaps without the high casualties of the past.

The relevance of this to PNG is that it seems to me to have the same potential for sectarian, ethnic and tribal anarchy that beset Scotland for so long and which is stirring once more in places like Spain and Eastern Europe.

Even the powerful Chinese government is sufficiently concerned about signs of internal dissension amongst ethnic Uyghurs that it is busily incarcerating them is so-called re-education facilities. This latter name is merely a euphemism for prison camps.

I suppose that I may be rightly criticised for drawing too long a bow with my Scottish analogy.

After all, who can sensibly imagine the world reverting to the state of anarchy that existed for only a very short time ago in those places that now count themselves bastions of humanity's highest levels of civilisation?

Well, I can for one. History is replete with examples of high civilisations falling suddenly and catastrophically into the abyss of social fragmentation and anarchy and there is no particular reason to think that we current lot of humans cannot repeat this process.

All we have to do to start the process is to ignore or set aside what we have hitherto regarded as the norm for our democratic governments. That is, that they will generally act honestly, conscientiously and mostly competently in the greater public interest.

It seems to me that the public expectation that governments will do this is the glue that holds our societies together.

As soon as we know or suspect that this is not the case, then what reason is there to support, however grudgingly, the whole notion that democratic political outcomes must be honoured?

The now long gone USSR ultimately failed, not because its government lacked power or even resources, but because it irretrievably lost its legitimacy as being genuinely interested in promoting the greater good of its population.

The USSR was eventually seen to be merely a vehicle for personal ambition, self interest and greed. The great hypocrisy that underlay Marxist Leninism finally became unsustainable and it collapsed, unloved and unmourned even by most of those who had once believed in it.

In a similar way, the Chinese finally understood the folly and even madness that underpinned Mao Zedong's notion of communism and jettisoned it for what they call socialism with Chinese characteristics and I prefer to call authoritarian capitalism.

Thus there is no reason for anyone to suppose that western neo-liberal capitalism cannot or will not collapse under the weight of its inherent contradictions.

PNG is especially vulnerable to such a collapse because it leadership has so spectacularly failed to create and sustain a state in which ordinary Papua New Guineans can plausibly believe that their needs and aspirations are truly front of mind for their leaders.

Of course, all this is mere speculation on my part and those who predict the future are invariably wrong. However, it is not fanciful to suppose that what I am pointing towards can actually happen if our collective stars align in unexpectedly malignant ways.

Whether such an alignment occurs is another matter but I would humbly submit that many of the prerequisites for such an event are already in place, as the Australian Financial Review article all too graphically reveals.


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Johnny Blades

Good article Chris, and it reminded me of Ronald Wright's great 2004 Massey Lecture 'A Short History of Progress'

Here's an excerpt where he cites a guy who i think is an archeaologist, Joseph Tainter:

"Consider Tainter's three aspects of collapse: the Runaway Train, the Dinosaur, the House of Cards. The rise in popu­lation and pollution, the acceleration of technology, the concentration of wealth and power - all are runaway trains, and most are linked together. Population growth is slowing, but by 2050 there will still be 3 billion more on earth. We may be able to feed that many in the short run, but we'll have to raise less meat (which takes ten pounds of food to make one pound of food), and we’ll have to spread that food around. What we can't do is keep consuming as we are. Or polluting as we are."

The lecture is a very good listen:

Diane Bohlen

A scary prediction.

Lindsay F Bond

There is legendary claim of Arabian hospitality as having “warmth of welcome and generosity that emerged from encountering travellers in the desert generations ago”.

Explanation includes “this can be traced back to their days of struggle in the desert, where every visitor to an oasis was greeted with open arms and no questions asked for the first three days, be they friend or foe.”

To be celebrated is the tradition recognising human necessity of air, aquatic resource and area, quite apart of any hosting strategic motivation.

Not of PNG, Australians’ current election (counting still in progress, likely outcome becoming clearer) has drawn emotional outbursts that are recognisably negative to the extent of being, as if, ‘hate tok’. Again we see, where contest is the mechanism, Australians exhibit stunning focus on the ‘win’, and willingness to skew from the collective, the community which sustains freedom to choose.

In the land of PNG’s ‘independent and free’, with so many languages, the context of ‘wan tok’ may already imply a friend/foe divide. Perhaps academic research will delve into translating relativity of ‘stranger’ and ‘visitor’ in respect of ‘enemy’ and ‘neighbour’.

Of PNG, Chris puts a case of “potential for sectarian, ethnic and tribal anarchy”. Put aside argument that anarchy might differ from the intent of discipline in categories of collectives that are sectarian, ethnic and tribal. Uniformity and conformity are not a lack of collectives in PNG; rather these are aspects of a process in which the year 1975 brought opportunity at recognition as a nation.

Nation for some, is “norm for our democratic governments”. For not a few, nation is not more than exploration of opportunity, both of community and of command.

Three days of observing friendship or fiend-ship in an arriving stranger cohort may have only strategic intent. Diet more troubling to stomach, is enduring neighbours to which enmity is hardly sub-surface.

In “the greater public interest” might hold memories of melody “love your neighbour”, yet is discrete.

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