Posted by: theodorecosmosophia | August 24, 2011

The End of the American Empire: Reflections on a List of Shocking Decline

I recently came across the following list, which gave me reason to consider the future of the American Empire.  It would seem, in light of the following, that the United States is in irrevocable decline, that the most powerful empire the world has ever known is coming to an end:

Among the 20 major advanced countries America now has

  • the highest poverty rate, both generally and for children;
  • the greatest inequality of incomes;
  • the lowest government spending as a percentage of GDP on social programs for the disadvantaged;
  • the lowest number of paid holiday, annual, and maternity leaves;
  • the lowest score on the United Nations’ index of “material well-being of children”;
  • the worst score on the United Nations’ gender inequality index;
  • the lowest social mobility;
  • the highest public and private expenditure on health care as a portion of GDP,

yet accompanied by the highest

  • infant mortality rate;
  • prevalence of mental health problems;
  • obesity rate;
  • portion of people going without health care due to cost;
  • low-birth-weight children per capita (except for Japan);
  • consumption of antidepressants per capita;

along with the shortest life expectancy at birth (except for Denmark and Portugal);

  • the highest carbon dioxide emissions and water consumption per capita;
  • the lowest score on the World Economic Forum’s environmental performance index (except for Belgium), and the largest ecological footprint per capita (except for Belgium and Denmark);
  • the highest rate of failing to ratify international agreements;
  • the lowest spending on international development and humanitarian assistance as a percentage of GDP;
  • the highest military spending as a portion of GDP;
  • the largest international arms sales;
  • the most negative balance of payments (except New Zealand, Spain, and Portugal);
  • the lowest scores for student performance in math (except for Portugal and Italy) (and far from the top in both science and reading);
  • the highest high school dropout rate (except for Spain);
  • the highest homicide rate;
  • and the largest prison population per capita.

This list was taken from an article by Gus Speth called American Prospect: Decline and Rebirth.

Speth is not entirely pessimistic, however. Nor am I.  I would suggest that this decline simply means, like the decline of other civilizations before it, that we are at the edge of a great rebirth.  The unsustainable and unjust civilization of industrial capitalism will give way to something new, something, one hopes, better.  This is a story that has been told before.  As I have argued in Cosmosophia, the end of a worldview or a civilization is experienced in apocalyptic terms–as the shattering of both psyche and cosmos. (Page 50)

We stand at the edge of our world.  How many times have humans been at such a place?  We stood at the edge of our forest, peering out into the plain, dreaming of its vastness, of the possibilities, and gave birth to humanity.  When we nearly perished, due to an ecological crisis, we walked out into the world beyond Africa, and gave birth to the diversity of human culture, language, spirituality, and art.  Today, we face crises similar but different.  We are, as always, at the edge of our world, birthing….If we are to once again experience the cosmos as our womb, to participate meaningfully in the awesome event called the Universe, then we must simply walk outside, pause, and look at the shining stars, or see a child being born, or listen to a tree’s leaves rustling in the wind, and be amazed.  Until we regain this capacity, no set of ideas can save us from ourselves. [p. 288 in manuscript, Epilogue]

The question, it would appear, is not whether the American Empire ends, but what type of world we give birth to.  As Arudhati Roy says, “A new world is not only possible, she is on her. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

Appropriately, Speth concludes his article with an excerpt from my friend Drew Dellinger‘s poem, “Hieroglyphic Stairway.”

It’s 3:23 in the morning
and I’m awake
because my great great grandchildren
won’t let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?


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