And yet here's a genuine, even confounding, possibility: that moment of "unipolarity" in the 1990s may really have been the end point of history as human beings had known it for millennia—the history, that is, of the rise and fall of empires. Could the United States actually be the last empire? Is it possible that there will be no successor because something has profoundly changed in the realm of empire building? One thing is increasingly clear: whatever the state of imperial America, something significantly more crucial to the fate of humanity (and of empires) is in decline. I'm talking, of course, about the planet itself.
The present capitalist model (the only one available) for a rising power, whether China, India, or Brazil, is also a model for planetary decline, possibly of a precipitous nature. The very definition of success—more middle-class consumers, more car owners, more shoppers, which means more energy used, more fossil fuels burned, more greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere—is also, as it never would have been before, the definition of failure. The greater the "success," the more intense the droughts, the stronger the storms, the more extreme the weather, the higher the rise in sea levels, the hotter the temperatures, the greater the chaos in low-lying or tropical lands, the more profound the failure. The question is: Will this put an end to the previous patterns of history, including the until-now-predictable rise of the next great power, the next empire? On a devolving planet, is it even possible to imagine the next stage in imperial gigantism?
Every factor that would normally lead toward "greatness" now also leads toward global decline. This process—which couldn't be more unfair to countries having their industrial and consumer revolutions late—gives a new meaning to the phrase "disaster capitalism."
Take the Chinese, whose leaders, on leaving the Maoist model behind, did the most natural thing in the world at the time: they patterned their future economy on the United States—on, that is, success as it was then defined. Despite both traditional and revolutionary communal traditions, for instance, they decided that to be a power in the world, you needed to make the car (which meant the individual driver) a pillar of any future state-capitalist China. If it worked for the US, it would work for them, and in the short run, it worked like a dream, a capitalist miracle—and China rose.
It was, however, also a formula for massive pollution, environmental degradation, and the pouring of ever more fossil fuels into the atmosphere in record amounts. And it's not just China. It doesn't matter whether you're talking about that country's ravenous energy use, including its possible future "carbon bombs," or the potential for American decline to be halted by new extreme methods of producing energy (fracking, tar-sands extraction, deep-water drilling). Such methods, however much they hurt local environments, might indeed turn the US into a "new Saudi Arabia." Yet that, in turn, would only contribute further to the degradation of the planet, to decline on an ever-larger scale.
What if, in the twenty-first century, going up means declining? What if the unipolar moment turns out to be a planetary moment in which previously distinct imperial events—the rise and fall of empires—fuse into a single disastrous system?
What if the story of our times is this: And then there was one planet, and it was going down.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.
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