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At the Intersection of Civilizations: Book Reviews


What the hell is going on?

I don't know anyone who hasn't asked themselves that question over the past few years, particularly in the period immediately after 9/11 and again recently as the current wave of terror attacks appears to be sweeping the world. Just a few days ago, another 80+ people were killed as a truck plowed through a crowd in Nice, France.

So it may be useful at this juncture to point out that it was possible to know this was coming, and that we could have heard what was coming at us if we'd known how to listen. Here is a suggested reading list, that if put all together, will give some clarity to the current world situation as it has developed through time.

The Earth has a carrying capacity

First written in 1972 and updated twice since, Limits to Growth: Donella Meadows depicts the work of computer scientists who use modeling and simulation to calculate the Earth's maximum resource output, and thereby the Earth's maximum sustainable population. More information on this important work can be found The Clash of Civilizations argues that there are several great civilizations in the world today, and that conflict is inevitable unless those civilizations work together.

Similarly, Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man argues we WILL face one of two outcomes: either adoption of liberal democracies, or all-out wars between ideologies.

Both works were controversial at the time, and yet a scant few years later, 9/11 provided what could be considered the opening salvo of the war between civilizations that continues today, primarily throughout Europe.

The important thing to note here is that neither piece of work provides a true endgame, where a resolution that satisfies everyone can be described. In other words, it is most likely that the war will go on without any particular end in sight.

The fringe solutions

The war over solutions is currently dominated by the extreme possibilities at the right and the left.

On the far right, we have Neo-Naziism and Islamic Sharia Law. They have many of the same features: they both insist on a clear definition of us-vs-them exclusivity; a small group of people have unlimited authority to enforce edicts; there can be no dissent, opposing considerations, or even discussion. Examples that follow these principles today would include North Korea and ISIS.

For more knowledge of these two possible alternatives, check out Martin Lee's The Beast Reawakens and G.M. Davis' House of War.

On the far left, the potential solutions are typically called communism and socialism, although both terms are inadequate to the task. Communism in particular is one of the most misunderstood words in all the West. We were at war with the Soviet Union over ideology, and the Soviet Union called itself communist, so our battle against the Soviet Union became a battle against communism. But the Soviet Union never was a communist nation -- it was just a run-of-the-mill dictatorship that had a small ruling class, and a giant army, similar to many countries around the world today. Communism got smeared by association.

No, a better way to understand communism would be to read to read One Hundred Years of Kibbutz Life, edited by Michal Palgi and Shulamit Reinharz.

Similarly, socialism got smeared by its association with communism. But we in the US have long enjoyed the benefits of socialism--think Interstate Highway system, free public school, higher educational grants, and all of the other features of our lives that we enjoy due to the fact we banded together and worked together to build. For more, check out The S Word by John Nichols.

The critical questions: Is there a middle ground? Is the middle ground a viable solution? Is it the one we want? If the middle ground can be found, will our fellow citizens buy into it? Tough choices all around.

What the future holds

So let's wrap up our discussion beginning with an analysis of the past. Check out The World Until Yesterday and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond.

And then from the perspective of continued warnings, these three works are critical to understand:

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert; The West without Water by B. Lynn Ingram and Francis Malamud-Roam; and Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet.

In sum

That's a lot of reading, I know. But if you get through it--or read a few and skim the rest--then you'll be well on your way to having a graduate-level understanding of why there are terrorist attacks going on in Europe on a pretty much continual basis. What you won't have -- what I don't have, and what pretty much nobody has -- are solutions that will make it stop.

All I know for sure is that we're at a crossroads with a lot of really important decisions ahead, and we'd better choose well. Happy reading!

(this article was updated to correct the publication date of Limits to Growth)

Randall Cuthbert Dr. Randall Cuthbert is a retired APUS Professor of Emergency & Disaster Management. He has also worked as a Red Cross Shelter Supervisor, and spent a 20-year career as a US Air Force Civil Engineer Officer. His blogging interests include: protecting & enhancing the EDM profession in the areas of integrity, honorable public service, and social justice; education regarding the 'big picture' role of EDM in our society; educating our professionals and neighbors with regard to the greatest threat to our civilization--climate change; and in general terms, creating a better world for our children and grandchildren.