david_bodanis's picture
Writer; Futurist; Author, Einstein's Greatest Mistake
The hyper-Islamicist critique of the West as a decadent force that is already on a downhill course might be true

I wonder sometimes if the hyper-Islamicist critique of the West as a decadent force that is already on a downhill course might be true. At first it seems impossible: no one's richer than the US, and no one has as powerful an Army; western Europe has vast wealth and university skills as well.

But what got me reflecting was the fact that in just four years after Pearl Harbor, the US had defeated two of the greatest military forces the world had ever seen. Everyone naturally accepted there had to be restrictions on gasoline sales, to preserve limited source of gasoline and rubber; profiteers were hated. But the first four years after 9/11? Detroit automakers find it easy to continue paying off congressmen to ensure that gasoline-wasting SUV's aren't restricted in any way.

There are deep trends behind this. Technology is supposed to be speeding up, but if you think about it, airplanes have a similar feel and speed to ones of 30 years ago; cars and oil rigs and credit cards and the operations of the NYSE might be a bit more efficient than a few decades ago, but also don't feel fundamentally different. Aside from the telephones, almost all the objects and and daily habits in Spielberg's 20 year old film E.T. are about the same as today.

What has transformed is the possibility of quick change. It's a lot, lot harder than it was before. Patents for vague, general ideas are much easier to get than they were before, which slows down the introduction of new technology; academics in biotech and other fields are wary about sharing their latest research with potentially competing colleagues (which slows down the creation of new technology as well).

Even more, there's a tension, a fear of falling from the increasingly fragile higher tiers of society, which means that social barriers are higher as well. I went to adequate but not extraordinary public (state) schools in Chicago, but my children go to private schools. I suspect that many contributors to this site, unless they live in academic towns where state schools are especially strong, are in a similar position. This is fine for our children, but not for those of the same theoretical potential, yet who lack parents who can afford it.

Sheer inertia can mask such flaws for quite a while. The National Academy of Sciences has shown that, once again, the percentage of American-born university students studying the hard physical sciences has gone down. At one time that didn't matter, for life in America — and at the top American universities — was an overwhelming lure for ambitious youngsters from Seoul and Bangalore. But already there are signs of that slipping, and who knows what it'll be like in another decade or two.

There's another sort of inertia that's coming to an end as well. The first generation of immigrants from farm to city bring with them the attitudes of their farm world; the first generation of 'migrants' from blue collar city neighborhoods to upper middle class professional life bring similar attitudes of responsibility as well. We ignore what the media pours out about how we're supposed to live. We're responsible for parents, even when it's not to our economic advantage; we vote against our short-term economic interests, because it's the 'right' thing to do; we engage in philanthropy towards individuals of very different backgrounds from ourselves. But why? In many parts of America or Europe, the rules and habits creating those attitudes no longer exist at all.

When that finally gets cut away, will what replaces it be strong enough for us to survive?