For the past week, I have been contemplating some words of Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. In his Easter Sermon, he said:
“…we as a culture can’t imagine that this civilisation, like all others, will collapse and that what we take for granted about our comforts and luxuries simply can’t be sustained indefinitely.
To all this, the Church says, sombrely, don’t be deceived: night must fall."
Dr Williams is frequently berated in the common press for speaking in an obscure style. However, for once, his message is loud and clear. Life, as we in the Western world know it, cannot continue forever.
There are comparisons and lessons to be learned from both the Roman Empire and the French Revolution.
The Roman Empire was once the most powerful Empire the world has known. Not only was it powerful; for at least the ruling elite, life was luxurious. With villas built in the Classical style and surrounded by art, sculpture, music, good food and wines, those fortunate to be amongst the wealthier citizens of Rome must have felt that life had never been so good. For approximately 1000 years, Rome was paramount. Then, as history now shows, night fell for the Romans; the Roman Empire started to shrink and the Barbarians overran Rome.
In the years before 1789, France was essentially a feudal society. The nobles were wealthy, possessed large estates, and had a life of luxury compared to the peasant workers who toiled in their fields and who provided for the needs of their ruling class. Whether one believes the Marxist view that it was inevitable that the growing class of bourgeoisie would overthrow the aristocracy (and Monarchy), and that in time the working class would overthrow the bourgeoisie, or whether one takes a more post-modernist view of history, what is clear is that the time of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ could not continue forever. At some stage, a degree of re-balancing of wealth had to take place. The French Revolution may have been the mechanism, or it may have just been a speeding up of events that had been happening in small ways for some time and would have reached a climax at some later, albeit inevitable, stage.
Today, those of us who have the privilege of living in the western world can all too readily be blinded to the reality of life in other parts of the world. Even with images of poverty, starvation, war, and human suffering transmitted to our televisions, we are in danger of allowing the television to sanitise the real effect on us. It is as though such things are not really happening; our lives go on as normal, we have plenty of food, clothes and warmth, our oil supplies are plentiful, we are healthy (or at least well-cared for when we are not) and nobody is waging a direct war against us. Many of us can find enough spare money to go on holiday; sometimes more than once per year. Life has never been so good.
Yet, are we not at risk of the same complacency that once beset the Roman and French aristocracies? Is it not simply a matter of scale? Instead of Rome or France, read ‘Western World’. Instead of ‘aristocracy’, read ‘westerner’. For, I would argue, there is a comparison to be drawn between the attitudes of the Roman and French aristocracies to the subjects of their respective empire or feudal estates, and those of us ‘westerners’ in our attitude to the nations poorer than us, but whose inhabitants toil for meagre return in an effort to sustain our insatiable demand for luxury. For example, where would we be without the cheap workforces of China, who produce so much of our every day commodities? Or, for that matter, the agricultural labourers who supply our tea and coffee for less than subsistence wages?
I recently read an article in Source (the Church and Community Magazine for the Parishioners of Upper Nidderdale, North Yorkshire) which gave the following statistics:
‘If you have food in the refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof overhead and a place to sleep, you are richer than 75% of this world. If you have money in the bank, in your wallet, and spare change in a dish, you are among the top 8% of the world’s wealthy.
If you have never experienced the fear of battle, the loneliness of imprisonment, the agony of torture, or the pangs of starvation, you are ahead of 700 million people in the world.
If you can attend a church without fear of harassment, arrest, torture, or death you are envied by, and more blessed than, three billion people in the world.
If you can read this message, you are more blessed than over two billion people in the world who cannot read at all. If you own a computer, you are part of the 1% in the world who has that opportunity.’
I can add to those statistics by something I read in a nature reserve exhibition. That, to bring the world’s population to the same standard of living enjoyed by the average person now living in North Lincolnshire, we would need the natural resources of another four or five Earths.
Insisting on supermarkets operating ‘Fair Trade’ policies is a start. Insisting that wholesalers do not import clothes from factories known to use child labour is commendable. However, such action is not going to solve the ultimate problem. We need to face up to the fact that our lifestyles in the western world are unsustainable. How long will it be before the population of China, for example, demands the same standards as those we enjoy? How will the world’s resources then meet the demand? Indeed, how can our own demands then continue to be met?
We must not be blind to the precarious nature of our western civilisation’s existence. As a country looking out at the world (rather than in respect to our internal politics), we (in the United Kingdom) are largely right wing, conservative and reactionary. A vast proportion of the world is, or has the potential to become, quite the opposite: left wing, radical, reformative, and revolutionary. We cannot rely on these factions being contained forever – but who can blame them when the time comes for them to demand an equality of existence?
Western civilisation is the modern-day aristocrat facing a growing unease amongst the countries of the poorer classes. It is time that we awoke to the reality before us. The 18th century philosopher, Rousseau, expounded the notions of the ‘Social Contract’ and the ‘General Will’; ideas that featured heavily within the minds of the French Revolutionaries. Perhaps we need our world’s leaders to start negotiating the same concepts, but on a worldwide basis – now, before the matter is beyond us?
It is a ‘fact of history’ that all empires fall. When, then, the decline and fall of the Western Empire? Just as Classical Greece saw its Dark Age, Western Europe has also lived through its own Dark Ages. However, the Archbishop of Canterbury was quite correct when he said:
“…don’t be deceived: night must fall."
Without a 21st century Enlightenment in respect to the world’s resources, and a reality check on the disparity between living standards, the western world may yet have its most significant Dark Age to come.