Beyond the Clash of Empires: a World of Living Places

Columbia River Gorge from the summit of Cape Horn. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

I’ve seen this movie before.

A large and powerful nation attacks a small and weaker nation. Fiery explosions light up the night. Their thunder roars across the landscape while armored columns roll over the border. Shock and awe. Kyiv 2022. Bagdad 2003. It all looks much the same.

Empires press against each other. People are caught in the middle. In Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, to name a few of the recent battlegrounds. Roadkill in the imperial struggle for power. Leave aside the justifications and charges each side will throw against one another. The problem is as old as civilization itself. The problem is empire.

Empire has one law, one imperative. It is the unbridled pursuit of power and expansion, always ruled by an imperial class that concentrates power in its own hands. The nature of empire is to centralize as much power as possible until it sucks the life out of its vassals, its conquests, its lands, its slaves. Empires are parasites.

Empires knows no limits. Until they find them. In barbarian tribes. In other empires. In their own internal decay. They exhaust their own resources until they crumble under challenges they can no longer handle. It’s a story as old as the Akkadian empire, history’s first, beginning around 4,300 years ago, continuing through successor empires, Assyria, Babylon, Rome, and many others down to the present day.

That is what is happening in our time. Only the stakes are unprecedently high. Mesopotamian empires could fall and pass on a legacy of deserts, their formerly fertile soils salted by irrigation works. Rome could collapse and leave a time of breakdown and urban collapse in its wake. But yesterday’s empires were of limited scope. Today, empire in one form or another has spread throughout the Earth, in the culminating time of a period that began a little more than 500 years ago when Europe reached out to encompass the whole world in its grasp.

The major empires that grew out of European hegemony and remain from that half millennium, the U.S. and the Russian, hold much of the planet in their vassalage by various means, primarily economic power, overt military domination, and covert manipulation. The older empire of China stretches out across the globe, to its old vassals in Southeast and Central Asia, to new fields in Africa, and even to the U.S. “backyard” of Latin America.

Consumed by the fires of empire

Empires typically wear out soils and cut down forests, and that is happening on a global scale. But now there is a new element. The empires of today run on fossil fuels that are ravaging the Earth’s climate, visiting destruction by storm and flood, drought and wildfire, famine and disease, hitting the poorest the hardest. These contesting empires are all major producers and users of coal, oil and gas, and have posed to greatest obstacles in global climate negotiations. More than any other nations, the U.S., Russia and China stand in the way of meaningful action to reduce fossil fuel use, because that would undermine their power. Control of fossil fuel resources, in the Middle East, in Siberia, wherever, is a weapon in their hands.

The fundamental imperative of empires to concentrate power drives them to exploit the most concentrated forms of energy, which translate into power, economic in general and military in particular. Military-industrial complexes of the world may generate 5% of climate pollution. The U.S. Department of Defense is the planet’s single largest carbon polluting organization. No matter if fossil fuels curse the world with escalating climate destruction. Empire is about accumulating power today, especially in competition with other empires. The future be damned.

Fossil fuels are the fire that is slowly consuming us, on the order of decades and centuries. But the most concentrated form of power might immolate us in minutes or hours, the fires of the atom. The world’s nine nuclear powers possess around 12,700 warheads, 90% in the hands of the U.S. and Russia. Around 9,400 are in active stockpiles, and 2,000 are on high alert, ready for use in minutes. We know of many close calls including some at times of high tension. In fact, we might owe our lives to two Russians and their courageous actions when the world was on a nuclear hair trigger.

Two Russians who saved the world

On October 27, 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a U.S. destroyer was dropping hand-grenade sized depth charges on a Soviet sub near Florida to force it to surface. The submarine was armed with nuclear torpedoes. Its two commanders were ready to launch. But the commander of the three-sub flotilla, Vasily Arkhipov, fortunately on board, vetoed the move. If the torpedo had been fired, it likely would have set off an uncontrollable escalation. The sub surfaced. Arkhipov was severely reprimanded. His story is here.

Vasily Arkhipov

On Sept. 26, 1983, a Soviet satellite mistook solar reflections for an incoming missile attack. At the Soviet command center, the officer in charge, Stanislav Petrov, believed it was a false alarm and opted not to report it to higher echelons. This was a time when Soviet leadership anticipated a U.S. first strike, and the false alert might have triggered an immediate launch. Petrov too came under harsh reprimand. His story is here. Less than two months later, on Nov. 9, all 11,000 Soviet nuclear weapons were on high alert during Operation Able Archer, a NATO command exercise that Soviet leaders believed was a cover for an actual attack. A false alert then could have easily led to a nuclear launch. Instead of 9-11, we might remember 11-9, if any of us remained. Two recent books tell the story.

Stanislav Petrov

Both Arkhipov and Petrov have been subjects of documentaries titled, “The Man Who Saved the World,” Arkhipov in a 2012 PBS production, and Petrov in an award-winning 2015 film.

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the world is on a hair trigger again. Defcon alerts are dialed to levels seen only a few times before. Overall U.S. forces are at Defcon 3, Yellow Alert, when the Air Force is ready to scramble in 15 minutes. It was only previously reached four times, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1973 Yom Kippur War and 9-11.  The European command is at Defcon 2, Red Alert, one step short of imminent or actual nuclear war. Defcon 2 was reached before only twice, again during the Cuban Missile Crisis and then during initial attack on Iraq in 1991. We can hope an Arkhipov or Petrov will be somewhere in the chain of command in case there is a false alert or provocation. But we cannot be at all sure of that.

The shocking fact is that it would not take a full nuclear exchange to cause mass death. If as little as 1% of the world’s nuclear weapons explode into mushroom clouds, the ensuing fires will release enough black soot into the air to cause a nuclear winter, blocking out the sun and collapsing global food production. It would create the worst famine in recorded history. Even the hundreds of warheads in the hands of India and Pakistan could be enough to set this off, let alone the thousands in U.S. and Russian arsenals.

How civilizations fall

Empires are led by power elites committed to the means that gave them their power, even after the means have become destructive of society as a whole. Historian Arnold Toynbee studied 23 civilizations to conclude that societies rise and fall in response to challenges. In their rise, a creative minority leads successful response, But as it grows in power, it becomes a dominant minority devoted to its own self-preservation. When new challenges rise, the dominant minority perpetuates the old models through which it succeeded but which no longer meet the challenges. The civilization collapses as a result. Climate disruption and the creation of weapons of unprecedented destructive power are examples par excellence.

One study found an additional $3.5 trillion must be spent annually to reach zero climate pollution by 2050. Instead dominant minorities seek expanded fossil fuel production despite the visible onset of the climate crisis. Fossil fuel production is at a record high. Meanwhile, they pump money into bloated military budgets, bleeding society of needed resources. The Biden Administration is planning to propose a 2023 Pentagon budget in excess of $770 billion. When all expenses are tallied the military budget exceeds $1.2 trillion.  Russia and China are draining their societies in similar ways. Overall world military spending grew by 2.6% to reach nearly $2 trillion in 2020.

I can’t look at all this without thinking of something John Lennon said, “Our society is run by insane people for insane objectives. I think we’re being run by maniacs for maniacal ends and I think I’m liable to be put away as insane for expressing that. That’s what’s insane about it.” John, born into the 1940 Luftwaffe bombing of Liverpool, and Yoko, who with her family survived the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo in a bunker, asked us to give peace a chance.

But empires can’t give peace a chance. War, conquest and the drive for absolute power are essential to their nature.  The world can no longer afford empires. Not in a time when human powers have ascended to the level where we can rapidly destroy ourselves, and when we are already driving down the same road, albeit at a slower pace. Whether you commit suicide by sticking a shotgun down your throat or a needle into your arm, you arrive at the same destination.

Living beyond empire

At the end of these 4,300 years when empires have risen and fallen, leaving exhaustion and breakdown in their wake, and this 500-year period when empires possessing world-destroying powers have risen to devour the whole planet, we need to think in profoundly different terms. We need the boldness of imagination to envision a world beyond empire, a world of living places. In recognition of this, I have changed the subtitle of The Raven from “Living at the End of Empire” to “Living Beyond Empire.” That is our only hope.

Places are where we really live, not nations or empires. Places are where we connect with the nature that surrounds and permeates us. They are the communities in which we still have our primary connections with other people, despite the rise of telecommunications and social media. Living places are the key to the human future, to our continued habitation upon this planet. We need to build strong communities and places capable of withstanding the blows coming upon us, as they inevitably will with the onset of climate disruption and the decay of national and global systems.

That entails creating and strengthening the institutions that sustain life in place, from local, state and regional governments actually responsive to democratic will, to social and economic networks that build community resilience. We must challenge systems that are bleeding us dry. We must revive the antiwar movement to oppose the warfare state that saps our local and regional economies of needed resources. We must build public banks and financial instruments to replace the Wall Street capitalism that sucks capital from our communities. We must create cooperative enterprises, especially ones that meet basic human needs for food and shelter. We must restore ecosystems ravaged by the exploitations of empire.

To accomplish these goals and build strong places, we need to build social movements that create and forward transformative visions for how we might live in place, and link with companion movements elsewhere. This will become increasingly important with a sharp swing to the right likely at the national level, as I write about here. I have also written about how we might build strong regional communities as an alternative to empire in a series on the regional vision of radical historian William Appleman Williams beginning here.

The bioregional place

Another word that expresses the living place is bioregion. The living bios of the regional place. Coincidentally, or I like to think, synchronistically, the same day I saw the Russians begin bombing Ukraine, I received in the mail my old friend David McCloskey’s latest mapping of my living place, the Ish River Country. It reveals, in beautiful depth, the living nature of the place I inhabit, much as David’s earlier Cascadia map detailed the overall bioregion. (Ordering details for the new map as well as David’s earlier map are here.) This is a living place out of which transformative vision rises, beyond the tumult, breakdown and death wrought by empires and their life-sucking power elites.

David McCloskey’s new Ish River Country map.

We used to call the time after Rome fell the dark ages. It was characterized by breakdowns of cities and imperial institutions, and is darker to us because record keeping broke down. But later findings have supplanted the old notion. Though many of the supply chains of the time broke down in the immediate aftermath of the western empire’s fall, it sparked an era of creativity in realms as varied as art, literature and agriculture. Some posit that though populations drained from cities, life actually improved rural areas freed from the heavy hand of empire.

One can hope in our world of complex and often destructive technologies, we will avoid an age of complete breakdown. Barring total destruction, the dissolution of empires can unleash new energies. Sometimes it takes an asteroid strike to wipe out the dinosaurs and allow the mammals to come out of their burrows. For many years, we’ve been burrowing beneath the imperial dinosaurs through so many of our movements and initiatives, from progressive political organizing to alternative community building.  Taking account of the destructive trajectories of imperial power elites, we better prepare to emerge into open daylight by building strong communities now in the places we live.

Empires feed off each other. One imperial power elite uses the actions of another to increase its claim on power and resources. Each uses the threat posed by the other to frighten populations and create an us-versus-them, rally-round-the-flag effect. Empires need an abundant supply of enemies to justify their own power grabbing. This mirror image charactered the old Cold War. It is being seen again with the new one, which will no doubt be leveraged to further pump up military spending and suppress domestic dissent. It will also be used to divert attention from critical issues such as climate, wealth inequality, and oppression of communities of color.

We need to rally around no one’s flag and realize that empire and its warring elites are the real enemy. We need to end empire, or it will end us. The struggle starts here, to make strong communities in the places we live. To move beyond the clash of empires and create living places.