The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Monday, December 12, 2022

The End of Europe: The Conclusion of a Long Historical Cycle.

The failure of the European Union may have started with the choice of the flag. Not that national flags are supposed to be works of art, but at least they can be inspiring. But this flag is flat, unoriginal, and depressing. It looks like a blue cheese pizza gone bad. And that's just one of the many things gone bad with the European Union. (attempts to make it more appealing failed utterly). It is the conclusion of a thousand-year cycle that's coming to an end. It was probably unavoidable, but that doesn't make it less painful. 

Europe has a long history that goes back to when the ice sheets retreated at the end of the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago. At that time, our remote ancestors moved into a pristine land, cultivated it, built villages, roads, and cities. They traveled, migrated, fought each other, created cultures, built temples, fortresses, and palaces. On the Southern coast of Europe, a lively network of commercial exchanges emerged, made possible by maritime transportation over the Mediterranean Sea. Out of this network, the Greek civilization was born, and then the Roman Empire appeared around the end of the first millennium BCE. It included most of Western Europe. (image from ESA)

As all empires do, the Roman Empire went through its cycle of glory and decline. In the 5th century AD, as Europe entered the Middle Ages, the Empire had disappeared except as a memory of past greatness. In the following centuries, the population of Western Europe declined to a historical minimum, maybe less than 20 million people. Europe became a land of thick forests, portentous ruins, small villages, and petty warlords fighting each other. No one could have imagined that, centuries later, Europeans would become the dominators of the world.

Sometimes, collapses bring with them the seed of recovery. It is what I called the "Seneca Rebound." For some reason, we moderns disparage the Middle Ages, calling the era the "Dark Ages." But there was nothing dark during the European Middle Ages. Europe was poor in material terms, but Europeans managed to create a culture of refined literature, splendid cathedrals, sophisticated music, advanced technologies, and much more. One reason for the prospering of the European culture was the presence of tools that other regions of the world lacked. One was the Latin language, used to keep alive the ancient Classical Culture and its achievements. It also helped trade and created strong cultural bonds all over the continent. Europeans also inherited the bulk of Roman law and culture, and Roman technologies in fields such as metallurgy and weapon making.  

With Europe recovering from the 5th-century collapse, new precious metal mines in Eastern Europe started pumping wealth into the continent. The result was explosive. Already in 800 AD, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, could assemble an army powerful enough to create a new Europe-wide Empire, the "Sacred Roman Empire." With the turn of the millennium, the European population was rapidly growing, and it needed space to expand. Europe was a coiled spring, ready to snap. In 1095, a burst of armies emerged out of Europe, crashing into the Near East. It was the time of the Crusades. 

Initially, the invasion of the Middle East was a spectacular success: the Christian armies defeated the local rulers, established new kingdoms, and recreated a direct commercial connection with East Asia, along the Silk Road. But the task was too huge for a still young Europe. After two centuries of struggle, the European armies were forced to abandon the Holy Land, defeated and in disarray. At this point, Europe faced again the problem it had tried to solve with the Crusades: overpopulation. The problem solved itself by means of a quick population collapse, first with the great famine (1315–1317), then the black plague. The Europe of the 13th century was so weakened that it seriously risked being overcome by the Mongol armies coming from Asia. Fortunately for the Europeans, the Mongols couldn't sustain a full-scale attack so far from the center of their Empire.    

A schematic view of the European population during about one millennium. Note the two collapses: both have the typical "Seneca-Shape," that is, decline is faster than growth. The first collapse was caused by famine and by the black plague, the second by the 30-year war, and the associated plagues and famines. 

Despite the ravages of the Black Plague, Europe re-emerged with its culture, social structure, and technological knowledge still intact. Europe didn't just recover, but it rebounded in a spectacular way. Shipbuilding technologies were improved, allowing Europeans to sail across the oceans. During their internecine quarrels, the Europeans had also turned firearms into terribly effective weapons. During the 16th and 17th centuries, they rebuffed the attempts of the Ottoman Empire to expand into Europe. The Ottomans were dealt a crushing blow on the sea at Lepanto, in 1571. Then, they were decisively defeated on land at the siege of Vienna, in 1683. With their Eastern Borders now safe, Europeans had a free hand to expand overseas. 

The 16th century saw the birth of a pattern that would persist for several centuries. European armies would invade foreign kingdoms, crush all military resistance, and replace the native leaders with European ones. Sometimes they used the local inhabitants as slaves, sometimes they wiped them out and replaced them with European colonists. The new lands were an incredible source of wealth. Europe imported precious metals, timber, spice, and even food in the form of sugar produced from sugarcane. The inflow of gold and silver from overseas stimulated the European economy, and timber allowed Europeans to build more ships. And the imports of food allowed the European population to grow and to field new armies that could conquer new lands that produced even more food.  

Nevertheless, Europe's expansion started to slow down in the 17th century. The 30 years' war, 1618 to 1648, was a terrible disaster that may have exterminated 10% of the European population. Then, as usual with wars, another outburst of plague followed. Europe seemed to have reached a new limit to its expansion. Sugar coming from overseas colonies was not enough, by itself, to sustain the need for materials to keep and further expand the European empire. Wood was needed to produce ships and, at the same time, to be turned into the charcoal needed to smelt metals. But trees were depleted in Europe and importing timber from overseas was expensive. Most of the Southern European countries saw their forests decline and their growth stall.

(image from Foquet and Bradberry). (France is not shown in the figure, but it shows a pattern similar to that of England). 

Despite the troubles, the Northern European economies, (especially England) rapidly restarted to grow after the 17th-century crisis. The trick was a new technological development: coal. Coal had already been used as a fuel in Roman times, but nobody in history had used it on such a large scale. With coal, Europeans didn't need anymore to destroy their forests to make iron. That was the start of a new, successful rebound. By the early 20th century, Europe dominated the whole world, directly or indirectly.  

Europe's population according to Zinkina et al. (2017). The two drops of the 14th and the 17th century are clearly visible, although less dramatic on this scale than in the earlier work of Langer

As typical of empires, with the conquests completed, there came a time of consolidation. No more risky adventures of individual states, but a central government to manage the empire and keep it together. For the ancient Romans, it had been the task of Julius Caesar to create a strong, centralized state. For modern Europe, it was a much more difficult story: how to tame a group of quarrelsome states that seemed to spend most of their time fighting each other? 

The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles 5th (1500-1558), was among the first to try, without success. His successor, Philip 2nd of Spain (1527- 1598), tried to subdue Britain with his "invincible armada" in 1588, but he failed, too. The decline of Spain left space for other European powers to try again. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 -1821) almost succeeded, but his imperial dreams sank at Trafalgar and then froze to death in the Russian plains. Then, it was the turn of Germany. The attempt started in 1914, and again in 1939. In both cases, it was a tragic failure. Even the weak Italy had imperial dreams. In the 1940s, Benito Mussolini attempted to recreate a new version of the ancient Roman Empire in the Mediterranean Sea. Utter failure, again. 

Over and over, the would-be European Imperial powers found themselves facing an impossible challenge. In the West, Britain had no interest in seeing a European Empire arising just on the other side of the Channel. The same was true for the East, with Russia not keen to see a major power near its borders. The result was that the European armies often found themselves fighting on two sides at the same time. Then, the Mediterranean Sea was in the iron grip of the British Navy -- no way for continental powers to expand South. With the end of WW2, Europe emerged out of the struggle destroyed, impoverished, and humiliated. 

The latest (and perhaps the last) attempt to unify Europe was the European Union. The creators of the Union understood that it was impossible to unify Europe by military means, so they tried to do it in the form of an economic free zone and an elected parliament. It was a bold attempt, but it didn't work. It could not have worked. The Union faced enormous hostile forces, both internal and external. Britain and France were supposed to be balancing the German power, but when Britain left, in 2020, the Union suffered an economic defeat equivalent to the military one suffered by Germany in the Battle of Britain, in 1940. In both cases, they had tried to absorb Britain into the economic system of continental Europe, and they had failed.

The defection of Britain left the European Union with Germany dominating it. Just like during WW2, the German government never understood that throwing its weight around was not the way to endear itself with the neighboring states. The result was the growth of anti-European forces all over the continent. It was the movement called "sovereignty" that aimed to restore the power of nation-states and get rid of the EU bureaucrats. So far, this movement has played only a marginal role in politics, but it has succeeded in making the EU deeply hated by everyone who is not getting their salaries from Brussels. 

Just as it had happened in 1941, Europe is now engaged in a desperate battle on two different fronts, but the struggle is now mainly economic and cultural, not military: it is a "full spectrum dominance" war. The struggle is still ongoing, but it seems already clear that Europe is being defeated. Just like Germany had destroyed itself with a military attack on Russia in 1941, the European Union is destroying itself with its economic sanctions against Russia. Effectively, Europe is committing a slow and painful suicide. But that's how full spectrum dominance works: it destroys enemies from the inside. 

And now? It was unavoidable that Europe would cease to be an Empire. The human and material resources that had made European dominance possible are not there any longer. But it was not unavoidable that Europe would destroy itself. Europe could have survived and maintained its independence by remaining on good terms with the other Eurasiatic powers, China, Russia, and India, But, choosing to break the commercial, cultural, and human relations with the rest of Eurasia was not just an economic suicide. It was a cultural and moral suicide. 

So, what's going to happen to poor Europe? History, as usual, rhymes: do not forget that in 1945 the official US plan was to destroy the German economy and exterminate most of the German population. Fortunately, the plan was shelved, but could that idea become fashionable again? We cannot exclude this possibility. In any case, an impoverished Europe could go back to something not unlike what it was during the early Middle Ages: depopulated, poor, primitive, a mere appendage of the great Eurasian Continent. 

And, yet, Europe has rebounded more than once from terrible disasters. It may happen again. Not soon, though.

As inspiring as a blue cheese pizza gone bad


  1. Good timing with the recent european parliament scandal !

  2. " impoverished Europe could go back to something not unlike what it was during the early Middle Ages: depopulated, poor, primitive, a mere appendage of the great Eurasian Continent. "

    While this may all be the case, It does not take into account the tidal wave of immigration from all corners of the globe. The racial and cultural destruction of Europe is as much a reality, and much more significant than the mere economic and political destruction. If the English, Danes, French, Germans, Dutch, etc, are no longer distinct ethnic nations and more resemble the transplanted Africans, Indians, Pakistanies, and Arabs, it is probable that they will evolve or devolve in the patterns of the replacements.

    1. Indeed...Europe will be the prime example of the axion "import the 3d world, become the 3d world", and it won't even have the natural resources of the 3d world countries...

  3. Chronocentric comment. The ancien Roman tell the same think about the german.... And the Roman culture was conserved bei the "Barbaian" of that time... Carolus Magnus and his tribe.

  4. The Chinese tell the same think about the barbarian of the north, the result was that the manchou Dynastie saved the Chinese culture from decadence.
    The Frank (Karl Magnus) and the Quing Dynastie were the barbare of their time.
    Maybe in the future we will See a King Name Abdullah de/von Bourgogne protector of the european culture.

  5. There are rather racist comments here. I feel that Europe is in deep troubles, like the rest of the world. And how unsurprising, the periphery suffers more and earlier because the center is capable to attract wealth. Europe is in the periphery of the US, Italy is in the periphery of Europe, but climate change is a game changer and nobody knows what will happen, excepted that IT will be more complicated to keep through a Seneca Clif that metallurgy. Overpopulation compared to earth caring capacité without fossil fuels will probably be the most painful issue. It might be even worse because we lost the capacity to produce locally.

    1. Europe without Russia and Germany united is lost.

    2. Really climate change and racism is tgw issue you think is destroying Europe. Jesus man

    3. Haha haha, climate change, haha haha! You gulable fool!

  6. On xenophobic comments. Europe as always has immigrants to absorb, internal and external. It has always been dangerous for minorities, especially in hard times. Ask the Roma, Jews etc. The recent Islamic and African immigrants came because Europe was preferable to their countries. They will find a way to stay, to become locals. However with the collapse of European economies less may see Europe as attractive.

  7. On European economic collapse. It is now evident that without Russian energy and resources Europe has no economic competitiveness. The discounted gas and oil rig out east, the cheap farm and mine all made prosperity possible. Sure Europe can buy from elsewhere but only at top dollar.
    The US can't and won't help except as imperial overlords and asset strippers. Russia is the only hope and given the Ukraine fiasco they have turned East.
    Should Russia enact the equivalent of a Marshall plan it may be a mixed blessing, they will keep Germany at heel and the rest divided for the sake of their own security. That may be the cost of European recovery.

    1. A Russian marshal plan. I guess it would be called the Lavrov plan. It's an interesting idea. Russia probably has the resources to do it, but I doubt it will happen before the EU has totally collapsed.

  8. Oh venerable friend, I am here once again, come out from the howling waste to enjoy for a moment the dancing light of your little fire.

    "Forests precede us and deserts dog our heels."
    Derrick Jensen

    Civilization is a patch disturbance. Now that the disturbance is global we must find our consolation in weeds and beetles. Forget the soaring eagle, the sweetness of the lark, the dancing rainbow trout. No more emblazon on your pennants the noble stag, the fierce panther, or the mighty ursa. Our companions must be the ragged, the lowly and unseen.
    Indeed, " The meek shall inherit the earth."

  9. I'd absolutely love to see the people of Europe (indeed any people) leading safe, happy and fulfilling lives -- as long as it's not at the expense of anyone else or the biosphere.

    I really think one very important reason the Western world embarked on its path of world domination in the past few centuries was its loss of confidence in the veracity of the Christian message, leading to a deep sense of loss and anxiety which it then sought to overcome by expanding itself at the material level of things -- as in throwing its weight around the world, for example. During the 16th and 17th centuries AD the Church promulgated various doctrines in response to what it considered dangerously subversive ideas (coming mainly from the neoplatonists/ hermaticists), and those doctrines -- chiefly the doctrine that God is totally transcendent and under no obligation to abide by any rules whatsoever -- ironically caused people to begin to doubt the reality of God. Descartes saw the danger (I think) and tried to work out a way around it in his Meditations. His attempts only made things worse, until finally with the arrival of Kant all metaphysics was as good as demolished in Western philosophy and people in the West became like Yeats' falcon -- spiritually lost.

    One of the most urgent tasks faced by the Western world today could therefore be the recovery of its spiritual vision -- though I wouldn't know if it's possible. Certainly people like the contemporary American philosopher-theologian David Ray Griffin are trying very hard to bring that about.

    It's fascinating why all the volatility and turmoil that plagued Europe for so long never seemed to arise in east Asia, which enjoyed nearly a whole millennium of stability, as pointed out by Prof David Kang of the University of Southern California. Perhaps one reason could lie in the rather different religious beliefs?

    Incidentally, speaking of east Asia and of Charlemagne, it's fun to note that in the late 15th/early 16th century Italian poet Ariosto's long epic Orlando Furioso Charlemagne was visited by a Chinese princess (!!) named Angelica (!!!), who was so beautiful virtually all of Charlemagne's men went crazy over her -- especially Orlando, who later became insane with anger when he discovered she already had another lover. Big question here: why on earth would a Chinese princess want to visit Europe during the 7th/8th century? I could only think of one reason: to spread Buddhism. :) Well, I guess she wasn't successful then, as medieval Christendom would only view the Buddha's teachings as sheer blasphemy!

    Would be great if one could retell the story of Ariosto's epic in Tolkienesque form. Imagine something like a cross between The Lord of the Rings, the Arabian Nights and Chinese myth and legend. Zhang Ziyi could play Angelica if it were made into a movie. :P (Kevin Sorbo could play Charlemagne.)

  10. Where in the equation do bankers fit? I'm sure the history of 20th century Europe can be summed up as a secret cult of central banker colonial ambitions at the expense of ethnic nation states.


  12. I don't think it is sanctions on Russia that is destroying Europe: the real cause is that the European political class have long ago forgotten what was special about their civilization and their shared history. One saw that in the drafting of the so-called European Constitution where any mention of Christianity was explicitly excluded (despite John Paul II's entreaties), and again when millions of Muslims were allowed to settle within EU borders although their values are in many cases directly opposed to those that 'Europe' represents. And last, it was the construction over several decades of social welfare states that the individual countries could not afford except by cutting defence spending to the bare minimum and, by abandoning national pride, decided instead to rely on the US for their protection. Europe is in decline, not because of economic forces, but because of decisions taken by a liberal elite that came to dominate politics and societies in the Old World.

    1. That is because the people who "rule" the west believe in nothing, or if they do believe in something i think its more evil and they don't talk about it publicly. They know they're bankrupt, and they can't tell you, cause then maybe you'd flip over the money changers tables in the temple. So they tell you that you know, global warming is going to kill us all, not that we're out of cheap resources and have too large of population to support to keep living standards the same. So they make up stories to tell you, hoping you'll go along with your own destruction while they continue to enjoy the privilege of those who take on great responsibilities, even though they fail endlessly and never hold themselves responsible. Easier to import people who have base level expectations! They've sold their souls for power, sums it up perfectly.

    2. It is crystal clear that the EU sanctions against Russia are causing great arms to europeans economies.. Gas, oil, fertilizers...

  13. "History, as usual, rhymes: do not forget that in 1945 the official US plan was to destroy the German economy and exterminate most of the German population. Fortunately, the plan was shelved, but could that idea become fashionable again? We cannot exclude this possibility."

    Assuming a WWIII scenario (which is looking increasingly likely these days), and assuming that a Russia-China alliance wins the war (which is definitely possible), it wouldn't be unreasonable to suppose that the Russia-China alliance would want to destroy the European economy, basically, to plunder Europe in order to help rebuild all the destroyed bits in their own countries. Lots of winners in wars have done that, historically.

    However, exterminating the population wasn't exactly the aim of the US in 1945 when it came to Germany, merely de-industrialising the country and let the chips fall where they might. And a big reason for that is that it was the Second, as opposed to the First, World War. Some people felt it was essential to prevent the recurrence of another World War at any cost, which probably was understandable under the circumstances, though the means suggested to achieve it seem pretty extreme. If there was a Third World War, there wouldn't be that fear (at least, not unless we have a Fourth World War within the following three decades). So it's probably quite unlikely that there would be a desire to plunder Europe so severely that it risks severe famine.

    1. Hi, Doly. Nice to hear from you. How are you doing?

  14. This article was good up until the last 3-4 paragraphs. It was a nice review of history, then it came to a sudden and unsupported conclusion. It made inferences and connections that were not persuasive. It failed to draw proper parallels and analogues between the past, and present and future.

    Perhaps you ought to spend as much time treating 'the present/future' as you did discussing the past, but I assure you, your ideas did not land as they were intended.

    Looking forward to your next piece, perhaps you can clarify.

  15. Europe must start telling the masses the truth...

    "Energy, like time, flows from past to future"


  16. No ! You are plain wrong . alive and well since it has expanded itself into the americas and still dominating the world as the anglo-america+european empire . And there will be also no other empire after this since this domination will endure until.the very end of the human civilized epoch