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89 Foreign Aff. 18 (2010)
Complexity and Collapse: Empires on the Edge of Chaos

handle is hein.journals/fora89 and id is 194 raw text is: Complexity and Collapse
Empires on the Edge of Chaos
Niall Ferguson
THERE IS no better illustration of the life cycle of a great power than
The Course ofEmpire, a series of five paintings by Thomas Cole that
hang in the New-York Historical Society. Cole was a founder of the
Hudson River School and one of the pioneers of nineteenth-century
American landscape painting; in The Course ofEmpire, he beautifully
captured a theory of imperial rise and fall to which most people remain
in thrall to this day.
Each of the five imagined scenes depicts the mouth of a great river
beneath a rocky outcrop. In the first, The Savage State, a lush wilderness
is populated by a handful of hunter-gatherers eking out a primitive
existence at the break of a stormy dawn. The second picture, The
Arcadian or Pastoral State, is of an agrarian idyll: the inhabitants have
cleared the trees, planted fields, and built an elegant Greek temple.
The third and largest of the paintings is The Consummation ofEmpire.
Now, the landscape is covered by a magnificent marble entrep6t, and
the contented farmer-philosophers of the previous tableau have been
replaced by a throng ofopulently clad merchants, proconsuls, and citizen-
consumers. It is midday in the life cycle. Then comes Destruction. The
NIALL FERGUSON is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at
Harvard University, a Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, and a Senior
Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His most recent
book is The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World. For an
annotated guide to this topic, see What to Read on American Primacy
at www.foreignaffairs.com/readinglists/american-primacy.

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