Four years ago, Hurricane Katrina submerged my hometown. The storm broke my heart and messed with my head. With close to 2,000 dead in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region, the government response close to nil, and then-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert questioning the wisdom of rebuilding below sea level, it seemed plausible that the city could perish: Here today, drowned tomorrow.
In 2009, New Orleans is still suffering. The city has no comprehensive reconstruction plan and whole neighborhoods remain abandoned; as of July 2008, Orleans Parish was at 69 percent of its pre-Katrina population. But while the Crescent City isn’t exactly thriving, it resolutely exists. There’s a human impulse to rebuild after a catastrophe, and the United States’ relative prosperity gives us the means to stand our ground. An American city, it turns out, is a hard thing to kill.
Hurricane Katrina proved that modern America is resilient. It didn’t prove that we’ll be around forever. After watching the place where I grew up avert total annihilation, I can’t help but wonder what course of events will eventually wipe out New Orleans and America as a whole. When it comes to human civilization, entropy conquers all: Rome fell, the Aztecs were conquered, the British Empire withered, and the Soviet Union cracked apart. America may be exceptional, but it’s not supernatural. Our noble experiment, like every other before it, has to end sometime.
The pessimists among us could be excused for thinking the country will run aground tomorrow. The U.S. military is understaffed and overstretched, global warming threatens to Atlantis-ize our coastal cities, and the strongest fundamental of our economy is that we need China to keep lending us money. General Motors—once an indomitable symbol of American might and ingenuity—filed for bankruptcy, and Glenn Beck, Fox News’ ascendant superstar, makes ratings hay by forecasting the apocalypse, American-style. Russian political scientist Igor Panarin has even predicted that the United States will break apart in 2010.
Sure, Panarin is crazy —if he wants me to believe that America will split up in the next 12 months, he’d be advised not to suggest that South Carolina and Massachusetts will be part of the same breakaway republic. While Panarin’s particular scenario defies belief, it does reflect a mainstream American impulse. In 1999’s Is America Breaking Apart?, John A. Hall and Charles Lindholm write that “Americans like to be scared about the fragility of their society, despite its obvious stability and power.” Perhaps that explains why the end of America is eternally popular fodder for movies and television series.
The best-seller charts are also full of fatalism. Hall and Lindholm, admirably self-aware, point out that books on America’s disintegration are “bound to sell—which is the reason we did not entitle our book Why America Isn’t Breaking Apart!” In 2007’s Are We Rome?, Cullen Murphy ponders whether we can avoid the fate of our Roman forebears. (One hundred years prior to Murphy’s book, Henry Adams—an early practitioner of the America-is-ending school of book-writing—wrote that the Roman-style “climax of empire could be seen approaching, year after year, as though Sulla were a President or McKinley a Consul.” Jared Diamond’s 2005 Collapse, a tome on civilizations that destroy themselves by destroying their environments, is a not-so-veiled warning about America’s possible fate. We’re also at a moment of anxiety about America’s decline relative to the rest of the world. Fareed Zakaria believes we’re on the cusp of The Post-American World, and Paul Starobin’s After America argues that “the global economic crisis, in exposing the tarnished American model of unfettered free-market capitalism, is hastening the transition to the next … phase of global history.”)
Maybe the book-buying public is a mite too susceptible to the idea that America is half-dead. Still, it’s hubris to assume the United States is too big to fail. Over the next five days, I’ll be thinking through what it’s going to take put the Stars and Stripes on the shelf forever.
What exactly do I mean by the end of America? I’m not particularly interested in the geopolitical pecking order—I’ll leave the question of whether the United States will lose its global pre-eminence to Zakaria and Tom Friedman. Rather, I’m looking to answer the admittedly more oddball question of how the United States will cease to be entirely—or, at a minimum, will deviate so greatly from the country we know today that it would no longer be recognizable to a contemporary American. It’s possible that the end of America will be good for Americans—perhaps the United States and every other nation will melt away as the global community comes together to build worldwide peace and prosperity. (Chance of this happening: rounds down to zero percent.) It’s also conceivable that we’ll die along with our country: If the United States gets annihilated by nuclear weapons, a lot of us won’t be around for the next phase of North American civilization.
Before I commence this end-of-America thought experiment, a couple of thoughts on what won’t bring us down. No matter how long this recession lasts, the United States of America won’t get wiped off the map by a near-term economic collapse. (If Iceland didn’t destroy itself, I like our chances.) It’s also absurd to suggest that the Bush administration inflicted irreparable damage on the country. It’s telling that George W. Bush—who brought America to war under false pretenses, presided over a financial meltdown, and inflicted tremendous damage to the country’s global reputation—left office peacefully and has been replaced by someone who repudiated his policies. If, as many have argued, he’s the worst president in U.S. history, then it’s a sign of America’s strength that we have survived his reign.
So how is America going to end? The project kicks off today with a look at how futurologists think through a problem like America’s last gasp. Once you see how experts think the country will go down the tubes, you’ll get a chance to have your opinion heard. Slate’s “Choose Your Own Apocalypse” interactive feature lets you choose from 144 possible end-of-America scenarios. Select the five factors you believe will contribute to the country’s dissolution, then find out instantly what kind of death scene you’ve envisioned—a bloodbath or a nonviolent end, an end wrought by man or by nature—and compare your choices with those of other Slate readers.
Later this week, I’ll look more closely at three specific scenarios. On Tuesday, I’ll run through different theories of how America might succumb to global warming. Could we survive in a world where the Great Plains turns into a desert and Buffalo, N.Y., is the country’s most-desirable place to live? On Wednesday and Thursday, I’ll present parallel pieces on secession and totalitarianism—one case in which America falls to pieces, and another in which an autocratic state puts an end to democracy and local governance. The series will conclude on Friday with a look at who or what might be left behind when the United States goes away. (I’m guessing the Mormons won’t be going anywhere.) I’ll also let you know what I learned from “Choose Your Own Apocalypse”—what your most-popular scenarios can teach us about the country’s prevailing mood and where we might be headed.