After my post on the Bronze Age collapse and resulting discussion, I looked at other material about the collapse of civilizations, but after doing that, realized that I have some thoughts about what might be necessary for developing a theory about why collapses happen, what areas of expertise you need to have a chance at formulating a realistic theory, and how any of it might pertain to our current civilization.
Let me be clear right from the outset that I’m pretty skeptical that there is any one reason that explains all the collapses throughout history. Every civilization has multiple vulnerabilities. Some civilizations rot from the inside, gradually decline and eventually fall, while others are struck down in their prime either from a sudden change in climate, or by conquest by another bigger or more advanced civilization. Seeking a single reason may be alluring, but it ignores the complexities of real history.
That said, if someone were going to try to formulate either a single overarching theory or a family of theories, there are several fields I think they’d have to be familiar with, or at least have partners that are experts in these fields, before we should take them seriously.
The first, and I think most important, is history. You need to be intimately familiar with the history of past civilizations including being up to date on the latest research. If you don’t have this kind of knowledge, if you don’t know what actually happened in the past, then you’re shooting blindly, no matter what other expertise you bring to the endeavor.
Second, you need to be comfortable with anthropology, particularly archaeology. Many of the collapsed civilizations you’d need to review are ancient and left few written records, particularly during their period of collapse. That means piecing together what you can from the artifacts and debris they left behind. At a minimum, you need to be well read in the latest discoveries and developments.
It helps if you understand economics, not only modern economics but the economies of the past, notably of agrarian societies. This is particularly important for understanding collapses that seemed to be self inflicted. Other fields it might be good to have knowledge of include political science, sociology, psychology, and even ecology. But none of these latter fields can replace being deficient in history or archaeology.
All of this is important to keep in mind when someone tries to convince you that they’ve studied things and can predict that our current civilization is in danger of collapse. As I’ve written before, there are always people predicting that disaster is right around the corner, that the current generation is going to hell in a handbasket, and that unless we clean up our act, we are doomed.
Historically, these prognostications are almost always wrong. There were Roman authors predicting imminent disaster in every century of the Roman Empire. It didn’t become accurate until the latter part of the fourth century. And there have been similar predictions throughout modern times, usually focusing on whatever the troubles were in the author’s specific generation.
What these kinds of works usually are is a framework for someone to complain about what they see as immoral, corrupt, or decadent with the current society. They may have a point with some of their complaints, but couching them in terms of civilizational collapse is often just hyperbole to give their criticisms more bite.
So, with that in mind, a few notes about our current civilization. First, if you read history, you’ll know that we do not live in particularly corrupt or blinkered times. People have pretty much been corrupt and blinkered throughout history, often far more than today, but somehow they muddled through it.
In American history, if you read about the American Revolution, Civil War, Great Depression, or World War II, you’ll read about corruption, myopic viewpoints, and people often operating outside of their depth. Often those who succeeded only did so because they were less out of their depth than their competition.
We also, contrary to many doomsayers, do not live in a time of decline. At least, not by an objective measure.
Today, there are more people living longer life spans than at any other time in history. A smaller proportion of the population are dying in wars than at any other time in history. More people have access to health care than at any other time in history. In western societies, more people have freedom and a say in the political process than at any other time in history. More people have received a basic education, can read and write, and have access to the latest technology, than at any other time in history.
In many ways, we are living in an age of miracles. We drive down highways covering distances in hours that generations ago would have taken days or weeks. We fly through the air, traveling between continents in less than a day. Those of us in developed countries eat food from all over the world, food that only the richest and most powerful would have had access to a hundred years ago.
The fact that there are people around the world reading this post speaks to the amazing times that we live in. Few people imagined this kind of casual interaction across countries and continents even when I was a boy in the 70s. The internet is the new millennium’s printing press, the killer technology bringing in a new age of rapid collaboration and progress.
None of this is to say that any of the above is perfect or that we don’t have serious problems. We certainly do. I think the biggest is our runaway world population. Many of the other problems, such as global warming, are details of that problem. And in the last century, we’ve developed the power to destroy our species, a power that is becoming more widely available.
These are problems that if we don’t come to terms with in coming years, may well threaten our civilization’s vitality, if not its existence. But it would be overly pessimistic at this stage to assume that it’s hopeless. The very fact that we debate these matters is a good sign.
Of course, we face a lot of other problems as well, many of which are agonizing intolerable injustices. Certainly if you’re personally effected by one of these problems, it can feel like the whole world is moving in the wrong direction. But when fighting these problems it’s easy to lose track of the broad trends of history, most of which are moving in the right direction. There’s no guarantee it will continue, no guarantee we won’t screw it up, but saying that we’re currently moving in the wrong direction is missing the big picture.
The world today is more interconnected than ever before. We have become a global civilization. Some people express anxiety about these interconnections, seeing it as a vulnerability, particularly in relation to epidemics, financial panics, and many other threats.
But it’s those same interconnections that makes things like a regional drought only economically inconvenient, when such a drought might have ended an ancient regional civilization. Our interconnections allow alternative food sources and other commodities to fill local supply gaps, an advantage most early civilizations lacked.
We’re also personally interconnected in our society, vulnerable to supply chains and other aspects of modern life. In olden times, people were more self reliant, made their own shoes, soap, grew their own food, etc. But most of them also lived short brutish, and by our standards, nasty lives having little understanding of the overall world that they lived in.
The world of previous times seems simpler and more virtuous mainly because our depictions of it are often simpler and virtuous, not because they were so. There’s no time in prior history I would rather have lived than the one we’re in now, despite all its problems. Those who do wish they lived in an earlier era are usually basing that wish on an idealized version of it.
Will our civilization collapse someday? Probably. There’s no indication that we’ve beaten the historic life-cycle, or can continue to do so indefinitely. Are we anywhere near our collapse today? I haven’t seen anyone make a convincing case for it, but I’m positive people will continue to claim that they have.
- Climate Change Doomed the Ancients (nytimes.com)
- When Rome fell civilization did decline (blogs.discovermagazine.com)
- 10 Fascinating Tales of Ancient Mayan Civilization (toptenz.net)