On theories of why civilizations collapse and our own times

All Giza Pyramids in one shot. Русский: Все пи...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

English: This map shows the location and exten...

Ancient Egypt; the Levant; and Mesopotamia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

This image was selected as a picture of the we...

Woman during the Great Depression. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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17 Responses to On theories of why civilizations collapse and our own times

    • I agree that times tend to oscillate between good and bad. It’s always prudent to remember in the good times that the bad times are coming (“winter is coming”), but it’s also important to remember in the bad times that the good times will return.

      However, I don’t really see that as having any cosmic significance. Unfortunately, it’s not really a pattern you can use to make predictions on when one phase or the other will come. (Well, except for winter and summer 🙂 )


      • Why is life full of ups and downs? says:

        Also, I am all for naturalism. So if anything happens in this universe, then the natural must be able to explain it eventually. And hence my claim that reality alternates between what we consider as good and bad.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Why is life full of ups and downs? says:

    My whole blog is dedicated to that single pattern and how we can *try* to make predictions 🙂


  2. James Pailly says:

    I’m really enjoying these posts on the collapse of civilizations. As a science fiction writer, I find them to be excellent food for thought.


  3. amanimal says:

    Hi ‘SAP’, you don’t mention ‘The Watchman’s Rattle’ specifically, but recognizing some of your objections from your previous comments I just want describe my take on the book as I came away with a somewhat different view of ‘TWR’.

    1) Given the biological/evolutionary basis for Cognitive Threshold Theory(CTT, got to call it something :)) it really negates the need for much of the detailed and specialized knowledge that would normally be required as it addresses the seemingly cyclic nature of the phenomenon at a significantly more fundamental level.

    2) Complexity is the fundamental proposed problem so CTT would only apply to societies that have reached a certain point of development(and maybe only a subset of them), specifically, the point where the complexities of the problem(s) faced exceed the cognitive threshold.

    3) The gridlock proposed as the 1st symptom of an approaching cognitive threshold spans generations rather than presidential or congressional terms.

    4) RC’s “supermemes” are examples of proposed cognitive propensities that may indicate an approaching cognitive threshold rather than close calls that almost got us.

    Maybe it’s my over-familiarity with the 1st couple of chapters of ‘The Watchman’s Rattle’ as I read and reread the previews for a couple of years before buying the book, and perhaps the feeling that it could be right as a sort of natural checks and balances kind of explanation – or maybe just the lure of simplistic explanations.

    The other entirely possible scenario is that my comprehension is less than complete. I do tend to go for an overall understanding at the possible expense of specifics that might on occasion be important or even critical. And, resist though I may, confirmation bias among others is no doubt a factor.

    Any thoughts welcome!

    On the rest of your piece, it’s not easy to come to a balanced perspective on this given our inherent negativity bias, not to mention a sensationalistic, profit-driven media. You make a valiant attempt here!

    I do agree that our imminent demise is unlikely, but we are definitely talking complex systems here – yet another field I’d like to become more familiar with 🙂


    • Thanks amanimal. I’m grateful for you summarizing Costa’s theory. Her book got a lot of positive reviews, including from scientists and science writers, so you’re definitely not alone in appreciating her ideas.

      Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to finish her book. The number of factual mistakes in areas that I knew something about (mostly but not exclusively in history) grew so large that I finally lost confidence in any new information she was imparting. (Her assertion that traditional cigarettes don’t cause cancer almost finished it, but her claim that Pons and Fleischmann’s discredited cold fusion experiment had been widely replicated but were repressed, was when I knew I was done.)

      “it really negates the need for much of the detailed and specialized knowledge that would normally be required”
      Unless that specialized knowledge contradicts the theory. I fear this is why many scientists dislike evo psych, due to some of its practitioners taking this stance. (I say this as a general fan of the field.)

      I think a lot of what Costa describes are actual cognitive challenges that we face, but much of it is not unique to our times. Ironically, I think she falls victim to some of the supermemes she describes, notably silo thinking for not doing her history homework, and resisting actual complexity by relying on common but simplistic misconceptions about politics and economics.

      I just started reading Jared Diamond’s ‘Collapse’. From what I’ve read so far, it seems more careful and consilient, but it’s early still. I’ll let you know how it turns out.


      • amanimal says:

        Wow, thanks ‘SAP’!

        “traditional cigarettes” – I totally missed that
        “cold fusion experiments” – vaguely recall

        Grrr, no index – do you recall a chapter or even page # when you put it down perhaps?

        “Unless that specialized knowledge contradicts the theory.” – Absolutely, a caveat I should have included.

        On the supermemes/cogitive challenges, I’m confused because if CTT were valid they couldn’t be unique to our times – right?


        • The furthest page I read was 180 (the paragraph on cold fusion being my last). Through the magic of Kindle, I can tell you that the cigarette statement was on page 119, casually thrown in as an aside. (She doesn’t cite her sources, so I’m not sure where her info on this came from.)

          I think you’re totally right that the CTT itself would be timeless. My issue is that what Costa keeps identifying as problematic aspects of it unique to our time, aren’t. For example, somewhere (I don’t recall the page) she laments how a financial panic in one part of the world now spreads to the whole world, and asserts that we’ve never had that vulnerability before. If she had read about the Great Depression (it quickly spread to every country on the gold standard), she’d know that assertion simply isn’t true.

          Sorry, amanimal, don’t mean to be all negative. If I’m missing the big picture in some way, I’d be happy to be corrected.


          • amanimal says:

            Sources in her notes but they aren’t referenced in the text! There are no references on the smoking though there are 4 on the cold fusion.

            On the smoking apparently, at least according to a livescience piece, there was some confusion:

            “Part of the blame for the confusion goes to the anti-smoking movement. Its emphasis on tobacco additives has implied that natural tobacco is somehow healthier.”

            ‘Warning: Homegrown Tobacco Still Deadly’, livescience 9/29/09

            … but her use of that is sloppy research and doesn’t support her counterfeit correlation not being true. To be fair she didn’t assert that tobacco without additives doesn’t cause cancer, but that it was reported that way though by using that to counter the supposedly false correlation between smoking and cancer she is implying she believes it. Regardless, sloppy.

            On the cold fusion, I vaguely remember doing a search, but it was late, I was tired, and from the little I read it sounded like I could be days digging to the bottom of it so I cut it short and resumed reading – I think I read the claim of replication as being Mallove’s, but that’s not what it says as I look at it now.


            On the connectness/financial panic vulnerability, I remember that and it is pretty damning evidence of a lack of historical knowledge.

            No apologies necessary, I appreciate the feedback and think I’ll reread a bit from chapter 3 on with a hopefully bit more critical eye – thanks!


          • Thanks! On the cold fusion results, I think a scientist I saw years ago interviewed on TV (I wish I could remember his name) said it best, that when someone can reliably, on demand, show it working, and make the procedure public so that other labs can reliably, on demand, reproduce it, then they would have scientifically proven it. Apparently the people claiming cold fusion success haven’t come anywhere near that standard, making their claims pseudoscience.

            Liked by 1 person

      • amanimal says:

        I found the pages using Google Books search 🙂


  4. Pingback: Daily chart: March of the middle class | The Economist | SelfAwarePatterns

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