Will our civilisation collapse? Or – when?

Or should that be: when will our civilisation collapse? It has happened to all past civilisations.

I guess the current ‘civilisation’ is Western Civilisation, which Aotearoa is closely linked.

Luke Kemp (BBC’s Deep Civilisation): Are we on the road to civilisation collapse?

Studying the demise of historic civilisations can tell us how much risk we face today, says collapse expert Luke Kemp. Worryingly, the signs are worsening.

Great civilisations are not murdered. Instead, they take their own lives.

Collapse is often quick and greatness provides no immunity. The Roman Empire covered 4.4 million sq km (1.9 million sq miles) in 390. Five years later, it had plummeted to 2 million sq km (770,000 sq miles). By 476, the empire’s reach was zero.

Collapse can be defined as a rapid and enduring loss of population, identity and socio-economic complexity. Public services crumble and disorder ensues as government loses control of its monopoly on violence.

Virtually all past civilisations have faced this fate. Some recovered or transformed, such as the Chinese and Egyptian. Other collapses were permanent, as was the case of Easter Island. Sometimes the cities at the epicentre of collapse are revived, as was the case with Rome. In other cases, such as the Mayan ruins, they are left abandoned as a mausoleum for future tourists.

What can this tell us about the future of global modern civilisation? Are the lessons of agrarian empires applicable to our post-18th Century period of industrial capitalism? (Read about the greatest long term threats facing humanity.)

I would argue that they are.

We may be more technologically advanced now. But this gives little ground to believe that we are immune to the threats that undid our ancestors. Our newfound technological abilities even bring new, unprecedented challenges to the mix.

And while our scale may now be global, collapse appears to happen to both sprawling empires and fledgling kingdoms alike. There is no reason to believe that greater size is armour against societal dissolution. Our tightly-coupled, globalised economic system is, if anything, more likely to make crisis spread.

The bigger the civilisation, the bigger the fall? Quite possibly.

While there is no single accepted theory for why collapses happen, historians, anthropologists and others have proposed various explanations, including:

CLIMATIC CHANGE

When climatic stability changes, the results can be disastrous, resulting in crop failure, starvation and desertification.

ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION

Collapse can occur when societies overshoot the carrying capacity of their environment.

INEQUALITY AND OLIGARCHY

Wealth and political inequality can be central drivers of social disintegration, as can oligarchy and centralisation of power among leaders. This not only causes social distress, but handicaps a society’s ability to respond to ecological, social and economic problems.

COMPLEXITY

Collapse expert and historian Joseph Tainter has proposed that societies eventually collapse under the weight of their own accumulated complexity and bureaucracy.

Increasing levels of bureaucracy are certainly an issue here, as is environmental degradation. Inequality is a more debatable issue, and climate change is more of an international issue – but if Aotearoa made drastic measures as suggested by the Green Party (and there’s quite a chance of that to an extent at least if next year’s election delivers a Labour-Green government, Labour would be under much more pressure for major ‘reform’ without having NZ First as an excuse for modest change).

EXTERNAL SHOCKS: In other words, the “four horsemen”: war, natural disasters, famine and plagues.

Major disasters like a meteor strike, or the more likely possibility of a large volcanic eruption that precipitates major effects on the climate and food production.

RANDOMNESS/BAD LUCK: Statistical analysis on empires suggests that collapse is random and independent of age. Evolutionary biologist and data scientist Indre Zliobaite and her colleagues have observed a similar pattern in the evolutionary record of species. A common explanation of this apparent randomness is the “Red Queen Effect”: if species are constantly fighting for survival in a changing environment with numerous competitors, extinction is a consistent possibility.

That sounds a bit too theoretical.

Despite the abundance of books and articles, we don’t have a conclusive explanation as to why civilisations collapse. What we do know is this: the factors highlighted above can all contribute. Collapse is a tipping point phenomena, when compounding stressors overrun societal coping capacity.

Climate tipping points are cited as a real danger.

Once you reach a tipping point it may be too late to do anything about it.

Today, societal collapse is a more treacherous prospect. The weapons available to a state, and sometimes even groups, during a breakdown now range from biological agents to nuclear weapons. New instruments of violence, such as lethal autonomous weapons, may be available in the near future. People are increasingly specialised and disconnected from the production of food and basic goods. And a changing climate may irreparably damage our ability to return to simple farming practices.

With the proliferation of nuclear weapons, we may have already reached this point of civilisational “terminal velocity”. Any collapse – any fall from the ladder – risks being permanent. Nuclear war in itself could result in an existential risk: either the extinction of our species, or a permanent catapult back to the Stone Age.

The potential for nuclear catastrophe was a real scare when it arose in the 1950s. Have we become too complacent? There’s still a real chance of self inflicted disaster, and it could be precipitated by one nutty leader (there’s no shotage of them), or a lower ranked maverick.

The collapse of our civilisation is not inevitable. History suggests it is likely, but we have the unique advantage of being able to learn from the wreckages of societies past.

The political wreckages we are witnessing suggest that we are not good at learning from the past when it comes to power and governance.

 

 

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35 Comments

  1. NOEL

     /  31st December 2019

    Bit of a mix and match.
    Easter Island yup but Empire destruction nah.

    Reply
    • Corky

       /  31st December 2019

      Easter Island has an interesting history. Apparently there were two tribes..one called the ‘Big Ears’ They basically fought until all natural resources were exhausted, along with their populations. At the moment great effort is being put into replanting the Island with flora.
      The drug Rapamycin, is made from soil bacteria found at the base of the Moai ( statues)

      Hard to say if the Easter Island experience will be revisited on us. If you take Easter
      Islands history and convert the two tribes into our native populations and immigrants, we may have a problem as Europe is showing.

      Reply
      • Ray

         /  31st December 2019

        Unfortunately Easter Islands history is mostly oral or reported after fleeting visits by various “experts”.
        We do know the population was devastated by disease and slavers after they were “discovered”.
        The statues are there but how they were moved and what they were for are the subject of various theories.
        The story as told to Thor Heyerdahl about long ears and short ears is now discredited as is the constant warring, all the supposed spear heads lying everywhere are now thought to be agriculture tools.
        That said yes civilisations and more specifically empires fall, the British one just recently finally went tits up.
        There are a group of losers who would love for that to happen here, every time there is a bit of civil unrest you see them running round the outskirts rubbing their hands with glee as they see this as “their big chance” to take control.

        Reply
        • Blazer

           /  31st December 2019

          ‘ empires fall, the British one just recently finally went tits up.’

          when exactly was that Ray?

          Reply
          • Duker

             /  31st December 2019

            ” empires fall, the British one just recently finally went tits up.”
            The Anglo-sphere has never been smaller … instead of central control its devolved to satrapys, NZ being one.

            Reply
            • Alan Wilkinson

               /  31st December 2019

              Empires may fall but their civilisations are an entirely different story. Just as a government falling is not the end of a democracy but merely a redistribution of power.

        • Corky

           /  31st December 2019

          ”There are a group of losers who would love for that to happen here, every time there is a bit of civil unrest you see them running round the outskirts rubbing their hands with glee as they see this as “their big chance” to take control.”

          Can you expand on this, Ray?

          Reply
      • Blazer

         /  31st December 2019

        so who were the ‘Big Ears’ fighting…Golliwogs?

        Reply
        • Corky

           /  31st December 2019

          No, Big Ears were a figment of my imagination. The rest is true though. Picky , Picky Picky.

          Reply
  2. Geoffrey

     /  31st December 2019

    Climate change would seem to be the most pressing issue with potential to bring about societal collapse. That said, it behoves an administration with more than re-election in mind to do more than just propose measures that will serve only to wreck our capacity to manage a planned response. The Green’s agenda is frightening and Labour’s inability, or unwillingness, to reject it is terrifying..

    Reply
    • Duker

       /  31st December 2019

      The National party voted unanimously to support the Zero Carbon Law.
      Greens would be like Social Credit – not the first party to know they have an unworkable policy that they dont have the political courage to walk away from.
      National ditches its ‘free enterprise’ ethos when it suits like when they put nearly $1 bill into 45% of Chorus shares – that have no votes!

      Reply
      • Geoffrey

         /  31st December 2019

        Bet the Nats have a more responsible position before the next election. Surely they can be criticized for not challenging Labour’s self flagellating position but they still have the option of changing. Labour on the other hand are condemned to live with their inane nuclear moment.

        Reply
  3. “I guess the current ‘civilisation’ is Western Civilisation” – the corollary of which is that non-Western societies are not civilised…

    What an extraordinarily imperialistic and Eurocentric statement to make, Pete: ” the current ‘civilisation’ is Western Civilisation” …. The orientalizing gaze is strong in you.

    The very notion of something called Western civilisation is a modern invention as Kwame Anthony Appiah points out in the following link:

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/09/western-civilisation-appiah-reith-lecture

    Reply
    • Not intended that way. I think that Western Civilisation is currently the dominant civilisation. If it crashed and burned it could drag the rest down with it. Or others could rise to dominance.

      Reply
  4. Alan Wilkinson

     /  31st December 2019

    A load of Lefty angst rubbish in my humble opinion.
    https://www.thepostmillennial.com/civilization-and-its-western-discontents/

    and far from collapsing:
    https://www.theepochtimes.com/counting-our-blessings-the-best-decade-ever_3187557.html
    https://www.sltrib.com/opinion/commentary/2019/12/30/nicholas-kristof-why-has/

    The only thing to fear from climate change is the Left’s blatant obstruction of our freedom to adapt to it and mitigate any adverse impacts. As per our idiot local governments that prevent individuals and communities strengthening their seawalls, etc.

    Reply
    • Duker

       /  31st December 2019

      Civilisations dont ‘crash and burn’ like that description. Roman civilisation continued long after the sack of Rome around 400AD and especially in the east devolved into a Greek speaking civilisation ( which was never really replaced by the later Latin speaking Roman one).

      Reply
  5. Corky

     /  31st December 2019

    Correct. And that’s what the Left hate. It’s a civilisation built on core values they reject. That’s why since the 60s they have worked assiduously to tear our culture down. However, they do
    like the side benefits of Western culture as they continue their quest for our annihilation.

    Kwame Anthony Appiah article is very semantical and nebulous. Maybe this is why:

    ”Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy and law at New York University, is a British-born, Ghanaian-American philosopher and cultural theorist. He is author of the award-winning In My Father’s House.”

    Maybe his lack of cultural taonga from his African roots plays on his mind?

    Reply
    • Corky

       /  31st December 2019

      Don’t know what happened here: A reply to Pete above.

      Reply
    • Duker

       /  31st December 2019

      Core values …like burning protestants ( and witches)…. you have this weird idea that ‘your core values from the 50s’ -likely your parents ones- have been immutable over time.
      We havent had a British coronation since 53 , but all that ceremonial was invented in the Edwardian era, same goes for a lot of other stuff that was invented during Victorian era .
      Christmas ” traditions” – Prince Alberts idea of what to do on Xmas day, with a lot of help since with the rise of department stores. Just as halloween ‘traditions’ have been bought to NZ by The Warehouse.

      Reply
      • Corky

         /  31st December 2019

        I’m sorry, Duker. You are losing it. It’s always easy sense when a Lefty has run out of ideas.
        Well, not really. They revert to bs.

        ”Core values …like burning protestants ( and witches)…. you have this weird idea that ‘your core values from the 50s’ -likely your parents ones- have been immutable over time.”

        First, don’t bring my parents into this. Concentrate on me. But seeing you mentioned it, I was, in hindsight, brought up in a liberal way. I had no political or social expectations foisted on me.( thankfully and very gratefully)).

        From your perspective I would be considered way more conservative than my parents. Even though that is not the case, but I have given up explaining Libertarianism ..Lefty’s can’t get their heads around the concept.

        So let’s look a the following:

        1- Education
        2- Justice
        3- Welfare
        4- Family
        5- Community cohesion.

        All of these had problems during what I would consider the ”Golden Age.” And I concede some definitely needed some reform. But what has happened since? No need to go into details, suffice to say the Left saw an opportunity; embedded themselves, and have been tearing down these service every since.

        Reply
      • Kitty Catkin

         /  31st December 2019

        Many of most Christmas traditions antedate Prince Albert’s arrival in England, and The Warehouse didn’t so much import Halloween junk as cash in on the market for such stuff.

        The coronation ceremonies go back long before the Edwardian era.

        Reply
  6. Duker

     /  31st December 2019

    On second thoughts …. this could be first signs of collapse…
    https://images.dailykos.com/images/585975/story_image/GettyImages-999293088.jpg?

    Getty

    Reply
    • Corky

       /  31st December 2019

      Whatever gets you through the night…and the next election, Duker.

      Reply
      • Duker

         /  31st December 2019

        His negative ratings are higher… Trump has even told Fox they need to fire their pollster as he gives news Trump doesnt like
        Bloomberg is spending up to $100 mill on battleground states on messages targeted to those who might have voted Trump but could be having second thoughts about his help for working class people , as opposed to the very rich.
        Then there is the big driver out of UK … people were sick of Brexit and just wanted it to go away. some people, who might be republican leaning, are sick of the Trump circus, the 1000s tweets , his lies …and just want it to go away. Trump is a ‘tax on their attention’-

        Reply
        • Pink David

           /  31st December 2019

          “Bloomberg is spending up to $100 mill on battleground states on messages targeted to those who might have voted Trump but could be having second thoughts about his help for working class people , as opposed to the very rich.”

          The only reason Bloomberg is in the race is to avoid the limits on campaign donations. There is no doubt he will spend big, it’s his money to throw away.

          Reply
      • Blazer

         /  3rd January 2020

        coming soon..

        Reply
  7. David

     /  31st December 2019

    Oikophobia will cause our collapse

    Reply
  8. Patzcuaro

     /  31st December 2019

    Slightly off topic but an interesting article “The Rust Belt Didn’t Have to Happen”

    https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/12/the-rust-belt-didnt-have-to-happen/603523/

    Reply
  9. Alan Wilkinson

     /  31st December 2019

    Just as Muslims fleeing the horrors of Muslim countries then corrupt the western values of their new hosts so inter-state migrants from failing Lefty states threaten the policies that kept their destinations successful.

    https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/leftugees-red-states-must-defend-themselves-from-the-blue-state-exodus

    Reply
  10. Corky

     /  31st December 2019

    Great article. This stood out for me. It explains Western lassitude to a tee.

    ”Conservatives tend to have strong philosophical and moral underpinnings to their statutes that usually centre around core tenets of individualism, freedom, and that central bodies are
    less adept at managing your life than you are. They also, unfortunately, tend to be quite feckless in their safeguarding of these values and seem to have a predisposition of naively standing pat in the face of unabated migration and cultural trends that can be spotted a mile away and prepared for accordingly.

    Reply

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