Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Signs Your Civilization May Fall (From People Who Know Nothing of History)

There's an enduring fascination with civilizational collapse, and so everyone is naturally eager to read an explanation for why civilizations fall that pins the blame on something they don't like anyway. Such seems to be the reason why stories about a "NASA sponsored study" on civilizational collapse and flying around social media. The problem is, the stories are really lousy. Take this edition from the National Journal. It opens:
Few think Western civilization is on the brink of collapse—but it's also doubtful the Romans and Mesopotamians saw their own demise coming either.
Where is this coming from? Civilizational collapse does not, in fact, tend to come out of nowhere. The "fall of the Roman Empire" was such a long process that the factors some people are in the habit of citing (dictatorship, bread and circuses) go back 400-500 years before Romulus Augustus, the last Western emperor, was deposed by Odoacer. The late empire was in obvious decline for at least a hundred years before the "fall", with an increasing tempo of coups and civil wars, incursions by Germanic tribes, and slowing productions and population.

Undaunted by such concerns, the article goes on:
If we're to avoid their fate, we'll need policies to reduce economic inequality and preserve natural resources, according to a NASA-funded study that looked at the collapses of previous societies.

"Two important features seem to appear across societies that have collapsed," reads the study. "The stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity and the economic stratification of society into Elites and Masses."

In unequal societies, researchers said, "collapse is difficult to avoid.... Elites grow and consume too much, resulting in a famine among Commoners that eventually causes the collapse of society."

As limited resources plague the working class, the wealthy, insulated from the problem, "continue consuming unequally" and exacerbate the issue, the study said.
There is some evidence for resource based collapses. For instance, there's some evidence that the "dark age" between the Bronze Age civilizations and the Iron Age ones had to do with a collapse natural resources needed for making bronze. However, a lot of over civilizational collapses are hard to pin on resource issues. And inequality? What are the two longest lasting civilizations to date? The Chinese Empires and the Egyptian Empires -- both societies so unequal they were divided between a vast majority living as farmers near the edge of subsistence and an emperor who was believed to be a god.

We as members of liberal democratic society may see that kind of society as backwards and doomed to fail (and I think we're right to reject many of their basic values), but the fact is that they were in many ways far, far more stable as societies and political structures and democratic modern states with far more equality.


Foxfier said...

I threw this out to some folks who are smarter than I am, and one-- an actual historian/anthropologist almost hurt himself laughing at it, and another guy did some google-splunking to find where they'd submitted it online, then tried to yank it when people noticed they were using the "wolves and rabbits" model. (Kinda like Malthus...wait, what a shock, folks' response is exactly the same as all the other malthusian guys!)

They do address the China thing, though-- supposedly, they included "The fall of the Han dynasty" in their "sample."

Lauren said...

Common factor shared by all civilizations that have fallen: they were all composed of human beings. Not rocket science. Perhaps NASA should get back to what is does best.

Joseph said...

If the social collapses were due to resource depletion, isn't it amazing how they're frequently temporary. Did the resources undeplete themselves?