On the collapse of civilisation

We’re doomed!

Private Frazer

There is much talk on the interwebs about the imminent fall of civilisation. There’s an entire subreddit devoted to it, whose membership has increased dramatically over the last twelve months, not that I would necessarily recommend it. I’d like to spend this week’s post unpacking this idea of civilisational collapse a bit, and trying to see how likely and/or imminent it is.

First, I’d like to take a moment to defined what I mean by the collapse of civilisation. Joseph Tainter, in his book on the subject, talks about collapse as a decline in social complexity. He’s coming at it from an archaeological perspective, so this level of abstraction is appropriate to the kind of evidence he has to work with. There are a lot of cities, or the remains of cities, that were more or less hastily abandoned by their inhabitants without their having left much in the way of a detailed record of why they did it; the Mayan cities that turn up in the jungles of Yucatan are the classic example of this. We have to try to infer from other evidence what the problems were that led to such drastic action.

But this take on collapse also reminds us that it isn’t necessarily an all-or-nothing event. There are still Maya around; they may not be building pyramids any more, but they weren’t completely wiped out either (despite the best efforts of the Spanish colonists). All the same, we can definitely point to some Seriously Bad Stuff that happened in their past.

So we should beware the connotations of this word “collapse” if it suggests that everything is going to fall apart all at once, like this:

One minute it’s business as usual, the next it’s Mad Max. This makes for a good Hollywood movie, if you like CGI, but I think there are good reasons for thinking it isn’t what will actually happen.

For one thing, some parts of our civilisation are a good deal more resilient than others, and/or more effort will be put into keeping some things going than others. People will try to keep cars on the road for as long as possible, for example – indeed, I expect them to keep trying even when it manifestly isn’t possible. On the other hand, strawberries will stop being available in October a good deal sooner than that.

There are some possible scenarios that might take things down more rapidly, such as a supervolcano, or a large asteroid colliding with Earth, but even something like that would have a hard time wiping us all out. Like hooded crows, rats and cockroaches, we’re smart generalists that can adapt to many different environments. Even the dinosaurs never got wiped out completely when the asteroid made the Chicxulub crater in Yucatán; their descendants are still around and are pretty numerous. In any event, there’s nothing much you or I can do make such an event more or less likely, unless your name is Bruce Willis. I’m more interested in things I can have some influence over, however slight.

Also, civilisational collapse has historically been a long-drawn-out process. Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire starts in the reign of the emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161 AD) and only ends with the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 (there’s a reason it’s a long book). I’ll be devoting another post to the fall of the Roman Empire, but even the Western version lasted at least notionally right up until 476, making the process of its collapse rather longer than the entire history of the USA to date.

And the collapse of the Roman Empire, which was a political event, was by no means the end of Roman civilisation. Plenty of its elements survived for many centuries – in architecture, for example, or in the use of Latin as the common language of scholarship; Newton’s Principia Mathematica was written in Latin – and arguably there’s a fair bit around to this day. We stil name our children after noble Roman families: hello Julia, Claudia, Hortense…. So there’s much more to the collapse of civilisation than a single event.

This is not to say that we will not be living through what the apocryphal Chinese curse describes as interesting times. Things will get worse, and some things may get a lot worse very quickly and without much warning. There are parts of the world not unadjacent to what we think of as the West where some of these things are happening now: Venezuela, for instance. As the Wikipedia article says: “The country struggles with record hyperinflation, shortages of basic goods, unemployment, poverty, disease, high child mortality, malnutrition, severe crime and corruption. These factors have precipitated the Venezuelan migrant crisis where more than three million people have fled the country.” This, or some of it, may be a sneak preview of where you live today at some point in the not-too-distant future.

According to the World Bank, more than half of the world’s population now lives in an urban environment, many in cities, and this trend is projected to continue. A city generally consumes a lot more food than it produces, making it a famine waiting to happen. Cities are also prone to epidemics, because there are a lot of people packed closely together; this is in the news a lot right now, but it’s been the case for as long as there have been cities. Until comparatively recently, cities were such unhealthy places to live that they relied on inward migration from the countryside to maintain their population. This tendency goes right back to the first cities we know of and indeed it makes intuitive sense.

Modern life depends on a wide variety of infrastructure which requires constant maintenance. Consider the sewers of London, built 150 years ago to serve the needs of a much smaller city. London and many other cities did a great deal of building in concrete in the 1960s and 70s, and a lot of that concrete is now starting to suffer from spalling and other problems, which may lead to structural issues. Even in the USA, roads and other basic pieces of infrastructure are in a pretty bad way. If the richest country in the world is struggling to keep on top of this stuff, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of us.

So is industrial civilisation heading for collapse? Definitely. But it may not be as bad as you think. We’ll start to see a lot of things breaking down or going out of use. If I’m right in thinking that cheap transportation across the globe is going away, then many things we import from afar will become prohibitively expensive and/or in very short supply. We’ll start having to triage what we consume; the economy will become a lot smaller, simpler and more localised, because it will have to. We will make do, because we’ll have to.

Some of these things are going to impact you and me directly, even if we don’t see freeways full of burnt-out cars. (You can always tell that the Apocalypse has come in a Hollywood film when nobody has a working car.) We can’t stop them happening, but we may be able mitigate some of the worst effects. I’m not talking here about getting a shotgun and a large stock of tinned food and heading for the hills. Rather, I suggest that we learn some skills that will help us to take care of ourselves and others, not least how to be in a community. But that is matter for future posts.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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