Meet the scholars who study civilizational collapse.
Tainter seemed calm. He walked me through the arguments of the book that made his reputation, “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” which has for years been the seminal text in the study of societal collapse, an academic subdiscipline that arguably was born with its publication in 1988.
“Civilizations are fragile, impermanent things,” Tainter writes. Nearly every one that has ever existed has also ceased to exist, yet “understanding disintegration has remained a distinctly minor concern in the social sciences.”
Princeton has a research program in Global Systemic Risk,
Cambridge a Center for the Study of Existential Risk.
For nearly as long as human beings have gathered in sufficient numbers to form cities and states — about 6,000 years, a flash in the 300,000-odd-year history of the species — we have been coming up with theories to explain the downfall of those polities.
Eric H. Cline, who teaches at the George Washington University, argued in “1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed” that Late Bronze Age societies across Europe and western Asia crumbled under a concatenation of stresses, including natural disasters — earthquakes and drought — famine, political strife, mass migration and the closure of trade routes.
The world today is full,” Tainter writes. Complex societies occupy every inhabitable region of the planet. This also means, he writes, that collapse, “if and when it comes again, will this time be global.”
Our fates are interlinked. “No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilization will disintegrate as a whole.”
NYT 4 November 2020