Is the World Close to Collapse?

Did people in the late Bronze Age know their civilization was collapsing? 

Scholars hear worrying historical echoes in the stresses building up in the US, and the global shocks of war, migration, climate, disease and famine.

The collapse of societies has fascinated historians, archeologists and anthropologists from Polybius in ancient times to Edward Gibbon in the 18th century and a growing interdisciplinary field of scholars today



PIIRS Global Systemic Risk

Research Community at Princeton University


For others, such as the authors of How Worlds Collapse, it’s the people in the late Bronze Age, the Han and Jin dynasties of China, the Aztecs and Kievan Rus — and even honey bees (whose hive societies have been collapsing for decades, with huge implications for pollination and thus food and humans).

The hard part is assigning causes to these collapses.

Temperamentally, scholars range from hedgehogs (who point to one big thing) to foxes (who know many things). Often their theses also reflect the fashions of the time.

Our own zeitgeist, with its vapid meme of “polycrisis.”

It just means that we have many overlapping problems, from political polarization and inequality to climate change, war, famines, pandemics and mass migrations. 

These factors were also present in historical collapses.

One overarching theory has come to dominate the field. It comes from Tainter’s seminal work The Collapse of Complex Societies, published in 1988.

I asked Eric Cline, a professor at George Washington University and the author of 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed, to explain it to me.

We have intra-elite conflict (called polarization) and inequality. And we have external shocks: diseases such as SARS and Covid-19, climate change, floods, fires, droughts and famines, the latter caused both by global warming and war. We also have mass migrations from the Global South to Europe and the US. 

And we have wars, lots of them.

Both Tainter and Cline think that we, like people in the past, don’t understand the feedback loops in the systems we rely on, which could cause upheavals that are “non-linear,” meaning catastrophic.

Meanwhile, in terms of wisdom our learning curve over the past three millennia seems to be flat.

Andreas Kluth Bloomberg 10 mars 2024

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