Beijing time February 26 news, to history as a mirror, you can know the rise and fall. Luke Kemp, an expert on collapse, says studying the demise of historical civilizations can tell us how much risk humanity faces today. Worryingly, the situation appears to be deteriorating. Historian Arnold Joseph Toynbee came to this conclusion by exploring the rise and fall of 28 different civilizations in his 12-volume book, A Study of History.
This chart lists the ancient civilizations analyzed in the study and points out that the average life span of a civilization is 336 years
In some ways, Toynbee is right: the decline of civilization is often for its own reasons. However, this self-destruction is often assisted by the outside world. The Roman Empire, for example, was the victim of many disadvantages, including over-expansion, climate change, environmental degradation and poor leadership. In 410, the Visigoths ransacked Rome;
Civilizations often collapse quickly, but greatness does not provide immunity. The Roman Empire was a vast empire of 4.4 million square kilometers in 390. Five years later, its area has plummeted to 2 million square kilometres. By 476, the Roman Empire had zero sphere of influence.
In the history of mankind, repeated failures are obvious signs. We try to find out the cause of the crash by dissecting history. What can the rise and fall of civilizations in history tell us? What forces prompted or delayed the collapse? Will we see a similar pattern today?
History reveals indicators of the collapse of civilization, including climate change, inequality, environmental pressures and complexity. As these indicators rise, the more likely it is that civilization will collapse.
The first way to look back on past civilizations is to compare their longevity. This can be difficult because “civilization” does not have a strict definition, nor does it have a database on their birth and death, and on all aspects.
The researchers charted the life span of civilizations and defined “civilization” as an agricultural society that includes cities that maintain military rule within its geographical scope and have a sustainable political structure. By this definition, all empires are civilizations, but not all civilizations are empires. The data in the chart comes from two studies on the rise and fall of empires (one from 3000 BC to 600 BC and the other from 600 BC to 600 A.D.) and a crowd-sourced study of informal ancient civilizations.
The “collapse” of civilization can be defined as the rapid and lasting loss of population, identity and socio-economic complexity. As the government lost control of violence and public services collapsed, chaos ensued.
Almost all civilizations in history have experienced this fate. Some countries, such as China and Egypt, have recovered or changed. Other collapses are permanent, such as Easter Island’s civilization. Sometimes, cities at the centre of the crash will recover, just like Rome. In other cases, these cities have been abandoned and become attractions for future visitors, such as Mayan ruins.
What does all this tell us about the future of modern global civilization? Does the lessons of the farming empire apply to the industrial capitalist countries of the 18th century?
The researchers believe it is applicable. From the past to the present, society is a complex system of people and technology. The “normal accident” theory, also known as “normal accident”, suggests that complex technical systems often give way to failure. In other words, the probability of a high-tech complex system failure is much higher than previously thought. Therefore, regardless of the size and stage of civilization, collapse may be a normal phenomenon.
Today’s human society may be more technologically advanced, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are immune to the threats our ancestors faced. The newly discovered technical capabilities have even brought unprecedented new challenges to this complex system.
Although the scale of human civilization today may be global, it seems that both the vast empire and the fledgling kingdom will collapse. There is no reason to believe that a larger scale can withstand the risk of social disintegration. A closely linked globaleconomy may be more likely to allow the crisis to spread.
If the fate of past civilizations can serve as a road map for our future, what does this chart say? One approach is to study the trends before the historic collapse and predict how they will evolve today.
Although there is no accepted theory of the cause of the crash, historians, anthropologists and other researchers have come up with a variety of explanations, mainly the following.
Climate change: When climate stability changes, the results can be catastrophic. This can lead to crop failure, hunger and desertification. The collapse of the Anasazi civilization, the Tiawanaco civilization, the Akad Empire, the Mayan civilization, the Roman Empire and many other civilizations was accompanied by rapid climate changes, usually droughts.
Environmental degradation: When social development exceeds its environmental carrying capacity, it collapses. This theory of ecological collapse has been the subject of bestsellers, pointing out that excessive logging, water pollution, soil degradation and loss of biodiversity are the triggers for the collapse.
Inequality and oligarchy: wealth and political inequality, as well as the concentration of power between oligarchy and leaders, can be the main causes of social disintegration. This not only causes social suffering, but also hampers society’s ability to respond to ecological, social and economic problems.
Historical Dynamics (cliodynamics) is a new field of research that simulates the relationship between factors such as equality and demographics and political violence. Statistical analysis of past society shows that political violence is cyclical. As populations grow, labour is oversupplied, workers become cheaper, and society as a whole becomes top-heavy. This inequality undermines collective solidarity, and the ensuing political turmoil.
Complexity: Joseph Tainter, an expert and historian of the collapse of civilizations, argues that society will eventually collapse under the weight of the complexity and bureaucracy it has accumulated. Society is a collective problem-solving group that is becoming more and more complex in order to overcome new problems. However, complexity in turn reaches a decreasing node. Eventually, after this node, the crash inevitably occurs.
Another measure of increased complexity is energy return on investment (EROI). This refers to the ratio of energy generated by a resource to the energy required to obtain it. As with complexity, the benefits of EROI seem to have a decreasing node. In His Book of Upside Down, thomas Homer-Dixon, a political scientist, points out that the deterioration of the environment throughout the Roman Empire led to a rapid decline in the return on energy investment of the main sources of energy, wheat and dates. What followed was the whole empire. Teynter also believes that this is also the maya and other civilizations to blame for the collapse.
External shock: In fact, the so-called “four knights”, that is, war, natural disasters, famine and plague. The Aztec Empire, for example, was destroyed by the Spanish invaders. Most of the early agricultural countries were fleeting because of deadly epidemics. In walled settlements, where human sand and livestock are concentrated, poor sanitation conditions make disease outbreaks inevitable and often disastrous. Sometimes these disasters occur at the same time, as the Spanish introduced salmonella into the Americas at the same time as the invasion.
Randomness and Bad Luck: A statistical analysis of many empires shows that the collapse of empires is random and unrelated to the times. Evolutionary biologist and data scientist Indre Zliobaite and colleagues observed similar patterns in the evolutionary records of species. A common explanation for this apparent randomness is the “Red Queen effect”, in which extinction is almost an inevitable possibility if a species needs to fight with many competitors for survival in a changing environment.
Despite a large number of books and articles on the collapse of civilization, there is still no conclusive explanation for this. What we do know is that these factors, highlighted above, may all work. Collapse is a critical point phenomenon that occurs when comprehensive stress exceeds social response capacity.
We can examine these dangerous indicators to see if the probability of the collapse of human civilization today is rising or falling. Here are four potential indicators that have changed over the past few decades.
Temperature is a clear indicator of climate change, gross domestic product (GDP) represents complexity, and ecological footprint is an indicator of environmental degradation. These indicators are rising sharply.
Inequality between the rich and the poor is harder to quantify. The classic measure of the Gini index shows a slight decline in inequality across the world (although inequality within countries is rising). But the Gini index can be misleading because it measures only relative changes in income. In other words, if the income of both the income of $1 and $100,000, respectively, were to double, the Gini coefficient would not change, but the gap between the two would jump from $99,999 to $19,998.
That’s why the researchers also painted the world’s top 1 percent of earners in their income share. In 1980, the 1 per cent accounted for about 16 per cent of global income, and today it has grown to more than 20 per cent. More importantly, the wealth divide has become even worse. In the 1980s, the top 1% accounted for 25% to 30% of global wealth, and by 2016 it was about 40%. The figures do not include wealth and income flowing into offshore tax havens, so the situation could be more grim.
Research shows that with fossil fuels, the easiest to exploit and the most abundant reserves, are drying up, their return on energy has been steadily declining. Unfortunately, the return on investment of most renewable alternative energy sources, such as solar energy, is significantly lower than that of fossil fuels, mainly because of their energy density and the production of rare earth metals and manufacturing.
As a result, many literatures begin to discuss the possibility of “energy cliff” because when the return on investment in energy falls to a certain node, the current level of social development will be unsustainable. If renewable energy technologies continue to improve and energy efficiency improves rapidly, energy cliffs may not be the end point.
The slightly reassuring news is that not all indicators of the collapse of these civilizations are. Social resilience may slow or prevent a breakdown.
For example, according to the Economic Complexity Index (ECI), the global “economic diversity” (measuring the diversity and complexity of a country’s exports) is much greater today than it was in the 1960s and 1970s. On average, countries are less dependent on a single type of export than ever before. Countries that are not limited to agricultural exports are more likely to withstand ecological degradation or lose trading partners. The Economic Complexity Index can also measure the knowledge-intensiveness of export commodities, and people with higher skills may be better equipped to respond to crises.
Similarly, innovation capacity, as measured by per capita patent filings, is improving. In theory, if new technologies can relieve pressures such as climate change, that civilization may not collapse so easily.
“Crash” can also occur without a violent disaster. As Rachel Nuwer wrote in 2017: “In some cases, civilization simply fades away, sobs become part of history, and doesn’t make any loud noises.” “
However, when we look at all these indicators of collapse and recovery as a whole, the message is clear: we cannot be complacent. There is reason to be optimistic, of course, because we have the ability to innovate and avoid disasters. However, in many ways that led to the collapse of previous social civilizations, the situation is deteriorating. Climate is changing, the gap between rich and poor is widening, the world is becoming more and more complex, and human demands on the environment exceed the carrying capacity of the earth.
Ladders without steps
That’s not all. It is worrying that the world today is interconnected and interdependent. Historical collapses are often confined to some areas and are only temporary setbacks, and people can often easily return to farming or hunter-gatherer lifestyles. For many, it was even a welcome relief, and they could briefly escape the oppression of the early states. In addition, the weapons available in times of social chaos are poor, such as swords, bows and arrows, and the occasional gun.
Today, the consequences of social collapse are even more dangerous. During a collapse, a country, and sometimes even a group of people, could have obtained a variety of lethal weapons, from biological agents to nuclear warheads. Moreover, climate change could undermine our ability to return to simple farming practices and make everything irreversible.
You can think of civilization as a shabby ladder. When you climb up, every step you step on will fall. Falling from the height of several steps is acceptable, but the higher the climb, the heavier the fall. Eventually, once you reach enough height, any drop will be fatal.
While humanity is becoming economically stronger and more resilient, our technological capabilities pose unprecedented threats that no civilization has ever responded to. For example, the climate change we face is of a different nature from the climate that destroys the Mayan or Anasazi civilizations. The change is global and man-made, and it is faster and more dramatic.
It is not our hostile neighbours that exacerbate our self-destruction, but our own technological forces. From this point of view, the collapse of civilization will be the trap of social progress.
The collapse of human civilization is not inevitable. History shows that we are likely to collapse today, but on the other hand, we have a unique advantage to learn from history.
We know what needs to be done: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to eliminate inequality, to reverse environmental degradation, to promote innovation and to diversify the economy. Policy proposals are readily available, but lack political will. We can also work to improve resilience. There are many well-established programmes that can enhance the capacity to recover food supplies and rebuild knowledge systems after disasters. It is also important to avoid creating dangerous and easy-to-access technologies. All these measures can reduce the likelihood of an irreversible collapse of civilization in the future.
If we move forward blindly, civilization will eventually collapse. If we are unwilling to listen to history, we are doomed to the abyss. (Any day)