Why Civilizations Fail by William Ophuls

[ These are my notes from the book, not a proper book review, and since the notes are disjointed, you’d be wise to buy the book–  it’s excellent!  Plus then it’s on your shelf for future generations to understand what happened. It’s possible that after the crash, future politicians and religious leaders will have explanations far from the truth to gain more followers and wealth.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”]

William Ophuls. December 28, 2012. Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail. 118 pages.


My analysis suggests that there is very little that we can do. Most of the trends I identify are inexorable, and complex adaptive systems are ultimately unmanageable.

The city is an ecological parasite. It arrogates to itself matter and energy that do not naturally belong to it by sucking resources away from its hinterland. So the central institution of civilization exists, and can only exist, by systematically exploiting its rural and natural periphery. It is this exploitation that supports the higher level of social and economic complexity that characterizes civilization.

Thus every known civilization has caused environmental harm and ecological degradation to some degree.

Nor does the city live by bread alone. It needs water, so it must build dams and aqueducts. It needs wood for fuel and timber, so it must chop down forests. It needs metal for coins, swords, and ploughshares, so it must dig mines. It needs stone to erect palaces, courts, temples, and walls, so it must quarry away mountains. And it must build the roads and ports needed to transport all the necessities of urban life.

A city lives by both consuming and damaging a wide array of ecological resources.

It is in the nature of civilizations to wax greater. In a positive feedback loop, the ready availability of virgin resources generates a larger, wealthier population that consumes more; increased demand then spurs further resource development, and so on. Thus, little by little, renewable flow resources like forests and fisheries are overexploited, and nonrenewable stock resources like minerals are drawn down.

As a process, civilization resembles a long-running economic bubble. Civilizations convert found (or conquered) ecological wealth into economic goods and population growth. As the bubble expands, a spirit of “irrational exuberance” reigns.

Few take thought for the morrow or consider that they are borrowing from posterity. Finally, however, resources are either effectively exhausted or no longer repay the effort needed to exploit them. As massive demand collides with dwindling supply, the ecological “credit” that has fueled expansion and created a large population accustomed to living high off the hog is choked off. The civilization begins to implode, in either a slow and measured decline or a more rapid and chaotic collapse.

Stealing resources from others is not a permanent solution, because conquest, too, has serious costs: “imperial overstretch” has spelled the downfall of many empires. Even peaceful trade provides no escape from biophysical limits. To get resources from others, you must normally give something valuable in return—either resources themselves, or goods and services that depend ultimately on resources.

If you use renewable resources faster than they can regenerate, they will dwindle and ultimately disappear; if you produce wastes faster than they can be rendered harmless, they will poison you; and if you use nonrenewable resources to fuel current consumption, they will eventually run out.

To make matters worse, it is not resources in general that matter, for natural processes are governed by a basic ecological principle called “the law of the minimum.” Thus the factor in least supply is controlling. For example, to grow cereals takes soil, seeds, fertilizer, and water as well as labor. Not only must all of these factors of production be present for there to be a crop, but they must be present in the right quality or proportion. Thin soils or poor seeds will stunt crop growth even if all the other factors are present in abundance. Thus some resources are more critical for civilization than others. The most critical of all is water, without which life simply cannot be sustained. But as civilizations develop, they tend to overuse and misuse their water supplies, with consequences that can be serious.  For example, salinization due to inappropriate irrigation plagued many ancient civilizations (and continues to be a problem today). Civilizations also damage watersheds by cutting down the forests that mode rate climate, promote rainfall, and store water.

A money economy takes the disconnection, and therefore the failure, one step further. The higher the level of economic development, the more money tends to become an abstraction rather than a counter for something concrete. Thus the economy can boom as the ecology disintegrates. This is particularly true if the society resorts to currency debasement or loose credit as a way to evade encroaching physical limits and foster an artificial prosperity, for then the economy becomes completely unhinged from concrete ecological reality. Overshoot and collapse is the inevitable result.

Why is it that civilizations have tended to see the natural world as cornucopian—that is, as a banquet on which they were free to gorge without limit? In large part this deluded view has prevailed because human beings do not readily comprehend the nature and power of exponential growth.

The human mind is still fundamentally Paleolithic. That is, it was hardwired by evolution for the life of a hunter-gatherer on the African savannah, a life centered on day-to-day survival in small bands of intimates and kinsmen. In practice, this means that human beings excel at concrete perception but are much less adept at abstraction. And they are quick to perceive the immediate and dramatic but likely to overlook long-term trends and consequences. They are therefore strongly present-oriented and tend to neglect or devalue the future. The upshot is that the human mind is not well equipped for the cognitive demands of civilized life in general, and it is singularly ill equipped to deal with the implications of exponential growth in particular.

Although the logic is irrefutable, the flaw in the reasoning lies precisely in the term “present value,” which reveals that the economist is still a caveman at heart. It is now that matters—not next year, let alone twenty or a hundred years from now. So industrial civilization quite “rationally” burns through its stocks of fossil fuels, even though a moment’s reflection shows that they will be much more valuable in the future. Moreover, even if people sense that something is not quite right—civilization has gotten too big, too complex, too hard to manage—they may still not see that the problems are caused in large part by exponential growth and that the solution therefore lies in controlling that growth, not in programs or technologies designed to allow it to continue. For if you remove one constraint, renewed growth quickly pushes the civilization up against the next one, and so on, until it buckles under the strain.

Agricultural production is the foundation of civilized life. But the word production is a misnomer, for what humans actually do is mine the topsoil. Virgin soil is a complex ecosystem developed over millennia that contains a myriad of chemical elements and biological beings within a very specific physical structure. Humanity breaks into this ecological climax to profit from the rich store of energy that it contains. The product is food for human consumption—but the byproduct is erosion, compaction, leaching, and other damage to the soil’s vitality and integrity. And the nutrients in the food are not usually returned to the land but instead excreted into latrines and sewers, whence they are dispersed into rivers, lakes, and oceans never to be recaptured (except in the negative form of pollution). Thus the entropy of the system has increased. The originally rich topsoil has become poorer or has even eroded away, and the wider environment has also been impoverished.

Or take one of the great inventions of civilization: the bath. Whether it is the Roman thermae, the Arab hammam, or the traditional Japanese furo, they were all heated with wood. But in the process most of the energy in the wood was wasted. That is, it turned into smoke, ashes, and heat—some of which did the work of making hot water, but most of which escaped up the chimney. And even the useful heat in the bath water was soon dissipated into the atmosphere, just like the cold in the glass of lemonade. In addition, it took matter and energy to build the baths in the first place and to maintain them thereafter (not to mention aqueducts, roads, and other supportive infrastructure). Creating the amenity that elevates civilization over savagery therefore involves converting concentrated energy and matter into useless waste products, while extracting a modicum of useful work along the way. A contemporary example will illustrate the point more concretely and also make clear why technology cannot forever overcome the limits imposed by thermodynamics. When coal is burned to produce electricity, only about 35% of the energy in the coal is converted into electrical energy. The rest becomes waste heat, various gases (such as carbon dioxide), various chemicals (such as sulfuric acid), particulates, and ash. And even the electricity dissipates into the environment as waste heat once it has done its work. From the physicist’s point of view, the books are balanced—there is just as much matter and energy in the overall system as before—but what remains is significantly lower in quality. The upshot is that for every unit of good that man creates using this particular technology, he manufactures two units of bad—and even the good is ephemeral.

To make a car requires not only many direct inputs—steel, copper, fuel, water, chemicals, and so forth—but also many indirect ones such as a factory and labor force as well as the matter and energy needed to sustain them. To use a technical term, the “embodied energy” in the car is many times that in the horse.

The auto requires oil wells, refineries, tankers, gasoline stations, mechanics’ shops, and so on.

Above all, technology depends critically on energy density. The total amount of available energy is staggering, but very little of it is available in concentrated form. That is the beauty of fossil fuels. They are the energy-dense residue of past solar energy in the form of buried organic matter that has been subjected to eons of geological heat and pressure. With such a concentrated source of energy, technology can perform wonders.  Dispersed energy can do much less work and therefore limits what technology can do. Solar rays will make hot water for a household but do not lend themselves to running a large power plant.

In addition, the law of the minimum applies. For instance, many “unconventional” fossil-fuel projects require water to enable the process, often in large quantities, and water is already becoming scarce.

A homely metaphor will illustrate the point. A juggler, no matter how dedicated and skilled, can only handle only so many balls. Add even one more, and he loses control. Now imagine that same juggler trying to keep his own balls in the air while simultaneously fielding and throwing balls from and to multiple others. That is roughly the situation in a complex civilization: many millions of individuals and entities are engaged in a mass, mutual juggling act. How likely is it that there will be no dropped balls? And how will it be possible to keep adding balls and participants and not overload the system so that it begins to break down?

Modern civilization offers numerous examples of diminishing returns. We have already seen that extracting energy resources has become more difficult, dangerous, and expensive and will become even more so in the future. We picked the low-hanging fruit first and must now scrabble for smaller, poorer, or dirtier deposits in hostile locations.

We like to think that we have attained our current level of complexity through sheer scientific prowess. But this is at best a half-truth. It takes vast energy resources to implement the technological solutions that enable our complexity. For example, we have already seen that the enormous “productivity” of industrial agriculture is a sham. It is a machine for converting ten calories of fossil-fuel energy into one calorie of food. Thus if the quantity or quality of available energy declines significantly—either because of supply problems or because more energy is required to achieve the same ends—the civilization is in trouble. It can no longer afford its attained level of complexity and must either simplify itself until complexity and energy are once again in balance, or it must, like the Romans, squeeze more out of its resource base than can be sustained over the long term, which simply postpones the inevitable. In short, because energy is the sine qua non of complexity, anything that diminishes the quantity, quality, or efficiency of energy threatens a complex civilization’s survival.

“An actor in a complex system controls almost nothing,” says Scott Page, yet “influences almost everything.”  Just understanding system behavior, let alone controlling it, challenges the human mind. As Meadows points out, our minds and language are linear and sequential, but systems happen all at once and overwhelm us intellectually: Systems surprise us because our minds like to think about single causes neatly producing single effects. We like to think about one or at most a few things at a time…. But we live in a world in which many causes routinely come together to produce many effects.

In short, limited, fallible human beings are bound to bungle the job of managing complex systems. What they can neither understand nor predict, they cannot expect to control, so failure is inevitable at some point. The tedious repetition of financial crises provides a perfect illustration. The financial system is the epitome of a chaotic system, and generation after generation of highly motivated, talented, and well-capitalized individuals in both the public and private sectors have time and again failed to prevent intoxicating booms from becoming devastating busts—and this despite the lessons of economic history, which are quite well understood.

The potential for catastrophe is ever present in chaotic systems. The gradual accumulation of small changes can push a system over an unseen threshold and thereby precipitate rapid and radical change. For example, once over exploitation causes fish stocks to decline below a critical, but unquantifiable, level they can no longer reproduce.

The very fact that complex systems have key links and nodes connected by multiple feedback loops means that they are vulnerable to a cascade of failure. To put it another way, systems that are too tightly coupled or too efficient are fragile; they lack resilience. That is how region-wide electrical outages propagate. The failure of one sector brings down another and another until the grid itself fails, and once down it takes heroic effort to get it up and running again.

Dire implications follow directly from seeing civilizations as chaotic in the scientific sense. Complex adaptive systems are stable until they are overstressed. Then one perturbation too many, or one that arrives at the wrong moment, can tip the system into instability virtually overnight, with unpredictable and frequently distressing consequences. As Will Durant noted, “From barbarism to civilization requires a century; from civilization to barbarism needs but a day.” Thus, says Niall Ferguson, the standard historian’s view of decline and fall—that it is a relatively gentle and gradual process—is too sanguine: Empires do not in fact appear, rise, reign, decline, and fall according to some recurrent and predictable life cycle. It is historians who retrospectively portray the process of imperial dissolution as slow-acting, with multiple over-determining causes. Rather, empires behave like all complex adaptive systems. They function in apparent equilibrium for some unknowable period. And then, quite abruptly, they collapse…. [T]he shift from consummation to destruction and then to desolation is not cyclical. It is sudden.

Once a civilization is plagued by numerous intractable problems, most attempts at reform will therefore either fail or make matters worse. Indeed, ironically, it may be the very effort to reform that precipitates the collapse. It was perestroika and glasnost that allowed the stupendous fabric of the USSR to implode. Similarly, it was Louis XVI’s convening of the Estates-General that triggered the revolution and regicide that liquidated the ancien régime. As these examples suggest, the timing and trajectory of collapse are essentially unpredictable and uncontrollable. Hence planning to avoid breakdown or to make a gentle and controlled transition from one stable state to another may be next to impossible. That does not mean that planning is useless.

Indeed, the real product of genuine systems analysis is not solutions but wisdom. To wit, understanding that excessive complexity is both costly and perilous and that management in the sense of control is unachievable. This would lead us to see that the proper (or only) way to “manage” civilization is by not allowing it to become too complex—in fact, deliberately designing in restraints, redundancy, and resiliency, even if the price is less power, freedom, efficiency, or profit than we might otherwise gain through greater complexity. To revert to our financial metaphor, to prevent busts, one must stop booms from happening in the first place by taking away the punchbowl of credit well before the party has gotten out of hand.

Unfortunately, although naturally clever, human beings are not innately wise, and any attempt to take away the punchbowl meets with fierce resistance.

However, the most dangerous byproduct of the unceasing cacophony is a growth in civil dissension. As Glubb notes, people are “interminably different, and intellectual arguments rarely lead to agreement.” To the contrary, they lead to polarization, so “internal rivalries become more acute.”

Another source of division within the polity arises from an influx of foreigners drawn irresistibly to the panoply of imperial wealth and glory. The result is an increasingly polyglot population that no longer shares the same values.

Thanks to the demolition job performed by the intellectuals, the society is increasingly “value free”—that is, it no longer believes in much of anything or takes anything seriously. The original élan, the moral core, and the guiding ideal of the civilization are now a distant memory. An Age of Decadence inevitably follows. Frivolity, aestheticism, hedonism, cynicism, pessimism, narcissism, consumerism, materialism, nihilism, fatalism, fanaticism, and other negative attributes, attitudes, and behaviors suffuse the population.

Politics is increasingly corrupt, life increasingly unjust. A cabal of insiders accrues wealth and power at the expense of the citizenry, fostering a fatal opposition of interests between haves and have-nots. Mental and physical illness proliferates. The majority lives for bread and circuses; worships celebrities instead of divinities; takes its bearings from below rather than above; throws off social and moral restraints, especially on sexuality; shirks duties but insists on entitlements; and so forth.  The society’s original vigor, virtue, and morale have been entirely effaced. Rotten to the core, the society awaits collapse, with only the date remaining to be determined.

In theory, says Glubb, a wider knowledge of this historical trend should enable societies to make different choices and thereby forestall the descent into decadence. In reality, however, he sees no escape from the socioeconomic dynamic he identifies. Stability and peace are bound to foster manufacture, trade, and the rise of a commercial class; affluence and all the later stages follow as a matter of course. And there is also no escape from the succession of generations; each new cohort grows up in altered circumstances that incline it to move further away from the original values, virtues, and ideals of the civilization. Rung by rung, the civilization drops ever lower on the ladder of decline. Indeed, Glubb finds a remarkable regularity in the historical record. Barring an earlier dissolution due to external forces, it seems to take a mere ten generations for a civilization to traverse the arc from élan to decadence. Hence they appear to have a natural lifespan of roughly 250 years that human action can do little to extend.

As has been shown, a developing civilization grows steadily more complex and increasingly less manageable over time, preparing the way for its eventual demise. Only a race of supremely intelligent, rational, and wise beings could so order their affairs and so limit their behavior as to avoid this outcome. Human beings are not such a race. At best, they manage their affairs by muddling through—a mode of operation that has many virtues and advantages but that also postpones dealing with fundamental issues until they become intractable. At worst, they actively prepare their own downfall through greed, arrogance, obstinacy, shortsightedness, laziness, and stupidity. Because humans are more focused on the present than the future, and complex systems are unpredictable, decisions at all levels of society are bound to be increasingly “suboptimal” as a civilization grows in complexity.

Selfishness crowds out sacrifice, the interests of mass and elite diverge, and the elite itself is divided into warring factions. Solvable problems turn into insolvable plights. Planning for the long term becomes an unaffordable luxury. The society drifts, following the line of least resistance by taking merely expedient actions that postpone rather than resolve problems. Posterity is left to fend for itself. Complexity is only one part of the challenge. As it develops, a civilization accumulates an investment in physical and social infrastructure that increasingly limits its freedom of action, and it adheres to a certain way of thinking that increasingly limits its freedom of choice. These entrenched habits, patterns, structures, institutions, ideologies, and interests prevent adaptation to changed conditions.  In effect, civilizations suffer from a structural incapacity to respond to altered circumstances.

It could not be otherwise. Institutions are by their very nature resistant to change, for if not, society would be in a constant state of flux. As time goes on, institutions therefore grow steadily more hidebound, inflexible, and unresponsive.

Like Gulliver, the civilization finds itself tied down by a multitude of vested interests—physical, social, economic, financial, political, and psychological. Enmeshed in this legacy of the past, it cannot save itself.

The civilization’s elites may understand that the system is dysfunctional, but fundamental reform would require major sacrifice on their part, so they fight to preserve their privilege and power instead. Increasingly polarized, they dissipate their energy in factional struggle instead of problem solving. Besides, says Ronald Wright, “They continue to prosper in darkening times long after the environment and general populace begin to suffer.

In the end, the elites prefer an advantageous present, however problematic, to an uncertain and poss ibly disadvantageous future. Again, the upshot is stagnation.

Human societies are addicted to their ruling ideas and their received way of life, and they are fanatical in their defense. Hence they are extraordinarily reluctant to reform. “To admit error and cut losses,” said Tuchman, “is rare among individuals, unknown among states.”  Instead of changing their minds, leaders redouble their efforts to do what no longer works, wooden-headedly persisting in error until the bitter end.

The society is in crisis. What used to work no longer does. Institutions and infrastructures have broken down. A hypertrophied bureaucracy strangles the society in red tape. Rent-seeking insiders batten on the public purse, and selfish elites feather their own nests. The gap separating rich and poor becomes a chasm. As problems multiply and become chronic, overloaded leaders struggle to cope. Addressing one problem creates new ones; not addressing small problems turns them into big ones. The elite is divided by interest or ideology into factions, so politics is gridlocked, or even fratricidal.

In the end, the social contract unravels. The populace and even members of the elite lose all faith in the system and in their leaders, who are seen as ineffective at best, incompetent and corrupt at worst.

But if incompetent or corrupt leaders certainly make matters worse, they are not the real cause of failure. Faced with deteriorating ecological, physical, social, economic, and political conditions and with declining returns on the civilization’s investment in complexity, even capable and honest leaders have no viable way forward. Although the problems may be insoluble, something must be done, and since expediency no longer suffices, they resort to stupidity—doing what has never worked in the past, what cannot succeed in the present, and what will destroy the future both morally and practically. First, by engaging in unnecessary wars or imperial ventures that drain the civilization of blood and treasure. Second, by buying off the populace with bread, circuses, and entitlements, thereby promising more than can be delivered over the long term. Third, by deliberately debasing the currency—that is, consciously adopting a policy of inflation.

Leaders resort to inflation because they are desperate. They have been backed into a corner by events and lack the moral courage or the political support to institute fundamental reforms, which would require them to inflict pain on the mass of commoners and vanquish powerful elites. (In addition, as previously noted, those in power instinctively understand that reforming a corrupt polity can precipitate chaos and collapse, so they legitimately fear embarking on change.) Charged with governing a populace accustomed to living well beyond its means, overwhelmed by a multiplicity of difficult problems, hemmed in by a host of vested interests, burdened by a deteriorating physical and social infrastructure that is increasingly costly to maintain, encumbered with ecological, thermodynamic, and fiscal debts that have come due, rulers bereft of backbone, ingenuity, and capital attempt to postpone the impending crisis by inflating, whether this takes the form of clipping coins, printing money, or loosening credit.

By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens. By this method they not only confiscate, but they confiscate arbitrarily; and, while the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some.

Most actions that the Roman government took in response to crises—such as debasing the currency, raising taxes, expanding the army, and conscripting labor—were practical solutions to immediate problems. It would have been unthinkable not to adopt such measures. Cumulatively, however, these practical steps made the empire ever weaker, as the capital stock (agricultural land and peasants) was depleted through conscription and taxation. In the end, says Tainter, “The empire could no longer afford the problem of its own existence.”  A mature civilization is caught in an entropy trap from which escape is well-nigh impossible. Because the available energy and resources can no longer maintain the existing level of complexity, the civilization begins to consume itself by borrowing from the future and feeding off the past, thereby preparing the way for an eventual implosion.

Once a civilization has reached this point, not even a miraculous new technology can save it. Even if it had the will, it no longer has either the resources or the time to dismantle the legacy of the past and build the infrastructure of a viable future.

There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favor; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.

Civilizations are unnatural accumulations of wealth and power that cannot be sustained over the long term. Insuperable biophysical limits combine with innate human fallibility to precipitate eventual collapse.

As Gibbon said, instead of asking why Rome fell, “we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long.

Before civilization became universal, the consequences of decline and fall may have been catastrophic for a particular society and for many or even most of its inhabitants, but they were not fatal to civilization itself. There were always others to keep the flame alive. Or a lurking horde of barbarians poised to bring fresh blood to a tired and moribund society.

But now that a highly interdependent, global, industrial civilization extends its monopoly to the ends of the earth, there are no others to pick up the baton, nor any barbarian reservoirs to replenish its élan. “Collapse, if and when it comes again, will this time be global,” says Tainter. It will also be uniquely devastating. Given the enormous growth of populations and the extent of ecological devastation and social dislocation caused by industrialization—as well as the degree to which the methods and materials of traditional agriculture have been abandoned in the rush to ramp up yields by converting fossil fuel into food—a gradual and gentle transition to a viable agrarian civilization capable of supporting large numbers of people and a reasonable level of complexity is extremely unlikely. In fact, says Tainter, the collapse of today’s highly developed societies “would almost certainly entail vast disruptions and overwhelming loss of life, not mention a significantly lower standard of living for the survivors.” Wright’s metaphor perfectly captures our plight: “As we climbed the ladder of progress, we kicked out the rungs below,” leaving ourselves with no non-catastrophic way back to a less complex mode of existence.

At this point, even a return to hunting and gathering would be challenging. Apart from a few bands of isolated Tupi-Guarani in the Amazon, almost all of the remaining, scattered tribal peoples have lost the territory, knowledge, and traditions that would enable them to survive if industrial civilization were to collapse. What is to be done? First, we must recognize that the deep structural problems elucidated above have no feasible solutions.

Like Glubb, but for different reasons, Tainter does not believe that today’s societies can escape the dynamic that eventuates in collapse. A military-industrial arms race among the sub-units of the existing global civilization “drives increased complexity and resource consumption regardless of costs, human or ecological.”  Hence, second, the task is not to forestall a foreordained collapse but, rather, to salvage as much as possible from it, lest the fall precipitate a dark age in which the arts and adornments of civilization are partially or completely lost. To this end, just as prudent mariners carry lifeboats and practice abandoning ship, a global civilization in its terminal phase would be well advised to prepare arks, storehouses, and banks designed to preserve the persons, tools, and materials with which to retain or reconstitute some semblance of civilized life post-collapse.

This appeal to prudence will not be readily accepted. For the hubris of every civilization is that it is, like the Titanic, unsinkable. Hence the motivation to plan for shipwreck is lacking. In addition, the civilization’s contradictions and difficulties are seen not as symptoms of impending collapse but, rather, as problems to be solved by better policies and personnel. In other words, the populace does not yet understand that the civilization has reached an impasse. As Tainter notes, “It takes protracted hardship to convince people that the world to which they have been accustomed has changed irrevocably.”  Moreover, although collapse may be foreordained, its course and timing are largely unpredictable. Collapse could happen suddenly or gradually, sooner or later, so why act now? To make matters worse, preparing for this uncertain future requires present sacrifice—that is, the diversion of resources from both current consumption and from the task of coping with today’s problems—at a time when those very same resources are becoming scarcer and more expensive. In short, denial, evasion, and procrastination are all but inevitable. Thus if preparations for collapse are made at all, they are likely to be too little and too late.

Modern civilization is therefore bound for a worse fate than the Titanic. When it sinks, the lifeboats, if any, will be ill provisioned, and no one will come to its rescue. Humanity will undoubtedly survive. Civilization as we know it will not.

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5 Responses to Why Civilizations Fail by William Ophuls

  1. Rice Farmer says:

    The part about the city is reminiscent of this book:

  2. Joe Clarkson says:

    Thank you this post. I was intrigued by your excerpts and started looking for the book. It turned out to be free to me on Kindle Unlimited. Great read, though I think he overdid the moral degeneracy aspect as a cause of collapse.

    I also noted that even though Ophuls is well aware of Greer’s thesis that collapse will involve a slow catabolic decline of civilization, he comes out in favor of the greater likelihood of a sudden and catastrophic collapse. I agree with Ophuls. Since we are so far up a very steep exponential slope on virtually everything, I think the decline will be mostly straight down.

    • teal says:

      Humanity will undoubtedly perish, unless we somehow mutate (very rapidly and imminently) into ionizing-radiation-friendly creatures. Better make that: creatures who can feed on ionizing radiation, as all other life forms will undoubtedly perish, once civilization collapses and several hundred unattended nuclear power plants melt down.

      The ultra-rich are attempting to provide themselves with ‘lifeboats and arks’ in the form of bunkers and spaceships. Good luck to them with that. Even if some manage to subsist, temporarily, their systems will fail and they (the most barbaric, rapacious and self-serving of the lot of humankind) will inevitably turn on each other. Those post-apocalyptic films showing the ignorant masses at each other’s throats are written by the elite, who fail to see themselves in such a role only because they haven’t yet been faced with scarcity.


  3. russ day says:

    Alice – Good summary of collapse. I’ve read Tainter, Kennedy, some of Toynbee and Greer (and that other professor from Harvard whose name I can’t recall at this time). It would seem that things might move a bit speedier that opined by Greer because of the velocity of communications throughout the world; which didn’t exist when the Roman empire exhausted itself. Anyway, it will allp;lay out in time.
    Just ordered your cracker book – have baked bread for over 40 years and eager to try out some crackers. Best Regards, Russ Day

    • energyskeptic says:

      Well, as you can see from my 3) Fast Crash posts I think the decline will be very fast, like the Seneca cliff Ugo bardi writes about, or how fast civilizations fell in the fast — I recommend all of Peter Turchin’s books about that, since he finds patterns to collapse that put today’s times in context (see my posts in http://energyskeptic.com/category/collapse/experts/peter-turchin/)

      Thanks for buying my crackers book — I hardly ever make bread anymore because the crackers can last for months without going stale (though we eat them within a week usually), and they’re great to take to parties. My favorite cracker now is what I call “quarter cuppers”. Take a quarter cup of flour from 2 different flours, i.e. whole wheat, lentil, bean, corn, etc, add 1/4 cup whole grain mix, salt, spices, dried onion or whatever. Especially good is almond flour, but it’s too crumbly to use entirely, it needs to be balanced with lentil, bean, corn, or wheat flour. Also rice flour is crumbly, so it too can never be used alone or with a nut flour. And lentil, bean, corn flours too hard to combine. Optionally top with sunflower, pepitas, or pine nut seeds. And more and more often, especially with those 24-egg containers from COSTCO, I add 1 egg to each batch. I can’t recommend the Family Grain Mill highly enough, it has long ago paid for itself, and I keep already ground flours in the freezer so that I can make a quarter cupper batch super quick.

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