Part 1. How long do civilizations last?

This is most, but not all of Kemp’s BBC article, which you ought to read in its entirety at the link in the title below.  I disagree with him when he says that:

“The collapse of our civilization is not inevitable. We will only march into collapse if we advance blindly. We are only doomed if we are unwilling to listen to the past. The energy cliff need not be terminal if renewable technologies continue to improve and energy efficiency measures are speedily implemented.” 

Nope, renewables aren’t renewable and dependent on fossils for their entire life-cycle. We are utterly dependent on fossils for transportation, manufacturing, construction, petrochemicals, and more, and used them to deplete fresh water (aquifers), topsoil, fisheries, take over 75% of the earth’s land, and reduce biodiversity, all of which we depend on to live.  When fossils begin to decline at 6% exponentially a year globally, it’s all over in about 16 years.  At least we won’t have the energy to destroy the resources we depend on to the degree we are today, or turn the planet into a hothouse earth.  I suspect that Kemp was required to throw a few softball optimistic statements in by his editor.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

Kemp, L. 2019. Are we on the road to civilization collapse? Studying the demise of historic civilizations can tell us how much risk we face today says collapse expert Luke Kemp. Worryingly, the signs are worsening. BBC.

Collapse can be defined as a rapid and enduring loss of population, identity and socio-economic complexity. Public services crumble and disorder ensues as government loses control of its monopoly on violence.

Virtually all past civilisations have faced this fate. Some recovered or transformed, such as the Chinese and Egyptian. Other collapses were permanent, as was the case of Easter Island. Sometimes the cities at the epicenter of collapse are revived, as was the case with Rome. In other cases, such as the Mayan ruins, they are left abandoned as a mausoleum for future tourists. 

What can this tell us about the future of global modern civilisation? Are the lessons of agrarian empires applicable to our post-18th Century period of industrial capitalism?

I would argue that they are. Societies of the past and present are just complex systems composed of people and technology. The theory of “normal accidents” suggests that complex technological systems regularly give way to failure. So collapse may be a normal phenomenon for civilisations, regardless of their size and stage.

We may be more technologically advanced now. But this gives little ground to believe that we are immune to the threats that undid our ancestors. Our newfound technological abilities even bring new, unprecedented challenges to the mix.

And while our scale may now be global, collapse appears to happen to both sprawling empires and fledgling kingdoms alike. There is no reason to believe that greater size is armour against societal dissolution. Our tightly-coupled, globalised economic system is, if anything, more likely to make crisis spread.

If the fate of previous civilisations can be a roadmap to our future, what does it say? One method is to examine the trends that preceded historic collapses and see how they are unfolding today.

While there is no single accepted theory for why collapses happen, historians, anthropologists and others have proposed various explanations, including:

CLIMATIC CHANGE: When climatic stability changes, the results can be disastrous, resulting in crop failure, starvation and desertification. The collapse of the Anasazi, the Tiwanaku civilisation, the Akkadians, the Mayan, the Roman Empire, and many others have all coincided with abrupt climatic changes, usually droughts.

ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION: Collapse can occur when societies overshoot the carrying capacity of their environment. This ecological collapse theory, which has been the subject of bestselling books, points to excessive deforestation, water pollution, soil degradation and the loss of biodiversity as precipitating causes.

INEQUALITY AND OLIGARCHY: Wealth and political inequality can be central drivers of social disintegration, as can oligarchy and centralisation of power among leaders. This not only causes social distress, but handicaps a society’s ability to respond to ecological, social and economic problems.

The field of cliodynamics models how factors such as equality and demography correlate with political violence. Statistical analysis of previous societies suggests that this happens in cycles. As population increases, the supply of labour outstrips demand, workers become cheap and society becomes top-heavy. This inequality undermines collective solidarity and political turbulence follows.

COMPLEXITY: Collapse expert and historian Joseph Tainter has proposed that societies eventually collapse under the weight of their own accumulated complexity and bureaucracy. Societies are problem-solving collectives that grow in complexity in order to overcome new issues. However, the returns from complexity eventually reach a point of diminishing returns. After this point, collapse will eventually ensue.

Another measure of increasing complexity is called Energy Return on Investment (EROI). This refers to the ratio between the amount of energy produced by a resource relative to the energy needed to obtain it. Like complexity, EROI appears to have a point of diminishing returns. In his book The Upside of Down, the political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon observed that environmental degradation throughout the Roman Empire led to falling EROI from their staple energy source: crops of wheat and alfalfa. The empire fell alongside their EROI. Tainter also blames it as a chief culprit of collapse, including for the Mayan. 

EXTERNAL SHOCKS: In other words, the “four horsemen”: war, natural disasters, famine and plagues. The Aztec Empire, for example, was brought to an end by Spanish invaders. Most early agrarian states were fleeting due to deadly epidemics. The concentration of humans and cattle in walled settlements with poor hygiene made disease outbreaks unavoidable and catastrophic. Sometimes disasters combined, as was the case with the Spanish introducing salmonella to the Americas.

RANDOMNESS/BAD LUCK: Statistical analysis on empires suggests that collapse is random and independent of age. Evolutionary biologist and data scientist Indre Zliobaite and her colleagues have observed a similar pattern in the evolutionary record of species. A common explanation of this apparent randomness is the “Red Queen Effect”: if species are constantly fighting for survival in a changing environment with numerous competitors, extinction is a consistent possibility.

Studies suggest that the EROI for fossil fuels has been steadily decreasing over time as the easiest to reach and richest reserves are depleted. Unfortunately, most renewable replacements, such as solar, have a markedly lower EROI, largely due to their energy density and the rare earth metals and manufacturing required to produce them.  This has led much of the literature to discuss the possibility of an “energy cliff” as EROI declines to a point where current societal levels of affluence can no longer be maintained.

That’s not all. Worryingly, the world is now deeply interconnected and interdependent. In the past, collapse was confined to regions – it was a temporary setback, and people often could easily return to agrarian or hunter-gatherer lifestyles. For many, it was even a welcome reprieve from the oppression of early states. Moreover, the weapons available during social disorder were rudimentary: swords, arrows and occasionally guns.

Today, societal collapse is a more treacherous prospect. The weapons available to a state, and sometimes even groups, during a breakdown now range from biological agents to nuclear weapons. New instruments of violence, such as lethal autonomous weapons, may be available in the near future. People are increasingly specialised and disconnected from the production of food and basic goods. And a changing climate may irreparably damage our ability to return to simple farming practices.

Think of civilisation as a poorly-built ladder. As you climb, each step that you used falls away. A fall from a height of just a few rungs is fine. Yet the higher you climb, the larger the fall. Eventually, once you reach a sufficient height, any drop from the ladder is fatal.

With the proliferation of nuclear weapons, we may have already reached this point of civilisational “terminal velocity”. Any collapse – any fall from the ladder – risks being permanent. Nuclear war in itself could result in an existential risk: either the extinction of our species, or a permanent catapult back to the Stone Age.  

While we are becoming more economically powerful and resilient, our technological capabilities also present unprecedented threats that no civilisation has had to contend with. For example, the climatic changes we face are of a different nature to what undid the Maya or Anazasi. They are global, human-driven, quicker, and more severe.

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2 Responses to Part 1. How long do civilizations last?

  1. Sheila Chambers says:

    By the time people wake up to the SCAM that is “renewables” we will have burned even MORE fossil resources producing those things & put even MORE C02 into the atmosphere!
    7.6 BILLION humans are not “sustainable” & that, climate change & declining fossil RESOURCES will be the END of this civilization.
    Think illegal migration is a problem now? You ain’t seen nothin yet!

    How will Europe cope with billions of migrants demanding to be let in and taken care of?
    How will the US cope with tens of millions of migrants trying to force their way past their border demanding to be taken care of?
    I think I know & it’s not pretty.
    “Long pig” the new white meat! Gluten free too!

  2. James Anglin says:

    I was already aware of a number of these civilizations decline and their more or less proximate causes, but it’s nice to have a broader overview such as this one. Thanks Alice.

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