Societal Collapse

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search


From the Wikipedia:

"Societal collapse (also known as civilizational collapse) is the fall of a complex human society characterized by the loss of cultural identity and of socioeconomic complexity, the downfall of government, and the rise of violence. Possible causes of a societal collapse include natural catastrophe, war, pestilence, famine, population decline, and mass migration. A collapsed society may revert to a more primitive state (Dark Ages), be absorbed into a stronger society, or completely disappear.

Virtually all civilizations have suffered such a fate, regardless of their size or complexity, but some of them later revived and transformed, such as China, India, and Egypt. However, others never recovered, such as the Western and Eastern Roman Empires, the Mayan civilization, and the Easter Island civilization. Societal collapse is generally quick but rarely abrupt. However, some cases involve not a collapse but only a gradual fading away, such as the British Empire since 1918.

Anthropologists, (quantitative) historians, and sociologists have proposed a variety of explanations for the collapse of civilizations involving causative factors such as environmental change, depletion of resources, unsustainable complexity, invasion, disease, decay of social cohesion, rising inequality, secular decline of cognitive abilities, loss of creativity, and misfortune.[1][4][5] However, complete extinction of a culture is not inevitable, and in some cases, the new societies that arise from the ashes of the old one are evidently its offspring, despite a dramatic reduction in sophistication. Moreover, the influence of a collapsed society, such as the Western Roman Empire, may linger on long after its death.

The study of societal collapse, collapsology, is a topic for specialists of history, anthropology, sociology, and political science. More recently, they are joined by experts in cliodynamics and study of complex systems."



Duration of Civilizations


"The social scientist Luke Kemp analyzed dozens of civilizations, which he defined as "a society with agriculture, multiple cities, military dominance in its geographical region and a continuous political structure," from 3000 BC to 600 AD and calculated that the average life span of a civilization is close to 340 years. Of them, the most durable were the Kushite Kingdom in Northeast Africa (1,150 years), the Aksumite Empire in Africa (1,100 years), and the Vedic civilization in South Asia and the Olmecs in Mesoamerica (both 1,000 years), and the shortest-lived were the Nanda Empire in India and the Qin Dynasty in China ."


Population Dynamics Involved in the Decline and Collapse of Societies and Civilizations

Declining birth rates as a factor in civilizational decline:

From the Wikipedia:

"Writing in The Histories, the Greek historian Polybius largely blamed the decline of the Hellenistic world on low fertility rates. He asserted that while protracted wars and deadly epidemics were absent, people were generally more interested in "show and money and the pleasures of an idle life" than in marrying and raising children. Those who had children, according to him, had no more than one or two, with the express intention of "leaving them well off or bringing them up in extravagant luxury."[70][71] However, it is difficult to estimate the actual fertility rate of Greece at the time because Polybius did not provide any data for analysis but gave only a narrative that likely came from his impression of the kinds of Greeks with whom he was familiar: the elites, rather than the commoners. Otherwise, the population decline would have been abrupt. Nevertheless, the Greek case parallels the Roman one.

But since more plenteous honor has come to planes that yield a sterile shade, than to any three, we fruit-bearers (if as a nut tree I am counted among them) have begun to luxuriate in spreading foliage. How apples grow not every year, and injured grapes and injured berries are brought home: now she that would seem beautiful harms her womb, and rare in these days is she who would be a parent.

By around 100 BC, the notion of romantic love started becoming popular in Rome. In the final years of the Roman Republic, Roman women were well known for divorcing, having extramarital affairs, and being reluctant to bear children. Viewing that as a threat to the social and political order and believing that the Roman upper-class was becoming increasingly cosmopolitan and individualistic, upon the establishment of the Roman Empire, Caesar Augustus introduced legislation designed to increase the birthrate. Men aged 20 to 60 and women aged 20 to 50 were legally obliged to marry, and widowed or divorced individuals within the relevant age range were required to remarry. Exemptions were granted to those who had already had three children in the case of free-born people and four in the case of freed slaves. For political or bureaucratic office, preference was given to those with at least three legitimate children. Diminished inheritance rights awaited those who failed to reproduce. In a speech to Roman nobles, he expressed his pressing concern over the low birthrates of the Roman elite. He also said that freed slaves had been granted citizenship and Roman allies given seats in government to increase the power and prosperity of Rome, but the "original stock" was not replacing itself and leaving the task to foreigners. Roman poet Ovid shared the same observation.

However, Augustan pro-natal policies proved unsuccessful. All that they did was fuel nostalgia and disdain for the present and went no further than reaffirming the past-oriented, rural, and patriarchal values of Imperial Rome. Like their Greek counterparts, Roman elites had access to contraception, though that knowledge was lost to Europe during the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period, and so could enjoy sexual intercourse without having to rear additional children. In other words, people of high socio-economic class of the Greco-Roman world were able to control their own fertility. Also, that ability likely trickled down to the lower classes. In any case, the result was predictable. The absence of modern medicine, which would have extended life expectancy, caused their numbers to start shrinking. Moreover, population decline coincided with people being less religious and more questioning of traditions, both of which contributed to falling fertility as more and more people came to the conclusion that it was up to them, rather than the gods, on how many children they had.

Other population imbalances may occur when low fertility rates coincides with high dependency ratios or when there is an unequal distribution of wealth between elites and commoners, both of which characterized the Roman Empire.

Several key features of human societal collapse can be related to population dynamics. For example, the native population of Cusco, Peru at the time of the Spanish conquest was stressed by an imbalanced sex ratio.

There is strong evidence that humans also display population cycles. Societies as diverse as those of England and France during the Roman, medieval, and early modern eras, of Egypt during Greco-Roman and Ottoman rule, and of various dynasties in China all showed similar patterns of political instability and violence becoming considerably more common after times of relative peace, prosperity, and sustained population growth. Quantitatively, periods of unrest included many times more events of instability per decade and occurred when the population was declining, rather than increasing. Pre-industrial agrarian societies typically faced instability after one or two centuries of stability. However, a population approaching its carrying capacity alone is not enough to trigger general decline if the people remained united and the ruling class strong. Other factors had to be involved, such as having more aspirants for positions of the elite than the society could realistically support (elite overproduction), which led to social strife, and chronic inflation, which caused incomes to fall and threatened the fiscal health of the state. In particular, an excess in especially young adult male population predictably led to social unrest and violence, as the third and higher-order parity sons had trouble realizing their economic desires and became more open to extreme ideas and actions. Adults in their 20s are especially prone to radicalization. Most historical periods of social unrest lacking in external triggers, such as natural calamities, and most genocides can be readily explained as a result of a built-up youth bulge. As those trends intensified, they jeopardized the social fabric, which facilitated the decline."


Role of Declining Energy Return on Investment in the Decline of Civilizations

From the Wikipedia:

"Energy has played a crucial role throughout human history. Energy is linked to the birth, growth, and decline of each and every society. Energy surplus is required for the division of labor and the growth of cities. Massive energy surplus is needed for widespread wealth and cultural amenities. Economic prospects fluctuate in tandem with a society's access to cheap and abundant energy.

Thomas Homer-Dixon and Charles Hall proposed an economic model called energy return on investment (EROI), which measures the amount of surplus energy a society gets from using energy to obtain energy. Energy shortages drive up prices and as such provide an incentive to explore and extract previously uneconomical sources, which may still be plentiful, but more energy would be required, and the EROI is then not as high as initially thought.

There would be no surplus if EROI approaches 1:1. Hall showed that the real cutoff is well above that and estimated that 3:1 to sustain the essential overhead energy costs of a modern society. The EROI of the most preferred energy source, petroleum, has fallen in the past century from 100:1 to the range of 10:1 with clear evidence that the natural depletion curves all are downward decay curves. An EROI of more than ~3 then is what appears necessary to provide the energy for socially important tasks, such as maintaining government, legal and financial institutions, a transportation infrastructure, manufacturing, building construction and maintenance, and the lifestyles of all members of a given society.

The social scientist Luke Kemp indicated that alternative sources of energy, such as solar panels, have a low EROI because they have low energy density, meaning they require a lot of land, and require substantial amounts of rare earth metals to produce. Charles Hall and his colleagues reached the same conclusion. There is no on-site pollution, but the EROI of renewable energy sources may be too low for them to be considered a viable alternative to fossil fuels, which continue to provide the majority of the energy consumed by humanity (79% as of 2019[91]). Moreover, renewable energy is intermittent and requires large and expensive storage facilities in order to be a base-load source for the power grid (20% or more). In that case, its EROI would be even lower. Paradoxically, therefore, expansions of renewable energy require more consumption of fossil fuels. For Hall and his colleagues, human societies in the previous few centuries could solve or at least alleviate many of their problems by making technological innovations and by consuming more energy, but contemporary society faces the difficult challenge of declining EROI for its most useful energy source, fossil fuels, and low EROI for alternatives.

The mathematician Safa Motesharrei and his collaborators showed that the use of non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels allows populations to grow to one order of magnitude larger than they would using renewable resources alone and as such is able to postpone societal collapse. However, when collapse finally comes, it is much more dramatic.[6][92] Tainter warned that in the modern world, if the supply of fossil fuels were somehow cut off, shortages of clean water and food would ensue, and millions would die in a few weeks in the worse-case scenario.

Homer-Dixon asserted that a declining EROI was one of the reasons that the Roman Empire declined and fell. The historian Joseph Tainter made the same claim about the Mayan Empire."



Models of Societal Response To Societal Collapse and Civilizational Decline

From the Wikipedia:

According to Joseph Tainter (1990), too many scholars offer facile explanations of societal collapse by assuming one or more of the following three models in the face of collapse:

  • The Dinosaur, a large-scale society in which resources are being depleted at an exponential rate, but nothing is done to rectify the problem because the ruling elite are unwilling or unable to adapt to those resources' reduced availability. In this type of society, rulers tend to oppose any solutions that diverge from their present course of action but favor intensification and commit an increasing number of resources to their present plans, projects, and social institutions.
  • The Runaway Train, a society whose continuing function depends on constant growth (cf. Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis). This type of society, based almost exclusively on acquisition (such as pillaging or exploitation), cannot be sustained indefinitely. The Assyrian, Roman and Mongol Empires, for example, all fractured and collapsed when no new conquests could be achieved.
  • The House of Cards, a society that has grown to be so large and include so many complex social institutions that it is inherently unstable and prone to collapse. This type of society has been seen with particular frequency among Eastern Bloc and other communist nations, in which all social organizations are arms of the government or ruling party, such that the government must either stifle association wholesale (encouraging dissent and subversion) or exercise less authority than it asserts (undermining its legitimacy in the public eye).

By contrast, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed, when voluntary and private associations are allowed to flourish and gain legitimacy at an institutional level, they complement and often even supplant governmental functions. They provide a "safety valve" for dissent, assist with resource allocation, provide for social experimentation without the need for governmental coercion, and enable the public to maintain confidence in society as a whole, even during periods of governmental weakness.

Tainter's critique: Tainter argues that those models, though superficially useful, cannot severally or jointly account for all instances of societal collapse. Often, they are seen as interconnected occurrences that reinforce one another.

Tainter considers that social complexity is a recent and comparatively-anomalous occurrence, requiring constant support. He asserts that collapse is best understood by grasping four axioms. In his own words (p. 194):

  • human societies are problem-solving organizations;
  • sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance;
  • increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita; and
  • investment in sociopolitical complexity as a problem-solving response reaches a point of declining marginal returns.

With those facts in mind, collapse can simply be understood as a loss of the energy needed to maintain social complexity. Collapse is thus the sudden loss of social complexity, stratification, internal and external communication and exchange, and productivity."


Means of Civilizational Collapse, with examples

All examples are listed in the Wikipedia [1]:

By reversion or simplification

  1. During the course of the 15th century, nearly all of Angkor was abandoned
  2. Akkadian Empire
  3. Hittite Empire
  4. Mycenaean Greece
  5. Neo-Assyrian Empire
  6. Angkor civilization of the Khmer Empire
  7. Han and Tang Dynasty of China
  8. Izapa
  9. Maya civilization (Classic Maya collapse)
  10. Munhumutapa Empire
  11. Olmec

By absorption

  1. The Champa civilization once occupied parts of modern-day Central and Southern Vietnam.
  2. Sumer by the Akkadian Empire
  3. Kingdom of Israel by Assyria.
  4. Ancient Egypt by the Libyans, Nubians, Assyria, Babylonia, Persian rule, Greece, Ptolemaic Dynasty, and the Roman Empire[98]
  5. Babylonia by the Hittites
  6. Britons by the Anglo-Saxons, and then by the Normans
  7. Khazar Khaganate by the Eastern Slavs of the Kievan Rus'
  8. Eastern Roman Empire (Medieval Greek) by western and eastern neighbouring powers, and ultimately by the Ottoman Empire
  9. Destruction of Khitan Western Liao dynasty, Jurchen Jin dynasty, Tangut Xia Dynasty, Nanzhao, Song Dynasty, Khwarazmian empire, Abbasid Caliphate, Ayyubids, Nizari Ismaili state, Sultanate of Rum, Kievan Rus, Volga Bulgaria and Cumans by the Mongol Empire
  10. Champa Kingdom by Vietnam during its Southward Expansion[99]
  11. Kingdom of France, a medieval absolute monarchy in Western Europe, ending with the French Revolution and thus was succeeded by the French First Republic
  12. Aztec, Incan, and Mayan civilizations by the Spanish Empire
  13. Seven Spanish Cities by the Mapuche
  14. Garamantes by the Umayyad Caliphate
  15. Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by the Kingdom of Prussia, Russian Empire and Archduchy of Austria

By extinction or evacuation

  1. Cahokia
  2. Norse colony on Greenland
  3. Original Polynesian civilization on Pitcairn Island and Henderson Island
  4. Malden Island
  5. Flinders Island


More information


"Joseph Tainter frames societal collapse in his The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988), which is a seminal and founding work of the academic discipline on societal collapse. He elaborates that 'collapse' is a "broad term," but in the sense of societal collapse, he views it as "a political process." He further narrows societal collapse as a rapid process (within "few decades") of "substantial loss of sociopolitical structure," giving the fall of the Western Roman Empire as "the most widely known instance of collapse" in the Western world.

Others, particularly in response to the popular Collapse (2005) by Jared Diamond and more recently, have argued that societies discussed as cases of collapse are better understood through resilience and societal transformation, or "reorganization", especially if collapse is understood as a "complete end" of political systems, which according to Shmuel Eisenstadt has not taken place at any point. Eisenstadt also points out that a clear differentiation between total or partial decline and "possibilities of regeneration" is crucial for the preventive purpose of the study of societal collapse."