The Imminent Collapse of Civilization

The Imminent Collapse of Civilization

by ALBERTO EMBRIZ DE SALVATIERRA

The Roman Empire’s dramatic collapse (followed by many centuries of population decline, economic deterioration, intellectual regression, and the disappearance of literacy) is well known, but it was not the first rise-and-collapse cycle in Europe. Prior to the rise of Classical Greco-Roman civilization, both the Minoan and Mycenaean Civilizations had each risen, reached very advanced levels of civilization, and then collapsed virtually completely. The history of Mesopotamia—the very cradle of civilization, agriculture, complex society, and urban life—presents a series of rise-and-declines including the Sumerians, the Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Achaemenid, Seleucid, Parthian, Sassanid, Umayyad, and Abbasid Empires. In neighboring Egypt, this cycle also appeared repeatedly. In both Anatolia and in the Indus Valley, the very large and long-lasting Hittite and Harrapan civilizations both collapsed so completely that their very existence was unknown until modern archeology rediscovered them. Similar cycles of rise and collapse occurred repeatedly in India, most notably with the Mauryan and the Gupta Empires. Southeast Asia similarly experienced “multiple and overlapping histories of collapse and regeneration” over 15 centuries, culminating in the Khmer Empire based in Angkor, which itself was depopulated and swallowed by the forest during the 15th Century. Chinese history is, very much like Egypt’s, full of repeated cycles of rises and collapses, with each of the Zhou, Han, Tang, and Song Empires followed by a very serious collapse of political authority and socioeconomic progress. Collapses are not restricted to the “Old World.” The collapse of Maya Civilization is well-known and evokes widespread fascination, both because of the advanced nature of Mayan society and because of the depth of the collapse…In the nearby central highlands of Mexico, a number of powerful states also rose to high levels of power and prosperity and then rapidly collapsed, Teotihuacan (the sixth largest city in the world in the 7th C) and Monte Alban being just the largest of these to experience dramatic collapse, with their populations declining to about 20-25% of their peak within just a few generations. We know of many other collapses including Mississippian Cultures such as Cahokia, South West US cultures such as the Pueblo and Hohokam, Andean civilizations such as Tiwanaku, Sub-Saharan civilizations such as Great Zimbabwe, and many collapses across the Pacific Islands, such as Easter Island. It is also likely other collapses have also occurred in societies that were not at a sufficient level of complexity to produce written records or archeological evidence. Indeed, a recent study of the Neolithic period in Europe has shown that “in contrast to the steady population growth usually assumed, the introduction of agriculture into Europe was followed by a boom-and-bust pattern in the density of regional populations.” Furthermore “most regions show more than one boom-bust pattern,” and in most regions, population declines “of the order of the 30–60%” can be found… Moreover, through wavelet analysis of the archeological data, S. Downey has shown that the average length of such boom-and-bust cycles is about 300–500 years. In summary, despite the common impression that societal collapse is rare, or even largely fictional, the “picture that emerges is of a process recurrent in history, and global in its distribution.
— Introduction to “Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY): Modeling Inequality and Use of Resources in the Collapse or Sustainability of Societies” [13]
Figure 1: Cole thomas, The Course of empire: Desolation (1836)

Figure 1: Cole thomas, The Course of empire: Desolation (1836)

The collapse of modern industrial civilization is imminent. Continued resource depletion, exacerbated by climate change, unrelenting population growth (7.39 billion and counting) and evidently widening income inequality (both in “developed” and “developing” countries) all set the stage for a cathartic climax—and subsequent dissolution—to our current iteration of humanity. Yet, if the Malthusian perspective is not your favorite, experts consider a global recession not a matter of if, but when. Or rather than a silent blip out of existence, a third world war—more characteristic with our grittier, go-out-with-a-bang attitude—would satisfy decades-old destruction porn fantasies that have permeated popular culture for 70 years. Regardless, we are bound for a fate not unlike the societies that have preceded us—all confirmed by a NASA-funded study published in the peer-reviewed Elsevier journal Ecological Economics (quoted above) that established our civilization’s imminent, irreversible collapse. Or at least, that is what poor journalism and sensationalist media would have one believe.

Taking the internet by storm in March of 2014, a story by The Guardian authored by bestselling author, “investigative journalist,” international security scholar and executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development, Dr. Nafeez Ahmed, enthusiastically affirmed this study as final proof that not only was business-as-usual behavior unsustainable, but changes would be unlikely to course-correct our suicide-ride off a cliff. [1] As Climate and Capitalism blog editor Ian Angus summarizes, Ahmed’s article was subsequently re-tweeted 6,500 times and shared 100,000 times on Facebook. [2] The headlines that followed were no less grandiose: NASA Predicts the End of Western Civilization (New York Post), The utter collapse of human civilization will be 'difficult to avoid,' NASA funded study says (National Post), NASA-funded report says society is trending toward big collapse (Houston Chronicle), NASA-Funded Study Warns of Collapse of Civilisation in Coming Decades (The Times of India), NASA-Sponsored Study Warns of Possible Collapse of Civilization: Two Scenarios of How It May All Come Crashing Down (Popular Science). Surprising no one, all these authors—can they even be called that?—didn’t even bother reading the original study which (at a paltry 23 pages, including generous images but excluding references) is not very long. They, as Angus identifies, simply quoted Ahmed’s article in largely derivative pieces. However, I am not here to proffer a commentary on the dwindling standards of journalism, nor the basic lack of intelligence displayed by the authors, Ahmed included. I won’t comment either in the inherent racism that not even in the apocalypse does “the East” really matter as evidenced by the New York Post’s headline. And I won’t even go into lengthy detail that just about everyone completely misunderstood a theoretical paper that sought to model a cause-and-effect scenario that isolated a few variables—using the predator-prey model—that could forecast, but not predict, likely outcomes from the lack of equilibrium from renewable resources, population, and unequal wealth distribution. [24] As the authors explain in a Q-&-A article published after the media flurry: “In this paper, we show that two factors can independently lead to collapse: Ecological Strain and Economic Stratification. We also show that there are two routes to such collapses, which we call Type-L and Type-N collapses. Type-N starts with exhaustion of Nature but Type-L results from the disappearance of Labor because Elite consumption does not leave sufficient resources to meet the needs of Commoners.” [24] Furthermore, as they conclude in their interview, “The model is not intended to describe actual individual cases, but rather to provide a general framework that allows carrying out "thought experiments" for the phenomenon of collapse and, importantly, to test changes that could avoid it.” No, instead I will address the underlying attitude in the study that despite the nuance of centuries, somehow statistics can comprehend such a complex system: civilization. This behavior (also exhibited in almost all disciplines) is symptomatic with the modern fetish for the atomization of knowledge—and rather than continue to pursue erudition ad absurdio via separation, the time to explore productive syntheses instead can no longer be ignored. 

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Modernism is a culture of separation and atomization of things…Our contemporary culture is all about knowing more and more about something until you know everything about nothing.
— João Nunes
FIGURE 2: COLE THOMAS, THE COURSE OF EMPIRE: DEStruction (1836)

FIGURE 2: COLE THOMAS, THE COURSE OF EMPIRE: DEStruction (1836)

The notion that millennia of histories, cultures and peoples—now coupled with growing globalization and the blurring of boundaries accelerated by the “information age”—could be represented via a math equation is laughable at best, and worrisome at worst. I believe, like Angus, that the topic of study and motivations behind the controversial paper mentioned above are necessary explorations of our age: “There is massive evidence that the existing social order is inflicting harm on humanity and the rest of nature, and the case for radical social change as the only permanent solution is very strong.” [2] What I do find at fault, however, are these pervasive, reductionist perspectives that focus so intently on singular variables—completely, hopelessly, forgetting about how things are connected together. Paul Kingsnorth, poet and British environmentalist writes: 

…the green movement has torpedoed itself with numbers. Its single-minded obsession with climate change, and its insistence on seeing this as an engineering challenge which must be overcome with technological solutions guided by the neutral gaze of Science, has forced it into a ghetto from which it may never escape. Most greens in the mainstream now spend their time arguing about whether they prefer windfarms to wave machines or nuclear power to carbon sequestration. They offer up remarkably confident predictions of what will happen if we do or don’t do this or that, all based on mind-numbing numbers cherry-picked from this or that ‘study’ as if the world were a giant spreadsheet which only needs to be balanced correctly.

Successfully disjointing numbers from reality allows anyone to control reality with numbers. And this sort of cherry-picking, selective-data behavior, for example, could be credited with establishing one of the most ridiculous notions of our time: that violence and war, ‘obviously barbaric’, are in decline in our civilization, and altruism, is on the upswing—developments which should be lauded. Sound familiar? If so, then you might have come across any number of lectures, articles or videos by Steven Pinker whom, with his voluminous book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011), has established a contemporary orthodoxy with silly claims—and him as its messiah—that on the whole, history is trending towards less violence, part of the “civilising process” as he describes it. [16] Yet, these are merely delusions of peace. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Elizabeth Kolbert, pointedly observes that Pinker’s 800-plus page treatise is focused exclusively on Western Europe, with almost no discussion on South America, Asia, Africa (never mind Oceania). [10] Even the United States, Kolbert writes, doesn’t fit with his narrative: “Murder rates in the U.S. are, over all, significantly higher than those in Europe, and in some parts of this country they’re so high as to be positively medieval. The homicide rate in New Orleans last year was forty-nine per hundred thousand, roughly what Amsterdam’s was 600 years ago. St. Louis’s and Detroit’s murder rates in 2010 were about forty per hundred thousand, around the rate of London in the 14th century.” Of course, let us not forget WWII. As Pinker tells us however, it was the “9th deadliest” conflict of all time (behind the Arab slave trade, which ranks third, and the Mongol conquests, which come second). [16] Kolbert is quick to point out that the second world war took only 6 years, whereas, “…the Arab slave trade…was an atrocity that took more than a millennium to unfold. The Mongol conquests…spanned nearly a century.” And the Second World War aside, Pinker’s ignorantly-narrow and euro-centric view is mostly centered on the data of battlefield casualties, or deaths of war-combatants. Yet, as John Gray points out, the deaths of non-combatants has been steadily rising: “Around a million of the 10 million deaths due to the first world war were of non‑combatants, whereas around half of the more than 50 million casualties of the second world war and over 90% of the millions who have perished in the violence that has wracked the Congo for decades belong in that category.” [7] So, where do these figures factor into Pinker’s data and/or argument? Nowhere at all, because so far as his thesis is concerned, the 20th century Hemoclysm is a giant statistical fluke, and doesn’t really count. On the whole, war is the product of “more backward societies”—Western Europe, Pinker confidently asserts, proves that. Yet, segregation in Rwanda could be credited to post-enlightenment German and Belgian imperialism. And the conflict in the Congo has been fueled by “western demand for the county’s natural resources.” If violence and war has truly declined in “advanced societies,” it is because they have exported it. [7] The only perspective in which Pinker and I are in agreement, is his acknowledgement that, “The 20th century would seem to be an insult to the very suggestion that violence has declined over the course of history.” [16]

...the “progressivist, profit-seeking, technology-can-fix-it ideology of fossil-fueled capitalism” is a paradigm that can no longer be observed. Why? Precisely because—just like the HANDY study and Pinker’s fanciful claims—our current economic infrastructure and way of life is built on the troubling isolation of data.

FIGURE 3: COLE THOMAS, THE COURSE OF EMPIRE: the consummation of empire (1836)

FIGURE 3: COLE THOMAS, THE COURSE OF EMPIRE: the consummation of empire (1836)

Moving Steven aside, can he really be to blame for manifesting a fascination with the isolated, and the minute—the extracted variables and the segmentation so characteristic to academic rhetoric? I would say no. He is merely a victim to the hilariously disconnected world we inhabit—and as many would have one believe, in which capitalism is supposedly meant to save us. [22] Yet, as recent events in the United States alone seem to reveal (the 2008 economic crash, the Occupy Wall Street movement, etc…)—notwithstanding an imminent Chinese triple bubble, Greece’s debt crisis, and Brazil’s recent record-breaking bankruptcy—the “progressivist, profit-seeking, technology-can-fix-it ideology of fossil-fueled capitalism” is a paradigm that can no longer be observed. [19] Why? Precisely because—just like the HANDY study and Pinker’s fanciful claims—our current economic infrastructure and way of life is built on the troubling isolation of data...on the isolation between the health of the environment and the resources it provides us. This has come to a head most clearly in the recent climate change debate. As Fulbright scholar and Visiting Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Hilton Simmet pointedly remarks, there is an inherent contradiction “between the energy-hungry symbols of development—industrial agriculture, superhighways, airports, and air-conditioners—and the imperatives of sustainability.” [20] Simmet further highlights this inconsistency by citing Timothy Mitchell’s “Carbon Democracy.” In it, Mitchell argues that fossil-fueled-based industrialization process were built on the fallacy of unlimited growth—decidedly delusional policy in a world with finite resources. The modern pillars of current economics might as well be named carbon, oil and gas. And like all structures that thrive as singular systems disconnected from the whole, this cannot continue. And this applies to not simply acknowledging systems’ interconnectedness itself, but how we share those perspectives. As Roy Scranton in an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times writes, “Most important, we need to give up defending and protecting our truth, our perspective, our Western values, and understand that truth is found not in one perspective but in their multiplication, not in one point of view but in the aggregate, not in opposition but in the whole.” [19] And I agree with Scranton. Systems built on the prevalence of scarcity multiplied by ignorance of context or origin, authored by predominantly white males need to be quickly replaced, or (more realistically) phased out in favor of holistic systems that acknowledge the whole and make best use of the abundance inherent to the growing information economy—and its diverse (human and otherwise) perspectives. And this is a scenario that English journalist and broadcaster Paul Mason has already dubbed the “post-capitalist” economy. Recalling economist and Nobel Laureate in Economics Kenneth Arrow, Mason argues that in a free market economy the purpose is to invent things and then create property rights (leading to an underutilization of information). Then Arrow’s principle in reverse means that the full utilization of information cannot tolerate the free market (or absolute intellectual property rights): “Information goods are freely replicable. Once a thing is made, it can be copied/pasted infinitely. A music track or the giant database you use to build an airliner has a production cost; but its cost of reproduction falls towards zero. Therefore, if the normal price mechanism of capitalism prevails over time, its price will fall towards zero, too.” [12] This has profound implications because not only are holistic systems the obvious answers to our various disconnects, but this syncretism is naturally furthered by our information age. But what is holism anyway, and can it really even help?

By creating millions of networked people, financially exploited but with the whole of human intelligence one thumb-swipe away, info-capitalism has created a new agent of change in history: the educated and connected human being.
— Paul Mason
FIGURE 4: COLE THOMAS, THE COURSE OF EMPIRE: the Arcadian or Pastoral state (1834)

FIGURE 4: COLE THOMAS, THE COURSE OF EMPIRE: the Arcadian or Pastoral state (1834)

Holism is the idea that systems (physical, biological, chemical, social, economic, mental, linguistic, etc.) and their properties should be viewed as wholes, not as collections of parts. [3] It is a form of antireductionism, of which its opposite—reductionism—analyzes a complex system by categorically subdividing structures, matter, or whatever else into fundamental parts almost ad infinitum. As social scientist and physician Nicholas Christakis elaborates, “For the last few centuries, the Cartesian project in science has been to break matter down into ever smaller bits, in the pursuit of understanding. And this works, to some extent...but putting things back together in order to understand them is harder…” [5] Coined in 1926 by Jan Smuts, holism is in a way a Hegelian perspective. [21] Rejecting “the fundamentally atomistic conception of the object” (in direct opposition to Kant), Hegel argued that an object cannot simply be subdivided into its components parts, it must be understood as a whole unto itself. The term also has a characteristic para-disciplinary bend. Holism has applications in, but not limited to, agriculture, architecture, branding, education reform, ecology, medicine, and philosophy. The shortest explanation is that of compressing, into a single insight, vast complementary, supplementary and even tangential perspectives that draw from various disciplines for maximum effectiveness. Aquaponics systems, for instance, are a great example in the synergistic capabilities of combining greenhouses, fish farming, vermiculture, chicken farming, mushroom cultivation and water purification systems. The Biospheric Foundation in Manchester, U.K, which I had the pleasure to visit in 2013, is a fully aquaponics-integrated building—almost a self-sufficient architecture-cyborg, if you will. Coupled with a roof garden and solar panels, if the destruction of civilization was decidedly imminent, this renovated industrial building could easily sustain itself independently for quite some time.

Systems built on the prevalence of scarcity multiplied by ignorance of context or origin, authored by predominantly white males need to be quickly replaced, or (more realistically) phased out in favor of holistic systems that acknowledge the whole and make best use of the abundance inherent to the growing information economy—and its diverse (human and otherwise) perspectives. 

But on a grander scheme, holism is a philosophy—a way of thinking—that needs to be grown and articulated more fully into society. The potential rests not just in architecture alone, or saving the environment, but in connecting disciplines that, in any other scenario, might not speak to each other. What do air-instruments and cattle-farming have in common? Actually, quite a lot: this farmer used a trombone to herd his cattle without moving more than his lips. How about biology and jewelry art? Well, now-famous artist Hubert Duprat collaborates with Caddifly larvae to build cocoons from gold and pearls. Or take, for instance, this landscape architecture project that partners with the physics of waves to generate music in the Adriatic! More examples abound, and if anything, decidedly show the positive synergistic relationships that can be cultivated from more inclusive world views, more comprehensive cultural understandings, and more nuanced perceptions on how systems can interact. As our civilization becomes more discordant, the solution doesn't lie in separation, but in unity—and not just metaphorically, but literally as well: whether in academic, professional, public or civic discourse. Moreover, this is precisely what I respond when asked what the Center for Civilization is about: We aim to connect a global, multi-disciplinary team of experts in various fields to collaborate together. With unabashedly high hopes for humanity, we endeavor to present enlivened perspectives to work against reticent thinking and limited frameworks. We are deeply committed to bridge together activists, catalysts, and thinkers to implement a progressive, emboldened vision for our world. When does roboticist talk to a landscape architect? When do climate scientists speak with doctors? When, if ever, does a hip-hop artist exchange ideas with a naval engineer? Rarely. Most likely never. And that is a crime. Published articles that rely on reductivist statistics, best-selling authors that omit entire continents from "global" conversations, systems built to promote scarcity...these modes of thinking, if continued, could in fact lead to a more unstable and fragile society. What should be cultivated instead is the collapse of civilization, but not by way of its woeful demise, but by happy compression and melding of its disciplines that, for the last several centuries, have been bred apart. 

FIGURE 5: COLE THOMAS, THE COURSE OF EMPIRE: the savage state (1834)

FIGURE 5: COLE THOMAS, THE COURSE OF EMPIRE: the savage state (1834)

 

[1] Ahmed, N. (2014). Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for 'irreversible collapse'? | Nafeez Ahmed. [online] the Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2014/mar/14/nasa-civilisation-irreversible-collapse-study-scientists?CMP=share_btn_fb [Accessed 21 Dec. 2015].

[2] Angus, I. (2014). What did that ‘NASA-funded collapse study’ really say?. [online] Climate & Capitalism. Available at: http://climateandcapitalism.com/2014/03/31/nasa-collapse-study/ [Accessed 22 Dec. 2015].

[3] Auyang, S. Y. (1999), Foundations of Complex-system Theories: in Economics, Evolutionary Biology, and Statistical Physics, Cambridge University Press.

[4] Choi, C. (2012). Huge Ancient Civilization's Collapse Explained. [online] DNews. Available at: http://news.discovery.com/history/ancient-egypt/collapse-river-civilization-harappan-climate-change-120529.htm [Accessed 21 Dec. 2015].

[5] Christakis, N. A. (2011), Shorthand abstractions and the cognitive toolkit, Edge.

[6] Christian, C. (2014). NASA-funded report says society is trending toward big collapse. [online] Houston Chronicle. Available at: http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/texas/article/NASA-funded-report-says-society-is-trending-5328327.php [Accessed 22 Dec. 2015].

[7] Gray, J. (2015). John Gray: Steven Pinker is wrong about violence and war. [online] the Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/13/john-gray-steven-pinker-wrong-violence-war-declining [Accessed 22 Dec. 2015].

[8] Hopper, T. (2014). The utter collapse of human civilization will be 'difficult to avoid,' NASA funded study says. [online] National Post. Available at: http://news.nationalpost.com/news/the-utter-collapse-of-human-civilization-will-be-difficult-to-avoid-nasa-funded-study-says [Accessed 21 Dec. 2015].

[9] Kingsnorth, P. (2015). The Quants and the Poets. [online] paulkingsnorth.net. Available at: http://www.paulkingsnorth.net/journalism/the-quants-and-the-poets/ [Accessed 24 Dec. 2015].

[10] Kolbert, E. (2011). Peace in Our Time - The New Yorker. [online] The New Yorker. Available at: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/10/03/peace-in-our-time-elizabeth-kolbert [Accessed 21 Dec. 2015].

[11] Marlon, B. (2015). The Decline and Fall of Modern Civilization: 8 Simple Steps to Squandering It All. [online] Algemeiner.com. Available at: http://www.algemeiner.com/2015/01/22/the-decline-and-fall-of-modern-civilization-8-simple-steps-to-squandering-it-all/# [Accessed 22 Dec. 2015].

[12] Mason, P. (2015). The end of capitalism has begun. [online] the Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/17/postcapitalism-end-of-capitalism-begun [Accessed 21 Dec. 2015].

[13] Motesharrei, S., Rivas, J. and Kalnay, E. (2014). Human and nature dynamics (HANDY): Modeling inequality and use of resources in the collapse or sustainability of societies. Ecological Economics, 101, pp.90-102.

[14] NASA, (2014). NASA Statement on Sustainability Study. [online] Available at: http://www.nasa.gov/press/2014/march/nasa-statement-on-sustainability-study/#.VoDrhPkrJD9 [Accessed 23 Dec. 2015].

[15] New York Post, (2014). NASA predicts the end of Western civilization. [online] Available at: http://nypost.com/2014/03/17/nasa-predicts-the-end-of-western-civilization/ [Accessed 21 Dec. 2015].

[16] Pinker, S. (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking.

[17] Popular Science, (2014). NASA-Sponsored Study Warns Of Possible Collapse Of Civilization. [online] Available at: http://www.popsci.com/article/science/nasa-sponsored-study-warns-possible-collapse-civilization [Accessed 21 Dec. 2015].

[18] Roberts, D. (2013). None of the world's top industries would be profitable if they paid for the natural capital they use. [online] Grist. Available at: http://grist.org/business-technology/none-of-the-worlds-top-industries-would-be-profitable-if-they-paid-for-the-natural-capital-they-use/ [Accessed 23 Dec. 2015].

[19] Scranton, R. (2015). We're Doomed. Now What?. [online] The New York Times - Opinionator. Available at: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/12/21/were-doomed-now-what/ [Accessed 22 Dec. 2015].

[20] Simmet, H. (2015). Thinking COP21: Contradiction and Controversy in the Climate Crisis. [online] Aesir Lab. Available at: http://aesirlab.com/writings/vol2-9 [Accessed 25 Dec. 2015].

[21] Smuts, J. (1926). Holism and Evolution. London: McMillan and Co Limited. p. 88.

[22] Steve Forbes: How Capitalism Will Save Us, (2008). [TV programme] Morning Edition: NPR News.

[23] Troncoso, S. (2015). Mapping the emerging post-capitalist paradigm, and its main thinkers | P2P Foundation. [online] P2P Foundation. Available at: http://blog.p2pfoundation.net/mapping-the-emerging-post-capitalist-paradigm-and-its-main-thinkers/2015/11/29 [Accessed 21 Dec. 2015].

[24] Van Hersbergen, K. (2014). Q&A: when a theoretical article is misinterpreted. [online] Elsevier. Available at: https://www.elsevier.com/connect/q-and-a-when-a-theoretical-article-is-misinterpreted [Accessed 22 Dec. 2015].


Alberto Embriz de Salvatierra can be reached at desalvatierra@aesirlab.com.

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