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Historical Collapse and Today's Parallels

Historical Collapse and Today's Parallels

I'm stepping back for a few weeks to work on other projects. In the meantime, here is a post I wrote from forever ago that I never got to publish because, you know, things are forever on fire.

I don't imagine that anybody reading this isn't, as the kids would put it, black-pilled, which is to say rather certain that humanity is on a collapse-course. But, every so often, I will sit back and wonder at whether or not we're right. Because if I look around my immediate life? my very privileged, sheltered, immediate life? It doesn't look so bad. Then I remember that privilege, and I remember the things I've seen with my own eyes back in 2020, and experienced firsthand before and after. We can't let our memories of the last few years fade just because the media has done a good job of shifting focus. So today let's take a moment to look through some resonant moments in time, in hopes that they remind us of where we are today.

Climate Change

There are a number of natural disasters and broader shifts in the world that have been known to cause and assist in societal collapse. Climate change ranks high among them, kind of obviously–there being a kernel of truth to the republican adage that climate change has always occurred, they just tend to forget that it has always sucked for people. There are also more temporary changes or more "minor" disasters–I say "minor" in quotes because how minor can a civilization-ending disaster be? but they still pale in comparison to the broad climate change we are facing.

Historically, climate change has resulted in the end of a number of civilizations, primarily through long-term drought. We can also point to a few collapses that occurred in a more sweeping fashion, like the potential for the Late Antique Ice Age to have contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. There are roughly a million things that brought Rome down, over quite a long time, but among them is the shift in climate over a few hundred years (not decades!) from a warm and rainy clime to the Late Antique Little Ice Age, which predictably cooled the region and subsequently reduced harvests.

While not directly tied to the complete downfall of civilizations, the Little Ice Age of roughly 1400-1800 is an excellent example of how much change can be brought about by only a 2C variance in temperature. With a multitude of possible causes, from variability in solar radiation to the sudden death of millions of people across the globe (Black Plague, colonialism-created illness), the Little Ice Age was particularly acute in the 17th century, during which harvests were especially poor and many struggled. The Thirty Years War occurred in this period, with populations in some afflicted areas dropping by as much as 70%.

To compare these changes with today, we are witnessing a rise in temperature over a much shorter timeframe, with a much greater potential for overall change. While estimates from the latest IPCC reports have shrunk from over 4C (with some wild speculations toward 6C), we can still feasibly see a 4C rise in temperature by 2100, and 2C within just a couple decades.

Disaster and Disease

On shorter timescales, volcanic eruptions have been known to potentially nudge civilizations toward collapse, both in China and Egypt, by creating Volcanic Winters. A decrease in temperature and sunlight in antiquity is akin to an oil shortage today–all aspects of the economy and society were directly and immediately impacted by this depression in agriculture. Droughts, mentioned above, were also significant motivators–the African Humid Period is thought to have helped give rise to Ancient Egypt, before the Sahara returned to desert.

Disease is a major factor in societal decline and collapse. The Roman Empire suffered multiple plagues during its wane, and Indigenous populations in the Americas were wiped out by illnesses brought overseas by colonizers. We could talk about historical plagues all day, or even just the Black Death, which wiped out 25 million in Europe alone–a third of the continent's population*. Historically, disease has expanded by migration, trade, and colonization, becoming exposed to new populations with little resistance. Today, nations and communities are about as interconnected as possible, so that there are few "new-to-you" illnesses. However, as we continue to encroach on wild ecosystems, I'm not pleased to report that there are an estimated half a million undiscovered zoonotic viruses (viruses alone, now) that could plausibly jump to humanity.

*A sidenote: the end of the Middle Ages/start of the Renaissance was ushered in by the Black Death, which allowed for former serfs to make use of expanded bargaining power as workers in the wake of the millions of deaths. Macabre food for thought.

Economic Inequality & Volatility

Economic inequality and volatility in a civilization can be a key indicator of coming collapse. Inequality naturally lends toward societal instability, as the have-nots become increasingly likely to grab pitchforks for the haves. This kind of inequality also tends to stratify governmental and other resources, meaning that only the rich are able to receive, among other things, infrastructure repair, medical care, and increasingly importantly, law enforcement. Law enforcement becomes more important for the rich as the poor, fending for themselves, will tend to become governed (involuntarily) by organized or semi-organized criminals, and the rich require a buffer against that. The organized crime itself is often supported by the government, because a government of this nature is by definition corrupt, thus willing to condone corruption, often working hand in hand with criminals via the police or military to keep the people at bay.

Hyperinflation is generally a big red flag of pending collapse or crumbling, brought about by a sudden increase in spending or decrease in revenue or both, which requires that a nation print its problems away–very temporarily. Hyperinflation renders goods and services out of reach for the public very quickly, and periods of postwar debt or sudden revenue crashes create scenes of bitter comedy, with the public steering wheelbarrows of cash for a loaf of bread, and the government printing currency with such high figures that they must be conveyed in text rather than strung out in zeroes.

Venezuela is hardly even an historic example of hyperinflation, but rather contemporaneous; the crisis brought on by a shortage of goods and the plummeting price of oil circa 2015 is still rocking the country today. Despite a sudden shock to their revenue, the Venezuelan government did not cut spending, resulting in a staggering amount of hyperinflation between 2015 and 2018, which itself resulted in severe hunger across the nation as well as a brutal crackdown by government forces. Last year, over 76% of Venezuelan households were below the poverty line.

Energy, Slavery, and Your Sundry and Obvious Means

A lot of what takes a civilization down is often enough a change in available energy, put extremely simply. This can take many forms, from a river distributing water and nutrients to bountiful sources of energy, such as wood, or fossil fuels. Another pertinent form is slave labor, which provides an immense amount of work for, obviously, little cost. The removal of these sources of energy and work can be disastrous–and you can point to the Civil War for signs of how integral slavery can be to a society, such that they'll kill hundreds of thousands of people for its preservation rather than face the alternative.

War is, itself, a fairly obvious way for a civilization to collapse, and there are no shortage of examples. Also impactful are periods of overpopulation or low birth rate–the latter of which is being experienced by nations around the world today. For example, in Japan the number of births in 2020 was the lowest number recorded since 1899, when records were first kept. A low birth rate ages the civilization, which means that a larger and larger portion of the population will require care and become unable to work. Overpopulation, obviously, moves into problems with overconsumption and resource scarcity.

A NASA study from 2014 underscored two ways in which societies do themselves in: by overconsuming resources and by stoking inequality. COVID has blown the scales from the eyes of many, revealing the systemic inequalities in the US and across the globe. With economic inequality and political unrest only growing at home and abroad, a world war not outside the realm of possibility, and climate change years away from reaching the kind of temperatures disparities antiquity never saw, America is beginning to have more than a passing resemblance to societies left behind. While collapse may still be distant, our trajectory toward it is becoming more and more certain.