X Close

This is how civilisations collapse It is far from Hollywood's vision of Hell

Don't expect a sudden cataclysm (AGUSTIN PAULLIER/AFP via Getty Images)


November 18, 2021   6 mins

Last week, in an attempt to explain away the supply chain woes that are increasingly leading to goods shortages in America, President Biden cited a popular neoliberal fable. He observed that to make a pencil, wood and graphite must be sourced from the other ends of the world before the finished product can end up in American hands. “It sounds silly, but that’s exactly how it happens,” Biden mused, “that’s just the nature of the modern economy.” But the result, he added, is that “when global disruptions hit
 it can hit supply chains particularly hard”. 

For neoliberal ideologues such as Milton Friedman, who used the pencil fable to argue for opaque world-spanning supply chains, the beauty of such complex systems is not only that the consumer obtains his product at the lowest price possible, and that the producer can maximise his profits, “but even more to foster harmony and peace among the peoples of the world”. As the historian Quinn Slobodian noted in Globalists, his recent study of the first neoliberal theorists, such idealistic motivations were evident from the very start. Ignoring the fact that the globalised world of the late 19th century failed to prevent World War One, they believed that creating a giant interconnected market would make a repeat of such a cataclysm impossible.

 

They were wrong. Instead, the restructuring of the global economy into a large web vastly increases the risk of a total system collapse. Instead of one economy failing, a shock in one corner of the world can place great and sudden stress on economic and political systems thousands of miles away. A war in distant Taiwan can mean you’re no longer able to buy a new car; a drought on the other end of the world means empty shelves at home. 

As archaeologists and historians have increasingly begun to stress, our globalised world has seen two antecedents in the past: in the interconnected, hyper-specialised trading systems of the Bronze Age, and those of the Roman Empire at its height. When both buckled under a wave of unexpected shocks, the result was not decline or recession but total collapse, a process defined by the great theorist Joseph Tainter as “fundamentally a sudden, pronounced loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity”. 

This is, as Tainter observes, “a suddenly smaller, simpler, less stratified, and less socially differentiated” society, where “the flow of information drops, people trade and interact less” and “specialization decreases and there is less centralized control”.  This is not a Spenglerian moral fable of societal decline, but an inexorable process whereby growing complexity and sophistication bring with them a growing fragility: when a combination of shocks arrive, the entire society is suddenly forced to reorganise itself. It is not an extinction event or the end of the world: life goes on, just in a poorer, simpler fashion.

The great trading civilisations of the Bronze Age Mediterranean present just such an example. As the archaeologist Eric H. Cline notes in his recently reissued book 1177 BC, for more than two thousand years the great civilisations of Egypt, Western Asia and the Aegean had formed a single interconnected trading system, dependent on complex trading networks that “were open to instability the minute there was a change in one of the integral parts”.

When crisis struck, shortly after 1200 BC, it took down all the civilisations of the Bronze Age Mediterranean simultaneously. As Cline notes, “perhaps the inhabitants could have survived one disaster, such as an earthquake or a drought, but they could not survive the combined effects of earthquake, drought, and invaders all occurring in rapid succession”. A “domino effect” followed, in which, thanks to the globalised nature of their world,  “the disintegration of one civilisation led to the fall of the others”.

The collapse of Roman civilisation, a product of an overextended, underfinanced empire weakened by internal feuding among its political elites, presents another apposite example. As the archaeologist Bryan Ward-Perkins emphasised in his 2005 book The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation, the most remarkable aspect of Roman civilisation, archaeologically speaking, was the ability of even the poorest members of society to afford cheap and high-quality consumer goods, enabled by immense specialisation in production and an interconnected trading network that spanned the entire empire.  

Yet after Rome collapsed, such goods were only available for the very richest members of society. In the production of ceramics, the use of coinage and the construction of stone buildings, the Western half of the empire suddenly sank back to a level of societal complexity lower than in Iron Age prehistory, not returning to a Roman level of sophistication until the later Middle Ages. And indeed, as Ward-Perkins warns, the Roman economy’s complexity was the precise reason its collapse was so total: “economic complexity made mass-produced goods available, but it also made people dependent on specialists or semi-specialists — sometimes working hundreds of miles away — for many of their material needs.” While this worked well in times of stability, it precipitated collapse when trade routes were disrupted.

Like Friedman, or Biden, Ward-Perkins observes that today “we are wholly dependent for our needs on thousands, indeed hundreds of thousands, of other people spread around the globe, each doing their own little thing”. Yet he draws a very different conclusion about the desirability of this situation, noting that now “we would be quite incapable of meeting our needs locally, even in an emergency”. 

Yet of course, even as they were living through its early stages, the Romans were unaware their society was collapsing. Yes, goods were harder to come by, infrastructure was increasingly degraded, urban life was increasingly unsettled, economic growth was only a memory, and new religions boomed as people tried to make sense of their declining prospects. But even still, the military failures on the empire’s eastern fringes barely impacted life in the imperial centre. For some people, great profits could still be made: for most, things went on much as before, though with a lower standard of living with each passing year. No doubt, things will improve soon, Romans told themselves: this is only a temporary blip.

The theorist of collapse John Michael Greer dates the beginning of the collapse of our own society in the economic crisis of the mid-1970s, which drove deindustrialisation in both the United States and Britain and initiated the erosion of state capacity in search of ever-harder to accumulate profits, hoarded by oligarchs even as it destroyed the tax base. This is the process of what Greer terms “catabolic collapse” — “the stairstep sequence of decline” where decades of crisis are followed by decades of seeming improvement, though the underlying society is left weaker and less resilient before the next crisis hits: “rinse and repeat, and you’ve got the process that turned the Forum of imperial Rome into an early medieval sheep pasture.” 

This gloomy view accords well with the Marxist theorist Wolfgang Streeck’s 2016 analysis that the post-1970s crisis of capitalism, accelerated by the 2008 financial crash, has led us into a period of civilisational entropy and decay. For him, we experience “life in the shadow of uncertainty, always at risk of being upset by surprise events and unpredictable disturbances and dependent on individuals’ resourcefulness, skillful improvisation, and good luck”. It is a period where the state can no longer guarantee its citizens order or security, where “deep changes will occur” in an unpredictable fashion, and where every last effort to squeeze profit out of a collapsing system further undermines the social structure.

For Streeck, this interregnum is a time when personal wealth dwindles and financial insecurity becomes the norm. Indeed, as Streeck observes, it is a period where “as growth declines and risks increase, the struggle for survival will become more intense”. It offers “rich opportunities to oligarchs and warlords while imposing uncertainty and insecurity on all others, in some ways like the long interregnum that began in the fifth century CE and is now called the Dark Age”. It is not a vision of hell, or of the kind of apocalypse fantasised by Hollywood, but simply of a degraded version of the present: a world closer to the modern Global South than our recent past. It is not necessarily a sudden cataclysm, but a process that will take decades, perhaps even centuries, to fully reveal itself.

Neither Rome nor the civilisations of the Bronze Age Mediterranean were brought down by one single cause. It took the combination of climate change, elite rivalry, military disaster and migratory pressures, combined with the extreme fragility engendered by economic specialisation and tightly-knit international trading networks, to ensure that when collapse came, it was total. As Ward-Perkins warns, Rome’s system of complex supply chains “worked very well in stable times, but it rendered consumers extremely vulnerable if for any reason the networks of production and distribution were disrupted”.

The belated efforts of governments across the world to secure fragile supply chains and enhance food security are the refutation, in action, of the fable of the pencil. As Tainter notes, “the whole concern with collapse and self-sufficiency may itself be a significant social indicator” of decline. A focused effort on domestic resilience is, after all, in itself evidence of reduced civilisational complexity: as trade routes wither and consumption begins to drop, we should strive to ensure that we are heading towards a controlled descent and not a sudden, cataclysmic crash. The imperial centre may not hold, but our lives must go on.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

arisroussinos

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

79 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Saul D
Saul D
2 years ago

Complexity is not necessarily the problem. Monopoly might be. As systems mature they tend to consolidate looking for efficiencies of scale, arriving at one or two large companies in control of the market. If those large suppliers, suffer a failure – eg a semiconductor plant not producing – this affects everything downstream, and there are no alternatives. The answer here would be to ensure a greater diversity of supply, and to limit the potential for monopolies or monopolistic behaviour to corner the market.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

Excellent point.

Angelique Todesco-Bond
Angelique Todesco-Bond
2 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

Like the recent carbonation crisis, wasn’t it down to two main plants closing and suddenly it affected all corners of the market.

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
2 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

This is precisely Aris’s point though, that globalisation as it has been practiced has caused consolidation of producers for key things, which optimises cost at the expense of resilience. The question is whether governments will be able to see this problem for what it is, and whether consumers will accept paying more for goods that foresake price for consistency of supply.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
2 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago

This has been my issue for many years now. If I were in charge national self sufficiency in the essentials and the inculcation of useful skills in the general populace, would be my no. 1 priority, alongside sustainable population levels and improved defence capability. Globalisation is an evil that benefits only the corporation and the very rich. I think large chunks of the British public senses this instinctively and Brexit was an instinctive pushback against those forces.

Mel Shaw
Mel Shaw
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

We think alike. Covid and the recent energy crisis has highlighted that governments no longer carry out what should be their basic functions, which are to provide security for their people. Security in its wider meaning should cover food supplies, medicines, energy and skills, as well as defence and sensible immigration controls. The UK government doesn’t seem to have a firm grip on any of these, although the vaccine roll out was, perhaps, a lucky exception.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

The idea that lifting billions out of poverty over the past few decades which is what free(ish) trade and capitalism have achieved, is an ‘evil’ is to say the least an overstatement, as well as being amazingly myopic. Global trade is insufficient to ensure world peace, but Aris is his usual long-winded and over stated way, conveniently and entirely ignores the rush to protectionism in the 30s, which hugely damaged the world economy and was a major contributory cause of World War 2.

The UK in particular has been a trading nation for centuries and it would be quite impossible for us to be self sufficient.

I thought we should all know from school that the abolition of the protectionist Corn Laws was a great boon to productive industry and working class living standards, at the cost of the land owning aristocracy.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Oliver Wright
Oliver Wright
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

“Globalisation is an evil that benefits only the corporation and the very rich.” But corporations, unlike the very rich, have no actual existence – they are legal and social fictions – and any benefit they receive is passed on to real flesh-and-blood humans. These include (1) their ultimate shareholders (most of whom are relatively ordinary people, often holding through pension funds), (2) their employees (lifting billions out of poverty in the developing world), and (3) consumers, for whom globalisation has meant far more stuff being available far more cheaply.

Paul K
Paul K
2 years ago

Perhaps the funniest thing about this comments section is that a considered, researched piece of deep analysis like this, which is really talking about civilisational cycles over centuries, is immediately greeted with a chorus of ‘so what’s the solution, pessimist?’
This kind of solutionism – the notion that every ‘problem’ can be ‘solved’ by us, now, today – seems to be very much a part of the creaking modern edifice. How do you ‘solve’ a civilisational cycle? What would make you imagine that you can sort everything out to your liking? What if we just have to live through it? What if tryig to ‘solve’ the world is part of what is knocking it sideways?

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul K

It is still a good challenge, though, surely?
I mean, the Cro Magnon bloke who banged on about how we can’t protect ourselves from sabre-toothed tigers wasn’t wrong. But the really helpful contribution was from the listener who broadly agreed but who worked out that if you hit them very hard over the head with a tree branch, sabre-toothed tigers can often be made to run away.
The first guy was just David Icke. We don’t really need ten guys like him all saying the same thing. We need one or two guys like the second guy.

Paul K
Paul K
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

It can be sometimes, if the issue is specific. ‘What do we do about Hitler invading Poland?’, for example, is a question that requires an urgent answer and can’t be dodged. ‘What do we do about long-term civilisational rot?’ is rather different. There might be any number of answers – and to be fair, Aris has explored alternatives in other pieces. But there’s not going to be one ‘solution’ to an exhausted culture draining away, if that’s what you think is happening.

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul K

Moving onnery is solutionism’s twin sister. Don’t ever stop, it might catch up with you!

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

One of the first things Covid taught us as early as March/April last year, was that international supply chains needed to be re-looked in favour of more local manufacturing.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

Hi Leslie,

I do not know, Lesley. Does South Africa need to be making its own plastic buckets, washing detergent, shoes, chemicals, steel, light bulbs….

There are limits to dispersed manufacturing and agriculture. Sure, great commerce blocks would do well to keep some of the main industries on-shore, but more than that is just running up costs and down productivity.

The rule to be learned is to not LOCKDOWN most of the world because of a severe flu. Also – do you still keep up with the Ivermectin thing? I do (I still have my horse de-wormer tubes, $9 a tube, and does a 1200 lb horse, so 6 doses for me, at $1.5 a dose, better than Pfizer/Biden’s pill at $700 a pop.) Dr Campbell on Youtube has been getting closer and closer to openly backing Ivermentin lately – and is totally behind fluvoxamine, and todays youtube was saying vitamin D is basically enough to stop death and serious health issues from covid, even better than the vax – watch it, and really check out his fluvoxamine and Ivermectin Meta analysis, and his vax side effects (Kyle). He 100% just gives Legit Research results and studies, not his opinions.

Here he is – a Must Watch if you care of anything going on today – this guy is 100% vax and masks – but he can see the cracks forming as the official story is breaking down……Dr Campbell it the world’s most popular Youtube Covid Doctor and is not a nut but very mainstream, I watch him every day. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fbGug3rczx4

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

But isn’t all this plenty and convenience and lack of national self sufficiency, isn’t that what has brought about the climate emergency and NetZero which will take us back to a new stone age anyway??

Joy Bailey
Joy Bailey
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

So do I. He’s a voice of reason.

Laura Cattell
Laura Cattell
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

You’re hardly going to get Covid living in the woods.

Michael Richardson
Michael Richardson
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Dr. Campbell for Minister for Health.

Jane Watson
Jane Watson
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Thanks for that link. I thought it was pretty obvious early doors that people of colour were taking a massive hit and Vit D status could be relevant. Particularly problematic for those who wear robes and/or have restricted or vegetarian diets.

Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago

Well, that was cheery. At times like this, I miss the guys with boards, saying ‘Repent!’ and ‘The End of the World is Nigh!’

Go back just a generation or two and you’ll see how far we’ve come. Empires are like hemlines – they rise and fall. But what used to end in fire, war and pestilence can clearly become a peaceful Commonwealth, or a stable society still innovating and enjoying a drink.

I just wish for a little more optimism sometimes. I can’t think of another century I’d rather live in. Or another country.

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Gleeballs

For these types ‘Repent! The End of the World is Nigh!’ is looking on the bright side. Only one pandemic? Every cloud…

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Gleeballs

I’d rather live in Britain as it was in the 80s and 90s when we still had a modicum of self sufficiency and national identity, a bit of internationalism but before full globalised supply chains, and before social media and mass immigration.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

Agreed. I liked this country in the 80s and 90s. I don’t remember being consulted about changing it for the worse irreparably.

Phil Rees
Phil Rees
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Absolutely right, that was the good times and Blair started most of the rot!

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

Not a day goes by when I don’t wish for a time-machine to transport me back to the eighties, and my twenties, squalid and penniless as some of the times were. I have realised as the years roll by, that growing older is a big mistake – I recommend against it, avoid if at all you can.

Keith Jefferson
Keith Jefferson
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Yes, growing old is not to be recommended. But I don’t much like the alternative.

Ken Moss
Ken Moss
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Growing older is inevitable, growing up is optional.

michael stanwick
michael stanwick
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Gleeballs

It certainly reads as an ‘entertaining piece’, doesn’t it? But I would heartily recommend Eric Cline’s very readable and entertaining book 1177BC. But I don’t recall ‘climate change’, as we understand it today, being referenced for the Bronze Age Mediterranean. IIRC, it was the fact that tectonic activity expressed as earthquakes and the shifting of underground water reservoirs plus atmospheric pressures unrelated to human activity. Still, I get the author’s general point that is coherent with Cline’s thesis.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

An interesting article with plenty of links for further research if desired.
So what’s the solution to gradual collapse due to shocks to an interconnected global manufacturing and trade system? Does history teach us a possible way out of this scenario or, as the author seems to suggest, are we stuck on the slippery slope?
I guess the obvious approach is to bring back as much manufacturing as possible, but that would inevitably lead to higher prices. People might be willing to tolerate a hit to their bank account if they believe it’s necessary for the future of their society. In the West, however, we’re busy tearing our societies and history down. Are a majority of Americans or Brits willing to sacrifice for the future of their countries? At this moment, I suspect not.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

“So what’s the solution to gradual collapse due to shocks to an interconnected global manufacturing and trade system?”

Well the whole point of this great ‘What If’ article was to say it is not gradual decline, but complete collapse and a return to the Dark Ages we are headed to….

“the result was not decline or recession but total collapse” “fundamentally a sudden, pronounced loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity”. “

Of course I think it is totally wrong – I think it is a cross between ‘Brave New World’ and ‘1984’ that we are moving to ï»ż(more to the latter) as the Global Elite take us to bondage in a Neo-Feudalism. That will be gradual, like the 6 weeks to flatten the curve is just gradual warming of the water so us frogs do not notice…………which was very much not about health, but another milestone of freedom and economy lost on the path to Serfdom we are set on….

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Google Hanlon’s Razor.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Hanlon’s razor states “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity“”

Never is too strong a word here. I have seen malicious government in other countries – they were Malice AND stupidity.

Change the adage to ‘Never solely attribute malice to what is better explained by a combination of malice and stupidity’.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

We’re being asked to already by NetZero fanatics in our fully globalised world. What’s the difference? Why not sacrifice for national self sufficiency instead?

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

It’s a good point. There’s maybe one essential difference. Destroying our culture, and wrecking the economy to manage the sky, stand no chance of succeeding, and will deliver nothing valuable in failing. Becoming more self-sufficient, on the other hand, is actually possible and partial success would still be worthwhile.
Guess which one we’ll end up doing.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

OK, a cod-Sociology/history lesson where the distant past is used very freely to extrapolate the future. .So what about WWII? The world soon came out of it more robust and wealthy, a decade or two. Like WWI, in fact like the Cold War, like the American/French Revolutions… See, the modern world is not like Rome, Byzantium or Assyria who were single Primates of civilization – because now the money, learning, mechanization, and means are dispersed very wide. Japan, India, Indonesia, China, Russia, Europe, UK, USA, Brazil, and on and on – all are containing the means to rebound, and the Barbarians will not destroy and burn them all to the ground at once. (although Postmodernist-Neo-Marxism-Woke is trying its best)

But I found the microaggressions against us who have some religiousness a troubling thing:

“fifth century CE and is now called the Dark Age”.” OK, ‘CE’, ‘Common Era’ instead of AD, (Anno Domini, year of Our Lord) the Woke keeping of Christianity out of things – but a couple times you used ‘BC, “When crisis struck, shortly after 1200 BC” (Before Christ) instead of BCE (Before Common Era). See this is the modern age where every word must be considered, and in blending these usages you offend everyone, Christian, Pagan, woke and unwoke….You need to check your Male, Western, White Privilege Patriarchy. (having woke fun, but I did find it glaring how you mixed the terms, so developed are our instincts to be offended)

How about “urban life was increasingly unsettled, economic growth was only a memory, and new religions boomed as people tried to make sense of their declining prospects.” where you use religion (I assume you mean Christianity, given the context) as some superstition people go to in times of chaos – forgetting Christianity was at the FORE of all the Western age of civilization, Scientific, Philosophical, Industrial, Political advancement and Enlightenment, during the highest, as well as the lowest, times, so it seems to not just be some faddish talisman for luck.

The rules of writing are changed – any slip of a word is disastrous, depending on who is reading it….

Last edited 2 years ago by Galeti Tavas
Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I agree. Even as an atheist I will always, ALWAYS use ‘BC’ and ‘AD’.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Yes. I once asked a Muslim friend what he thought about the use of BCE and CE and he said that in some ways it is more Christian-centric because it is now billing the the same start date (which it is) as the common era, whereas before it acknowledged that it was based upon Christian dating which he had no problem with. Using the same (Christian) dating system and calling it something different, thereby telling all other faiths that it is now a common era is rather arrogant really.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

That’s a good point.

Tom Krehbiel
Tom Krehbiel
2 years ago

I’ve had precisely that thought. And the thing is, it wasn’t common, as the dating of the AD years didn’t come about until several centuries after Jesus’s death, as I understand it.

Michael Richardson
Michael Richardson
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Usage of Common Era notation began about 1615 among Christians in Europe, and has been growing among non-Christians and among Christians who desire to be sensitive to non-Christians. (Wikipedia)

1685 is definitely pre-woke.

Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

We’ll all know when to laugh out loud at bce’s ludicrousity when legions of minions tippex out BC/AD from all the books in the world and re-insert their banal era joke. Can’t have the next generation becoming bemused as to why change a perfectly good dating icon. Or wondering about a bloke who changed just about everything.
And then some.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

the Marxist theorist Wolfgang Streeck’s 2016 analysis that the post-1970s crisis of capitalism, accelerated by the 2008 financial crash, has led us into a period of civilisational entropy and decay.

Pfft. What does ole Wolfgang have to say about the “period of civilisational entropy and decay” that are always brought about by the implementation of any form of Marxism? Let me guess: nothing. Am I right?

William Hickey
William Hickey
2 years ago

Multiculturalism, which is an aspect of globalization, is also a system of increasing complexity introduced into homogeneous cultures in relative equilibrium.

Once it begins, multiculturalism’s inner logic invariably leads to more multiculturalism, until the society that first attracted the multicultural migrants collapses into one resembling the chaotic societies the migrants left.

Prepare for “informal settlements” in London, Paris and New York just as in Kenya and other centers of emigration in the not-too distant future.

The current homeless encampments bedeviling the West are merely the beginning.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

Only agreeing with this analysis in intermittent parts. I have never found the ‘history repeats-rhymes’ trope particularly convincing – it does at times and in places, but not always and by no means everywhere. As such, I remain to be convinced history has anything to teach us about our present moment of crisis. Quite apart from anything, the number of industrial/societal revolutions of this scale that humanity has seen over the last few millennia, can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and that is hardly a big enough sample to extrapolate that patterns from the past are about to repeat in some form.

To illustrate with an example, while I agree with the thesis that complex supply chains are fragile and can be vulnerable to catastrophic collapse, but I have long thought these were on the verge of unwinding anyway, for reasons of technology. Let me try and explain. It is known that, for example, an aeroplane construction will source literally a million different parts or materials from over a hundred different countries. But the blindingly obvious mitigation is the fact that 3D printing will obviate the need to connect to manufacturers across national boundaries anyway. Why would you need to connect to the producers of a million different airplane components across a hundred different countries, when 3D printing will eventually allow all of them to be created at home anyway? The only thing needed is the raw materials, and even that is not a given, considering that tech will eventually allow biosynthetic substitutes to be created for most metals. All you will ultimately need is hydrogen, oxygen and carbon and nitrogen. Literally *everything* needed can be made from that.

On the pessimism front, there is no one more of a pessimist than me, but my pessimism stems from neither the fear of climate collapse nor that of societal regression – I think both will be averted as people and societies react to the changing circumstances and technological solutions gather pace. I know various UnHerd writers think we are on the verge of societal convulsions, and they don’t necessarily believe in the narratives of technological advance providing solutions – but I agree only to a point. I think technology will fix what are the current ‘fashion’ problems, but technology is also about to create varieties of existential crises of a type humanity has typically swept under the carpet – the confrontation with our biological nature and the nihilism likely generated by that confrontation, the fact that we are soon going to alter that biological nature (like it or not), the likelihood that increasing numbers of us will ‘disappear’ into private fantasy worlds as technology allows. That is not to say the next couple of decades are not going to be unpleasant, I suspect there is a lot of pain coming, but not of the variety that is fashionable.

One thing I know: like it or not, humanity is going to keep generating and using ever greater amounts of energy (while simultaneously mitigating the side effects), globalisation is (ultimately) inexorable, as is technological advance, and societal and individual complexity is going to mechanically keep increasing.

Last edited 2 years ago by Prashant Kotak
Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

A more engaging post even than the excellent article. A bit more optimistic on biosynth than I’d be, but several of your intuitions on the future match my own.
 
I’d say there are also brighter possibilities. The migration to the digital world has indeed involved much mental suffering for certain types of people. But most evidence I’ve seen suggests that is a ‘hell is other people’ type problem, which can be avoided by going private. Huh, even 50 years ago many reporting they preferred talking to ELIZA compared to real people. There’s some reason to think relatively private fantasy worlds populated by AIs can be near wholly pleasurable. And even therapeutic, in that they can increase the ability of severely autistic or traumatised folk to engage socially. Thousands of firms working on these things, from startups to the tech giants.
 
Altering our biological nature may not solely be encouraging digital retreat. New forms of genetic engineering may help alleviate factors that make the real world so uncomfortable for some. Several other variables could also lead to a better tomorrow. That said, what you suggest sounds possible, as does Aris’s complexity crash (or managed decline), and I’ve believed in the possibility of a Spenglerian decline for decades. Still all to play for IMO.

Michael Richardson
Michael Richardson
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Replied to wrong comment, please ignore,

Last edited 2 years ago by Michael Richardson
Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Very good post.

Tom Krehbiel
Tom Krehbiel
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Yeah, are we really going to be using ever greater amounts of energy when we have either reached, or will soon reach, Peak Oil, Peak Natural Gas, and Peak Coal, and none of the renewables are likely to supply enough to satisfy such a scenario?

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago
Reply to  Tom Krehbiel

I have been listening to narratives of ‘Peak Oil’ since the 80s, and yet more and more keeps being discovered, including the latest huge amounts in shale, worldwide. And of course coal deposits globally are near inexhaustible. The issue is, how dirty those fossil fuels are, and if we will be forced to stop using them because we cannot make them clean. That is possible of course, but I would say it is more likely that we will simply find ways to clean up the burning of fossil fuels Petrol is already far clearer than a few years ago, for example no Lead

Mark Vernon
Mark Vernon
2 years ago

I don’t think Spengler was a moral tale-teller but drew on organic models, treating civilisations like living self-organising systems with a natural lifecycle. In part, he sought to account for why plagues, invasions, earthquakes etc may happen at many points across the centuries of a civilisation’s existence, and not seriously destabilise it.

Matt B
Matt B
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Vernon

He made very valid points. The ideas in this article are not new, however, and they remain under constant reconsideration and adjustment – especially as people now expect policy answers to match the theory. ‘Collapse’ by Jared Diamond served as a popular reminder of the issue but in modern complex systems’ social and natural science researchers have, over 50+ yrs, additionally conceptualised resilience in social-ecological terms of interlinked short and long-run adaptive cycles of collapse and renewal across time and space. Resilience was, for example, implicit in the Millennium Assessment and later IPCC work informed by, amongst others, the Resilience Alliance. Ecology and Society discusses many related complexity issues in human and natural systems terms, in turn related to disasters and wider govt policy. Finding policy solutions in local terms alone is hard, before considering linkages to global scale, and all struggle to address the political acceptability of those perhaps needed to answer Rockstrom’s Plantery Boundaries conundrum – a report that climate sceptics may reject (before reading perhaps). The downer in risk studies is that humans habitually fail to address major issues characterised by a 30yr+ window. That’s where we’re at, as we focus daily on more proximate elements of it – competing over minutiae rather than working together on core challenges. The question is not pessimism vs optimism, but of preparedness to engage in finding solutions. Do Unherd readers do that, or get in the way of others trying?

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt B
Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

Numbers. Imagine a UK with a population of circa 40m having declined from around 55m.- a fair chance of rewilding and regreening and far more potentially self sufficient. Instead we are approx 70m according to footfall estimates from retail having grown GDP through an immigration Ponzi scheme. Not GDP per head of course and brilliant for housebuilders and landlords. By comparison Sweden has 10m in an area 1.9 times the UK. They don’t miss another few million unborn souls. Our overcrowding makes us very vulnerable to this kind of collapse.

Matt B
Matt B
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

And Covid

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

I remember the time of local manufacture.

They were also the times of nationalised industry and state support, protectionism and union control.

Complexity and interdependence is better.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago

Self sufficiency in the essentials is better. Covid has made this very clear.

Last edited 2 years ago by Cheryl Jones
Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

I don’t think it has. Nobody starved.
Trucks kept crossing borders even in the strictest lockdowns.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
2 years ago

If a country has the money to make it worth their while.

Last edited 2 years ago by Tony Buck
Zorro Tomorrow
Zorro Tomorrow
2 years ago

We’re on a monocycle. We have to keep pedalling, balancing, or we fall off. If we cling to a post or a tree we’ll be OK but then we may as well sit a chair. If we stop trading with the other side of the world the planes, the ships, stop. If they stop the docks and airports, the trucks, the vans stop. The factories close, employment and wages cease. If we resume building our own stuff and grow enough to feed us; much the same effect. Hard lying times ahead, the hysteresis takes ages to find a balance again until the dockers learn to farm, the drivers learn to manufacture. And Putin and Xi want Ukraine and Taiwan back. Keep pedalling ffs.

Peter Shaw
Peter Shaw
2 years ago

I haven’t read anything so uplifting in ages. The days Woke are numbered.

Lee Jones
Lee Jones
2 years ago

As ever a dismal analysis – although generally I agree, people in the west seem to have forgotten that life requires some struggle, if only to add interest. But would it not be a little more useful to pose some possible solutions? Doom-mongers become rather tedious if they do not suggest a new path, they just fade into the background along with all the other lazy pessamists

Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
2 years ago
Reply to  Lee Jones

A new path you say Lee?…..Well as Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species which survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one which is most responsive to change.” The feature of earlier trading system collapses, and their associated periods of social decline, which is not highlighted in the article, is the roll of inflation and currency debasement. The winners and losers in our time, may well be those who are quickest to abandon faith in fiat currency.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Bernard Hill

Also what is not mentioned is that the model of the complete collapse of the Western Roman Empire is not by any means accepted by all historians. If one looks at Gaul, which became Francia, then there is continuity, even if large changes were made; Italy itself still continued at a high standard of civilisation, the fact that the Forum Romanum was not used was because it no longer served a purpose. There were massive changes, that is true, but there was also cotinuity as the societies responded to these changes. Additionally beware the term “Dark Ages” this was coined because the lack of written sources made the era “dark” to historians (not to archaeologists, though) and it was mostly to Britain that the term was applied, because it was here that the break-down was complete when most of the elites rushed off to Brittany, although even in Britain there were pockets of continuity (mostly in the West country). So what we have in most areas is change, radical change, rather than collapse.

Last edited 2 years ago by Linda Hutchinson
Lee Jones
Lee Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Bernard Hill

I’m not in the mood to to dismiss two dismal articles in one day, it’s tedious. But please feel free to bore me again next week. For various reasons I will be in a much better mood, I might even read your entire comment.

Amos Farrell
Amos Farrell
2 years ago

Issac Asimov proposes an elegant solution in his ‘Foundation’ series. We need a ‘Terminus’ foundation in western Canada, that nobody really notices…

Judith Downey
Judith Downey
2 years ago

I have been reading Eric Cline’s book and at the same time noting the disruptions to supply lines associated with the pandemic. I did not fail to see the connection.

G Mike Berger
G Mike Berger
2 years ago

Obvious a key topic and much to learn from and ponder in the article. However the author fails to mention directly (I haven’t followed up every link) the fundamental and critical interdisciplinary work being done by the broader Cliodynamics group forming around the work of Peter Turchin and his colleagues. They’ve embarked for some time now on an ambitious program linking historians, ecologists, sociologists, evolutionary cultural anthropologists, archaeologists and other specialists together with experts in the modelling of complex systems (like Turchin himself) to create empirically testable models. All early work still but there are attempts within the broader academic community to tackle this looming existential issue It certainly needs funding and critical but constructive support

G Mike Berger
G Mike Berger
2 years ago
Reply to  G Mike Berger
Last edited 2 years ago by G Mike Berger
Judy Englander
Judy Englander
2 years ago

Not apocalypse but “a degraded version of the present”: I was immediately reminded of the world brilliantly and evocatively visualised in Blade Runner (the original version of course).

Last edited 2 years ago by Judy Englander
Karl Francis
Karl Francis
2 years ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

No, director’s cut surely???

Oliver Wright
Oliver Wright
2 years ago

Sure, when complex economic systems collapse, we get worse off, but while they work – and most of the time they do – they make us better off.
And while they make us more vulnerable to far-flung events, they make us far less vulnerable to local events. Hence, among other things, the huge decline in famines.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago

The Mid Bronze Age ( 1500BC ) and Roman Period( 100BC to 200 AD) enjoyed global warming which increased agricultural production and human growth; It was the cooling which led to too little food for too many people.
It was too large an affluent and effete upper midle class and upper class who could not defeat the nomadic horse riding tribes from The Steppes who enabled collapse to occur. By 400AD the Plebeian small farmer had been reduced to poverty, was living in the slums of Rome and was on the dole while semi Romanised Goths defended the borders. Vast estates using slave labour owned by the Patrician classes meant the Plebeian farmer could not compete economically and was burdened by massive debts, almost to the point of slavery. The affluent effete Romans of 410AD were no match for the savage Huns.
The threat to the West comes from a self loathing affluent effete upper middle and upper classes and a Plebian class, the mainstay of the armed forces being reduced to debt bondage with a dependence on imported cheap labour. The similarities with Rome post 325 AD are great.
Who is today’s Rome and Byzantium?

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

“It is a period where the state can no longer guarantee its citizens order or security, where “deep changes will occur” in an unpredictable fashion…”
Has there ever been a prolonged time on earth where a state was able to guarantee order and security to its citizens? Certainly not under any Marxist regime.

Kevin Hester
Kevin Hester
2 years ago

Further to the great read above is this recent interview between Joseph Tainter and Nate Hagens
Joe Tainter: “Surplus, Complexity, and Simplification” | The Great Simplification

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
2 years ago

If you remember the 80s, you were there.

Marek Nowicki
Marek Nowicki
2 years ago

Remember that US outsourced manufacturing and Europe outside energy supply to the openly hostile countries. Romans will never do such a stupidity. This is just pure shortsightedness and quest for profits. It has nothing to do with ideology infused description in the article…

Last edited 2 years ago by Marek Nowicki