experienced a gradual decline
over three centuries.
Photo by Rod Waddington/Flickr
However, there's a more complicated reality behind this view of collapse.
In fact, the end of
civilizations rarely involved a sudden cataclysm or apocalypse.
Often the process is protracted, mild, and leaves people and culture
continuing for many years.
The collapse of the Maya civilization in Mesoamerica, for example, took place over three centuries in what's known as the 'Terminal Classic period', between 750-1050 AD.
While it was marked by a
10-15 per cent increased mortality rate and the abandonment of some
cities, other areas flourished, and writing, trade and urban living
remained until after the arrival of
the Spanish in the 1500s.
During the First Intermediate Period of Egypt that followed on the heels of the Old Kingdom, non-elite tombs became richer and more common. There's also little convincing evidence of mass starvation and death.
Ankhtifi had a vested
interest in portraying it as a time of catastrophe, too: he'd
recently ascended to the status of governor, and the account
glorifies his great feats in this time of crisis.
Civilizational demise can also provide space for renewal.
The emergence of the nation-state in Europe wouldn't have happened without the end of the Western Roman Empire many centuries before.
This has led some scholars to speculate that,
Like a forest fire, the
creative destruction of collapse provides resources and space for
evolution and reorganization.
Until the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, writing and other forms of documentation were largely the preserve of government bureaucrats and aristocrats.
Meanwhile, the footprint
of the masses - such as non-state hunter-gatherers, foragers and
pastoralists - was biodegradable.
Yes, it might mean more wars, less culture and less trade - but the archaeological record is often too scarce to draw settled conclusions.
And there are powerful counterexamples:
But none of this means that we should be complacent about the prospects for a future fall.
Take the near-total blackout that affected New York City in July 1977.
By contrast, a loss of
electricity in 1877 in New York City probably wouldn't have
registered with most citizens.
It's not clear that we
could pick up the pieces if industrial society collapsed.
Diplomatic cables released via Wikileaks in 2010 suggested that Egypt was offered cheap nuclear materials, scientists and even weapons.
Worse still, Russian
scientists recruited during the 1990s might have underpinned North
Korea's successful weapons program. As humanity's technological
capabilities grow, the threat of collapse cascading into a darker
outcome and widespread weaponization can only grow.
A mathematical-systems study in Nature in 2010 found that interconnected networks are more prone to random failure than isolated ones.
Similarly, while interconnectedness in financial systems can initially be a buffer, it appears to reach a tipping point where the system becomes more fragile, and failures spread more readily.
Historically this is what happened to Bronze Age societies in the Aegean and Mediterranean, according to the historian and archaeologist Erin Cline in his book 1177 BC - The Year Civilization Collapsed (2014).
The interconnectedness of
these people made for a prospering region, but also set up a row of
dominoes that could be knocked down by a potent combination of
earthquakes, warfare, climatic change and revolts.
What comes from collapse depends, in part, on how people navigate the ensuing tumult, and how easily and safely citizens can return to alternative forms of society.
Unfortunately, these features suggest that while collapse has a mixed track record, in the modern world it might have only a dark future.