Societal collapse

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Societal collapse broadly includes both quite abrupt societal failures typified by the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, the Mayan Civilization collapse and others of the type, as well as more extended grinding declines of former superpowers like the Roman empire. The great irony expressed by these and others like them is that civilizations that seem ideally designed to creatively solve problems find themselves doing so self-destructively. What distinguishes these more dramatic failures of human societies, seeming to deserve the term "collapse", from less dramatic long term decline is not widely agreed on. The subject also then generally includes any other long term decline of a culture, its civil institutions or other major characteristics of it as a society or a civilization, generally permanent. The coupled breakdown of economic, cultural and social institutions with ecological relationships is perhaps the most common feature of collapse. The most accessible and thorough discussions of the subject are the review of the scientific anthropology literature by J.A. Tainter and the popular but thorough book of the same title by Jared Diamond.

Although a societal collapse is generally an endpoint for that form of administering the social and economic life of a culture, it can be as another kind of change of administration of the same culture. Russian culture would seem to have outlived both the society of the Czars and the society of the Soviet Union, for example. Frequently the phenomenon is also a process of decentralization of authority after a 'classic' period of centralized social order, perhaps replaced by competing centers as the central authority weakens. Societal collapse is certainly not a benign social process, but remnants may linger long after the high culture of the society vanishes. As when the black plague contributed to breaking the hold of European feudal society on its underclass in the 1400s, societal failure may also result in a degree of empowerment for the lower levels of a former climax society, who escape from the burden of onerous taxes and control by exploitative elites.

The common factors appearing to contribute to societal collapse are economic, environmental, social and cultural, but they manifest combined effects like a whole system out of balance. In many cases a natural disaster (e.g. tsunami, earthquake, massive fire or climate change) may seem to be an immediate cause, but, other cases of civilizations in similar situations that were resilient and survived the same kind of insult make such causes not sufficient. That is the very sharp reasoning method used by J.A Tainter, and how he combed the evidence to weed out the insufficient causes in his thesis that societies essentially exhausted their own designs, and were unable to adapt to natural diminishing returns for what they knew as their method of survival. It matches closely Toynbee's idea that "they find problems they can't solve". The diversity of forms of societies correspond to diversity in their failures too. In other instances significant inequity may combine with lack of loyalty to a central power structure and result in an oppressed lower class to rise up and taking power from a smaller wealthy elite. If there is a general "antidote" to collapse would seem to be societal cohesion, diversity, and adaptability.

Societal collapse may come in many kinds and have various causes, but has recurred throughout history in a way that suggests that humans have a kind of learning disability or basic misunderstanding of nature that makes sustaining complex organization hazardous. That it is part of the human condition is undoubtable, but appears not part of our genetic makeup as suggested by the absence of each kind of collapse in at least some cultures such as those with great longevity of India and China. It is certain that everything in nature begins and ends in some time frame, but a great many collapses seem to have happened for no very good reason apart from an apparent failure to understand the problem. Whether movements like that of modern day survivalists preparing for the possible collapse of contemporary society, are part of the understanding we would need to solve our internal conflicts, or alternately part of our misunderstanding of the situation, is, of course, the kind of question we need to learn how to answer to survive.


[edit] Linking Societal/Environmental dynamics

Modern social critics commonly interpret things like sedentary social behavior as symptomatic of societal decay, and link what appears to be laziness with the depletion of important non-renewable resources. Many primitive cultures actually have high degrees of leisure too, though, so if that is a cause in one place it is not in others, so it is then not a necessary cause. What produces modern sedentary life, unlike nomadic hunter-gatherers, is extraordinary modern economic productivity. That exceptional productivity is actually more the sign of hidden weakness that Tainter points to, both because of our great dependence on it, and it's potential to undermine its own basis for success by not being self limiting as demonstrated in our culture's ideal of perpetual growth. As population grows and technology makes it easier to exploit depleting resources, the environment's diminishing returns are hidden from view. Social complexity is then potentially threatened if it develops beyond what is actually sustainable, and a disorderly reorganization were to follow. That is like the scissors model of Malthusian collapse where population grows without limit and resources don't, and is the usual simple idea of great opposing environmental forces cutting into each other of concern. It also appears to occur in complex forms in real collapses. For the modern world economy, for example, the growing conflict between food and fuel, depending on many of the same finite and diminishing resources is visible in the recent major commodity price shocks, and is one of the key relationships people since the early studies of the Club of Rome have been most concerned with.

A related economic model is proposed by Thomas Homer-Dixon[1] and by Charles Hall[2] in relation to our declining productivity of energy extraction, or Energy Return on Energy Invested or EROEI. This measures the amount of surplus energy a society gets from using energy to obtain energy. There would be no surplus if EROEI approaches 1:1. What Hall showed is that the real cutoff is well above that, estimated to be 3:1 to sustain the essential overhead energy costs of a modern society. Part of the mental equation is that the EROEI of our generally preferred energy source, oil, 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 EROEI 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 life styles of the rich and poor that a society depends on. The EROEI figure also affects the number of people needed for food production. In the pre-modern world, it was often the case that 80% of the population was employed in agriculture to feed a population of 100%, with a low energy budget. In modern times, the use of cheap fossil fuels with an exceedingly high EROEI enabled 100% of the population to be fed with only 4% of the population employed in agriculture. Diminishing EROEI making fuel more expensive relative to other things may require food to be produce using less energy, and so increasing the number of people employed in food production again.

[edit] Population Dynamics and Other Features of Collapse

In the general study of cultural change and population dynamics a whole system displays complex ecosystem change, and organizational adaptability relates importantly to organizational diversity. Several key feature of human societal collapse can be related to population dynamics[3]

Reversion/Simplification: A society's adaptive capacity may be reduced by either a sharp increase in population or social complexity, destabilizing social institutions and cause massive shifts in population and other social dynamics. In in cases of collapse civilizations tend to revert to less complex, less centralized socio-political forms using simpler technology. These are characteristics of a Dark Age. Examples of such societal collapse are: the Hittite Empire, the Mycenaean civilization, the Western Roman Empire, the Mauryan and Gupta states of India, the Mayas, the Angkor in Cambodia, and the Han and Tang dynasties in China.

Incorporation/Absorption: Alternately, a society may be gradually incorporated into a more dynamic, more complex inter-regional social structure. This happened in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Levantine cultures, the Eastern Roman Empire, the Mughal and Delhi Sultanates in India, Sung China, the Aztec culture in Mesoamerica, the Inca culture in South America, and the modern civilizations of China, Japan, and India as well as many modern states in the Middle East and Africa.

Other Features

  • Destratification: Complex societies stratified on the basis of class, gender, race or some other salient factor become much more homogeneous or horizontally structured. In many cases past social stratification slowly becomes irrelevant following collapse and societies become more egalitarian.
  • Despecialization: One of the most characteristic features of complex civilizations (and in many cases the yardstick to measure complexity) is a high level of job specialization. The most complex societies are characterized by artisans and tradespeople who specialize intensely in a given task. Indeed, the rulers of many past societies were hyper-specialized priests or priestesses who were completely supported by the work of the lower classes. During societal collapse the social institutions supporting such specialization are removed and people tend to become more generalized in their work and daily habits.
  • Decentralization: As power becomes decentralized people tend to be more self-regimented and have many more personal freedoms. In many instances of collapse there is a slackening of social rules and etiquette. Geographically speaking, communities become more parochial or isolated. For example, following the collapse of the Mayan civilization many Maya returned to their traditional hamlets, moving away from the large cities that had been the centers of the empire.
  • Destructuralization: Epiphenomena, institutions, processes, and artifacts are all manifest in the archaeological record in abundance in large civilizations. After collapse, types of artifacts left or evidence of epiphenomena and institutions changes dramatically as people are forced to adopt more self-sufficient lifestyles.
  • Depopulation: Societal collapse is almost always associated with a decline in population densities. In extreme cases, the collapse in population is so severe that the society disappears entirely, such as happened with the Greenland Vikings, or a number of Polynesian islands. In less extreme cases, populations are reduced until a demographic balance is re-established between human societies and the depleted natural environment. A classic example is the case of Ancient Rome which had a population of about 1.5 million during the reign of Trajan, but had only 15,000 inhabitants by the 9th century.

[edit] Models of societal response

According to Joseph Tainter[4] (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:

1. The Dinosaur: The best example is a large scale society in which resources are being depleted at an exponential rate and yet nothing is done to rectify the problem because the ruling elite are unwilling or unable to adapt to said changes. In such examples rulers tend to oppose any solutions that diverge from their present course of action. They will favor intensification and commit an increasing number of resources to their present plans, projects and social institutions.

2. Runaway Train: An example would be a society that only functions when growth is present. Societies based almost exclusively on acquisition, including pillage or exploitation, cannot be sustained indefinitely. The societies of the Assyrians and the Mongols, for example, both fractured and collapsed when no new conquests were forthcoming. Tainter argues that Capitalism can be seen as an example of the Runaway Train model as it requires whole economies, individual sectors, and companies to constantly grow on a three month basis. Current methods of resource extraction and food production may be unsustainable, however, the philosophy of consumerism and planned obsolescence encourage the purchase of an ever increasing number of goods and services to sustain the economy.

3. House of Cards: In this aspect of Tainter's model societies that grow to be so large and include so many complex social institutions that they are inherently unstable and prone to collapse.

[edit] An example of Tainter's Critique of Simplistic Models

Though superficially useful, Tainter argues that these models alone fail to account for societal collapse. Often they are seen as interconnected occurrences that reinforce each other. For example, leaders on Easter Island saw a rapid decline of trees but ruled out change (i.e. The Dinosaur). Timber was used as rollers to transport and erect large statues called moai as a form of religious reverence to their ancestors. Reverence was believed to result in a more prosperous future. It gave the people an impetus to intensify moai production (i.e. Runaway Train). Easter Island also has a fragile ecosystem because of its isolated location (i.e. House of Cards). Deforestation led to soil erosion and insufficient resources to build boats for fishing or tools for hunting. Competition for dwindling resources resulted in warfare and many casualties. Together these events led to the collapse of the civilization, but no single factor ("house of cards" for example) is adequate.

It is worth noting that mainstream interpretations of the history of Easter Island also include the slave raiders who abducted a large proportion of the population, and epidemics that killed most of the survivors, see Easter Island History#Destruction of society and population. Again, no single point explains the collapse, but only a complex and integrated view.

Tainter's position is that societal complexity is a recent and comparatively anomalous occurrence requiring constant support. He observes that collapse is best understood by grasping four axioms, best stated in his own words (p 194):

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

With these facts in mind, collapse can simply be understood as a loss of the energy, what Tainter calls "declining marginal returns," needed to maintain societal complexity. Collapse is thus the sudden loss of societal complexity, stratification, internal and external communication and exchange, and productivity.

[edit] Toynbee’s theory of decay

The British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, in his 12-volume magnum opus A Study of History, theorized that all civilizations pass through several distinct stages: genesis, growth, time of troubles, universal state, and disintegration.

Toynbee argues that the breakdown of civilizations is not caused by loss of control over the environment, over the human environment, or attacks from outside. Rather, it comes from the deterioration of the "Creative Minority," which eventually ceases to be creative and degenerates into merely a "Dominant Minority" (who forces the majority to obey without meriting obedience). He argues that creative minorities deteriorate due to a worship of their "former self," by which they become prideful, and fail to adequately address the next challenge they face.

He argues that the ultimate sign a civilization has broken down is when the dominant minority forms a "Universal State," which stifles political creativity. He states:

First the Dominant Minority attempts to hold by force—against all right and reason—a position of inherited privilege which it has ceased to merit; and then the Proletariat repays injustice with resentment, fear with hate, and violence with violence when it executes its acts of secession. Yet the whole movement ends in positive acts of creation—and this on the part of all the actors in the tragedy of disintegration. The Dominant Minority creates a universal state, the Internal Proletariat a universal church, and the External Proletariat a bevy of barbarian war-bands.

He argues that, as civilizations decay, they form an "Internal Proletariat" and an "External Proletariat." The Internal proletariat is held in subjugation by the dominant minority inside the civilization, and grows bitter; the external proletariat exists outside the civilization in poverty and chaos, and grows envious. He argues that as civilizations decay, there is a "schism in the body social," whereby:

  • abandon and self-control together replace creativity, and
  • truancy and martyrdom together replace discipleship by the creative minority.

He argues that in this environment, people resort to archaism (idealization of the past), futurism (idealization of the future), detachment (removal of oneself from the realities of a decaying world), and transcendence (meeting the challenges of the decaying civilization with new insight, as a Prophet). He argues that those who Transcend during a period of social decay give birth to a new Church with new and stronger spiritual insights, around which a subsequent civilization may begin to form after the old has died.

Toynbee's use of the word 'church' refers to the collective spiritual bond of a common worship, or the same unity found in some kind of social order.

[edit] Foreign invasions

The decline of the Roman Empire is one of the events traditionally marking the end of Classical Antiquity and the beginning of the European Middle Ages. Throughout the fifth century, the Empire's territories in western Europe and northwestern Africa, including Italy, fell to various invading or indigenous peoples in what is sometimes called the Barbarian invasions, although the eastern half still survived with borders essentially intact for several centuries (until the Arab expansion).

The North Africa's populous and flourishing civilization collapsed after exhausting its resources in internal fighting and suffering devastation from the invasion of the Bedouin tribes of Banu Sulaym and Banu Hilal.[5] Ibn Khaldun noted that the lands ravaged by Banu Hilal invaders had become completely arid desert.[6]

In the brutal pillaging that followed Mongol invasions, the invaders decimated the populations of China, Russia, Middle East, and Islamic Central Asia. Later Mongol leaders, such as Timur, though he himself became a Muslim, destroyed many cities, slaughtered thousands of people and did irreparable damage to the ancient irrigation systems of Mesopotamia. These invasions transformed a civil society to a nomadic one.[7]

Encounters between European explorers and populations in the rest of the world often introduced local epidemics of extraordinary virulence. Smallpox ravaged Mexico in the 1520s, killing 150,000 in Tenochtitlán alone, including the emperor, and Peru in the 1530s, aiding the European conquerors.[8] Some believe that the death of up to 95% of the Native American population of the New World was caused by Old World diseases.[9]

[edit] Examples of civilizations and societies which have collapsed

By Reversion/Simplification

By Incorporation/Absorption

[edit] Sites which are believed to represent "societal collapse"

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ Homer-Dixon, Thomas (2007), "The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization" (Knopf, Canada)
  2. ^ Hall, Charles 2009 "What is the Minimum EROI that a Sustainable Society Must Have" ENERGIES [1]
  3. ^ Population crises and cycles in history, A review of the book Population Crises and Population cycles by Claire Russell and W M S Russell.
  4. ^ Tainter, Joseph (1990), The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge University Press) pp. 59-60.
  5. ^ The Great Mosque of Tlemcen,
  6. ^ Populations Crises and Population Cycles, Claire Russell and W.M.S. Russell
  7. ^ Ibn Battuta's Trip: Part Three - Persia and Iraq (1326 - 1327)
  8. ^ Smallpox: Eradicating the Scourge
  9. ^ The Story Of... Smallpox – and other Deadly Eurasian Germs

[edit] Further reading

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