Study finds signs that civilisation is ending

Ways of living: Longest, shortest and some in between … from research by ScienceDirect/BBC Future.

After analysing the lifespans of nearly 100 historic empires and their cultures, a Cambridge academic finds common warning signs of impending collapse. Alarmingly, many are evident today.

The story on the front page of yesterday’s Daily Telegraph newspaper was small and tucked into the bottom right-hand corner. But perhaps — amidst all the noise about Brexit, Harry and Meghan, and the Oscars — it was really the most important story of all.

“Debt-clogged world on brink of recession” read the headline. Beneath it ran a dense summary of data showing that American economic growth had collapsed in the past month, that China is slipping into stagnation and that Europe is entering a deep industrial slump.

In other words, the three biggest economies in the world are sick. The slightest slip-up could send them all into intensive care.

Could this lead to something bigger? The collapse of civilisation? Many experts say news such as yesterday’s makes this an urgent — and totally rational — question.

Luke Kemp is a researcher based at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge. He analysed the lifespans of nearly 100 historic global civilisations from Egypt to the Byzantine Empire.

Their average lifespan was 336 years, and they all displayed common conditions when collapse drew near. Today, he warns, many of those signs are flashing red — but being ignored by the media and the public.

Take the top five symptoms: climate change, environmental abuse, inequality between rich and poor, complexity and external shocks.

Today, the key measures for climate change and environmental abuse are rising swiftly. The gap between rich and poor is getting worse. The world is daily becoming far more complex and interconnected.

As for external shocks, there are now more risks than ever before: from superbugs to killer robots to nuclear war. Any one of these could be “a permanent catapult back to the Stone Age,” writes Kemp.

Greatness is no protection. The Roman Empire, one of the greatest civilisations ever, took just 86 years to shrink from covering nearly two million square miles to total collapse. According to Kemp, “our tightly-coupled, globalised economic system is, if anything, more likely to make crisis spread.”

Compare and contrast

Can we really compare ancient Aztecs wearing leaves and eating grasshoppers with modern humans shopping for luxury perfumes and the latest gizmos? Today we are far more able to respond to crises as they happen. We have new technologies springing up constantly that can solve most problems.

But is this a strength or a weakness? Have we become so dependent that any modern collapse of civilisation would be all the more devastating? An Aztec villager threatened by a flood could move their farm higher up the mountain. Many modern humans wouldn’t have a clue how to farm in the first place.

You Decide

  1. Do you think science can help us predict the future?
  2. Do you feel optimistic about our ability to use technology to solve our challenges?

Activities

  1. Draw your own version of the graphic at the top of this story but try to find eight other civilisations for the chart, not the ones we used. Use the Expert Links to help you in your research.
  2. “Western civilisation” is a fuzzy concept and hard to define. Nevertheless, do some research and try to write your own rough idea of what the phrase means, in fewer than 300 words.

Some People Say...

“Great civilisations are not murdered. Instead, they take their own lives.”

Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975)

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
According to the distinguished evolutionary anthropologist Peter Turchin, we do know that past civilisations have shown distinct recurring cycles that are linked to periods of upheaval. One lasts around 250 years and leads steadily to a more unequal society which eventually causes rebellion among the poor, infighting among the elites and a general collapse of the social order.
What do we not know?
We can’t really say with any certainty what will happen next because, as Turchin points out, his models operate accurately only at the level of large-scale forces and can’t be expected to take into account the specific political and economic factors that we are experiencing today. These specifics can make the difference between full-scale collapse and mild turbulence.

Word Watch

Recession
A significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months.
Stagnation
A period where an economy grows at an extremely low rate without actually entering a recession. During stagnation, it is unlikely that jobs will be created or wages will increase.
Slump
A time when there is a sharp fall in business earnings and many people lose their jobs.
Climate change
The general term for the shift in worldwide weather phenomena associated with an increase in global average temperatures.
Environmental abuse
Contamination of the environment as a result of human activities. This will be a major contributor to climate change (see above).
Inequality
The difference in social status, wealth or opportunity between people or groups.
Complexity
A system with many components which may interact with each other. Examples of complex systems are Earth’s global climate, organisms and the human brain.
External shocks
In economics, a shock is an unexpected or unpredictable change that affects an economy, either positively or negatively.

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