Excerpts from an interesting longread at the BBC
The political economist Benjamin Friedman once compared
modern Western society to a stable bicycle whose wheels are kept
spinning by economic growth. Should that forward-propelling motion slow
or cease, the pillars that define our society – democracy, individual
liberties, social tolerance and more – would begin to teeter. Our world
would become an increasingly ugly place, one defined by a scramble over
limited resources and a rejection of anyone outside of our immediate
group. Should we find no way to get the wheels back in motion, we’d
eventually face total societal collapse...
...there are two factors that matter: ecological strain and economic
stratification. The ecological category is the more widely understood
and recognised path to potential doom...
That economic stratification may lead to collapse on its own, on the
other hand, came as more of a surprise to Motesharrei and his
colleagues. Under this scenario, elites push society toward instability
and eventual collapse by hoarding huge quantities of wealth and
resources, and leaving little or none for commoners who vastly outnumber
them yet support them with labour. Eventually, the working population
crashes because the portion of wealth allocated to them is not enough,
followed by collapse of the elites due to the absence of labour...
According to Joseph Tainter, a professor of environment and society at Utah State University and author of The Collapse of Complex Societies, one of the most important lessons from Rome’s fall is that complexity
has a cost. As stated in the laws of thermodynamics, it takes energy to
maintain any system in a complex, ordered state – and human society is
no exception. By the 3rd Century, Rome was increasingly adding new
things – an army double the size, a cavalry, subdivided provinces that
each needed their own bureaucracies, courts and defences – just to
maintain its status quo and keep from sliding backwards. Eventually, it
could no longer afford to prop up those heightened complexities. It was
fiscal weakness, not war, that did the Empire in...
Whether in the US, UK or elsewhere, the more dissatisfied and afraid
people become, Homer-Dixon says, the more of a tendency they have to
cling to their in-group identity – whether religious, racial or
national. Denial, including of the emerging prospect of societal
collapse itself, will be widespread, as will rejection of evidence-based
fact. If people admit that problems exist at all, they will assign
blame for those problems to everyone outside of their in-group, building
up resentment. “You’re setting up the psychological and social
prerequisites for mass violence,” Homer-Dixon says. When localised
violence finally does break out, or another country or group decides to
invade, collapse will be difficult to avoid...
Whenever I read about the end of civilization, I am reminded of this classic passage from Hitchhiker
We are currently awaiting the loading of our compliment of small, lemon-soaked paper napkins for your comfort, refreshment, and hygiene during the flight, which will be of two hours duration. Meanwhile we thank you for your patience. The cabin crew will shortly be serving coffee and biscuits… again.
There has been a delay. The passengers are kept in temporary suspended animation for their comfort and convenience. Coffee and biscuits are served every ten years, after which passengers are returned to suspended animation for their comfort and convenience. Departure will take place when flight stores are complete. We apologise for the delay.
Delay? Have you seen the world outside this ship? It’s a wasteland. A desert. Civilisation’s been and gone. It’s over. There are no lemon-soaked paper napkins on the way from anywhere.
The statistical likelihood is that other civilisations will arise. There will one day be lemon-soaked paper napkins. ‘Till then, there will be a short delay. Please return to your seats.
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