Collapse of Societies

Throughout history humans have observed multiple societies that have collapsed and disappeared, but how can we know if it will happen to us or not too? It has seemed as if history has repeated itself time and time again, from the Mayans and the Byzantines to the Roman and the Ottoman empires, they have all fallen and were not able to sustain themselves indefinitely, regardless of the reasons behind their collapse. Even though it does not sound likely and that there is no evidence that anything catastrophic may happen any time soon, we cannot see it happening anytime soon we do face challenges that threaten our existence and we need to adapt in order to avoid the same fate. Oreskes and Conway take a kind of satirical approach to analyze this possible collapse, setting themselves and the story in the year 2393. Like a 20/20 hindsight they go through what caused our society to have crumbled and become unrecognizable from what it is like today. We can identify these possible causes and factors, the problem lies in how we go about mitigating them and their outcomes. Oreskes states “by the early 2000s, dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system was under way. Fires, floods, hurricanes, and heat waves began to intensify. Still, these effects were discounted” Oreskes, N. (2014). Ignoring or avoiding these issues as if they were to disappear by themselves could be what dooms our future. So what can we do today to prevent the upcoming pitfalls using our past experience? This matter has been a subject of research by many scientists and they have come up with theories that try to explain why these societies crumbled. In essence, what we need to do as a modern society is to learn from the mistakes of past civilzations as well as make new observations of our own so that we do not face a similar fate.

Joseph Tainter wrote on his book The Collapse of Complex Societies: “With their administrative structure, and capacity to allocate both labor and resources, dealing with adverse environmental conditions may be one of the things that complex societies do best. It is curious that they would collapse when faced with precisely those conditions that they are equipped to circumvent… As it becomes apparent to the members of a complex society that a resource base is deteriorating, it seems most reasonable to assume that some rational steps are taken toward a resolution.” Tainter, J. (1988). This being stated, how do these could translate to today’s problems, and what advantages we have from these previous experiences? In some cases, resource scarcity starved whole populations, politics and war wiped out entire civilizations and economic crisis vanished powerful empires.

A big factor is the environment; societies ran out and could not find fundamental resources to satisfy their demand. As it happened to a specific medicinal herb or animal species it also happened with really important and irreplaceable resources like water. Scarcity can be a problem by itself but it can also trigger internal and external conflicts in the search and use of certain goods. For example, the Roman Empire deforestation and excessive grazing led to erosion of the land and resulted in unfertile soil. Their cities were designed to hold a certain amount of people, but their rapid growth and overpopulation led to water and food shortage. Although today we seem to find solutions and alternatives to scarce resources, we haven’t managed to find a viable one for our oil dependence and the future energy shortage. “There were very few then who questioned the view that the world was entering a future of increasing scarcity of energy and natural resources…economists ask whether an economy can maintain a positive consumption level forever, given that there is no technical development and that the production of commodities is possible only by using limited nonrenewable resources like oil. This is clearly a question of sustainability. According to their analysis it is possible to maintain a positive consumption level forever only if capital can be substituted for nonrenewable resources without technical difficulties.” Tahvonen, O. (2000). To avert a future resource scarcity and more specifically oil depletion we must focus our efforts on finding new different renewable energy resources or to perfect the ones we know to maximize their efficiency and solve their technical difficulties.

Following these problems, the second factor combines the civilizations’ growth, overpopulation and politics that caused death to its people. The Roman Empire was one of the largest civilizations the world has ever seen, both in land and in population, thanks to their great science and architecture. The Greek historian and teacher Dionysius of Halicarnassus once said: “The extraordinary greatness of the Roman Empire manifests itself above all in three things: the aqueducts, the paved roads, and the construction of the drains.” Oleson, J.P. (2008). These technological advances allowed them to grow at an amazing pace but it had its cons, war and disease. As the Roman Empire kept growing the need for resources and land increased, at the beginning they could just expand but later other cities stood in its way. This obligated the Romans to conquer land through war, causing massive deaths for both sides. At its peak, the Roman Empire covered around 5% of the world’s land and accounted for around 21% of the entire world’s population. The empire became so big that their power and army was diluted into all the different war fronts, eventually failing to keep up with their growth. This factor also generated secondhand effects like diseases, their cities grew so big that diseases spread easily and epidemics were caused. There are “equivalent” issues in our present society that are causing harm to it. The most obvious one is probably the competition between superpowers to be the strongest one, as both the United States and Russia are still making us live in a Cold War-esque environment and as China tries to overpower the rest with its economical and production capacity. Thankfully today diplomacy and politics handle discrepancies in a more peaceful way, but if the day came where a war started and nuclear bombs are involved, the Earth could be extremely damaged and we may not only collapse but also go back to fighting with sticks and stones.

The third factor is social complexity. After solving each problem some collateral damage is done to the society according to Joseph Tainter, who analyzes in his book this very interesting concept, social complexity. Every society starts out as simple social organizations that work towards a common goal and share mutual interests, but as the society grows the more complex it needs to be to organize itself. Social Complexity is a basic problem-solving tool. Confronted with problems, we often respond by developing more complex technologies, establishing new institutions, adding more specialists or bureaucratic levels to an institution. The Roman Empire suffered the consequences of its own complexity, as it thrived new infrastructure was needed, more government and hierarchical administration was implemented, and communications were essential for its survival. Through its development and the solutions to previous problems the Roman Empire became to complex to control, and its layers of bureaucracy became too thick to govern, therefore collapsing and breaking down into simpler societies. By solving problems we are then creating new ones, as Eric Sevareid said “The chief cause of problems is solutions”. Our society today is one of the most complex societies to ever exist, so this social complexity could be a real threat for our society’s survival.

Our society today possesses a huge advantage over past societies, as we have acquired and compiled knowledge and events for years to educate and prevent us from making the same mistakes our ancestors did and avoid the same pitfalls. Education and technology provide the tools for our society to improve and to allocate our efforts towards the most important issues. This same technology overcame barriers that otherwise would have meant the end of our complex society. Although this means we can continue to innovate our way out of rising trouble it does not mean it will always work or that it could backfire. For example, oil combustion engines were a fascinating innovation that resolved energy and transportation dilemmas, but years later we realize it could have been a counterproductive effort considering the alternatives we had for combustion engines such as steam. So if we have information and knowledge, and our technology is advancing at a fast pace, how can we collapse? Jared Diamond mentions in his book four reasons why a society might collapse: “…a group may fail to anticipate a problem before the problem actually arrives. Second, when the problem arrives, the group may fail to perceive the problem. Then, after they perceive the problem they may fail even to try to solve the problem. Finally, they may try to solve it but may fail in their attempts to do so. (Diamond, p.30) He claims that by identifying them we can use them as a checklist for better decision-making in our society, that if we are able to recognize these four stages we can potentially solve them.

Our society is capable of overcoming the challenges we are facing as well as those challenges yet to come, we just cannot forget that what has happened to past civilisations can happen to us too so we will not over relax or fail to oversee them. As a conclusion, prior experience and knowledge are a major advantage that we have over previous civilizations. In addition, our innovation, technology, and broader knowledge allows us to be more capable of figuring out even the most difficult of challenges, but as we keep being successful the larger and larger our complexity balloon inflates and we do not know when it could pop in our faces. Hopefully, in the year 2393 our descendants will read Oreskes science fiction and laugh at how much it failed to depict the future.


Oleson, J. P. (2008). Oxford handbook of engineering and technology in the Classical world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M. Conway. (2014). The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. Columbia UP.

Tahvonen, O. (2000). Economic sustainability and scarcity of natural resources: a brief historical review. Washington, D.C.: Resources for the Future.

Tainter, J. A. (1988). The collapse of complex societies. Cambridge, Cambridgeshire: Cambridge University Press.


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