32 votes

Are we on the road to civilization collapse?

26 comments

  1. [13]
    Comment deleted by author
    Link
    1. Sahasrahla Link Parent
      We shouldn't be cheering on the collapse of human civilization in the hopes that something better will rise from the ashes, like some millenarian prophecy of apocalypse followed by paradise....
      • Exemplary x3

      And I don't believe we can stop it, nor should we.

      We shouldn't be cheering on the collapse of human civilization in the hopes that something better will rise from the ashes, like some millenarian prophecy of apocalypse followed by paradise. Setting aside objections to this idea arising from the unfathomable human suffering that would accompany it, I'd argue that the civilization we have now is pretty good and worth saving:

      • There is a global trend towards democracy and basic political freedoms. Over the last couple decades there's been a worrying backslide, but the current condition is still better in this regard than it has been for most of human history.
      • Gender equality, acceptance of LGBTQ+ people, religious tolerance, racial equality, etc. have all made fantastic strides the world over. Again, the current situation is far from perfect, but looking at it in context this is one of the best times in history around much of the world for groups that have historically been discriminated against.
      • We have unprecedented scientific knowledge covering everything from the smallest building blocks of matter to our place in the wider universe, with many thousands of people motivated to work on this purely by the love of discovery.
      • Medical science, refrigeration, sanitation, etc. have made life safer and more comfortable for billions of people.
      • Despite some tragic exceptions most people around the world don't live with a constant threat of violence.
      • Global society is connected in a way it has never been with ideas and culture being shared easily and instantly across thousands of miles. This enriches all of us and builds tolerance and understanding.

      There are problems, definitely, and some of these problems are rooted deep in the structure of our civilization. We are also facing unprecedented challenges which we have no guarantee of overcoming. But, we should not give in to hopelessness. People are mostly good and as a group we've done some great things. We can fix our problems, we can face our challenges, and we can still have hope for a better future. That should be our focus; not despair, not millenarianism, but a guiding hope towards what we can accomplish.

      21 votes
    2. [3]
      Algernon_Asimov Link Parent
      You have to realise that the collapse of our modern-day worldwide civilisation (everyone's interconnected, as the author says) will involve a lot of pain, misery, and death for a lot of people....

      Yes, I believe we are. And I don't believe we can stop it, nor should we.

      You have to realise that the collapse of our modern-day worldwide civilisation (everyone's interconnected, as the author says) will involve a lot of pain, misery, and death for a lot of people. This is what you're advocating: you're saying you want people to become refugees, live subsistence-level existences, endure poverty, die of starvation, or be killed in wars. Is that really what you want? Do you really want billions of people to suffer and die, just so you can feel righteous about the failure of American hegemony?

      It's not a society worth saving.

      Rather than let it collapse, why not try to fix it? Rather than let billions of people suffer and die, why not try to improve their lives?

      7 votes
      1. Ordinator Link Parent
        What does "fix it" really mean though? The standard of living in the first world is simultaneously the best it's ever been and totally unsustainable because we're living beyond our means...

        Rather than let it collapse, why not try to fix it? Rather than let billions of people suffer and die, why not try to improve their lives?

        What does "fix it" really mean though? The standard of living in the first world is simultaneously the best it's ever been and totally unsustainable because we're living beyond our means environmentally. Even in the best case I can see, we're going to have some pretty massive social upheaval as the first world readjusts to a lesser standard of living that's actually sustainable. Global climate change is already here and it's too late to stop it. If not billions, millions are certainly going to suffer and die from the effects of climate change alone in the coming decades. This is rapidly being compounded by the complete inability of governments across the globe to institute real, global environmental policies to minimize the long-term damage.

        I don't want it to be true, but I think it's quite possible that we're past the point of "fixing it" in any meaningful sense. Until I'm convinced otherwise, I don't see what I can do except embrace it and try to put myself and my family in the best possible position given the circumstances.

        3 votes
      2. [2]
        Comment deleted by author
        Link Parent
        1. Algernon_Asimov Link Parent
          I'm not stuffing words into your mouth. I'm unpacking what's being glossed over when you write "Yes, I believe we are. And I don't believe we can stop it, nor should we." Civilisational collapses...

          I'm not stuffing words into your mouth. I'm unpacking what's being glossed over when you write "Yes, I believe we are. And I don't believe we can stop it, nor should we." Civilisational collapses are not neat, tidy, ordered events - they're messy, nasty, and chaotic. And people suffer. Lots of people.

          When you say "nor should we" prevent this civilisation from collapsing, you're endorsing this messy, nasty, chaotic process in which billions of people will suffer. If you're not comfortable with me pointing that out, maybe you're not quite as blasé about as this collapse as you like to portray.

          I don't disagree that our current civilisation is unsustainable. The western way of life, with its concomitant environmental costs, simply can't hold up - and definitely can't be expanded to the population of the whole world. However, there are ways to manage the transition from today to tomorrow without letting everything go to hell.

          I might not know the solutions, but that doesn't mean I'm going to throw my hands up in the air and endorse the suffering of billions of people just because I can't think of anything better. There are other people out there who can and do think of solutions. Instead of giving up and being fatalistic, I can choose to throw my weight behind those people, and support them.

          3 votes
    3. Spel Link Parent
      Could you explain how these things were better for people during the last few thousand years?

      Could you explain how these things were better for people during the last few thousand years?

      5 votes
    4. [6]
      ThatFanficGuy Link Parent
      You know, usually this kind of a conversation makes me want to lie in a bathtub and cut my wrists open length-wise. Everything's inevitably going down, and there's nothing we can do about it, so...

      You know, usually this kind of a conversation makes me want to lie in a bathtub and cut my wrists open length-wise. Everything's inevitably going down, and there's nothing we can do about it, so I'll go die now, 'cause life's gonna be shit anyway.

      But the more I think about it – now that I've gain some self-confidence – is that things can be done about it. Better education. Better economic goals. Better information preservation. But then also – better human connection, better empathy with the world around us, better ways of dealing with what's happening.

      And of course my first response would be to tuck my head into the sand and pretend like this isn't happening. It's a lot, and I'm sensitive. Of course it's going to bring me down, thinking about how the world as I know it may soon ("soon") cease to exist. It's a daunting possibility that is overwhelming, because I feel like I have to be dealing with everything, all at once, or I might as well be doing nothing at all 'cause it's all gonna go down anyway. It's a lot.

      Frankly, I don't have the kind of a trust in humanity that a lot of people seem to have: that we, as a group, will each do our part to ensure that the terrible shit that's staring us in the face isn't going to happen. I was raised that way; I'm anxious about others doing their worst, no matter how much I want to believe in their best. So, I have to do everything – something I can't do, no matter how smart I am, or how clearly I can see the connections, or how quickly I can acquire the necessary skills, because there isn't enough time or energy for me to do it all. I don't even know how to get to the point where this trust can be reliably established when, every time I go out for a walk, the land around the pavement is littered with empty bottles, cigarette packs, chips bags, and dog shit. It's depressing when it seems like I'm the only one in the whole world who gives a damn.

      But then... maybe there is something I can do. Not everything, and not even something major, but a small part – something that will help someone else gain more footing against the fall of humanity. I'm a designer. I'm a storyteller. Maybe I can weave behavior. Maybe I can change the frame.

      I do believe that this foundation for civilization that we've built – it should last. Not because of its historic precedent – not simply because it's been here before – but because I value the effort put into building it – the pain, the suffering, the hard work, the genius. In the face of the abyss, this may not seem like much – so what that it's been built? – but civilization is a unique structure, which nothing has been able to dwarf, let alone supersede so far. I think that, whatever we have in the future, we would have because of the civilization beneath its footing, not instead of it.

      There's a lot bad with the world right now. It's gotten there because we inadvertently made it so. With the right knowledge, and the right allocation of the vast resources we possess, we might just do do something about it.

      4 votes
      1. [4]
        asoftbird Link Parent
        Don't forget there's also a ton of good. There's still an enormous load of things that are worth preserving. If you look at the negatives, at least look at the positives too and relativate it a...

        There's a lot bad with the world right now.

        Don't forget there's also a ton of good. There's still an enormous load of things that are worth preserving. If you look at the negatives, at least look at the positives too and relativate it a bit. Just never forget that there's a ton of things wrong with the world and you should try to help mitigate that, even if it's just a little bit.

        6 votes
        1. [3]
          ThatFanficGuy Link Parent
          There's a vast divide between "there's some good in the world" and "I can't seem to escape the notion that around me, all are problems" that I wanted to address in the comment. The latter is...

          There's a vast divide between "there's some good in the world" and "I can't seem to escape the notion that around me, all are problems" that I wanted to address in the comment. The latter is mental poison.

          2 votes
          1. [2]
            asoftbird Link Parent
            True, what you said on it's own already implies there's not just bad. I think it's just fair to set some perspective though, since the overall tone of your post is fairly depressing(rightfully so,...

            True, what you said on it's own already implies there's not just bad. I think it's just fair to set some perspective though, since the overall tone of your post is fairly depressing(rightfully so, but still).

            I'm not saying it's bad for a post to have a negative tone since you first have to recognize problems to be able to solve them. I just felt it was necessary to clarify this.

            2 votes
            1. ThatFanficGuy Link Parent
              No, I agree. It's just – the subject is a lot. I didn't mean to contradict you: merely to express my feelings on the matter.

              No, I agree. It's just – the subject is a lot. I didn't mean to contradict you: merely to express my feelings on the matter.

              2 votes
      2. [2]
        Comment deleted by author
        Link Parent
        1. ThatFanficGuy Link Parent
          You're not wrong, but it took me years to cope with this idea.

          You're not wrong, but it took me years to cope with this idea.

          1 vote
    5. WinterCharm Link Parent
      I wholeheartedly agree. Europe remains a bit protected from this, thanks to rules and regulations in the EU.. and universal access to needs like healthcare.

      I wholeheartedly agree. Europe remains a bit protected from this, thanks to rules and regulations in the EU.. and universal access to needs like healthcare.

      2 votes
  2. [4]
    Algernon_Asimov Link
    This overlooks an important factor: how the fuck did the Visigoths and Vandals get from the distant borders of the empire, through the Roman provinces past the Roman legions and Roman governors,...
    • Exemplary

    The Roman Empire, for example, was the victim of many ills including overexpansion, climatic change, environmental degradation and poor leadership. But it was also brought to its knees when Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 and the Vandals in 455.

    This overlooks an important factor: how the fuck did the Visigoths and Vandals get from the distant borders of the empire, through the Roman provinces past the Roman legions and Roman governors, to the peninsula of Italy, past the local Italians (who had all been Roman citizens for over 500 years), to Rome in the first place? There were no airborne attacks back in those days - those barbarians had to march on land the whole way to their destination. For the Vandals' sack in 410 AD, this is equivalent to an invasion force starting in modern-day Greece, and marching through Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, entering Italy and marching all the way to Rome... without meeting any resistance. And all those areas had been under Roman control for centuries.

    Sure, it sounds dramatic to say the Vandals sacked Rome - but the real news is that they were able to get there in the first place. Over the preceding 500 years, Rome had expanded its provinces mostly to prevent this sort of access to their city. They operated on the basis of pre-emptive defence: invade and subdue an area to prevent its people from invading Italy some time in the future. Sure, the provincial tributes and taxes were good, but the Romans were terrified of being invaded, and had been forever. They had turned away lots of previous invasions before.

    So, how the fuck did these tribes get to Rome in the first place, when the point of the Roman Empire was to set up a big enough buffer to keep them away? It's because Rome had decayed internally, due to a lack of strong administration and civil wars. By this time, Rome wasn't even the capital! That had been moved to Constantinople a century earlier.

    The sacks by the Visigoths and the Vandals weren't causes, they were effects. Any historian who doesn't know that isn't worth their salt.

    9 votes
    1. Algernon_Asimov (edited ) Link Parent
      I've just re-read the article and noticed this clanger. This is so totally wrong that it leads me to believe this author knows nothing about Roman history. The Roman Empire existed until 1453AD....

      The Roman Empire covered 4.4 million sq km (1.9 million sq miles) in 390. Five years later, it had plummeted to 2 million sq km (770,000 sq miles). By 476, the empire’s reach was zero.

      I've just re-read the article and noticed this clanger. This is so totally wrong that it leads me to believe this author knows nothing about Roman history.

      The Roman Empire existed until 1453AD. It survived another millennium beyond the fall of Rome itself. As I mentioned before, Rome stopped being the capital 100 years before the Vandals sacked the city: the Emperor Constantine moved the capital to Byzantium in 330AD, and renamed it Constantinople (because he was such a modest gentleman).

      Emperor Diocletian had split the empire into a western section and an eastern section back in 286AD. It was just too large for one person to manage. And then the capital moved east. The western section might have fallen in 476AD, but the eastern section carried on for another millennium. It was so strong for a while that, in 565AD, the Emperor Justinian (ruling from Constantinople) took back the western section from the Goths.

      And then it carried on, waxing and waning, for another 900 years. The empire was in a sorry state after about 1200AD (Constantinople was sacked in 1204), but it limped along until the Ottomans invaded it in 1453AD.

      EDIT: And just to demonstrate how totally uninformed this author is, I double-checked these dates in Wikipedia. I know the broad brushstrokes of the history of the Roman Empire's later period, but I certainly haven't memorised all the dates and names. I know what events happened, but I got the dates from Wikipedia. This isn't some secret esoteric knowledge known only to lifelong scholars of Roman history. Any numbskull with an internet connection can look this information up. The fact that this author didn't double-check such a simple fact as when the Roman Empire ended speaks volumes.

      3 votes
    2. [2]
      masochist Link Parent
      I find this dressing-down of one of the author's earliest and most fundamental claims heartening and encouraging, because it allows me to call into question their other claims. Maybe things aren't...

      I find this dressing-down of one of the author's earliest and most fundamental claims heartening and encouraging, because it allows me to call into question their other claims. Maybe things aren't quite so bad as they claim.

      1 vote
      1. Algernon_Asimov Link Parent
        Exactly. Reading through the rest of the article, it's just a bunch of generalisations which any half-informed person could write. There's no history to it. He narrows down the causes of...

        Exactly.

        Reading through the rest of the article, it's just a bunch of generalisations which any half-informed person could write. There's no history to it. He narrows down the causes of civilisational collapse to... well... everything and anything - because there is no single cause. Every collapse is unique, as will ours be.

        3 votes
  3. Bedevere Link
    I think while a lot of people can look at everything wrong with the world, most are missing that most all objective measurements of human welfare are on the up and up, sometimes dramatically so....

    I think while a lot of people can look at everything wrong with the world, most are missing that most all objective measurements of human welfare are on the up and up, sometimes dramatically so. Measures of life expectancy, infant mortality, average income, medium income, percent of people in extreme poverty, literacy, average years of education, food production per person, and average productivity are all improving. This web page that tells you how much things have improved since you were born is kind of fun: https://www.humanprogress.org/ylin

    The thing that scares me isn't a traditional civilization collapse, but when virtual reality gets so good that no one ever wants to leave their seat anymore and we all starve to death while plugged into the computer.

    6 votes
  4. Rocket_Man Link
    I think it's extremely naive to think our civilization is destined to collapse. Yes previous trends point to collapse but only if we are similar. But we are not similar to past civilizations. We...

    I think it's extremely naive to think our civilization is destined to collapse. Yes previous trends point to collapse but only if we are similar. But we are not similar to past civilizations. We can't ignore the level of education the world has. Or how computers have allowed for unprecedented data collection and modeling of complex systems. Our technological advancement is seriously being under appreciated in this article and in this thread. I'm not saying we wont collapse, but civilization is in uncharted territory and anything can happen.

    Personally I think our depressing focus on climate change, bee populations, ocean acidification, deforestation, and everything else points towards an obsessive desire for stability. Things look bad right now because we are actively trying to counter those latent forces that want to lead us toward destruction. If our civilization isn't the one to counter these problems I'm confident the next will be.

    4 votes
  5. retiredrugger Link
    Great read, I really enjoyed the article. One of the most salient points from the author, in my opinion, was a more complex civilization doesn't mean lower risk of destruction. Intricacy, on the...

    Great read, I really enjoyed the article. One of the most salient points from the author, in my opinion, was a more complex civilization doesn't mean lower risk of destruction. Intricacy, on the other hand, just creates more aspects to go awry.

    2 votes
  6. DonQuixote Link
    Thanks for a very thought provoking and well researched article. It seems self evident that our civilization as we know it will collapse at some point. What is interesting to me is the way the...

    Thanks for a very thought provoking and well researched article. It seems self evident that our civilization as we know it will collapse at some point. What is interesting to me is the way the author has framed the causes within the lens of our current culture. While it's true that all the causes listed have a chance to push us over the tipping point, past focus has been on economic causes and aggression.

    What this suggests to me that beyond the newly recognized inputs of climate change, inequality (as such, apart from oppression and consequential revolt,) environmental degradation and even complexity, there are factors that have not been considered. In the scope of this article, there are so many that they become for all practical purposes Black Swan events: obvious in retrospect, but not regarded seriously in the predictive sciences.

    This includes a multitude of astronomical possibilities external to our planet, (which make for great movies,) geophysical events that are currently unknown or seen as extremely unlikely, and biological events. The problem is we have so little data on global insect and other populations that a great deal of potential causes are completely unknown.

    But yes, civilization is doomed. We just have no idea when that will be.

    1 vote
  7. [5]
    dmfdmf Link
    The situation is dire but not hopeless. For those who are interested in a proper historical review and not a collection of historical concretes that explains nothing, I recommend reading the title...

    The situation is dire but not hopeless. For those who are interested in a proper historical review and not a collection of historical concretes that explains nothing, I recommend reading the title article in Ayn Rand's compendium For the New Intellectual

    1 vote
    1. [4]
      ThatFanficGuy Link Parent
      I'm intrinsically wary of anything written by Ayn Rand. What's the value of the article?

      I'm intrinsically wary of anything written by Ayn Rand.

      What's the value of the article?

      6 votes
      1. [3]
        dmfdmf (edited ) Link Parent
        The title article discusses the collapse of past civilizations and our current trend toward collapse and argues that the cause of the collapse is rooted in the dominant philosophic ideas of the...

        The title article discusses the collapse of past civilizations and our current trend toward collapse and argues that the cause of the collapse is rooted in the dominant philosophic ideas of the times.

        Intro paragraph;

        When a man, a business corporation or an entire society is approaching bankruptcy, there are two courses that those involved can follow: they can evade the reality of their situation and act on a frantic, blind, range-of-the-moment expediency—not daring to look ahead, wishing no one would name the truth, yet desperately hoping that something will save them somehow—or they can identify the situation, check their premises, discover their hidden assets and start rebuilding.

        America, at present, is following the first course. The gray-ness, the stale cynicism, the noncommittal cautiousness, the guilty evasiveness of our public voices suggest the attitude of the courtiers in the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” who professed admiration for the Emperor’s non-existent garments, having accepted the assertion that anyone who failed to perceive them was morally depraved at heart.

        Let me be the child in the story and declare that the Emperor is naked—or that America is culturally bankrupt.

        In any given period of history, a culture is to be judged by its dominant philosophy, by the prevalent trend of its intellectual life as expressed in morality, in politics, in economics, in art. Professional intellectuals are the voice of a culture and are, therefore, its leaders, its integrators and its bodyguards. America’s intellectual leadership has collapsed. Her virtues, her values, her enormous power are scattered in a silent underground and will remain private, subjective, historically impotent if left without intellectual expression. America is a country without voice or defense—a country sold out and abandoned by her intellectual bodyguards.

        3 votes
        1. [2]
          ThatFanficGuy Link Parent
          Thank you. You've made it sound like an interesting read. I'll get around to it. EDIT: I recommend anyone aiming to read the article to add the following styles to the <body> element: max-width:...

          Thank you. You've made it sound like an interesting read. I'll get around to it.

          EDIT: I recommend anyone aiming to read the article to add the following styles to the <body> element:

          max-width: 40rem;
          margin: 0 auto;
          

          This would make the article far more readable on a laptop/tablet screen by reducing the maximum width of it to a more comfortable value, and center the text.

          1 vote
          1. masochist Link Parent
            Most browsers these days have a "reader mode" that presents textual content like this in a way that discards awful formatting. No need to fiddle with the styles (which can be challenging...

            Most browsers these days have a "reader mode" that presents textual content like this in a way that discards awful formatting. No need to fiddle with the styles (which can be challenging especially on mobile and for nontechnical users).

            2 votes
  8. PaKYr Link
    I have a bone to pick with this article's usage of GDP as measured in USD as an analogue for complexity. GDP only measures the sum of all transactions in an economy. Increased economic activity...

    I have a bone to pick with this article's usage of GDP as measured in USD as an analogue for complexity. GDP only measures the sum of all transactions in an economy. Increased economic activity doesn't necessarily predict a more complex society. As an example, the political system of the Iroquois Confederacy was notoriously complex, featuring a bicameral legislature and delicate balances of power amongst the tribes. This is believed to be a major reason why they were unable to effectively resist settlers, and thus a major factor in their collapse, yet their economy was agrarian, and thus, their GDP would have been miniscule. Furthermore, it's incredibly difficult to estimate the GDP of ancient societies. Estimates for the Roman empire, one of the ancient civilizations we have the most data on, ranges from 15 to 100 billion dollars. I don't know how else complexity could be quantified, but I feel like they just shouldn't have included it as a factor rather than trying to represent it via GDP.

    1 vote