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Are we on the road to civilisation collapse?

Responsibility and Prevention

History suggests that a collapse of our civilization, although likely, is not inevitable.

We may slow the chance of a future collapse if we reduce emissions, level inequalities, reverse environmental degradation, innovate, and diversify our economies. We can also invest in recovery. Avoiding the creation of dangerous technologies is also critical.


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Are we on the road to civilisation collapse?

Are we on the road to civilisation collapse?


Key Ideas

When civilizations collapse

Looking at the rise and fall of historical civilizations, the forces that precipitate or delay a collapse can tell us about our own.

We can define collapse as a rapid and enduring loss of population, identity, and socio-economic complexity. Public services fold, and chaos ensues as the government loses control.

Some past civilizations recovered, such as the Chinese and Egyptian. Other collapses were permanent. Sometimes the epicenter is revived, such as Rome. In other cases, they are left abandoned, as was the case with the Mayan ruins.

We're not immune to collapse

Societies of the past and present are just complex systems comprising of people and technology.

Although we have better technologies, we are not immune to the threats that faced our ancestors. If anything, our technological abilities bring more challenges. Our globalized economic system may be more likely to cause a crisis to spread.

A roadmap of past collapses

Although there is no conclusive explanation of why civilizations collapse, there are factors that can contribute.

  • Climatic change can result in disaster, resulting in crop failure, starvation, and desertification. The Akkadians, the Mayan, the Roman Empire, and many others coincided with abrupt climatic changes.
  • Ecological collapse theory: When societies overdo the carrying capacity of their environment, e.g., excessive deforestation, water pollution, soil degradation, and the loss of biodiversity.
  • Inequality and oligarchy: As a population increases, the supply of labor outstrips demand, workers become cheap and society top-heavy. Political violence follows.
  • Complexity: Accumulated complexity and bureaucracy eventually leads to collapse. The returns from complexity eventually reach a point of diminishing returns, causing collapse.
  • External shocks: War, natural disasters, famine, and plagues. The Aztec Empire was brought to its knees by Spanish invaders. Early agrarian states were passing due to deadly epidemics.
  • Randomness: Collapse is often random and independent of age.

Metrics for our chance of collapse

Four possible metrics serve as indicators to see if our chance of collapse is falling or rising.

  1. Temperature is a clear metric for climate change.
  2. Complexity is represented by GDP.
  3. The ecological footprint is an indicator of environmental degradation.
  4. Inequality. The typical measurement of the Gini Index shows inequality has decreased slightly globally but increasing within countries. As the Gini Index only measures relative changes in income, it may be misleading.

Temperature, complexity, and environmental degradation have been trending steeply upwards.

Measures of resilience

The collapse metrics are not the whole picture without also adding societal resilience, which may delay or prevent collapse.

  • Global economic diversity - a measurement of the diversity and sophistication of country exports - is higher today than fifty years ago.
  • Innovation, as measured by per capita patent applications, is also rising. New technologies can create a buffer against pressures such as climate change.

The past as our teacher

In the past, collapse was within a region. Today the world is deeply interconnected and interdependent, making societal collapse more treacherous.

  • The weapons available today range from biological agents to nuclear weapons.
  • People produce food and essential goods in an increasingly specialized manner. Climate change may damage our ability to return to simple farming practices.

With all the advances, any collapse could result in an existential risk. But we will only collapse if we advance blindly and are unwilling to look at the past.

Responsibility and Prevention

History suggests that a collapse of our civilization, although likely, is not inevitable.

We may slow the chance of a future collapse if we reduce emissions, level inequalities, reverse environmental degradation, innovate, and diversify our economies. We can also invest in recovery. Avoiding the creation of dangerous technologies is also critical.


Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy Theories

In the earlier times, conspiracy theories were a convenient way to cover up the inadequacies of the government, and putting a set of helpless people as a scapegoat, cloaking the misdeeds or mismana...

We Love A Good Story

The organic and unpredictable nature of conspiracy theories had led many researchers to investigate the cause of the phenomenon.

  • Successful conspiracy theories always tend to invent a great villain, have a backdrop or a backstory, and a morality lesson that can be easily understood by most.
  • Great stories are by nature more magnetic and appealing than the truth.
  • Human beings think and understand in stories. For thousands of years, fairy tales, legends, anecdotes and mysteries have helped our brains make sense of the world.

Collective Hysteria

Every society has its own, unique anxieties and obsessions, and the conspiracy theories that gain good mileage are the ones that tap into these primal fears.

Example: Many people fear vaccination of the children due to fears that the mass drive to vaccinate such a large population has some ulterior motive, like a mass medical experiment. The dodgy past record of the health care system, and the fact that the vaccination is free of charge, of course, adds fuel to the fire.

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We all feel the oppressive presence of rules. We think rules are hampering our freedom and argue that they should be broken.

It is not really the rules that are the problem, but the unjustifi...

A life without rules

Imagine living in a world without rules. 

  • Language follows rules. Breaking away from the rules of language makes us incoherent.
  • Consider the rules of sport or games, the rules of chess or football. Without the rules, chess wouldn't be chess. A game without rules is no game at all.
  • Daily norms tell us what we can and can't do and make our social interactions run smoothly.
  • Rules about driving on the left or the right, not littering, queueing are the building blocks of a harmonious society.


Some people would prefer a society without government, where individual freedom comes first.

However, a world that promotes anarchy is inherently unstable. Humans continually make new rules to govern and do so as quickly as old rules are overturned.

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Have a Succession Plan

Alexander the Great built one of the largest empires in history in just a few short years, and it fell apart just as quickly. As soon as Alexander died, his generals carved up his empire into pi...

Know When To Take Big Risks

Prince William Of Orange led the Dutch rebellion against Spain, then the most powerful empire in the world. To stop the advance of the more powerful Spanish army he pulled down several dikes and flooded a large portion of the Dutch countryside, contributing largely to the defeat of the Spanish.

Recognize when you can't beat your competitors and find a way to differentiate yourself.

Maintain Your Flexibility

During the Cuban missile crisis, many of JFK's advisors advised a full military invasion of Cuba. JFK held off on these plans, opting instead for a naval blockade and negotiations with Soviet leaders, all while planning for a possible invasion if these tactics failed.

Don't commit yourself to a strategic path without first evaluating all of the options available to you.

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