Ideas that might not matter II : Societal Collapse

As in part one of this series, I’m thinking about an idea that seems very possible, extremely interesting and well accepted, but which has little going for it in terms of observed evidence.

The idea today is societal collapse. The premise is simple. Human societies are very complex entities which rely on innumerable interdependencies between people, resources, institutions etc. The resulting structure is subsequently both strong and fragile; like an archway it will stand forever, except if a single stone is removed, whereupon the whole thing will fall instantaneously. Following this collapse people fall into a world solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Precipitating events can be the loss of a resource, the severing of links or population loss through conflict or disease, or exogenous shocks.

I should stress that I am not talking about declines, or gradual change due to long term processes. That’s not the interesting part of this idea. This is about collapse, where a complex system can be brought down rapidly by a few factors and can only be succeeded by something that is not recognisably the same.

This idea has a long prevalence in 20th century popular culture. It’s the basis of the zombie film genre, especially through the celebrated Romero films. The walking corpses are used as a narrative device to make people descend into barbarism, the antagonists are always human and a semblance of society can only be restored by Dennis Hopper’s Leviathan. In this light it makes sense recognise works like The Day of the Triffids, or The Shape of Things to Come as zombie films without zombies. Cormac McCarthy made the premise respectable as Respectable Literature recently and the Mad Max films were premised on a society fractured and ruined by the oil shock – an idea also explored as early as 1930 in Last and First Men.

In the last two cases, the stone removed from the arch is a natural resource. This is why the idea is important in contemporary debates.

But can we actually find a collapsed society?

As we do in many circumstances, we find ourselves in the shadow of Rome. The Fall of the Roman Empire has been a Thing for a long time. I suspect that a great deal of our concept of societal collapse is built on this notion, and ideas of a loss of central authority, marauding bands, depopulation of cities, a retreat to fortified holds in the hinterland in service to specialists in violence. At any given time in the past few hundreds of years there are men [1] fretting, nay convinced, that contemporary events and trends foreshadowed a repeating of history [2]; colonial empires, industrialisation, the great depression, pop music, Vietnam and Iraq have all been fitted into a framework created by The Fall of Rome, even if the concept had become worthy of parody even by a mind as unhinged as Phillip K. Dick. On the upside, it did lead to other great books in the collapse genre.

Yet it is not a notion popular amongst ancient historians, at least not anymore. The idea of a fall is vanished paradigm. These historians (of late antiquity) are more likely the point out the continuities are long trends (the long term depopulation of cities, disuse of trade routes to the West, military dominance), the continuation of late Roman life through the church, local government and society and the greater affinity between Diocletian had with the “barbarian” kings than the he had with the emperors of the principate. The Roman Emperor fell, but Roman society had changed, and would continue to change….slowly.

The Fall is thus considered an invention of the enlightenment, by Edward Gibbon in particular. Gibbon was in a shadow of his own however. English thought at the time was predisposed to conflate the state with society. I have made reference to Hobbes a few times already, and this is no mistake. Hobbes deemed humanity in the state of nature, i.e without government, as “solitary” – an assertion that does not survive even a cursory knowledge of anthropology. Yet under his shadow, it is no wonder that Gibbon was prone to conflate the markets, the playhouses, the cities and the books of Rome with the figure of emperor, casting his own shadow on future generations in the process [fn3].

So if the paradigmatic example is no longer hip, where else do we look for possible examples?

Most easily, Jared Diamond’s Collapse. Best selling authors are the first stop for ideas-that-seem-clever-so-long-as-you-don’t-think-about-them-after-the-plane-lands. Diamond did service in part one, he’ll do so in part two.

His paradigmatic example is Easter Island, and asserts a story about deforestation leading to chaos and violence, and the disappearance of the civilisation, along with tales of pits of shattered bones.  When others contend that none of this is supported by existing evidence or research, he appeals to unnamed authorities, and reasserts without providing supporting evidence. A case without evidence is not too instructive.

With more depth he talks about the Norse in Greenland. However this doesn’t quite fit into the collapse hypothesis as defined in this post. It is a story of long term decline. That said, I can’t resist commenting on one hand waving exercise. At one point Diamond notes the lack of fish bones in middens, and proceeds to speculate at length about social norms preventing the eating of fish, and thus on the importance of norms in ensuring resilience. When reading once about archeology elsewhere (in the near east) I noted an author casually pointing out that fish bones are rarely, if ever, discovered in middens; they decay far more rapidly than animal bones. But it is the art of a bestseller to weave shimmering cloaks from sparse threads of evidence.

There are two other possible cases from antiquity. The Bronze Age Collapse, and the Harappan Civilization. I am less well versed in these, but we have great reasons to be skeptical. Archeology is necessarily a task of forming an image with only a few pieces of the jigsaw. This is hard enough, but we have already seen how the shadow of Gibbon can shape a researcher’s thinking and frame what evidence he has. A cursory look at the debates indicates that every evidence interpreted as collapse (as defined above) has been interpreted differently and benignly by someone else. These are possible, but there is not enough evidence to make the concept useful.

The most plausible case in my mind is the Mississippian culture. Here the hypothesised social collapse was precipitated by rapid population decline as the Spanish introduced new diseases. Lower populations were less able to support the social structures, and so they collapsed into something else. Unfortunately the society was not literate, and the Spaniards were uninterested, so we have little observed evidence, and the archaeological evidence is a sketchy as ever.

I conclude for now that the concept is not useful… but for fiction.

In part one I also concluded that non-optimal technological path dependence was likewise not useful, since all examples were either flawed or fundamentally unknowable. But in this case I’ve begun to dislike the concept, and not just because of the shoddiness of the approach in the paradigmatic examples.

For an exercise, without being biased by what we know were the outcomes, think about scenarios where a collapse should have occurred under the hypothesis. As in the Mississippi example, I think a population decline scenario is the most plausible – positive externalities of agglomeration is a basic fact of economic geography, and they apply to society broadly [fn4]. With that in mind, I can easily think of the Black Death, the An Lushan Rebellion, the Thirty Years War, the Mongol Conquests, the Taiping Rebellion, and late 19th century Paraguay as examples where collapse would be likely. Yet  although all of these examples brought change, none brought collapse – even when coupled with other possible precipitating events such as war. In the Thirty Years War we have a trinity of population decline, war and climate change, but society remained uncollapsed.

Societies are complex, but they are resilient buggers. They change with relative ease, and mutate rather than die. Their innumerable interdependencies are in a web, so there are redundancies throughout the system. The idea that they would collapse like a house of cards doesn’t seem likely when applied to societies as we observe them. Romanists got out of the shadow of Gibbon, so should we.

[fn1] It does seem to be a gender specific delusion

[fn2] Despite their overlapping convictions, and equally sparse predictive success, they find little common cause with those who see the impending apocalypse in the same events. Perhaps they can bond over Yeats.

[fn3] Bertrand Russell once said all progress in science began with overthrowing some part of Aristotle. The same seems true of Roman history, with Gibbon in his place, whether the study of late antiquity, or the revival of Byzantine studies in earlier decades.

[fn4] This discussion provoked by Charles Stross (here, here), is relevant.

About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
This entry was posted in Geeky Musings, Political theory. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
24 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Alan
Alan
9 years ago

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Gibbon was slightly nutty on the topic of Christianity, which he specifically blamed for the Fall. The Enlightenment tended to identify themselves with the Romans and Gibbon went to all the trouble of inventing Byzantium and its supposed vices in order to see off those Christian interlopers from Constantinople who falsely presented themselves as the successors of Caesar and Cicero when the real successors were men like ummm Edward Gibbon.

john r walker
john r walker(@annesanders)
9 years ago
Reply to  Alan

Alan, as well as adopting Christianity, the emporer Constantine also split the empire between Constantinople and Rome. Therefore, he also effectively split the church and issues about legitimacy and ‘orthodoxy’ are deeply rooted within Western and Eastern attitudes to each other. The hostility and somewhat caricatured representations of either side are exactly the sort of thing that you would expect to develop in such a situation. Orthodox churches tend to place greater emphasis on the ritual, the sensual body of the church and the Western churches have tended to place more emphasis on the text.

Alan
Alan
9 years ago
Reply to  john r walker

The division into an eastern and western empire began with Diocletian and was not finalised until Theodosius the Great.

Constantine the Great actually abandoned Diocletian’s complicated territorial arrangements and ruled as sole emperor. Constantine’s heirs did re-divide the empire but their arrangement was different from the Theodosian division and in any case only lasted a couple of years until Constantius II established himself as sole emperor. What Constantine did do was pick an incredibly favourable site for the eastern capital.

john r walker
john r walker(@annesanders)
9 years ago
Reply to  Alan

Yes sorry . bit rusty .
By converting, Constantine linked the changing realities of the empire and the faith.

cbp
cbp
9 years ago

When others contend that none of this is supported by existing evidence or research, he appeals to unnamed authorities, and reasserts without providing supporting evidence.

I would give Jared Diamond more credit than this. You didn’t link to his actual response, where he most definitely provides further evidence and names of authorities: http://www.marklynas.org/2011/09/the-myths-of-easter-island-jared-diamond-responds/

Jared Diamond appears to have trusted the research that existed on Easter Island at the time he wrotes his article. And after all, Lipo and Hunt far from doubting Diamond’s case went to Easter Island to “support it by filling in the missing archeological data”.

The debate around the collapse of Easter Island seems to be unnecessarily partisan on all sides. Lipo and Hunt’s assertions rest on the difference between examining half a nut or a whole nut. Whilst people like Peiser ignore the fact that Diamond explicity talks of the success of management and technology over the environmental challenges of places like Japan Tikopia.

Paul frijters
Paul frijters
9 years ago

Richard,

I agreement it’s one of Diamonds’ less interesting efforts. He falls into a trap many older writers fall into, which is the desire to rally people around a cause by means of warning them of doom to come. Business as usual does not sell that great.
I am surprised you don’t raise the truly quintessential example within Western thought of collapse thou: judgment day. The notion of a final reckoning in which all we know will collapse and that is just around the corner is very strong in Christian thought. The Norse also have it in their Ragnarok stories, and you see it in many cultures. Once you realise the story of collapse arises often and has fanatical believers and propagators, you get very different questions: why are these stories so popular? What within our societies gives rise to a demand for these stories? Are there societies that do not have them and how do they differ from ours? The fact that demand leads to supply is less interesting and the precise form of the supply is also not so interesting. It’s the demand side that is the real conundrum. Any ideas?

Paul frijters
Paul frijters
9 years ago

You will have to forgive me for the typos above. Damned iPads….

Ken Miles
9 years ago

The collapse of the Roman Empire isn’t a “paradigmatic example is no longer hip”.

A good example is Peter Heather‘s Fall of The Roman Empire, which is certainly falls firmly into the collapse literature.

Another example is Bryan Ward-Perkins‘ book The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization which likewise argues strongly that the end of the Roman Empire was a highly disruptive event with very negative consequences for the inhabitants of the Roman Empire.

trackback

[…] And yes, things have always been falling apart. The West has loved its narratives of decline. And the whole “Fall of Rome” thing is indeed probably tied up with that monkey Gibbon. […]

Paul frijters
Paul frijters
9 years ago

The flood, Ragnarok, and Kalkin the ninth avatar of Buhddha, are neither the sole province of the Abrahamic religions nor purely Western. Don’t believe everything you read about east and west!
The complex system version of the apocalypse is just another form of supply. Where does the demand come from though?

Paul frijters
Paul frijters
9 years ago

FYI: Kalkin, the tenth (not ninth, sorry) avatar supposedly comes to cleanse humanity after it has fallen into chaos. I believe he is scheduled to come in around 400,000 years time. Not quite tomorrow,which raises the interesting question why Armageddon is always around the corner for us, but in Hinduism they are content to believe it won’t be in their lifetime!

john r walker
john r walker(@annesanders)
9 years ago

A scarey story narrative of slow decline ending in perfect storm total wreck can hardly then finish with- on the other hand in the east, the wine, olive oil, lemons and hot baths remained very attractive to northerners, for centuries to come.. no?

Elise
Elise
9 years ago

“…society remained uncollapsed…Societies are complex, but they are resilient buggers. They change with relative ease, and mutate rather than die.”

It may be a silly question, but what is the definition of “collapsed”? Didn’t continue operating in the same way, or vanished entirely from sight? If the latter definition, then certainly there would be no collapses. Where is the line drawn?

Also, what is the time span which would constitute a “collapse” versus a “change”? One year, one generation, or what?

Drawing a long bow, classical business school thinking states that companies can go bankrupt, but countries never can. The argument is more-or-less that the people are still there, and the government simply aquires debt but keeps on functioning. Looking at Greece today, the classical argument looks a little stretched. It looks very much like economic “collapse”. Perhaps we should call it “change” instead, to stay consistent with the revised theory on societies?

trackback

[…] of course, just because most Doom Sayers are paranoid attention seekers doesn’t mean they are necessarily wrong. There are people you should not trust your kids with, the climate is most likely changing, […]

trackback

[…] of course, just because most Doom Sayers are paranoid attention seekers doesn’t mean they are necessarily wrong. There are people you should not trust your kids with, the climate is most likely changing, […]

john r walker
john r walker(@annesanders)
8 years ago

richard
What is the difference between collapse/disappearance and a change of form that happened when you were not looking.

Cassowary’s and the velociraptor –ish Deinonychus have incredibly similar bone structures (deinonychus is about 2X bigger but that’s almost the only difference ) and its pretty clear the the fruit eating but dangerously well armed and cranky is closely related to a Deinonychus type dinosaur… except they are not extinct/ disappeared.

john r walker
john r walker(@annesanders)
8 years ago

Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time , [Stephen Jay Gould.
Have you read it, its brilliant stuff.

john r walker
john r walker(@annesanders)
8 years ago

sorry typo
and its pretty clear the the fruit eating but dangerously well armed and cranky Cassowary is closely related to a Deinonychus type dinosaur… except they are not extinct/ disappeared

Alan
Alan
8 years ago

Dinosaurs are neither extinct nor disappeared. They evolved into birds.

john r walker
john r walker(@annesanders)
8 years ago
Reply to  Alan

Well yes, sort of….. but dinosaurs are extinct.

Alan
Alan
8 years ago

No, no, no. They are alive and kicking, especially in the cassowary-haunted rain forests of Far North Queensland.

john r walker
john r walker(@annesanders)
8 years ago
Reply to  Alan

I said “incredibly similar bone structures ” except for one important morphological difference Deinonychus had bony jaws and teeth.