Is Society About to Fall Apart?

“How do we know when society is about to fall apart?” asked Ben Ehrenreich in the NYT Magazine. “Meet the scholars who study civilizational collapse.” Ehrenreich is the author of “Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of Time.” Bringing together climate science, mythologies, nature writing, and personal experiences, he “presents a stunning reckoning with our current moment and with the literal and figurative end of time.” More from the book’s publisher.

In the magazine article, he begins by introducing Joseph Tainter, a professor at Utah State, who in 1988 wrote “The Collapse of Complex Societies.” Ehrenreich calls it “the seminal text in the study of societal collapse,” and quotes Tainter thusly: “Civilizations are fragile, impermanent things.”

“The Hebrew Scriptures recorded the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and divine rage has been a go-to explanation ever since,” Ehrenreich wrote.

Tainter described “empire” broadly as “civilization.” Contemporary society, he told Ehrenreich, has “built-in vulnerabilities” that could cause it to fall apart.

Central governments can disintegrate, Ehrenreich wrote. Empires can fracture into “small, petty states,” often in conflict with one another. “Trade routes seize up, and cities are abandoned. Literacy falls off, technological knowledge is lost and populations decline sharply.”

“For an overwhelming majority of the time since the evolution of Homo sapiens, Tainter contended, we organized ourselves in small and relatively egalitarian kinship-based communities. All history since then has been “characterized by a seemingly inexorable trend toward higher levels of complexity, specialization and sociopolitical control,” Ehrenreich wrote.

He quotes several apocalyptic academic thinkers:

Peter Turchin, a Russian-American scientists specializing in cultural evolution, witnessed first-hand the collapse of the Soviet Union. He told Ehrenreich he can see the U.S. going down a similar path. “For the last 40 years, he argues, the population has been growing poorer and more unhealthy as elites accumulate more and more wealth and institutional legitimacy founders,” Ehrenreich wrote. “The United States is basically eating itself from the inside out,” Turchin says.

Eric H. Cline, author of “1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed: Turning Points in Ancient History 2“), pointed out that “Late Bronze Age societies across Europe and western Asia crumbled under a concatenation of stresses, including natural disasters — earthquakes and drought — famine, political strife, mass migration and the closure of trade routes.”

Patricia McAnany, an anthropologist at UNC-Chapel Hill, warns that without the possibility of real structural change that more equitably distributes resources, “at some point the whole thing blows. It has to.”

But Ehrenreich ultimately ends his magazine piece on an optimistic note. Indigenous peoples have survived, mostly. Humans are remarkable resilient and adaptable. “The real danger comes from imagining that we can keep living the way we always have, and that the past is any more stable than the present,” he concludes.

The whole piece in the NYT Magazine is worth reading. Click.

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