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A look at the history of human civilization

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  1. Its superb bronze vessels seem to achieve an instant technological perfection.
  2. Needless to say, both Aristotle and Leibniz lived far too early to make these things work. The Empire tried to maintain its core lands, even as the army ate up its budget and inflation climbed ever higher as the government debased its silver currency to try to cover its mounting expenses.
  3. For much of the 20th century ideology has been the driving force in the export of two very different concepts of civilization, American capitalism and Russian Communism.
  4. The use of new energy sources and automation enabled larger scale behavior in and of itself.
  5. The energy of this light is reemited into space at a much lower effective temperature. Or formal grammar from Panini around 400 BC.

The political economist Benjamin Friedman once compared modern Western society to a stable bicycle whose wheels are kept spinning by economic growth. Should that forward-propelling motion slow or cease, the pillars that define our society — democracy, individual liberties, social tolerance and more — would begin to teeter.

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Our world would become an increasingly ugly place, one defined by a scramble over limited resources and a rejection of anyone outside of our immediate group. Such collapses have occurred many times in human history, and no civilisation, no matter how seemingly great, is immune to the vulnerabilities that may lead a society to its end. Regardless of how well things are going in the present moment, the situation can always change.

What are they, and which, if any, have already begun to surface? It should come as no surprise that humanity is currently on an unsustainable and uncertain path — but just how close are we to reaching the point of no return?

View image of Credit: Safa Motesharrei, a systems scientist at the University of Maryland, uses computer models to gain a deeper understanding of the mechanisms that can lead to local or global sustainability or collapse. According to findings that Motesharrei and his colleagues published in 2014, there are two factors that matter: The ecological category is the more widely understood and recognised path to potential doom, especially in terms of depletion of natural resources such as groundwater, soil, fisheries and forests — all of which could be worsened by climate change.

Disaster comes when elites push society toward instability and eventual collapse by hoarding huge quantities of wealth and resources That economic stratification may lead to collapse on its own, on the other hand, came as more of a surprise to Motesharrei and his colleagues.

Under this scenario, elites push society toward instability and eventual collapse by hoarding huge quantities of wealth and resources, and leaving little or none for commoners who vastly outnumber them yet support them with labour. Eventually, the working population crashes because the portion of wealth allocated to them is not enough, followed by collapse of the elites due to the absence of labour.

The inequalities we see today both within and between countries already point to such disparities. If the carrying capacity is overshot by too much, collapse becomes inevitable. That fate is avoidable, however. Getty Images Unfortunately, some experts believe such tough decisions exceed our political and psychological capabilities. Indeed, some nations are already serving as canaries in the coal mine for the issues that may eventually pull apart more affluent ones.

Syriafor example, enjoyed exceptionally high fertility rates for a time, which fueled rapid population growth. A severe drought in the late 2000s, likely made worse by human-induced climate change, combined with groundwater shortages to cripple agricultural production. That crisis left large numbers of people — especially young men — unemployed, discontent and desperate. Many flooded into urban centres, overwhelming limited resources and services a look at the history of human civilization.

How Western civilisation could collapse

Pre-existing ethnic tensions increased, creating fertile grounds for violence and conflict. On top of that, poor governance — including neoliberal policies that eliminated water subsidies in the middle of the drought — tipped the country into civil war in 2011 and sent it careening toward collapse.

Homer-Dixon calls these combined forces tectonic stresses for the way in which they quietly build up and then abruptly erupt, overloading any stabilising mechanisms that otherwise keep a society in check. Take, for example, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. By the end of the 100BC the Romans had spread across the Mediterranean, to the places most easily accessed by sea. They should have stopped there, but things were going well and they felt empowered to expand to new frontiers by land.

While transportation by sea was economical, however, transportation across land was slow and expensive. All the while, they were overextending themselves and running up costs. The Empire managed to remain stable in the ensuing centuries, but repercussions for spreading themselves too thin caught up with them in the 3rd Century, which was plagued by civil war and invasions. The Empire tried to maintain its core lands, even as the army ate up its budget and inflation climbed ever higher as the government debased its silver currency to try to cover its mounting expenses.

While some scholars cite the beginning of collapse as the year 410, when the invading Visigoths sacked the capital, that dramatic event was made possible by a downward spiral spanning more than a century. As stated in the laws of thermodynamics, it takes energy to maintain any system in a complex, ordered state — and human society is no exception. By the 3rd Century, Rome was increasingly adding new things — an army double the size, a cavalry, subdivided provinces that each needed their own bureaucracies, courts and defences — just to maintain its status quo and keep from sliding backwards.

Eventually, it could no longer afford to prop up those heightened complexities. It was fiscal weakness, not war, that did the Empire in. So far, modern Western societies have largely been able to postpone similar precipitators of collapse through fossil fuels and industrial technologies — think hydraulic fracturing coming along in 2008, just in time to offset soaring oil prices. Tainter suspects this will not always be the case, however. Eventually, investment in complexity as a problem-solving strategy reaches a point of diminishing returns, leading to fiscal weakness and vulnerability to collapse.

As poorer nations continue to disintegrate amid conflicts and natural disasters, enormous waves of migrants will stream out of failing regions, seeking refuge in more stable states.

Western societies will respond with restrictions and even bans on immigration; multi-billion dollar walls and border-patrolling drones and troops; heightened security on who and what gets in; and more authoritarian, populist styles of governing.

  1. As the conditions change, the actions must also be changed.
  2. The discussion of independent, coherent and complex behavior can be applied to physical, biological or social systems.
  3. As the conditions change, the actions must also be changed. These coherent actions enabled impact at a scale much larger than the size of the military force itself.

Meanwhile, a widening gap between rich and poor within those already vulnerable Western nations will push society toward further instability from the inside. Denial, including of the emerging prospect of societal collapse itself, will be widespread, as will rejection of evidence-based fact.

If people admit that problems exist at all, they will assign blame for those problems to everyone outside of their in-group, building up resentment. When localised violence finally does break out, or another country or group decides to invade, collapse will be difficult to avoid. Europe, with its close proximity to Africa, its land bridge to the Middle East and its neighbourly status with more politically volatile nations to the East, will feel these pressures first.

The US will likely hold out longer, surrounded as it is by ocean buffers. View image of Credit Getty Images: As time passes, some empires simply become increasingly inconsequential On the other hand, Western societies may not meet with a violent, dramatic end. In some cases, civilisations simply fade out of existence — becoming the stuff of history not with a bang but a whimper.

The British Empire has been on this path since 1918, Randers says, and other Western nations might go this route as well. As time passes, they will become increasingly inconsequential and, in response to the problems driving their slow fade-out, will also starkly depart from the values they hold dear today. Western civilisation is not a lost cause, however. Using reason and science to guide decisions, paired with extraordinary leadership and exceptional goodwill, human society can progress to higher and higher levels of well-being and development, Homer-Dixon says.

Even as we weather the coming stresses of climate change, population growth and dropping energy returns, we can maintain our societies and better them. But that requires resisting the very natural urge, when confronted with such overwhelming pressures, to become less cooperative, less generous and less open to reason.