Fragile civilisation

Will society as we know it survive the 21st Century?

Human civilisation is an intensely fragile construction. It is built on little more than belief: belief in the rightness of its values; belief in the strength of its system of law and order; belief in its currency; above all, perhaps, belief in its future. 

Uncivilization: The Dark Mountain Manifesto, Paul Kingsnorth
Vindolanda Roman remains, Hexham.

Uncivilization: The Dark Mountain Manifesto is the starting point for this blog, which is a bit of a train of thought exercise, I did not know what I was going to write next or how it would conclude. It only differs from train of thought that several times I had to walk away from the blog to sort out the mix of different, sometimes contradictory ideas that I had.

I have read Uncivilization: The Dark Mountain Manifesto[1]. It is a short book, 20 pages long and it is available free online. The only thing I have against it is that it is essentially atheist in its world view.

Basically it has a couple of main ideas that it draws on.

  1. Civilisations are fragile, when we think they are permanent is when they are likely to crack.
  2. Man is part of nature. If we harm nature we harm ourselves.

That the Dark Mountain Manifesto paints religion as part of the problem that leads to the fall of civilisation is something that I, as a Christian, find odd. Long before the events that the writers of the Dark Mountain Manifesto said led to its writing I was hearing things from Christians which were using different language to say the same thing.

We are part of God’s creation, is a Theist take on We are part of nature.
Warnings to the rich that we should not be investing is a system that keeps poor people poor is not communism or socialism. It is much older than that, found in the writings of Amos in the Old Testament and James in the New Testament[2]. There is nothing new under the sun. (That’s also from the Bible).

Civilisations fall. England has the walls of the cities of Chester and York, as well as the remains of Hadrian’s Wall and the forts along it all giving testimony to a civilisation that is no more. Civilisations end, all of them, even our Western democracy will have had its day at some point, given that civilisations tend to last about 330 years on average and the Industrial Revolution started around the 1760s that gives us to around the end on this century. Other societies that have left their mark, such as the classic Greek civilisation lasted much shorter than this.

What causes societies to fail?

The four horsemen of the apocalypse

I am not one of those who would interpret the book of Revelation to fit a time scale. I have no idea when this society will end, or whether that end will be the second coming of Christ prophesied in the Bible. It could be that technology has given us a new start, adapting to new surroundings can give civilisations a longer run. I hope so, but I see no change in the economic system that would support that.

Conquest, civil war, famine and pestilence have brought empires down. In the last few years Syria’s society has collapsed bringing a wave of refugees with it. We are living in a pandemic, historically the biggest killer of all. The Spanish introduction of Salmonella to the Americas was one of the factors in the collapse of the Aztec empire.

Climate change

When the climate becomes unstable it is often a catalyst for the collapse of civilisation. Akkadian, Mayan and Roman empires have all collapsed in times of climate change, usually drought.

Environmental degradation

When a society’s use of natural resources outstrips the ability of the environment to replenish it there is a danger of collapse. Excessive deforestation, water pollution, soil degradation and the loss of biodiversity are things which have to be reversed.

Inequality

Inequality is a vicious circle driven by population growth. As the population gets larger the supply of labour outstrips demand, workers become cheap and the economy gets top heavy. The scene is set for revolution, something which helps nobody.

But even if the inequality does not happen inequality in wealth and political inequality are a problem. Centralisation of wealth and power in a small number of people leads to instability and on to an inability to respond to ecological, social and economic problems.

Complexity

Societies are problem solving collectives. As they deal with more and more issues the bureaucracy becomes more and more complex. That is good at first, but large bureaucracy becomes a law of diminishing returns. Too much and it collapses under its own weight.

Bad luck

Randomness or the “Red Queen effect” of constantly fighting for survival in a changing environment.

It does not take much of a change to this list, the things that brought down the Roman Empire, to make them sound like the world of 2020. But my point is not that society is about to fall apart, but that it is always fragile, it always could fall apart at any time. It isn’t just a problem with climate change and what we contribute to it, though that is a big problem, but there are issues with inequality, in economic terms, political, racial, sexuality disability. All equality issues are important because a fair society is more stable. As I understand it, that is what the Bible means by justice.


[1] The Dark Mountain Manifesto.
[2] Amos 8:4, James 5:1-6

https://dark-mountain.net/about/manifesto/

4 thoughts on “Fragile civilisation

  1. John

    A really interesting post. Quite a stream of consciousness and I bet we will be flowing in that stream for a while. Plenty to think about.

  2. Notice that the most criticised policy of the Right, that the gap between rich and poor getting wider, and that of the Left of having too much burocracy, a.k.a. big government are both in the mix.

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