Are We on the Road to Civilisation Collapse?
Studying the demise of historic civilisations can tell us how much risk we face today, says collapse expert Luke Kemp. Worryingly, the signs are worsening.
By Luke Kemp, 19 February 2019
Great civilisations are not murdered. Instead, they take their own lives.
This article is part of a new BBC Future series about the long view of humanity, which aims to stand back from the daily news cycle and widen the lens of our current place in time. Modern society is suffering from “temporal exhaustion”, the sociologist Elise Boulding once said. “If one is mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present, there is no energy left for imagining the future,” she wrote.
That’s why the Deep Civilisation season will explore what really matters in the broader arc of human history and what it means for us and our descendants.
So concluded the historian Arnold Toynbee in his 12-volume magnum opus A Study of History. It was an exploration of the rise and fall of 28 different civilisations.
He was right in some respects: civilisations are often responsible for their own decline. However, their self-destruction is usually assisted.
The Roman Empire, for example, was the victim of many ills including overexpansion, climatic change, environmental degradation and poor leadership. But it was also brought to its knees when Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 and the Vandals in 455.
Collapse is often quick and greatness provides no immunity. The Roman Empire covered 4.4 million sq km (1.9 million sq miles) in 390. Five years later, it had plummeted to 2 million sq km (770,000 sq miles). By 476, the empire’s reach was zero.
Our deep past is marked by recurring failure. As part of my research at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, I am attempting to find out why collapse occurs through a historical autopsy. What can the rise and fall of historic civilisations tell us about our own? What are the forces that precipitate or delay a collapse? And do we see similar patterns today?
- How Western civilisation could collapse
- The perils of short-termism: Civilisation’s greatest threat
- What are the biggest threats to humanity?
Please, read on in the pdf below. You can read here, but it’s a long article that you might want to download and read at your convenience offline.