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All Societies Die
All societies die. We like to pretend they don’t. We also like to pretend that we as individuals aren’t going to die either. But no human being lives forever. Neither do societies, empires, or civilizations.
How long will our current civilization live? By historical comparative standards, European-American civilization is middle aged. One can get a sense of the life spans of civilizations by seeing how long other civilizations survived.
If you look at the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the various dynasties of China and the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms of Egypt, these empires lasted an average of a little over 550 years. Rome had a long life at about 900 years. China has been doing well since 979 AD with several consecutive dynasties being essentially prosperous.
There was a collapse in 1911 with the onset of the Chinese Revolution – but otherwise “Modern” China had a life of over 900 years.
Other empires were not so lucky. Byzantium only had 500 years of true independence. In their last few hundred years of existence, they were dominated by the Italians.The Shang Dynasty of China only ran 200 years. Neither the Middle nor the New Kingdom of Egypt survived 500 years. There were flash-in-the-pan empires, like Alexander the Great’s, which collapsed soon after the death of Alexander himself.
Where do we stand in all of this? Modern Western civilization dates from the end of the Middle Ages. There was a steady process of economic and technological growth, starting then and running to the present day, which gave us our current high standard of living. If one dates this transition from the onset of European world dominance - Columbus' discovery of America– we are approximately 500 years old. That would give us the average length of age of an empire when it falls – although many empires last much longer.
The experience of other empires would suggest that the West should expect a life of no more than 500 to 800 years – with a chance of an earlier extinction. The 800 figure is very optimistic.
What does the death of a society or a civilization mean? The fall of the Roman Empire led to the collapses of the Middle Ages. In China, the collapses at the end of dynasties are known as “Warring States” periods. The periods between Egyptian kingdoms were chaotic.
All of the following things occur during these feudal chaotic periods:
1. Standards of living collapse. Under the empire, trade is possible. Under the empire, there is a market demand for goods and services at least in the capital city and often in the outlying territories as well. This all dries up when military chaos makes trade no longer possible. Commerce disappears. Manufacturing disappears. Food supplies dry up. The world sinks into poverty.
The Roman Empire was a rich prosperous place. Medieval Europe was dirt poor. Archaeologists who actually count how many objects households have in historical periods document that from 500 AD to 900 AD, European households simply had less and less material wealth .
2. Technology disappears. We currently live in a world where technology just keeps getting better and better. You have an incurable disease now? Don’t lose hope! In ten or twenty years, someone might invent something that will fix you! But there is no sacred rule that scientific skills improve all by themselves. Sometimes technology stagnates. Sometimes there is outright technological decline as the skills needed to manufacture vital products become lost.
Imagine you lived in some sort of post nuclear devastated world. Do you personally know how to make antibiotics? Could you build an electrical generator? Would you know how to drill for petroleum?
Science is hard. Most people struggle with their math classes or their chemistry classes. It is difficult to reproduce each new generation of scientists, engineers and technicians on which our world depends.
The Romans could build aqueducts, stone roads and magnificent stone structures. Medieval Europe would not start building great cathedrals until after 1000 AD.
3. Crime, warfare and violence increases. Large secure states mean peace and rule of law within their boundaries. When the state collapses, criminals and invaders run wild.
Rome was not a tranquil place. It had its civil wars. But during the peaceful years, the roads were patrolled. Bandits, brigands and pirates were kept from preying on trade. Invasions affected the frontiers but not the heart of the empire.
In Medieval Europe, a state could be the size of a handful of counties. Wars between micro-lords were endemic. Pirates ruled the oceans. There were raids from barbarians or from stronger geopolitical powers in Spain or in Turkey. In that era, there was no “calling the police” or “calling in the National Guard.” If there were thieves or invaders, individual farmers had to defend themselves.
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Societal death is grim. It is also inevitable. But this doesn’t mean death has to come soon. Under ideal circumstances, the European American World System could last for several centuries more.
But if we want our current civilization to live, it helps to know what exactly kills societies, empires and civilizations. We need to know how to keep our societies alive. You cannot keep your own society alive if you do not know what kills societies in general.