Saturday, March 22, 2014

Complex societies can and do collapse

A recent academic study partially funded by NASA has drawn a skeptical eye because it suggests uneven distribution of wealth can be a factor in societal collapse.

And while there are arguable, perhaps even flawed premises or assumptions in the study, it does drive home one undeniable point: Even the most complex societies can and do collapse.

From the study:
It may seem reasonable to believe that modern civilization, armed with its greater technological capacity, scientific knowledge, and energy resources, will be able to survive and endure whatever crises historical societies succumbed to. But the brief overview of collapses demonstrates not only the ubiquity of the phenomenon, but also the extent to which advanced, complex, and powerful societies are susceptible to collapse. The fall of the Roman Empire, and the equally (if not more) advanced Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, as well as so many advanced Mesopotamian Empires, are all testimony to the fact that advanced, sophisticated, complex, and creative civilizations can be both fragile and impermanent.
Over dependence on  technology, and things like complex, far-flung supply chains can put a society at risk. An economic bump or natural disaster can bring modern civilization to a full-blown halt. No power, no Internet. Maybe no resupply of the grocery store that operates on a just-in-time inventory basis. The longer the outage, the more things get behind, the more they spiral out of control.

A troubling point about today's modern society is technology has isolated a majority of  the population from what were once basic life skills: Things like farming, hunting, the ability to build a fire. Also largely lost are concepts of stockpiling things like food or water to carry a family through short to intermediate length disruptions.

Just two or three generations ago, most Americans probably practiced the age old tradition of a stocked cellar (or some equivalent) to carry through a long winter. Even in the Cold War, Civil Defense advised people to keep a two week supply of food and water on hand.

Today? FEMA pleads with Americans just to keep a minuscule three day stash on hand in case of an unannounced emergency. This government produced public service announcement offers a tongue-in-cheek look at how unprepared most Americans are:

This may well reflect a trait that collapsed civilizations have shared: That their members put an overabundance of faith in the society or government, and failed to consider a personal plan to ride out or carry through when the civilization experienced periodic disruptions.

All societies have them.

It can happen here. What's your plan?

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