🔒 Kluth: Modern parallels to Bronze Age collapse, navigating complexity and catastrophe

In this thought-provoking piece, Andreas Kluth explores the parallels between our complex modern societies and the collapse of civilizations in the late Bronze Age. Drawing on insights from historians and anthropologists, he examines the role of increasing complexity, external shocks, and societal fragility. As contemporary challenges like climate change, pandemics, and global conflicts unfold, Kluth raises critical questions about our ability to comprehend and navigate the intricate feedback loops within our systems. The looming spectre of collapse prompts reflection on whether our society will adapt or face a new “Dark Age”.

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By Andreas Kluth

Did people in the late Bronze Age know their civilization was collapsing? There’s another half to that thought. If we — in the United States and the world — were ourselves in the early stages of collapse, would we even be aware of it? And what would we do about it? ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The collapse of societies has fascinated historians, archeologists and anthropologists from Polybius in ancient times to Edward Gibbon in the 18th century and a growing interdisciplinary field of scholars today (besides spawning an entire genre of “Mad Max”-style apocalyptic dystopia in Hollywood).

The scholarly question, never definitively answered, is whether we could end up like them. For the scientist Jared Diamond, “they” might be the Greenland Norse or the inhabitants of Easter Island; for the anthropologist Joseph Tainter, it’s the late-empire Romans, Mayans and denizens of the Chaco Culture. For others, such as the authors of How Worlds Collapse, it’s the people in the late Bronze Age, the Han and Jin dynasties of China, the Aztecs and Kievan Rus — and even honey bees (whose hive societies have been collapsing for decades, with huge implications for pollination and thus food and humans). 

The hard part is assigning causes to these collapses. One historian counted 210 different explanations for the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Temperamentally, scholars range from hedgehogs (who point to one big thing) to foxes (who know many things). Often their theses also reflect the fashions of the time. The Enlightenment thinker Gibbon blamed Rome’s fall on a loss of civic virtue that he linked to the spread of Christianity. Diamond, writing more recently, faults human-made environmental degradation for the collapses he studied. Not wrong, probably, but also not the whole story.

One problem with single-cause explanations is that all sorts of societies have lost virtue or degraded their environment and yet avoided collapse. So the trend is instead toward ascribing collapses to “all of the above.” That also fits our own zeitgeist, with its vapid meme of “polycrisis.” It just means that we have many overlapping problems, from political polarization and inequality to climate change, war, famines, pandemics and mass migrations. These factors were also present in historical collapses.

One overarching theory has come to dominate the field. It comes from Tainter’s seminal work The Collapse of Complex Societies, published in 1988. As the title implies, Tainter noticed that civilizations over time became more complex to cope with new problems or challenges, from imperial expansion to food supply and social stability. Their administration, hierarchies, bureaucracies, technologies, supply chains and other institutions accrued more discrete parts and specialized roles that had to work together.

Complexity has a cost — in physical energy, administrative friction and other forms. At first, increases in complexity seem affordable and even useful. Eventually, however, a law of diminishing marginal returns on complexity sets in, and the costs, while difficult to see, become harder to bear. Food, labor or (in our time) fossil fuels run low; taxes and levies become onerous; information flows get inter- or corrupted; points of failure multiply. Civilization becomes fragile, without its members necessarily realizing it. 

If such a complex society is then buffeted by external or internal shocks, it can collapse. The shocks have typically included droughts, famines, plagues, migrations, rebellions, civil wars and invasions. 

What is collapse? To Tainter, it’s a belated, involuntary and rapid simplification. Empires or nations disintegrate into smaller units; supply chains and trade routes dissolve; people leave cities and decamp to the countryside to forage or grow their own food. Populations shrink; literature and learning tend to be lost; order gives way to warlordism and anarchy. Not all members of the collapsing society (slaves, for example) will necessarily bemoan such simplification. But in general, it sounds grim.

The historical collapse that in surprising ways seems most relevant to our own situation is the oldest of the cases I mentioned. So I asked Eric Cline, a professor at George Washington University and the author of 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed, to explain it to me.

The late Bronze Age in western Eurasia resembled our world in that the Mediterranean and Middle East were “globalized.” Mycenaeans, Minoans, Cypriots, Egyptians, Hittites, Canaanites, Assyrians, Mitanni, Anatolians and others traded with one another in complex and interdependent supply chains for everything from wine and grain to sandals. The silver came from Greece, gold from Egyptian Sudan, copper from Cyprus and tin (necessary for bronze) from Afghanistan.

But within several of these societies as well as their common civilization, complexity built up. Nobody was self-sufficient anymore, everybody depended on the whole system to keep functioning. Moreover, elites in Mycenae, Anatolia and elsewhere not only exploited the lower classes to pay the rising costs of complexity but also fought with each other over the remaining economic rents. Societies and the whole system grew fragile, although there’s no evidence that people were aware of the risk.

Then the shocks. One was also a prolonged drought, causing famines. Another was disease (Egypt’s Ramesses V probably died of smallpox). Next, and probably as a consequence, there were mass migrations — then as now called invasions by the receiving nations. The migrants at the time, from all over the Mediterranean, were called the Sea Peoples (among their descendants were the Philistines in Gaza, who later gave their name to Palestine). To top it all, there were major earthquakes. 

The story of collapse that straddles these historical facts and myth is that of Troy (some scholars think the Greeks’ horse, associated with Poseidon, in fact symbolized an earthquake). But the collapse, wherever it started, brought down all of the known civilizations, because they were interconnected. Within two or three generations, says Cline, large units broke into fragments. Coordination, information and trade flows stopped, arts and literacy declined, the population shrank. Things were suddenly much simpler. Later generations called that simplicity the first Dark Age.

Both Cline and Tainter told me that they see worrying parallels today. Our societies and economies have become the most complex (and therefore costly) in history, and we seem incapable of simplifying voluntarily. (It’s tax season in the US. Need I say more?) We have intra-elite conflict (called polarization) and inequality. And we have external shocks: diseases such as SARS and Covid-19, climate change, floods, fires, droughts and famines, the latter caused both by global warming and war. We also have mass migrations from the Global South to Europe and the US. And we have wars, lots of them. 

Of late, Tainter has paid particular attention to rips in our global supply chains — for semiconductors, for example — whether as a result of the pandemic or the wars in Ukraine or the Red Sea. Cline thinks the modern equivalent of tin in the Bronze Age may be lithium or rare earths: Disrupt those flows, and we’ll be at each other’s throats. Both Tainter and Cline think that we, like people in the past, don’t understand the feedback loops in the systems we rely on, which could cause upheavals that are “non-linear,” meaning catastrophic.

It’s true that we have advantages over our forebears: more sophisticated technology and science, and possibly greater self-awareness. But we also live with new, man-made and existential risks that our ancestors never faced: chemical, biological and above all nuclear weapons, as well as an emerging Artificial Intelligence that may take on a mind of its own. Meanwhile, in terms of wisdom our learning curve over the past three millennia seems to be flat. 

Collapse is never the end. In the first Dark Age, people eventually learned to use iron, and peoples such as the Phoenicians prospered in new niches, standardizing the alphabet and sowing the seeds of renewed human glory. “Are we Phoenicians or Mycenaeans?,” Cline asked me rhetorically: “Will we adapt or disappear?” And all I thought to myself was: I’d so much rather just not collapse at all.

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