Societal collapse

Destruction, Course of Empire, by Thomas Cole (1836).

Societal collapse (also known as civilizational collapse) is the fall of a complex human society. Possible causes of a societal collapse include natural catastrophe, war, pestilence, and depopulation. A collapsed society may revert to a more primitive state, be absorbed into a stronger society, or completely disappear.

Various models and theories explaining societal collapse have been proposed,[1] involving causative factors such as environmental change, depletion of resources, unsustainable complexity, decay of social cohesion, rising inequality,[2][3] and loss of creativity. A disintegration may be relatively abrupt, as for Maya civilization, or gradual, as in the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

Societal collapse is studied by academic disciplines such as history, anthropology, sociology, political science, and more recently cliodynamics[4] and complex-systems science.

Causes of collapseEdit

Common factors that may contribute to societal collapse are economical, environmental, social and cultural, and disruptions in one domain sometimes cascade into another. In some cases a natural disaster (e.g. tsunami, earthquake, pandemic, massive fire or climate change) may precipitate a collapse. Other factors such as a Malthusian catastrophe, overpopulation or resource depletion might be the proximate cause of collapse. Significant inequity and exposed corruption may combine with lack of loyalty to established political institutions and result in an oppressed lower class rising up and seizing power from a smaller wealthy elite in a revolution. The diversity of forms that societies evolve corresponds to diversity in their failures. Jared Diamond suggests that societies have also collapsed through deforestation, loss of soil fertility, restrictions of trade and/or rising endemic violence.[5]

Black swan theoryEdit

In many instances of rapid collapse, a major event will tend to precede its collapse. This major event is called either a black swan event or a grey rhino event; the former is initially overlooked, but becomes evident in hindsight once the collapse occurs.

Such a black swan event could be an unnecessary war that overburdens the society's treasury (as in the case of the Weimar Republic or Pre-revolution French Monarchy) or unsustainable resource depletion. One example of a grey rhino event is a pandemic or a global war.

Foreign invasionsEdit

A map of the Bronze Age collapse

The decline of the Roman Empire is one of the events traditionally marking the end of Classical Antiquity and the beginning of the European Middle Ages. Throughout the 5th century, the Empire's territories in western Europe and northwestern Africa, including Italy, fell to various invading or indigenous peoples in what is sometimes called the Barbarian invasions, although the eastern half still survived with borders essentially intact for another two centuries (until the Arab expansion). This view of the collapse of the Roman Empire is challenged, however, by modern historians who see Rome as merely transforming from the Western Empire into barbarian kingdoms as the Western Emperors delegated themselves out of existence (though perhaps impelled by the invasions), and the East transforming into the Byzantine Empire, which only fell in 1453 AD.

North Africa's populous and flourishing civilization collapsed after exhausting its resources in internal fighting and suffering devastation from the invasion of the Bedouin tribes of Banu Sulaym and Banu Hilal.[6] Ibn Khaldun noted that the lands ravaged by Banu Hilal invaders had become completely arid desert.[7]

In the brutal pillaging that followed Mongol invasions, the invaders decimated the populations of China, Russia, the Middle East, and Islamic Central Asia. Later Mongol leaders, such as Timur, destroyed many cities, slaughtered thousands of people and did irreparable damage to the ancient irrigation systems of Mesopotamia. These invasions transformed a settled society to a nomadic one.[8]

Introduced diseasesEdit

New WorldEdit

Aztecs dying of smallpox, ("The Florentine Codex" 1540–85)

In addition to the disruption from direct human action by invaders, encounters between European explorers and populations in the rest of the world often introduced local epidemics of extraordinary virulence. Smallpox ravaged Mexico in the 1520s, killing 150,000 in Tenochtitlán alone, including the emperor, and Peru in the 1530s, aiding the European conquerors.[9] Some believe that the death of up to 95% of the Native American population of the New World was caused by Old World diseases[10] although new research suggests tuberculosis from seals and sea lions played a significant part.[11]


Smallpox was externally brought to Australia. The first recorded outbreak, in 1789, devastated the Aboriginal population; while the extent of this outbreak is disputed, some sources claim that it killed about 50% of coastal Aboriginal populations on the east coast.[12] There is an ongoing historical debate concerning two rival and irreconcilable theories about how the disease first entered the continent - see History of smallpox.


In medieval Europe, the Black Death destabilized most of society, and this possibly undermined feudalism and the Church.[13]

Sub-replacement fertilityEdit

The Greek historian Polybius, writing in The Histories, largely blamed the decline of the Hellenistic world on low fertility rates:[14]

In our time all Greece was visited by a dearth of children and generally a decay of population, owing to which the cities were denuded of inhabitants, and a failure of productiveness resulted, though there were no long-continued wars or serious pestilences among us…. For this evil grew upon us rapidly, and without attracting attention, by our men becoming perverted to a passion for show and money and the pleasures of an idle life, and accordingly either not marrying at all, or, if they did marry, refusing to rear the children that were born, or at most one or two out of a great number, for the sake of leaving them well off or bringing them up in extravagant luxury.[15]

In a speech to Roman nobles, Emperor Augustus commented on the low birthrates of the Roman elite:[16]‹See TfM›[failed verification]

How otherwise shall families continue? How can the commonwealth be preserved if we neither marry nor produce children? Surely you are not expecting some to spring up from the earth to succeed to your goods and to public affairs, as myths describe. It is neither pleasing to Heaven nor creditable that our race should cease and the name of Romans meet extinguishment in us, and the city be given up to foreigners,—Greek or even barbarians. We liberate slaves chiefly for the purpose of making out of them as many citizens as possible; we give our allies a share in the government that our numbers may increase: yet you, Romans of the original stock, including Quintii, Valerii, Iulli, are eager that your families and names at once shall perish with you.[17]

Upon the establishment of the Roman Empire, Augustus introduced legislation designed to increase the birth rate.[18]

Changes occurring with collapseEdit

There are three main types of collapse:

Reversion/Simplification: A society's adaptive capacity may be reduced by either a rapid change in population or societal complexity, destabilizing its institutions and causing massive shifts in population and other social dynamics. In cases of collapse, civilizations tend to revert to less complex, less centralized socio-political forms using simpler technology. These are characteristics of a Dark Age. Examples of such societal collapse are: the Hittite Empire, the Mycenaean civilization, the Western Roman Empire, the Mauryan and Gupta Empires in India, the Mayas, the Angkor in Cambodia, the Han and Tang dynasties in China and the Mali Empire.

Incorporation/Absorption: Alternately, a society may be gradually incorporated into a more dynamic, more complex inter-regional social structure. This happened in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Eastern Roman Empire and Levantine cultures, the Mughal and Delhi Sultanates in India, Song China, the Aztec culture in Mesoamerica, the Inca culture in South America, and the modern civilizations of China, Japan, and India, as well as many modern states in the Middle East and Africa.

Obliteration: Vast numbers of people in the society die, or the birth rate plunges to a level that causes a dramatic depopulation.

Other changes that may accompany a collapse:

  • Destratification: Complex societies stratified on the basis of class, gender, race or some other salient factor become much more homogeneous or horizontally structured. In many cases past social stratification slowly becomes irrelevant following collapse and societies become more egalitarian.
  • Despecialization: One of the most characteristic features of complex civilizations (and in many cases the yardstick to measure complexity) is a high level of job specialization. The most complex societies are characterized by artisans and tradespeople who specialize intensely in a given task. Indeed, the rulers of many past societies were hyper-specialized priests or priestesses who were completely supported by the work of the lower classes. During societal collapse, the social institutions supporting such specialization are removed and people tend to become more generalized in their work and daily habits.
  • Decentralization: As power becomes decentralized, people tend to be more self-regimented and have many more personal freedoms. In many instances of collapse, there is a slackening of social rules and etiquette. Geographically speaking, communities become more parochial or isolated. For example, following the collapse of the Maya civilization, many Maya returned to their traditional hamlets, moving away from the large cities that had dominated the political landscape.
  • Destructuralization: Institutions, processes, and artifacts are all manifest in the archaeological record in abundance in large civilizations. After collapse, evidence of epiphenomena, institutions, and types of artifacts change dramatically as people are forced to adopt more self-sufficient lifestyles.
  • Depopulation: Societal collapse is almost always associated with a population decline. In extreme cases, the collapse in population is so severe that the society disappears entirely, such as happened with the Greenland Vikings, or a number of Polynesian islands. In less extreme cases, populations are reduced until a demographic balance is re-established between human societies and the depleted natural environment. A classic example is the city of Rome, which had a population of about 1.5 million at the peak of the Roman Empire during the reign of Trajan in the early 2nd century AD, but in the Early Middle Ages the population had declined to only around 15,000 inhabitants by the 9th century.
  • Decadence: Sir John Glubb Pasha (1897-1987), a British military officer and historian in his essay, 'Fate of Empires' said most empires will tend to experience an age of decadence before collapsing.[19]
Global deaths in conflicts since 1400.

Population dynamicsEdit

In the general study of cultural change and population dynamics, a whole system displays complex ecosystem changes. Organizational adaptability relates importantly to organizational diversity.

Several key features of human societal collapse can be related to population dynamics.[20] For example, the native population of Cusco, Peru at the time of the Spanish conquest was stressed by an imbalance in the sex ratio between men and women.[21]

Other population imbalances may occur when low fertility rates coincides with high dependency ratios or when there is an unequal distribution of wealth between elites and commoners. Both characterized the Roman Empire.[22][23][24][25]

There is strong evidence that humans also display population cycles.[26]


The complete breakdown of economic, cultural and social institutions with ecological relationships is perhaps the most common feature of collapse. In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond proposes five interconnected causes of collapse that may reinforce each other: non-sustainable exploitation of resources, climate changes, diminishing support from friendly societies, hostile neighbors, and inappropriate attitudes for change.[27][28]

Joseph Tainter theorizes that collapsed societies essentially exhausted their own designs, and were unable to adapt to natural diminishing returns for what they knew as their method of survival.[29] It matches closely Arnold J. Toynbee's idea that "they find problems they can't solve".

Linking social and environmental dynamicsEdit

During the 9th century AD, the central Maya region suffered major political collapse, marked by the abandonment of cities

Modern social critics commonly interpret things like sedentary social behavior as symptomatic of societal decay, and link what appears to be laziness with the depletion of important non-renewable resources. However, many primitive cultures also have high degrees of leisure, so if that is a cause in one place it may not be in another—leisure or apparent laziness is then not a sufficient cause.

What produces modern sedentary life, unlike nomadic hunter-gatherers, is extraordinary modern economic productivity. Tainter argues that exceptional productivity is actually more the sign of hidden weakness, both because of a society's dependence on it, and its potential to undermine its own basis for success by not being self limiting as demonstrated in Western culture's ideal of perpetual growth.

As a population grows and technology makes it easier to exploit depleting resources, the environment's diminishing returns are hidden from view. Societal complexity is then potentially threatened if it develops beyond what is actually sustainable, and a disorderly reorganization were to follow. The scissors model of Malthusian collapse, where the population grows without limit and resources do not, is the idea of great opposing environmental forces cutting into each other.

For the modern world economy, for example, the growing conflict between food and fuel, depending on many of the same finite and diminishing resources, is visible in recent major commodity price shocks. It is one of the key relationships researchers, since the early studies of the Club of Rome, have been most concerned with.

Jared Diamond pursues these themes in his 2005 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.[27]

Population pressure and mineral resource exhaustionEdit

Romanian American economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, a progenitor in economics and the paradigm founder of ecological economics, has argued that the carrying capacity of Earth—that is, Earth's capacity to sustain human populations and consumption levels—is bound to decrease sometime in the future as Earth's finite stock of mineral resources is presently being extracted and put to use; and consequently, that the world economy as a whole is heading towards an inevitable future collapse, leading to the demise of human civilisation itself.[30]

Georgescu-Roegen is basing his pessimistic prediction on the two following considerations:

  • According to his ecological view of 'entropy pessimism', matter and energy is neither created nor destroyed in man's economy, only transformed from states available for human purposes (valuable natural resources) to states unavailable for human purposes (valueless waste and pollution). In effect, all of man's technologies and activities are only speeding up the general march against a future planetary 'heat death' of degraded energy, exhausted natural resources and a deteriorated environment—a state of maximum entropy on Earth.
  • According to his social theory of 'bioeconomics', humanity's economic struggle to work and earn a livelihood is largely a continuation and extension of the biological struggle to sustain life and survive. This struggle manifests itself as a permanent social conflict that can be eliminated neither by man's decision to do so nor by the social evolution of mankind. Consequently, we are biologically unable to restrain ourselves collectively on a permanent and voluntary basis for the benefit of unknown future generations; the pressure of population on Earth's resources will nothing but increase.

Taken together, the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the second half of the 18th century has unintentionally thrust man's economy into a long, never-to-return overshoot-and-collapse trajectory with regard to the Earth's mineral stock. The world economy will continue growing until its inevitable and final collapse in the future. From that point on, Georgescu-Roegen conjectures, ever deepening scarcities will aggravate social conflict throughout the globe and ultimately spell the end of mankind itself.

Georgescu-Roegen was the paradigm founder of ecological economics and is also considered the main intellectual figure influencing the degrowth movement. Consequently, much work in these fields is devoted to discussing the existential impossibility of allocating earth's finite stock of mineral resources evenly among an unknown number of present and future generations. This number of generations is likely to remain unknown to us, as there is no way—or only little way—of knowing in advance if or when mankind will ultimately face extinction. In effect, any conceivable intertemporal allocation of the finite stock will inevitably end up with universal economic decline at some future point.[31]:253–256[32]:165[33]:168–171[34]:150–153[35]:106–109[36]:546–549[37]:142–145[38]

Theories of energy return on energy investedEdit

A related economic model is proposed by Thomas Homer-Dixon[39] and by Charles Hall[40] in relation to our declining productivity of energy extraction, or energy return on energy invested (EROEI). This measures the amount of surplus energy a society gets from using energy to obtain energy.

There would be no surplus if EROEI approaches 1:1. What Hall showed is that the real cutoff is well above that, estimated to be 3:1 to sustain the essential overhead energy costs of a modern society. Part of the mental equation is that the EROEI of our generally preferred energy source, petroleum, has fallen in the past century from 100:1 to the range of 10:1 with clear evidence that the natural depletion curves all are downward decay curves. An EROEI of more than ~3, then, is what appears necessary to provide the energy for societally important tasks, such as maintaining government, legal and financial institutions, a transportation infrastructure, manufacturing, building construction and maintenance and the life styles of the rich and poor that a society depends on.

The EROEI figure also affects the number of people needed for sustainable food production. In the pre-modern world, it was often the case that 80% of the population was employed in agriculture to feed a population of 100%, with a low energy budget.[citation needed] In modern times, the use of cheap fossil fuels with an exceedingly high EROEI enabled 100% of the population to be fed with only 4% of the population employed in agriculture.[citation needed] Diminishing EROEI making fuel more expensive relative to other things may require food to be produced using less energy, and so increases the number of people employed in food production again.

Energy scenarios of Bryn DavidsonEdit

Here are the four "energy scenarios" described by Bryn Davidson (of the Dynamic Cities Project in Vancouver):[41]

Rapid depletion (early peak oil) Slow depletion (late peak oil)
Proactive response (government, society, technology and markets) Lean economy (energy descent) "Techno-markets" (sustainable development)
Reactive response (government, society, technology and markets) Collapse (such as Easter Island and the Soviet Union) Burnout (business as usual and climate chaos)

According to Rob Hopkins, energy descent is the only desirable option we have left (because reactive responses have dramatic consequences and it is likely too late for sustainable development).[41]

Models of societal responseEdit

According to Joseph Tainter[42] (1990), too many scholars offer facile explanations of societal collapse by assuming one or more of the following three models in the face of collapse:

  1. The Dinosaur, a large-scale society in which resources are being depleted at an exponential rate and yet nothing is done to rectify the problem because the ruling elite are unwilling or unable to adapt to those resources' reduced availability: In this type of society, rulers tend to oppose any solutions that diverge from their present course of action. They will favor intensification and commit an increasing number of resources to their present plans, projects, and social institutions.
  2. The Runaway Train, a society whose continuing function depends on constant growth (cf. Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis): This type of society, based almost exclusively on acquisition (e.g., pillage or exploitation), cannot be sustained indefinitely. The Assyrian, Roman and Mongol Empires, for example, both fractured and collapsed when no new conquests could be achieved.
  3. The House of Cards, a society that has grown to be so large and include so many complex social institutions that it is inherently unstable and prone to collapse. This type of society has been seen with particular frequency among Eastern bloc and other communist nations, in which all social organizations are arms of the government or ruling party, such that the government must either stifle association wholesale (encouraging dissent and subversion) or exercise less authority than it asserts (undermining its legitimacy in the public eye).
    By contrast, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed, when voluntary and private associations are allowed to flourish and gain legitimacy at an institutional level, they complement and often even supplant governmental functions: They provide a "safety valve" for dissent, assist with resource allocation, provide for social experimentation without the need for governmental coercion, and enable the public to maintain confidence in society as a whole, even during periods of governmental weakness.

Tainter's critiqueEdit

see Easter Island History § Destruction of society and population

Tainter argues that these models, though superficially useful, cannot severally or jointly account for all instances of societal collapse. Often they are seen as interconnected occurrences that reinforce each other.

Ahu Tongariki near Rano Raraku, a 15-moai ahu excavated and restored in the 1990s

For example, the failure of Easter Island's leaders to remedy rapid ecological deterioration cannot be understood without reference to the other models above. The islanders, who erected large statues called moai as a form of religious reverence to their ancestors, used felled trees as rollers to transport them. Because the islanders firmly believed that their displays of reverence would lead to increased future prosperity, they had a deeply entrenched incentive to intensify moai production. Because Easter Island's geographic isolation made its resources hard to replenish and made the balance of its overall ecosystem very delicate ("House of Cards"), deforestation led to soil erosion and insufficient resources to build boats for fishing or tools for hunting. Competition for dwindling resources resulted in warfare and many casualties (an additional "Runaway Train" iteration). Together these events led to the collapse of the civilization, but no single factor above provides an adequate account.

Mainstream interpretations of the history of Easter Island also include the slave raiders who abducted a large proportion of the population and epidemics that killed most of the survivors. Again, no single point explains the collapse; only a complex and integrated view can do so.

Tainter's position is that social complexity is a recent and comparatively anomalous occurrence requiring constant support. He asserts that collapse is best understood by grasping four axioms. In his own words (p. 194):

  1. human societies are problem-solving organizations;
  2. sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance;
  3. increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita; and
  4. investment in sociopolitical complexity as a problem-solving response reaches a point of declining marginal returns.

With these facts in mind, collapse can simply be understood as a loss of the energy needed to maintain social complexity. Collapse is thus the sudden loss of social complexity, stratification, internal and external communication and exchange, and productivity.

Toynbee’s theory of decayEdit

The British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, in his 12-volume masterpiece A Study of History (1961), theorized that all civilizations pass through several distinct stages: genesis, growth, time of troubles, universal state, and disintegration. (Carroll Quigley would expand on and refine this theory in his "The Evolution of Civilizations".[43])

Toynbee argues that the breakdown of civilizations is not caused by loss of control over the environment, over the human environment, or attacks from outside. Rather, societies that develop great expertise in problem solving become incapable of solving new problems by overdeveloping their structures for solving old ones.

The fixation on the old methods of the "Creative Minority" leads it to eventually cease to be creative and degenerate into merely a "dominant minority" (that forces the majority to obey without meriting obedience), failing to recognize new ways of thinking. He argues that creative minorities deteriorate due to a worship of their "former self", by which they become prideful, and fail to adequately address the next challenge they face.

He argues that the ultimate sign a civilization has broken down is when the dominant minority forms a Universal State, which stifles political creativity. He states:

First the Dominant Minority attempts to hold by force - against all right and reason - a position of inherited privilege which it has ceased to merit; and then the Proletariat repays injustice with resentment, fear with hate, and violence with violence when it executes its acts of secession. Yet the whole movement ends in positive acts of creation - and this on the part of all the actors in the tragedy of disintegration. The Dominant Minority creates a universal state, the Internal Proletariat a universal church, and the External Proletariat a bevy of barbarian war-bands.

He argues that, as civilizations decay, they form an "Internal Proletariat" and an "External Proletariat." The Internal proletariat is held in subjugation by the dominant minority inside the civilization, and grows bitter; the external proletariat exists outside the civilization in poverty and chaos, and grows envious. He argues that as civilizations decay, there is a "schism in the body social", whereby abandon and self-control together replace creativity, and truancy and martyrdom together replace discipleship by the creative minority.

He argues that in this environment, people resort to archaism (idealization of the past), futurism (idealization of the future), detachment (removal of oneself from the realities of a decaying world), and transcendence (meeting the challenges of the decaying civilization with new insight, as a Prophet). He argues that those who transcend during a period of social decay give birth to a new Church with new and stronger spiritual insights, around which a subsequent civilization may begin to form after the old has died.

Toynbee's use of the word 'church' refers to the collective spiritual bond of a common worship, or the same unity found in some kind of social order.

Systems scienceEdit

Researchers, as yet, have very little ability to identify internal structures of large distributed systems like human societies, which is an important scientific problem. Genuine structural collapse seems, in many cases, the only plausible explanation supporting the idea that such structures exist. However, until they can be concretely identified, scientific inquiry appears limited to the construction of scientific narratives,[44] using systems thinking for careful storytelling about systemic organization and change.

History includes many examples of the appearance and disappearance of human societies with no obvious explanation. The abrupt dissolution of the Soviet Union in the course of a few months, without any external attack, according to Johan Galtung was due to growing structural contradictions brought on by geopolitical overreach, which could not be resolved within the existing socio-political systems.

Although a societal collapse is generally an endpoint for the administration of a culture's social and economic life, societal collapse can also be seen as simply a change of administration within the same culture. Russian culture would seem to have outlived both the society of Imperial Russia and the society of the Soviet Union, for example. Frequently the societal collapse phenomenon is also a process of decentralization of authority after a 'classic' period of centralized social order, perhaps replaced by competing centers as the central authority weakens. Societal failure may also result in a degree of empowerment for the lower levels of a former climax society, who escape from the burden of onerous taxes and control by exploitative elites. For example, the black plague contributed to breaking the hold of European feudal society on its underclass in the 15th century.

Examples of civilizations and societies that have collapsedEdit

By reversion or simplificationEdit

During the course of the 15th century, nearly all of Angkor was abandoned

By absorptionEdit

By extinction or evacuationEdit

See alsoEdit

Malthusian and environmental collapse themes

Cultural and institutional collapse themes:

Systems science:


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Further readingEdit

External linksEdit