Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Why Societies Collapse

Why have some of the greatest human societies of all time essentially collapsed to insignificance, or at least undergone steep declines? What fate awaits today’s most important societies, or even the human race as a whole? Is collapse inevitable?

A study to be published in Ecological Economics offers some interesting observations on these questions, based on a mathematical modeling analysis of past societies. According to the authors of the paper, two commonly-observed events associated with societal collapse or steep decline are; 1) resource over-use beyond carrying capacity, and 2) social stratification (increased separation into rich versus poor). The first factor should be obvious to any student of biology: Any population, whether it be bacteria or humans, must ultimately undergo a decline in population or at least a decline in living standards if it depletes the resources available to it. That concept is at the heart of the philosophy that ultimately humans must learn to live within a “sustainable world” if we are to stay healthy, happy, and successful.

The second factor, social stratification, is not so obvious. The authors propose several ways that increased separation between rich and poor could affect a society. One might be that the rich over-utilize resources, leaving too few resources for the poor. Another could be that as the poor make it into the rich category, there are too few workers left to do a society’s work.

Press reports of the study have made it sound as if we’re doomed. But nothing about the study implies that at all. There’s no reason why an enlightened society couldn’t make an effort to minimize social stratification and learn to use its resources wisely. Forewarned is forearmed.

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