Societal Collapse – 09/08/2011

For Your Entertainment (FYE)

“Societal collapse broadly includes both quite abrupt societal failures typified by collapses (such as that of the Mayan Civilization), as well as more extended gradual declines of superpowers (like the Roman empire in Western Europe and the Han Dynasty in East Asia).”

“History includes many examples of the appearance and disappearance of human societies with no obvious explanation.”

“Although a societal collapse is generally an endpoint for that form of administering the social and economic life of a culture, it can be as another kind of change of administration of the same culture. ”

“As when the black plague contributed to breaking the hold of European feudal society on its underclass in the 15th century, 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.
Societal collapse is not a benign social process, but remnants may linger long after the high culture of the society vanishes.”

“Societies essentially exhausted their own designs, and were unable to adapt to natural diminishing returns for what they knew as their method of survival. It matches closely Toynbee’s idea that “they find problems they can’t solve””.

“If there is a general “antidote” to collapse, it would seem to be social cohesion, economic growth and adaptability.”

“The coupled breakdown of economic, cultural and social institutions with ecological relationships is perhaps the most common feature of collapse.”

“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. This is like the scissors model of Malthusian collapse where the population grows without limit and resources do not, and is the usual simple idea of great opposing environmental forces cutting into each other.
It also appears to occur in complex forms in real collapses. 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 the recent major commodity price shocks, and is one of the key relationships people since the early studies of the Club of Rome have been most concerned with.”

“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):
human societies are problem-solving organizations;

sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance;

increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita; and

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.”

“The British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, in his 12-volume magnum opus A Study of History (1961), theorized that all civilizations pass through several distinct stages: genesis, growth, time of troubles, universal state, and disintegration.”

“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.”

“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 several 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, and the East transforming into the Byzantine Empire, which only fell in 1453 CE.”

“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. Ibn Khaldun noted that the lands ravaged by Banu Hilal invaders had become completely arid desert.
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, though he himself became a Muslim, destroyed many cities, slaughtered thousands of people and did irreparable damage to the ancient irrigation systems of Mesopotamia. These invasions transformed a civil society to a nomadic one.
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. Some believe that the death of up to 95% of the Native American population of the New World was caused by Old World diseases.”


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