The End of Civilization

My mind was wondering as I was teaching the Prepositions of Place today. I hope this is not a IMHO sort of thing.

  1. What is the greatest crash ‘civilization’ has ever suffered?
  2. Using that as a template, what would it look like to our present world?

I suppose that the fall of Rome was as bad as it ever got. I further suppose that such a scenario on our world would be something like a worldwide depression lasting a century combined with the military destruction and dismemberment of the US and Europe.

When did/would the world reach approximate post-crash levels of civilization?

Well, recall that there have been many ‘civilizations’ in world history. It’s only with the 20th century that a truly ‘global’ civiliztion came into play (and pretty much just the last 50 years).

European civilization certainly took quite a tumble following the fall of Rome, true. But my money would be on the collapse of the meso- and south american civilizations of the Maya and Aztecs. Bad bad bad.

Oh, right.

So a massive plague plus invasion of intrusive species, plus military defeat. Worse yet, cultural defeat. Arguably Meso America has never recovered.

True enough for the Aztecs. The one-two-three-FOUR punch of European contact pretty much brought them to a halt (though their own actions may have helped a bit with a human sacrifice rate that may have hit 1% annually). And after that they were part of the Renaissance Civilization of Europe for better or worse.

As for the Mayan…there’s some real data that climate change brought them down. That’s centuries before European contact. And that collapse was pretty damn complete.

As for what would happen to the modern, world-spanning civilization in a collapse?

First, kill off 2/3 of the humans alive. Without civilization and it’s ability to transport food wholesale starvation becomes the prime sport of the land.

I think the most likely scenario is a return to isolated nation states using what technology can be maintained to support themselves. Subsistence-level farming would become popular again. Say a return to 1700s era nation-states with varying levels of technology.

We might never recover from a civlization crash. Well, not totally (you can have a very productive and fairly happy urban society without much technology) because we lack any surface deposits of metal. It would be very hard to get enough iron, though we might be abel to make Bronze work out.

What about recycling?

Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs and Steel*) has a new book out – Collapse-How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. I just saw it in the bookstore this past weekend. I only read the jacket notes and don’t know any details, but it would seem that it must cover the subject of Civilization Collapses pretty well. It seems like it was written to address the OP. Regardless, being by Diamond, it’s more than likely a great book.

Here’s a link

  • I know you know this. The info is for others who may not. It’s been recommended enough by Dopers that I picked up a copy but haven’t read it yet.

Define what you mean by “crash”. Rome didn’t really “crash”–not in any time frame that feels like a crash if you are living in it. It is my understanding (and I don’t keep up with this like I should, so there may be new information I am not familiar with) that the Mayan crash also took place over the course of at least a generation, with various city-states collapsing in turn, not all in one horrific year or two. The collapse of both the Aztec and Incan empires is closer to the idea of a crash–certainly there were people who were born in a world that seemed stable and monolithic and who had every reason to believe that their lives would be like their parents would be like their children, who instead saw everything they knew overturned within a few years.

A better example of this sort of crash might be the Moundbuilder culture of what is now the SE US, which was apparently entirely wiped out be European diseases before any contact with actual Europeans; a vigously populated Amazon River Basin may likewise have been wiped out/ reduced to a few scattered tribes.

It seems like it really takes disease to crash a civilization in a short time period: both climate change and warfare on their own take place over generations, not years or months. So what you want to spectulate is the effects of a massive epidemic (or series of epidemics, as in the case of hte new world. It was the serial nature of contagious disease after contagious disease that made it so devestating. Even if you survived the smallpox you had to live through the measles and then the typhus and then god only knows what else.)

Alternativly, we could speculate on what it would be like if the US declined in power over the next three generations or so: a “crash” on the historic scale, even if it wouldn’t feel like one to us. That could happen, as a result of natural disasters, external pressure, and climate change–but the outcome would be very different than if disease killed 90% of the population in a few years. For one thing, a collapse over a few generations allows other countries and institutions to gradually expand to fill the power vacuum.

As one book title put it ‘Rome wasn’t Burnt in a Day.’

Excellent point about the collapse of the long-distance transport of stuff. Starvation and different parts of different technologies being preserved from place to place.

Could you count as a crash the conversion to communism? Russia’s never really been the same, nor China.

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire has got to be up there too. Autocratic, corrupt, sometimes horribly cruel (ask the Armenians) but also cosmopolitan, organized, relatively wealthy, and keeping a sort of peace over much of the Islamic World. We’re still dealing with what Europe did to it, blithely carving up its parts into squabbling, impoverished nation-states prone to dictators and fanaticism.

I just read a few striking scenarios in a book of counterfactual history called What If? about times where civilization very nearly ended, or at least was made to look very different. Probably the scariest was about a Mongol invasion that almost was; in 1242, a vast Mongol army was camped in Hungary and made for Vienna. They turned back only because the Mongol emperor, Ogadai, third son of Genghis Khan, died, and the Mongols had a rule that a new emperor had to be chosen in person. Europe might well have not stood a chance against the Mongols – they had devastated China, and would continue to, and only Japan and Vietnam were able to repulse them. (European armies of the time were disorganized and most fighting was between individuals; the Mongols had organized armies equipped with effective compound bows that fought like Roman or modern armies.)

European civilization didn’t end in 1242, but it could have. The book speculates that the Mongol invasion was responsible for a deep change in the Islamic cultures, because the Caliph of Baghdad, a central authority in Islam, was killed by the Mongols and the caliphate could not be restored. (It’s possible that the state of the Middle East today has its roots in the Mongol invasion, though there’s lots of other ways the situation could have been avoided, particularly in 1919.)

Another scenario speculates that Europe might have become Islamic if Charlemagne’s grandfather, Charles Martel (as he was known afterwards) had not defeated Abd Al-Rahman at Poitiers in 732. An Islamic Europe is hardly the end of civilization – on the contrary, the authors speculate it might have made Europe stabler and culturally richer, at least in the short term. But the European culture we now have might have looked very different (as it would if the Roman Empire had not fallen, and a few scenarios for that are also postulated).

Later on, there’s some of the obligatory World War 2 scenarios where Hitler wins, some of which seem quite plausible. That too might have been the end of European civilization. So might it have ended, of course, if confrontations over East Berlin had sparked a nuclear war. Since civilization – European civilization, at least – hasn’t ended, we can only look for times that it nearly did. And there were several such times.

Some evidence from molecular genetics points to the probability that Homo sapiens experienced a population bottleneck in early prehistory, where the total human population was reduced to several thousand. Depending on the population before this bottleneck, this may have been the greatest ‘crash’ in our history. It’s even possible that such an event, differently timed or harsher, could have led to a different species gaining dominance. Imagine what humanity might have been like if, say, a species had emerged with smaller brains that could only barely grasp language.

Do you mean the Anazasi? If that’s the case, then no, they did it to themselves, at least according to Diamond whose book I’m just reading. Collapse is not as good as G,G & S, but still worth the time. It’s an easy read, but his agenda is shining through, the book is clearly biased, and he keeps going over the same issues for each culture that he examines: Deforrestation, soil errosion, climate change, hostile neighbours, sticking to old ways instead of adapting. It gets a little repetitive, but there are interestingfacts in there and I’ve learned some new and interesting stuff.

I was tempted to skip his chapter on New Guinnea, since I already know that he thinks it’s a paradise and very interesting, but he kept it mercifully short and to the pount.

There are some interesting comparisons. I haven’t reached the chapter about Hispaniola, which deals with why Dominican Republic is lush and fairly well of, while Haiti is such a mess (politics of course), but seeing that both countries are on the same island, it should be clear that it’s human affairs that have caused the mess there, not just climate.

When more people have read it, I think we could have an interesting discussion over in GD.

Kill off 2/3 of humanity and we’d hardly blink. Such a depopulation would have significant benefits for China and India.

Kill off 90% of the U.K. and you’re still left with 6 million people at which point it would be tough for a few years while we got organised. You need a 99.9% loss (60,000 survivors in the U.K.) before things start getting serious, and even that might not phase China or India too much - they’d each have remaining populations of over a million.


Thanks to human activity there are more surface deposits of all metals now than ever before. Our cities including the garbage dumps are incredibly rich reserves of almost all metals and very close to the surface and easily extracted. Moreover open cut mines have brought to the surface materials that were trapped underground prior to the overburden being removed.

The idea that somehow there are fewer surface metal deposits now makes no sense. At what pointing the past have there ever been more?

No (if I may answer for Manda JO). The Anasazi were in what is now the southwestern US.

The moundbuilding culture to which Manda JO refers were in what is now the southeastern US.

There would be plenty of metal around. But could civilization recover from a crash without substantial surface deposits of fuel, especially coal and petroleum? There are certainly other energy sources, but none that are as rich and easily exploited. It would be a lot harder to rebuild civilization without easy access to cheap fuels.

There are plenty of surface deposits of coal in the world. Granted Europe and North America have largely tapped out there supplies but the stuff is still literally poking through the surface in vast amounts in Australia and there are plenty of close surface deposits in South America. Even in the US there are still surface coal mining operations.

Coal energy isn’t the problem and with coal you have the ability to enter the steam age and from there the horizon is boundless.

I’ve read the book ( both of them, actually - there is also a second volume ) and although I found both of first two chapters you mentioned fun reading, I think both seriously overstated their case.

It is true that it is likely that no European state could have beaten the Mongol imperial army in the field. A major razzia to the channel with attendant destruction and perhaps the temporary submission of some western rulers was certainly possible. If Subedei had taken it into his head to sack Rome ( not necessarily likely ) he doubtless could have, with serious temporary disruption.

But the Papacy wasn’t a dynastic position and could move ( witness Avignon ) and anyway any long-term Mongol occupation of western or even central Europe was extremely unlikely. For reasons of pasturage the Mongols based themselves in decent steppe country and the Hungarian plain, as it was for the earlier Avars and Magyars, was the most westerly candidate for a permanent base. Indeed one of the Mongol princes had been tentatively assigned that area as an appanage before the recall of the main imperial army made it impractical. However it would have been the far westerly edge of permanent Mongol authority and it is unlikely it would have grown into a power center of proportion enough to dictate to Europe as a whole. The main impact would have been on the Balkan region and Poland, which would have probably been reduced to a status similar to that of the Russian princes for awhile.

But even that wouldn’t have lasted forever. Indeed such exposure was more likely to Europeanize the Mongols than vice versa, as the exposure to Christianity would have been more extensive than if they had remained on the previously mostly pagan Russian steppe.

So, no, IMHO the Mongols wouldn’t have destroyed “European civilization”. For that matter they ultimately didn’t destroy China either, they though did fuck it up pretty seriously for awhile through misrule.

There is some truth to this, but consideing the feebleness of the Abbasid Caliphate at the time, I’m not sure that that might not be a little overstated as well. The much more significant impact was the permanent demographic and economic shift as Turkic pastoralists displaced agriculturalists and dominated the the military ( and hence political, if not necessarily administrative ) apparati of the major ME states. But this was a trend that had already been ongoing for centuries before the Mongols arrived.

This one is nonsense and it annoyed me to see it being seriously addressed in that book. The hault to serious expansion had already begun earlier for reasons of logistics and earlier checks, it did not prevent some further ( temporary, to be sure ) losses and the Caliphate was about to go into a serious internal crisis and civil war that would end with Iberia being seperated from the rest of the state as a rump remnant of the defeated dynasty.

Poitiers was a skirmish, more important for the internal development of France ( by strengthening Charles Martel ) than it was for any check on Islam. It sprang out of a punitive raid against Eudo of Aquitaine (Charles Martel’s most important rival ), not a major invasion force. A loss at Poitiers, even a bad one, would at most have meant a temporary loss of France south of the Loire and west of the Massif Central. Given their other issues I doubt such a gain would have been terribly long-lasting, nor had an enormous effect on the rest of Europe if it had been.

  • Tamerlane