(Credit: Nigel Hawtin) From Article written by Luke Kemp https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190218-the-lifespans-of-ancient-civilisations-compared
According to Luke Kemp Scholar of Catastrophic Risk with Cambridge University collapse of civilization can be defined as a rapid and enduring loss of population, identity and socio-economic complexity. Public services crumble and disorder ensues as the government loses control of its monopoly on violence. In history, virtually all civilizations have suffered such a fate regardless of their size, technology or complexity. Some societies such as India, China and Egypt were able to rise from the ashes of collapse albeit drastically reduced in sophistication. Others such as the Roman Empire, the Mayans and Easter Island were outright destroyed. As you can see in the graphic above analyzed and compiled by Luke Kemp, the average lifespan of a civilization from boom to bust is around 340 years.
However, despite the rise and fall of civilizations throughout history, the world population has continued to increase. Please watch the video below which extrapolates population growth out to 2050. A single yellow dot represents 1 million people. Notice how the world population exploded after 1750 when coal began to power the Industrial Revolution.
At the time of this writing, the world population is near 7.9 billion people. Modern civilizations are so interdependent, it could be argued that a single global civilization exists albeit consisting of many interconnected parts.
In my view, this single global civilization could be seen as a superorganism akin to the human body. The human body has been described (successfully ) as a superorganism because it contains trillions of microorganisms — outnumbering human cells by 10 to 1. In exchange for food and shelter, the microorganisms provide us, the host, with metabolic, digestive and immune response abilities far beyond the scope of our own capabilities. The human body is a communal group of human and microbial cells all working for the benefit of the whole. Global industrial civilization contains billions of people organized into corporations, groups and governments. The rapid explosion in population and standard of living of the average citizen demonstrates how the various civilizations of the world (countries) serve the collective human enterprise.
When people think about collapse. It is sometimes visualized as the crumbling of skyscrapers or the tumbling of Jenga blocks piled too high. For example, collapse expert and historian Joseph Tainter has proposed that complex societies will eventually collapse under their own weight as they become increasingly complex over time.
I like to think of it as an irreversible change of state resulting in the death of a superorganism. It sounds controversial, but please hear me out. The human body functions as a superorganism right up until the point of death. Oxygen is distributed. Energy is metabolized, and the immune system keeps the various bacteria and other microorganisms in check. Upon death, the microorganisms that were so useful begin to digest the body from the inside out. This is a process known as putrefaction. As they feed on our tissues, these bacteria expel gasses like methane and ammonia that create the bloating seen in the abdomen after death. Over the short course of hours, our own bacteria spreads throughout the spleen, liver, heart and brain.
Collapse of a civilization is more similar to death than to the demolition of a building. A building can be rebuilt. Death is an irreversible change of state that immediately consumes its remnants as soon as the superorganism ceases to function. When a civilization collapses, anarchy will ensue. Simply put, it would be every human for themselves. The worst aspects of humanity will be on full display.
When world civilization collapses, it will cascade throughout the globe at lightning speed. Unlike previous times in world history where isolated civilizations rise and fall. Death of global industrial civilization will likely happen everywhere virtually at once. It will be like dominos falling from the global south spirling around the world until the last dominos of the western nations fall.
In part 2 of this piece, We will discuss why collapse is likely to occur within the next few decades. We will discuss carrying capacity and overshoot. Finally, we will discuss latent risks and unlikely potential solutions to our predicament.
*Please note that after receiving feedback, I have come to understand that the idea of global society as a superorganism is not new or original. I was not aware at the time of this writing, but it has been popularized and discussed in detail by Nate Hagens and others since 2020. Great minds think alike? More likely, I came across the information at 4 in the morning where it didn't quite register, but it somehow seeped into my mind.