25 September 2010

Evolution of Civilisations: Prelude to Collapse

19th Century American artist Thomas Cole's 5-part series of paintings, The Course of Empire, beautifully portrays the evolutionary rise and fall of an arbitrary civilisation in history. The theme of civilisational rise and fall has been replayed so many times that it has become a cliche -- and yet each civilisation believes itself immune to the universal mechanisms which guided the ascent and descent of its predecessors.
Perhaps the best known scholarly look at this phenomenon is Caroll Quigley's The Evolution of Civilizations. Quigley's treatment is a masterpiece of penetration, worth the time of any student of history. Such a book is more properly described as "meta-history", since it carefully examines the mechanisms behind repetitive and cyclical historical processes.
Earlier this year, John Robb took a look at Quigley's Evolution of Civilizations (TEOC), in an attempt to fit some of Quigley's ideas into his own program to modify society to create more resilient communities and societies. Robb made some unexpected discoveries in his study of Quigley, as is likely to happen to most thinkers who had not been exposed to "TEOC" before.
Many modern historians and thinkers are contemplating whether our civilisation has reached the end-game stage. Among them is Niall Ferguson, who suggested earlier this year that the collapse of the US hegemony may occur quite suddenly and unexpectedly as a result of uncontrollable complexities inherent in the modern system.
Great powers and empires are, I would suggest, complex systems, made up of a very large number of interacting components that are asymmetrically organized, which means their construction more resembles a termite hill than an Egyptian pyramid. They operate somewhere between order and disorder -- on "the edge of chaos," in the phrase of the computer scientist Christopher Langton. Such systems can appear to operate quite stably for some time; they seem to be in equilibrium but are, in fact, constantly adapting. But there comes a moment when complex systems "go critical." A very small trigger can set off a "phase transition" from a benign equilibrium to a crisis -- a single grain of sand causes a whole pile to collapse, or a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon and brings about a hurricane in southeastern England. _Ferguson_February 26, 2010 "Foreign Affairs" - March/April 2010 Edition
Thomas Cole paintings courtesy of Wikipedia

The short lifespan of humans -- a matter of mere decades -- combined with a relatively low average intelligence, leads to inevitable instabilities and tendencies to the dissolution of polities over time. This is due to the way that power is actually seized, controlled, and administered at various levels of complex societies, in a short-lived, semi-intelligent species of barely advanced apes.

The type of disorder within Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, Iraq, Pakistan -- or any number of third world states -- that one may have observed from afar, can easily visit your home town without so much as a by-your-leave. Violent dissolution needs no excuse to intrude in a highly complex civilisation. It only needs a few tumblers to fall in the proper places, to merely get its foot in the door.


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Blogger Robert said...

The Thomas Cole paintings are fantastic. The cyclic view on history is in itself fascinating och beautiful, like most subsuming and realistic theories of how the world funcions in different areas - from physics to history and psychology.


Sunday, 26 September, 2010  
Blogger Robert said...

And by the way, I love your blog!


Sunday, 26 September, 2010  
Blogger al fin said...

Thanks, Robert. But be forewarned: If Al Fin hasn't insulted you, you haven't been reading long enough.

Sunday, 26 September, 2010  
Blogger Kinuachdrach said...

Thanks for the reference to Quigley -- will check it out.

Round about the same 1980 time frame, archaeologist Jospeh Tainter summarized his view on collapsed civilizations (there have been a lot of them!) in "Collapse of Complex Societies".

Basically, Tainter ascribes collapse to increasing governmental overhead. Eventually, the burdens of government pass the point of diminishing returns, and then the fat lady signs.

However, Ridley in his recent book "Rational Optimist" points out that governments collapse, but knowledge is not necessarily lost. Hence life has been getting better for everyone by any objective criteria, even though the British Empire followed the Spanish Empire and the Roman Empire into the pages of dusty history books.

Peak Oil Alarmists would say that this time is different. Nuclear enthusiasts would respond that we have only just begun -- and with over 40 nations having nuclear power plants today, the knowledge of how to harness the power of the atom will not disappear when the EU flows down the plug hole or the next American Civil War heats up.

Time will tell!

Sunday, 26 September, 2010  
Blogger PRCalDude said...

I'm offended!

Seriously, though, I'm starting to be pretty distrustful of Robb's analysis of things as he sort of needs his ideas and memes to sell books and doesn't often look at counterexamples which disprove his points.

The entire "resilient communities" idea I think may be stillborn as I personally wouldn't want to be in one with 90% of the people on Robb's blog and none of the liberals there have managed to come up with a consensus upon which these communities will be organized. The most obvious is race/ethnicity and religion, but liberals imagine a raceless atheistic alternative that they can't articulate.

Sunday, 26 September, 2010  
Blogger al fin said...

K: Tainter has some intriguing ideas, much of which could also be classified as "metahistory." This is a good summary of many of the aspects of collapse, for example:
Collapse is manifest in such things as:
a lower degree of stratifcation and social differentiation;
less economic and occupational specialization
, of individuals, groups, and terri­
less centralized control; that is, less regulation and integration of diverse econo­
mic and political groups by elites;
less behavioral control and regimentation;
less investment in the epiphenomena of complexity, those elements that define
the concept of 'civilization': monumental architecture, artistic and literary
achievements, and the like;
less flow of information between individuals, between political and economic
groups, and between a center and its periphery;
less sharing, trading, and redistribution of resources;
less overall coordination and organization of individuals and groups;
a smaller territory integrated within a single political unit.

I am observing an increasing shortage of manpower in many technical competencies which will be important if the US ever dumps Obama and gets the world economy on an upward path again.

I am not nearly as impressed with Jared Diamond, or others of the more politically correct school of history and historical anthropology.

PRCD: Robb has a unique perspective due to his personal history. His commenters may lack some of the more substantial competencies that Robb acquired, and which he can call upon when needed.

Most Americans of my acquaintance seem to feel that competency and commonality of goals and purpose are more important than religious affiliation or ethnic membership, but my experience may be skewed.

Sunday, 26 September, 2010  
Blogger PRCalDude said...

Most Americans of my acquaintance seem to feel that competency and commonality of goals and purpose are more important than religious affiliation or ethnic membership,

I have no doubt that's what they say in polite company. The real question is, "Where do they live?"

People like to tell pretty lies. Look at what they do, not at what they say. People may well want to live next to other people with the right competencies, but what about when the cousins and extended family of those other people show up, and many are in gangs or have criminal records? You get the idea. Wishing the "partially inbred extended family" away doesn't make it go away.

There is no shortage of technical competencies in the US - just a shortage of jobs and a reluctance to hire. Look at the engineering job boards sometime: there are jobs posted but you must meet every iota and dot of the job posting before you here a callback because companies are terrified of hiring the wrong person and wasting the money to bring them up to speed.

Monday, 27 September, 2010  
Blogger gtg723y said...

PRCalDude: If you are willing to relocate you can find a job requiring technical skills or an engineering degree. If there are so many openings for technicians, welders and electricians open why is unemployment so high? Because most people no longer posses these skills.

Monday, 27 September, 2010  
Blogger Ugh said...

So the British Empire collapsed as a colonizing, some would say exploitative force in the world, but England didn't cease to exist. Sure their influence and effectiveness as a military power waned, but the country didn't succumb to chaos and collapse altogether.

Is the U.S. a different story? What I am seeing out of this so-called Tea Party Movement is a citizen revolt against a government system poised to collapse under it's own weight (with Obama/Pelosi piling on the straw). Is it possible to save this civilization? Is it too late anyway? This was a good country, a great place to live and offered so much to the rest of the world, we will sit idly by while special interests in Washington and Wall Street tear it apart?

People like Gerald Celente cleverly predicting doom and gloom based on scrutinizing general trends leaves Americans with only despair and a sense of why even bother. He does not provide any wisdom, just the opposite. We need to stop telling ourselves that collapse is inevitable, get rid of Obama and get on with it. We are a civilization worth saving.

Tuesday, 28 September, 2010  
Blogger al fin said...

Some people reach despair, and stay there. Others pass through their despair and become activated to make a difference.

Unfortunately, people are resistant to change. Drastic measures are almost inevitably required.

The Tea Party movement is most admirable, in my opinion. But the rot in the foundation goes all the way down.

See to the foundations, not to the facade.

Tuesday, 28 September, 2010  
Blogger gtg723y said...

I think we are looking down the barrel of austerity. People accepted pension deals that were too good to be true, I am sorry for these people but I will not bankrupt the nation for them. The retirement accounts of many people were borrowed against or stolen from, those responsible should be thrown in jail and their assets should be liquidated and distributed whenever possible. Will it fix the problem entirely, no, will it set an example and prevent this from happening again, I hope so.

Tuesday, 28 September, 2010  

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