Friday, September 23, 2005

The Collapse of Civilizations.

The Collapse of Civilizations.

I am indebted to N.K.Sandars ( “The Sea Peoples “ , ISBN 0 500 02085 X ) for her insight that large civilizations collapse from inhibitions to recovery . They obviously handled disasters and invasions before . A large civilization ( in her case the Bronze-Age civilization , encompassing Europe , North Africa , Egypt and the Middle-East) or the Roman civilization is a tough beastie and cannot be brought to its knees by a single factor .

A simple , measurable definition of Civilization .

First , we have to know what we are talking about .

Define a Civilization as the way an entity or entities produces and stores surpluses .

These surpluses follow the hierarchy : Air , Food , Water , Shelter (inclusive of clothes) and Art .

(Art is the Curiosity element , which includes monuments , literature , recreational war , games , religion , courting-behaviour , etc . These are all anti-boredom , leisure-consumption activities and constructions . This is because any neuronal-net will evolve to handle peak-challenges , but degrade optimally-learned feedback weights in the troughs . Since peaks are infrequent , successful civilizations have evolved to spend most of their time on Art , Play , Games , etc . This raises the interesting question of whether ants , squirrels ,etc have anti-boredom activities : ie Art . Courting-behaviour seems a prime candidate for anti-boredom activity like intelligence and humour .)

Human Civilizations .

We can then classify human civilizations by the way they produce or store surpluses : hunter-gatherer , agricultural , pastural , nomad-herder , with sub-classes like stone-age , bronze-age , iron-age , steam-age , electronic-age , pottery-ages , literary-ages , film-ages , etc , etc . The sub-divisions are endless and satisfy the anti-boredom criteria .

The Career of a Civilization :

1. The Rising Civilization :

A random fluctuation (usually organizational) makes a certain group better at generating surpluses . People flock in . The successful society has a way of incorporating them (this is possible due to the genetic conformity of humans (cf Toba)) .

Manufacture and export is vigorous . People want to belong to this new way of doing things , no matter what their initial status .

This progresses in a positive-feedback exponential fashion until certain negative-feedback elements become more-and-more important .

2. The Plateau Civilization .

The flies in the ointment : the negative-feedback factors :

2.1 Malthus

The population will expand to the limit of the resources . This takes some time , especially since civilized humans with some store of value (ie money) and a fairly stable political system optimizes on the grand-children instead of their direct children.

The surplus-per-person falls .

The very rich get much richer . The poor get even poorer . (Power-Law distribution.) A Middle Class forms , becomes important for a while ,then is squeezed smaller and smaller as surplus per population falls with rising population . See also factors below .

2.2 Diminishing Returns.

A quiet killer . Also known as the Rising cost of Marginal Returns .

Simply put , the easiest and cheapest things get done first . Subsequent things become harder and more expensive . (The classic example is the modern motor-car : in real terms , it costs about 100 times as much as Ford’s old Model T , but is no faster in traffic and cannot be repaired by the owner . Software shows the same tendency : expensive extra features are never used by most users , but has to be paid for . )

It is a real killer , because the marginal cost can be driven to a point where it is higher than the cost at an earlier point . The overhang creates a collapse pressure .

This has already happened in a large commercial system : the Concorde . If the time-cost of travel to the airports are factored in , the marginal gain in flight-time was not worth the cost . It took only one disaster to collapse the supersonic commercial market . Compare this to more robust tourist systems .

2.3 Relative Competitive Advantage.

The long-term killer .

It basically means that some things are cheaper to make elsewhere . If transport is cheap enough , these items can be imported and sold cheaper than they can be manufactured locally . (Globalization is the present term , but it has happened many times before .) The local artisans , manufacturers and peasants are pushed down into the unemployed class . The former pool of sturdy potential soldiers become a festering sore of embittered unemployed , kept pacified by a client-makework political system , the dole and the arena . (Present equivalents are party-politics , the dole , TV )

A classical example is the peasant wheat growers in the old Roman-Republic competing against cheap Egyptian wheat . The peasants and their children had no choice but to become professional soldiers . The state’s armed forces then essentially consisted of mercenaries paid by the state . The same thing happened to the other Roman manufacturing classes . The Roman corn-dole evolved as a consequence of Globalization . But this undercut the very basis of Roman power ,which was citizen soldiers . The result was that they had to induct foreign mercenaries into the Roman legions .

Simply put , the Roman upper classes could not trust soldiers drawn from their underclasses .

Question : Whatever happened to the Roman Mob? Answer : they all became slaves .

The Collapse.

The same scenario above played out in the late Bronze-age civilization . (circa 12 00 BC).

The rich used the trade-network to import cheaper manufactured articles , probably of superior quality initially , as well as food . This displaced their own artisan and upper peasant class (ie middle class) into penury . The rich used mercenaries from the outlying territories to keep the situation under control .The foreign manufacturers became more civilized and raised their prices . The profit-margin shrank . A random disaster made it impossible to pay the mercenaries . The system was stretched taut due to the decreased profit-margins . The mercenary commanders then allied with whoever offered them the best deal . The trade system broke down . Ship captains of food-ships refused to sail without some security from pirates and especially , a surety that they will be paid .

The surpluses (especially food) vanished . The food production areas were not going to produce anything without payment . Besides , the general collapse would have unleashed the locusts on them as well .

But the overpopulated areas were not going to lie down and die . The only way they could survive was by taking from somebody else . The previous nobles had the advantage of experience in organization and had some capital . The result was the Peoples of the Sea .

The resulting mess of semi-organised reivers washed back-and-forth from the Ukraine till Egypt . Egypt was the final nut , since this was where all the cheap food came from . Remessus III defeated them in detail , first the land lot , then the sea-lot . They were like locusts , not even making an effort to make a living . Taking and taking .

This happened very quickly . Remember : “Three meals away from revolution” and “One salary cheque away from the street . “ Once the mercenary commander was convinced that he could not feed or pay his troops , he would immediately switch to the alliance that promised at least a short-term possibility of this .

The relevance today.

The general principle is that people do not think that they will be better off belonging to a particular civilization . Ask the poor of New Orleans , who were left to die . Or the innumerable dead in China or the old USSR .

So will the whole shebang collapse in a welter war and grimaces ?

The truth is that most of the planet’s population is bored . Just look at history or at individual’s life courses . It is chaotic right down to what your teen-age daughter wants for breakfast .

Large-scale patterns are observable , but nobody pays them any attention . They are mostly artifacts , in any case .

So , it is pointless to try and project a course of events that is bland . Maximum drama and heart-wrenching emotions are the course . (Surplus of Art)

Humans do not want repetition . The thirst for drama and art is so strong that it even supersedes survival .

Complete systemic collapse is interesting , but partial collapse is even more interesting . Skating on the edges of chaos .

So , you can look forward to interesting times , but not complete annihilation .


Not the result I wanted


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