Historys hard-learned lessonsWe study the past, or so the story goes, so that mistakes will never be repeated. However, according to recent studies there’s a recurring lesson we keep ignoring, one that could spell very real devastation in our here and now.

The history of civilisation is naturally a rather bumpy landscape. It has its peaks, times of innovation, increased knowledge and improved living standards. But it also has its troughs – those times of depression, regression and collapse. According to research sponsored by Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Centre “The process of rise-and-collapse is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history.”

What goes up must come down

The report makes for sober reading, claiming that we’ve been climbing to the summit for a while now and we had better enjoy the view while we can because, if we keep living the way we do, we could be take a topple over the edge in the very near future. It warns that global industrial civilisation could collapse within just the next few decades.

The study is based on an analysis of human-nature dynamics to find the factors most influential on decline: population, climate, water, agriculture, energy, and thus determined the likelihood of collapse today. Two crucial social features were identified as the triggers of collapse: stretched resources from unsuitable resource exploitation, and high levels of economic stratification as wealth distribution becomes increasingly unequal.

Too big to fail

You might argue we’re too big and clever and complex to collapse. Though, as any archaeologist worth their salt will assure you: the Roman, Han, Mauryan, Gupto and many Mesopotamian civilisations that suffered similar fates probably said the same. The study goes so far as to call civilisation disruption due to collapse as “quite common.” Of course, previous civilisations weren’t blessed with Wikipedia and Google, not to mention an army of Nasa boffins who could surely apply their technological minds to sorting out the problem? Unfortunately the study had only harsh words for that scenario too. While technology increases efficiency of resource use, it also raises resource consumption levels and the scale of extraction.

Inequality makes collapse unavoidable

Next time you read of bankers bonuses or premiership wages, it’s worth remembering that of all the civilisations assessed for this study, they all shared the same drive to inequality – resulting for example in an elite that consumes too much resulting in famine in the masses. In this scenario, the elite’s wealth acts as a buffer meaning they don’t feel the effects of decline until much later than the masses. This allows them to potter along as usual, oblivious to the impending doom, perhaps explaining why nothing was done by the elite Romans and Mayans.

The ‘off-ramp’

However, all hope is not lost! There is a way we can be saved in these two simple steps. First we need to rebalance economic inequality and have a fairer distribution of resources. Second we need to reduce resource consumption by relying on less intensive renewable energy and reducing population growth. Simples? Ok maybe easier said than done but this study acts as a wakeup call to governments, businesses, and us nonetheless.

While sometimes we wish we could live like a Roman, we never said we wished we could die like one.

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Aisling Serrant

An all round museum educator and enthusiast, Aisling's the Family Festival Coordinator at the Museum of London Docklands.

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