Democracy as a Civilization is Near Collapse 
Walter Sorochan Emeritus Professor San Diego State University

Posted March 18, 202 Updated March 25, 2021[The Ides of March]

Great civilizations are not murdered. Instead, they take their own lives. So concluded the historian Arnold Toynbee in his 12-volume magnum opus A Study of History. It was an exploration of the rise and fall of 28 different civilizations. Kemp: Civilization collapse 2019

Many persons are frustrated and disappointed with the failure of our institutions, political gridlock, failing school systems, broken health care system, inability to balance the national budget, and so on. The general public is looking for positive answers and have been finding very few.

This article is a primer; it offers information as a basis for understanding the plight that democracy is in as a civilization today. This is an appropriate time to briefly review and learn about the historical rise and fall of past civilizations and use the review as a way of understanding the plight that democracy is in today. Can we learn how to salvage the good aspects of culture and intellectual property and prevent the decline of today's societies?

Many would argue that there is no historical evidence that recent civilizations have crumbled. Well, we have recent history that civilizations do decline. The twentieth century saw the collapse of seven great empires - Mandarin China, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey, Japan, the British empire, Arab empire, and twice over in the case of Tsarist and Soviet Russia. Since the events of September 11th, 2001, the twenty-first century seems likely to threaten the sole remaining superpower, the United States. Perkins, Fall of empires, 2002 Diamond points out that social collapse is the result of choices more so than incidents.  Montague: Civilization decline

Although the origin of primitive democracy is disputed, early forms of democracy date back to small hunter-gatherers, later tribes, eventually early city states in Near East, Egypt and the Greek political governing system that lay the groundwork for the Roman republic.  Wiki: History of democracy The concepts (and name) of democracy and constitution as a form of government originated in ancient Athens circa 508 B.C. In ancient Greece, where there were many city-states with different forms of government, democracy was contrasted with governance by elites that were aristocracy, by one person as a monarchy, by tyrants, and so on.  Wiki: History of democracy

Perkins points out that the current global conflicts, protests and riots against corporate globalization, the threat of worldwide terrorism since 2000,as well as the 2020 virus pandemic, are ignored threats to the future of civilization today. These events fit into a global pattern of the rise and fall of societies that can be traced back to ancient times. As is historically evident of all the ancient empires we know, the cycle of rise and decline appears to be accelerating. Greer believes the United States, in particular, entered its gradual, terminal descent—that year being 1974.  Kaminski: Review Collapse now & avoid the rush 2015 For Greer, that is when America abruptly began shedding its heavy industry, family farms and working class, as well as liquidating one of its most vital remaining domestic natural resources: the Alaskan North Slope oil reserves. These trends have proceeded so slowly that most people have come to accept them as normal rather than as signs of a nation in decline.

Wikipedia has a good review of countries and empire civilizations rising and collapsing and attributes such collapses to a number of reasons. Wiki: social collapse Societal collapse [civilizational collapse] is the fall of a complex human society characterized by the loss of cultural identity and of socioeconomic complexity, the downfall of government, and the rise of violence. Wiki: social collapse 

A collapsed society may revert to a more primitive state, be absorbed into a stronger society, or completely disappear.  This may have happened during the Bronze Age about 200 BC in Asia Minor [area now Greece, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Egypt]  when numerous cities collapsed and disappeared due to loss of intellectual information about tin and copper [view the map below].  Such collapse happened over many years with people unaware.

BACollapse-1
Source: Mallam: Bronze Age collapse

The Bronze Age

A short history of bronze civilization. The Bronze Age marked the first time humans started to work with metal. Bronze tools and weapons soon replaced earlier stone versions. Ancient Sumerians in the Middle East may have been the first people to enter the Bronze Age.

Bronze was a fine mix of tin and copper that required tin to be brought from India.  When this trade route was disrupted, then this began the collapse of the cities relying on the supply of tin to make bronze.

Humans made many technological advances during the Bronze Age, including the first writing systems and the invention of the wheel. In the Middle East and parts of Asia, the Bronze Age lasted from roughly 3300 to 1200 B.C., ending abruptly with the near-simultaneous collapse of several prominent Bronze Age civilizations [see red cities in map on left].

Humans may have started smelting copper as early as 6,000 B.C. in the Fertile Crescent, a region often called “the cradle of civilization” and a historical area of the Middle East where agriculture and the world’s first cities emerged. Different human societies entered the Bronze Age at different times.

Civilizations in Greece began working with bronze before 3000 B.C., while the British Isles and China entered the Bronze Age much later—around 1900 B.C. and 1600 B.C., respectively. It is possible that after 1200 BC, bronze was replaced by a harder metal, iron. Many bronze cities [sacked in red in map] could not adapt to new technology.

source: History editors  History editors: Bronze age

Virtually all civilizations have suffered a similar fate regardless of size or complexity. Burja sites a classic example of Greek authors and their intellectual literature. Only about 13 % of the intellectual work of known 2000 ancient Greek authors have been saved.  Burja: Intelectual dark matter 2019 The other 85 % was a tragic loss that might have changed the course of civilization!

But some civilizations revived and transformed, such as China and Egypt, while others never recovered, such as the Mayan Empire and the civilization on Easter Island. Societal collapse is generally a quick process, but rarely abrupt. Yet some, as incompetent British colonial government officials, caused the collapse of the British Empire about 1918; the colonial empire gradually faded away, being decentralized into smaller sovereign countries by many highly competent persons who were previously ignored.

In addition to previous reasons for collapse of civilizations, anthropologists, historians, and sociologists have proposed a variety of explanations for the collapse of civilizations involving causative factors such as environmental change, depletion of resources, unsustainable complexity, decay of social cohesion, war, pestilence, rising inequality, secular decline of cognitive abilities, political corruption, loss of creativity, famine, depopulation, and misfortune. However, complete extinction of a culture is rare; in most cases, the new societies that arise from the ashes of the old one are evidently its offspring. Moreover, the influence of a collapsed society, such as that of the Roman Empire, may linger on long after its death. Such background information, articled by numerous historians, has been the basis for this article.

Samo Burja, a sociologist and writer, is the most recent social historian to offer his analysis of why and how empires and civilizations collapse. The video by Burja deals with these issues, attempts to explain how the past, present and the future need to be linked together and what is it that keeps a civilization from decline or collapse.

In the video talk below Burja explores research into how technologically advanced civilizations can find stability, by understanding the mechanism of its institutions and knowledge management. He explores the collapse of ancient civilizations. We need to borrow knowledge from the past and transmit it to build future institutions and generations. Public schooling, public health and the politics of government have failed us if Burja is correct! Watching this video should help us to focus on plotting a better course for the future of the world.

The subject of civilization is complex and you may have to listen several times to understand what Burja is talking about. But it is refreshing to hear new ideas about how ancient civilizations like Rome, Greece, Egypt, China, India and Asia minor declined and what was passed on to future generations.

Civilization: Institutions, Knowledge and the Future - Samo Burja Length = 37:53 mns.

Source: Video Burja Civilizations

Burja in his 2021 article The End of Industrial Society, discusses what the core engine of our civilization is. "Every civilization rests on a core stack of social technology that coordinates and sustains its vital institutions. Social technologies—intentionally designed ways for the people in a society to operate—form the basis of the varied systems of material production and material technology that we see in every society. These social technology cores decay with time as they obsolete their own foundations, and as errors and parasitism build up. This decay can be circumvented, and the decaying core social technologies can be swapped for new ones, but this is a process of immense historical difficulty. Without a clear and correct theory of what makes our civilization function, signs of decay will go unnoticed or rationalized, rather than recognized."  Burja: End of industrial society 2021

History shows us we in 2021 are not safe from institutional collapse. Advances in technology mitigate some aspects, but produce their own risks. It may not be computer machines themselves but the scientific knowledge of coding and algorithm processes of how the internet works with Silicon Valley technology that is passed on to the next institutional system. But the real feature of a civilization surviving is how the social institutions work, like how the political government is functioning and managing its energy, economy, food and environment.  

Collins points out that we have been lulled by Popular Pollyannas, like cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, that use rosy statistics that progress of the past was built by sacrificing the future and the future is here now. All the happy facts they cite about living standards, life expectancy, and economic growth are the product of an industrial civilization that has pillaged and polluted the planet to produce temporary progress for a growing middle class and enormous profits and power for a tiny elite. Collins: civilization will collapse, 2020 Indeed, those with political and economic power use rosy statistics as a way of staying in power.

Some informational ruminants of the Persian, Egyptian and Roman civilizations survived and were passed on to future generations. This is the argument that Samo Burja makes in his perception of the future of civilizations. But, as Collins points out, the present western civilization of today was born during the industrial revolution that exploited fossil fuels, especially oil, making this civilization different and unique from previous ones. American democracy is over 250 years in the making. Collins argues that it is the capitalistic flaw of money and power that weakens saving the current democracy in America. Modern civilization is HUMAN, PLANETARY, and ECOCIDAL  Collins: civilization will collapse, 2020. What this phrase says is that industrial progress has been in a trade-off in damaging the Earth’s living systems — the circulation and chemical composition of the atmosphere and the ocean; the stability of the hydrological and biogeochemical cycles; and the biodiversity of the entire planet.

It takes, on average, about 150 to 300 years for civilizations to decline and fall, and Greer finds no reason why modern civilization shouldn’t follow this “usual timeline.”  Greer: Long Descent 2008  Modern civilization includes all world countries, including, Russia, China, Japan, India, Iran, Europe, Canada, United States as well as all world countries. Kemp points out that the world today is linked together by the world internet, making the world more interdependent as well as triggering social collapse. Kemp: Civilization collapse 2019

Humanity faces a perfect storm of converging global calamities. Intersecting tribulations like climate chaos, rampant extinction, food and fresh water scarcity, poverty, extreme inequality, racism, rioting and the rise of global pandemics that are rapidly eroding the foundations of modern life. What we are witnessing are fractured political systems fighting with each other and not cooperating on a global scale to safeguard and improve human lives. Instead money, power and greed have taken over the agenda of saving earth and humanity.

American democracy is a social experiment in governing. It is over 250 years old and is sophicating from within. Yes, there are many pieces of information that can be transferred to future institutions and generations such as learning and minimizing the decline of democracy. But some aspects of democracy, like the political system and the constitution, need to be updated, as the constitution is a working document .... a continuing experiment and not set in concrete! Refusing to update the constitution is fueling a decline.

We pin the hopes of our common human culture on this renewal and growth of the whole world civilization. Kemp points out that we know what needs to be done: emissions can be reduced, inequalities leveled, environmental degradation reversed, innovation unleashed, political government innovated and economies diversified. The policy proposals are there. Only the political will is lacking. We can also invest in recovery; as there are already well-developed ideas for improving the ability of food and knowledge systems to be recuperated after catastrophe. Avoiding the creation of dangerous and widely-accessible technologies is also critical. Such steps will lessen the chance of a future collapse becoming irreversible. Kemp: Civilization collapse 2019

History also teaches us two deeper lessons about what separates successful societies from those heading toward failure. Diamond points out that a society contains a built-in blueprint for failure if the elite politicians and the rich insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions. That's why Maya kings, Norse Greenlanders and Easter Island chiefs made choices that eventually undermined their societies. They themselves did not begin to feel deprived until they had irreversibly destroyed their landscape. Diamond: Ends of world 2005 Could this happen in the United States?   It can when those living in a troubled society seldom if ever perceive their actions or inactions as causing social decay, as their mind-set is on salvaging and protecting their addictions.

The other deep lesson involves a willingness to re-examine long-held core values, when conditions change and those values no longer make sense.  Diamond: Ends of world 2005 This is America's problem in updating the constitution.

This is why the message in Samo Burja's video is more than an analysis on the history of civilizations. It offers insight on how modern civilization can be saved. Our problem is communicating knowledge to others that is the truth and not a distortion.

Well, disbelievers of history and science will raise their arms in disbelief of all this heady information about American democracy being in decline. But a simple fact researched by John Greer mentions "that Limits to Growth, authored by Club of Rome team in 1972, found unlimited growth on a finite planet is a recipe for disaster. As population increases and economic growth unfolds, the world has to provide ever greater supplies of food, water, energy, and raw materials for industry. Mother Earth, though, only has so much oil, so much coal, so much topsoil, and so on through the sprawling list of resources used by industrial society, and it can only absorb so much pollution before the natural systems that support the global economy begin to break down. Since these systems include the weather patterns, water and nutrient cycles, and ecological interactions that produce food for people to eat, wood and other raw materials for them to use, and even the oxygen they breathe, this is not a small matter."  Greer: Long Descent 2008 Limits to growth is no fairy tale!

The economic burden of dealing with the consequences of growth overwhelms growth itself and brings the global economy to its knees. All this poses a stark contradiction to one of the most widely held beliefs in modern economics — the conviction that economic growth is the answer to all the problems of human society. The Limits to Growth demonstrated that you can’t grow your way out of a crisis if growth is what’s causing the crisis in the first place. Ancient civilizations encountered limits to their growth that they did not recognize and failed to survive.  

Civilizations are people who have a limited life span. People and civilizations do not live forever. Like all living things, they have a life cycle all of their own and when it is over, they usually die.

These observations about limits to growth is the reason we must fix the current sputtering political and economic systems in the world as soon as possible.

As mentioned earlier, civilization is a very complex concept and difficult for most persons to understand. They can accept civilization as being someone else's Roman empire past history; but they do not envision living today in the present as being part of civilization. It is much like seeing someone else's nose but not your own. Their mind-set is living today with the problems of today and they cannot perceive beyond the present. Most can accept and fewer understand short-term problems like political gridlock, poverty, homelessness and economic stock market chaos that never seems to go away. We need to save the best institutional technology information; we need to reform institutions like politics and government that makes emotional decisions based on getting reelected and not common sense thinking.

Perceiving a breakdown in their society that lasts for many decades or centuries is beyond the ability of most to understand. So if you have difficulty understanding that you and your country will eventually become history, as most ancient people have, try to change in ways that help you live longer, stop the causes of climate change, stop terrorism, social injustice, social misconduct and save mother earth. Do the little things you can do.

Can we put the survival of our species and our planet first, or will we allow ourselves to become hopelessly divided along national, cultural, racial, religious, or political party lines?

References:

Burja Sam, "Intellectual Dark matter," July 16, 2019.  Burja: Intelectual dark matter 2019

Burja Sam, "The end of industrial society," Palladium Magazine, March 24, 2021.  Burja: End of industrial society 2021

Cline Eric H., 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, Book The Human Journey.  Cline: Civilization collapse 1177 BC

Collins Craig, Four reasons civilization won't decline: It will collapse," Resilience, CounterPunch, August 10, 2020.  Collins: civilization will collapse, 2020

Diamond Jared, "The Ends of the World as We Know Them," Opinion, New York Times, January 1, 2005.  Diamond: Ends of world 2005

Greer, John Michael. The Long Descent, New Society Publishers, 2008.  Greer: Long Descent 2008

History editors, "The Bronze Age,"  History editors: Bronze age

Kaminski Frank, "Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush: The Best of The Archdruid Report," By John Michael Greer, Founders House Publishing, February, 2015.  Kaminski: Review Collapse now & avoid the rush 2015

Kemp Luke, "Are we on the road to civilization collapse," BBC Future, February 18, 2019.  Kemp: Civilization collapse 2019

Mallam Sally, "The Bronze Age Collapse," The Human Journey,  Mallam: Bronze Age collapse

Montague Peter, "Why civilizations decline," History News network, George Washington University,  Montague: Civilization decline

Perkins Harold, "The rise and fall of empires, Guardian, UK, April 3, 2002.  Perkins, Fall of empires, 2002

Tocquerville Alexis de, Democracy in America, Bantam Dell,  New York, 2004; First published in 1835.  Tocquerville: Democracy in America, 2004

Wikipedia, "History of democracy."  Wiki: History of democracy

Wikipedia, "Societal collapse."  Wiki: social collapse