WITH THE WORLD experiencing the worst pandemic since 1918, people may be wondering whether our way of life is secure. Looking at how civilizational breakdown has happened before can help us understand what causes it, the forms it may take, and whether it's in our future.
Civilizational crisis and collapse were given a formal scholarly definition in Joseph A. Tainter's 1988 book, The Collapse of Complex Societies. The model works this way: Since at least the advent of agriculture, people have responded to challenges and sought to improve their condition. One form this takes is through social cooperation, an approach that leads to more complex forms of economy, society, and politics.
In the abstract, complexity means higher levels of heterogeneity, as opposed to uniformity. In concrete economic terms, it means more elaborate division of labor, a larger number of distinct occupations, and greater specialization both geographically and among people. Socially, it means a greater number of roles and ways of living, more variety in the stages of life, increased differentiation, and more varied and changeable interpersonal relations. Politically, it means more structured political units, more elaborate administration, and higher levels of urbanization. Complexity in all of these forms brings a positive payoff in terms of more production, higher living standards, more inventiveness, and more varied and commodious lifestyles. In other words, it pays to move toward more complex ways of doing things.
But there are limits to this approach. Complexity has diminishing marginal returns: The gains from complexity decrease as complexity increases, while the costs (such as information problems and difficulty changing course) become greater. Eventually, increased complexity has negative returns. Moreover, as social, economic, and political orders become more complex, they also become more fragile and brittle, less resilient and adaptable. They have a harder time coping with unexpected shocks (or even shocks that are anticipated). As the system 1 becomes more interdependent--in ways that the people who are part of it do not fully understand--it becomes susceptible to a general breakdown caused by "cascade effects," which happen when a failure in one part of the system leads to unforeseeable failures in other parts. These failures may have no obvious connection to the original problem, and they in turn lead to further breakdowns elsewhere.
Underlying all of this...