Imagine lying down on a hospital bed with many different IVs connected to your body and each connector has a specific role in keeping you alive. Some connectors will be more important than others. If one connector is removed you won’t die immediately, but over time your body will start to fail if it’s not replaced quickly with another connector. 

This dependence on the different IV connectors is an analogy that’s plagued my mind over the past couple of weeks due to our current situation with COVID. I want you to think of each connector as a dependence you have on a person or institution outside of your control. 

Some examples are…  

  • Your company for a stable recurring monthly check supporting your lifestyle
  • A landlord for shelter 
  • A grocery store for food 
  • An energy company for your heating and cooling
  • An internet company to connect you with the rest of the world
  • A hospital for emergencies or general checkups
  • A water or sewage company for water or waste disposal
  • … Etc … 

Like many of you, I’ve never taken the time to think through just how dependent I am on the outside world for the basics. If anyone of these “connectors” is removed, life gets a whole lot more difficult. This interconnectedness between humans, communities, companies, and nations has proven beneficial in our modern world… But this increase in dependence has abstracted us further away from reality, which in turn increases our dependence even further – Acting as a positive feedback loop (Elon agrees). 

This train of thought has led me to think more about my dependence on society and the importance of designing a more independent life. An “independent life” doesn’t mean you’re completely separate from society, but your “connectors” or “lifelines” are no longer dependent on external things. The main “connectors” I’m interested in disconnecting are; land, shelter, utilities, food, and water – More on this in future posts. 

Complete societal collapse doesn’t seem possible in our modern world, but slow erosion does… And carefully designing a more independent life seems pretty important.

To make sure I’m not completely going crazy, I decided to dive deeper into how, why, and when societies collapse for this week’s wandering. 🙂 – And our book of choice was “Collapse of Complex Societies

Collapse = Normal

A collapsing society seems like a unique event, but societal collapse is actually the norm. It’s hard for us to grasp this idea because all we’ve known is stability, but that’s due to our short 100-year lives. When zooming out into a wider perspective, you’ll quickly realize that we’re living in a unique time. 

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the below chart… 

The average lifespan of any single civilization is 336 years! I know, shocking. 

Throughout most of history, smaller decentralized communities were the main form of society and when complex societies began to form, eventually they would collapse back into their simpler decentralized state. You can think of these small decentralized communities as the cockroaches of humanity, they’re what keep us around and have maintained our existence. 

Before I go too deep, let’s first define “complex”. A society increases in complexity as the population and number of roles being played in that population increase. So a tribe of 50 with three roles is less complex, than an empire of 20,000 with 100 roles. 

There are two main theories of how this complexity is created.

  • Conflict Theory (capitalist): This theory mentions societal complexity originating from societal class conflict. The governments are created out of economic separation between classes to protect the interest of the wealthier classes. 
  • Integration Theory (socialist): This theory sees complexity emerging from societal needs, where institutions centralize and coordinate resources amongst everyone. 

No civilization was created due to a single theory and no civilization collapsed due to any single incident. Everything sits on a spectrum with a variety of influences… 

Why do we collapse?  

Old-school thinking assumes there are nine different reasons for societal collapse, but they’re all flawed in some way. The author attempts to create a theory that ties them together. 

The traditionally flawed reasons for the collapse are… 

  1. Lack of resources
  2. Catastrophes (e.g. pandemic)
  3. Lack of response (e.g. not quick or flexible enough) 
  4. Other complex societies conflicting (e.g. national wars)
  5. Intruders (e.g. barbarians raiding empires)
  6. Dummies at the top (e.g. mismanagement from the government)
  7. Social dysfunction (e.g. family fighting)
  8. Domino Effect (e.g. one bad thing after the other)
  9. Economics (e.g. society goes broke)

We’ll call the author’s theory the “unified theory of collapse”. 

Societies are problem-solving machines that need energy and the more complex they become the more energy they need. Over time the return on the amount of energy invested into society decreases… This is the secret! It’s basically the law of diminishing returns

When the return on investment (ROI) begins to decrease the complex society will slowly crumble under its own weight. It’s scary how common often this pattern shows up in almost every society before us… The Roman Empire is a good one. 

  • Their increase in complexity came from the constant need for expansion and dominance in other regions. This expansion meant they needed more soldiers, food, administration, etc., which only works when the place they’ve conquered funds the endeavor. After a while, the Roman Empire started funding its own expansion, which meant taxing citizens, eventually crashing the economy, agriculture, and faith in the government – leading to collapse. Not a very sustainable ROI… 

This law of diminishing returns is beginning to appear in our current society as well… For example, in education and innovation. 

  • Education: The resources to educate a K – 12 student are much lower than the resources needed to educate an undergraduate or graduate student. Also, the further we go in the traditional education system, the more specialized our skill sets become, lowering the amount of return we’ll get out of each student.  
  • Innovation: The amount of time, tools, and people needed for a fundamental breakthrough in science has increased dramatically – This is a good and bad thing. It shows that we’ve answered a lot of the “easier” questions and now humanity is moving toward more complex questions. At the same time, it also means we need to invest more resources to get the same number of breakthroughs. 

We’re increasing our investment, but getting the same or lower returns. This is why complex societies collapse… They’ve expanded to the point where they’re unable to sustain their growth and complexity, eventually collapsing under their own weight. 

Is collapse good or bad? 

When we think of a growing society that’s increasing its complexity and interconnectedness we assume it’s a great thing… Which is true! Kind of… 

But when a society has collapsed or is collapsing, we assume this negative and that it should be prevented at all costs. That’s not what history tells us. Historically there are always specific segments of society that welcome collapse, they even sometimes help to accelerate it. This happens when the citizens of that society realize that separating is more rewarding than trying to sustain that society. 

These segments of society tend to be those in the middle or near the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder… Interestingly, these people have less to lose, so they’re willing to separate. Plus, they’re still grounded in reality and how to survive. The segments of society that sit higher on the socioeconomic ladder tend to be further abstracted away from reality, relying heavily on lower-level workers for food, clothing, shelter, etc. 

This brings us back full circle… Today, everyone that lives in a developed country sits in that “higher-up” segment of society, completely abstracted away from reality. 

Modern Day Collapse 

Luckily, we’re living in a world where complete collapse is almost impossible. Any nation vulnerable to collapse will have one of three options… 

  1. Being absorbed into a neighboring country
  2. Getting economic support from another developed country
  3. Or… Taxing the population for whatever costs needed to continue surviving

Even though complete collapse isn’t possible, slow erosion is. 

My goal isn’t to scare you into becoming a full-on prepper, but to encourage you to ask… 

“What are my dependencies?” – “How abstracted away from reality aim I?” – “What steps can I take to reduce the number IV connectors hanging out of my body?”

Until next time my fellow wanderers! 😉