The Epistemology of Civilizational Collapse

There was an interesting report earlier this week on a Nasa-funded study modelling the dynamics of civilizational collapse. I definitely intend to look at the study when it’s released, though I’m rather cautious about this sort of modelling given that so much of the detail abstracted away from seems obviously causally relevant to the phenomena being modelled. Nonetheless, it seems obvious that this has value as a thought experiment – perhaps even more so if I could follow the maths. Here’s a description of the Handy model I found:

Handy has four differential equations describing the evolution of its state variables: Commoner population (commoners), Elite population (elite), regenerating natural resources (nature), and accumulated wealth (wealth). Human population plays a role analogous to that of predators, and nature plays the role of the resource preyed upon.

An interesting feature of Handy is that it introduces the accumulation of economic wealth, and divides the human population into rich and poor according to their unequal access to available wealth.

This new variable explains why human societies can undergo an irreversible collapse, while animal populations show cyclic changes (or reversible collapses).

Social inequality is not only explicitly considered but also plays a key role in the sustainability analyses of the model. This makes Handy the first model of its kind that studies the impacts of inequality on the fate of societies, a capability seldom found even in complex world models.

Handy establishes a useful general framework that allows carrying out “thought experiments” about societal collapse scenarios and the changes that might avoid them.

The model is a very strong simplification of the human-nature system, which results in many limitations. Despite its simplicity, such a model is easy to understand and offers a more intuitive grasp of underlying dynamical phenomena compared to more complex and less aggregated models.

However what interests me is the amount of media attention it generated. The original Guardian article seems to have been picked up widely, bringing out the most asinine impulses in the world’s web editors, with my favourite being “According To A Nasa Funded Study, We’re Pretty Much Screwed. This was a slightly facetious response to the frequency with which (third-hand*) reports were framed in terms of the allegedly postulated inevitability of this collapse.

Why is respectable research on collapse so interesting? In part because it’s seen as a topic which tends towards unrespectability. As the Guardian article pointed out, it’s more often the domain of cranks and conspiracy theorists than applied mathematicians and computer scientists. But this just defers the question: why is the topic marginalised in this way? There are lots of interesting issues here which have been on my mind since reading the article. Here in no particular order are some things I think about the epistemology of collapse:

  • We tend towards a generic assumption of the durability of social structures.
  • We tend even more strongly towards a generic assumption of the durability of social formations (i.e. assemblages of social structures)
  • We tend to miss the origins of social formations in the intended and unintended consequences of deliberate action, as well as the interactions between them.
  • We tend to reason inductively and, in doing so, miss the possibility that the future will be radically distinct from the past.
  • Even if we deny it intellectually, we tend towards exceptionalism in how we see social formations which are deeply familiar to us.

This ties nicely into a forthcoming chapter by Ismael Al-Amoudi and John Latsis on the death of social formations (i.e. their extinction, as opposed to a change in their state) which has been on my mind ever since I saw them give the paper earlier this year. But whereas they are concerned primarily with the ontology of this issue, I’m concerned with its epistemology (though of course the former is connected to the latter in ways too complicated for a quick blog post). One of the many important things abstracted away from in the Handy model is the futurity of social agents i.e. the variable perception which agents have of their future contributes to shaping their action and, through reciprocal interaction, conditions the overall action environment. But how far does this orientation towards the future extend? It probably doesn’t extend to collapse and that really fascinates me. I suspect, for the reasons in bullet points above, it’s a topic that will always tend towards marginality.

One of my favourite novels of the last few years was Douglas Copeland’s Player One. It depicts the collapse of western civilisation through the real-time story of five hours in an airport cocktail bar. It is hinted at as arising from Peak Oil, an expository concession which is the one point I disliked in this otherwise fantastic novel. It explores civilizational collapse under the fog of war, as a messy and violent process, characterised by love and uncertainty but most of all by the rapidity with which the perceived durability of a social formation can come to be recognised as illusory. There’s a brusqueness to Copeland’s prose which intensifies the claustrophobic temporality of civilizational collapse:

Dr. Yamato, crabby after a three-day bipolar symposium, went on, saying, “Karen, history may well prove worthless in the ned. Individualism may prove to be only a cruel and unnecessary hoax played on billions of people for no known reason – a bad idea dreamed up by God on the Eighth day.”

Karen had laughed – laughed!

Rick takes over guard duty, and Luke and Karen escort a limping Max to the storage room, over by the recycling bins.

Karen asks, “Where were you when the explosions happened? How did you get here? Were you with your family? Where are they if you’re here? ”

Max stands in his boxer shorts and says, “We were in a rental car headed downtown.”

Luke says, “There’s no bottled water or club soda here. The best I can do is melted ice from the machine.”

“Do it.” (pg 175)

The novel ultimately steps back from the brink, as a redemptive message incipient within its ending hints at a moral to the story… what if it was all pointless though? What if it just ended? What if none of it made any difference to anyone? These are existential questions which tie civilisational collapse (an abstraction) to human relationships (through which such an abstraction would become concrete). The power of Player One comes in its exploration of this linkage but its failure to follow through arises from its subtle faith in the redemptive power of the latter. Don’t get me wrong, in spite of all the Nietzsche I’ve been reading recently, I share the ethos expressed in this. But it does seem to be a retreat nonetheless. It’s a exploration of the epistemology of civilisational collapse which fails to really confront it. This is something which I think is quite common, with the transition from 9/11 allegory Cloverfield being a film I love to one that irritates me tracking this rather effectively:

The thought that has fascinated me is how different the macro-social perspective of the Nasa-funded research is from what would be the on-the-ground epistemology of collapse. What would it be like to experience a complete civilisational collapse? It seems rather like asking what it would be like to be dead. All we can do is gesture towards the vectors through which things would unravel and speculate about what it would be like to experience this unravelling. So many of our epistemological habits mitigate our confrontation with this question, formed as they are in dependence upon social and technical systems the erosion of which would be constitutive of civilisational collapse.

Edit to add: the plot for my NaNoWriMo novel becomes clearer with each passing year. Will this be the year I actually write it?

*The paper hasn’t been released yet and lots of the articles were reporting on reports of the summary in the original Guardian article.

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