The Collapse of Civilizations: It's Complicated

03/19/2014 05:11 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2014
  • Eric H. Cline Professor of classics and anthropology, George Washington University

Two British newspapers, The Independent and the Guardian, have just reported on a NASA-funded study that warns of the possibility for an irreversible collapse of our industrial civilization in just a few decades.

Using theoretical models, the applied mathematician Safa Motesharri "explored the factors which could lead to the collapse of civilisation, from population growth to climate change" and warned of "impending global disaster." He cited the Roman, Han, and Gupta Empires as past examples for the collapse of very sophisticated civilizations and notes that "precipitous collapse(s)... have been quite common."

We shouldn't be surprised at all by Motesharri's predications. Indeed, a better example can be found in the breakdown of multiple civilizations in 1177 BC, more than three thousand years ago, when the Bronze Age Mediterranean civilizations collapsed one after the other, changing forever the course and the future of the Western world. It was a pivotal moment in history -- a turning point for the ancient world.

Thanks to archaeological and geological studies, as I point out in my new book 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed, we now have ample evidence that drought, famine, earthquakes, migrations, and internal rebellions all contributed to the end of the Bronze Age.

We also know that fairly advanced civilizations like the Hittites, Egyptians, Mycenaeans, and Minoans collapsed as a result, in part because of the cutting of the international trade routes by shadowy migrating groups whom the Egyptians called the Sea Peoples.

It was, in fact, a perfect storm of calamities that brought down the kingdoms of the late Bronze Age just after 1200 BC; a perfect storm that created havoc with globalized civilizations that bear more than a passing resemblance to ours today.

Some might scoff and say that there is no valid comparison to be made between the world of the Late Bronze Age and our current technology-driven culture. And yet, there are enough similarities between the two -- including climate change and drought; earthquakes and tsunamis; diplomatic embassies and economic trade embargoes; kidnappings and ransoms; murders and royal assassinations; magnificent marriages and unpleasant divorces; international intrigues and deliberate military disinformation -- that taking a closer look at the events, peoples, and places of an era that existed more than three millennia ago is more than merely an academic exercise in studying ancient history.

For instance, the economy of Greece is currently in shambles and has been for a while now. Internal rebellions have engulfed Libya, Syria, and Egypt, with outsiders and foreign warriors fanning the flames. Turkey fears it will become involved, as does Israel. Jordan is crowded with refugees. Iran is bellicose and threatening, while Iraq is in turmoil. Newspaper and television programs today are full of such stories; one cannot escape them. But they're not new. The same descriptions fit the situation in 1177 BC.

Today, in the current global economy, and in a world recently wracked by earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan and the "Arab Spring" democratic revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, the fortunes and investments of the United States and Europe are inextricably intertwined within an international system that also involves East Asia and the oil-producing nations of the Middle East.

It is, I would argue, a situation with parallels from the Late Bronze Age. To give just one illustration, Carol Bell, a British academician, has recently observed that "the strategic importance of tin in the [Late Bronze Age]... was probably not far different from that of crude oil today."

Discussing "collapses" and comparing the rise and fall of empires is not a new idea; scholars have been doing it since at least the 1700s, when Edward Gibbon wrote about the fall of the Roman Empire. A more recent example is Jared Diamond's book Collapse.

However, here we are contemplating a globalized world system with multiple civilizations all interacting and at least partially dependent upon each other. There are only a few instances in history of such globalized world systems; the one in place during the Late Bronze Age and the one in place today are two of the most obvious examples.

Discussing the constant rise and fall of empires over time is also not a new theme, for our world has seen the Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Hittites, Neo-Assyrians, Neo-Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Mongols, Ottomans, and others come and go.

Nevertheless, we may wish to pay attention to what has happened to previous societies and should not think that our current world is invulnerable. We are, in fact, more susceptible than we might wish to think.

While the 2008 collapse of Wall Street in the United States pales in comparison to the collapse of the entire Late Bronze Age Mediterranean world, there were those who warned that something similar could take place if the banking institutions with a global reach were not bailed out immediately. In a complex system such as our world today, this is all it might take for the overall system to become destabilized, leading to a collapse.

Motesharri's NASA-funded model is not the only such study to warn that a 'perfect storm' could easily occur again today; both the Guardian and The Independent cite additional theoretical studies, including by Stephen Hawking, KMPG, and the UK Government Office of Science.

Indeed, currently we are facing the very same type of situation that they faced back in 1177 BC -- climate change, earthquakes, famines, droughts, rebellions. The only thing missing from today's scenario are the Sea Peoples -- the mysterious invaders from overseas.

So, what are we waiting for? We can prepare for everything else that has happened so far, and that might occur in the near future, if Motesharri and the others are correct, in order to insure that history does not repeat itself at our expense.

In short, we should heed well the lessons from the ancient world, if we do not wish our globalized society to go the way of the Hittites, Mycenaeans, and Minoans and end up on the ash-heap of history. It happened once three thousand years ago; it could happen again quite easily, as these modern studies are now showing.