As they grew and developed, all human civilisations fell victim to their own arrogance. Witnessing their economic boom, their population expansion, it was easy for all of them to naively assume that bigger was better, bigger was stronger. The mistake all of these civilisations made was failing to realize that it actually takes a lot of effort, and an incredible amount of luck, to sustain a complex civilisation for any given length of time. The more complex it becomes, the more difficult it is to sustain on a daily basis, in much the same way it is a lot more difficult to sustain a complex organism. A human being has hundreds more ways to die compared to a bacterium. If any one of our organs stops functioning, we quickly approach a near-death situation. This is why when an ecosystem is under stress, it is the complex organisms and predators higher up the food chain that become the most susceptible to extinction. Civilisations are incredibly complex organisms. With delicate supply chains, political volatility, dense urban populations susceptible to pandemics, complicated food and water supplies that come from far away, civilisations are very easy to destabilize even if just one of the above elements goes off the rail, as countless historical examples demonstrate. Civilisations usually prolong their lifetime by engulfing other smaller civilisations, parasitizing foreign food, natural, financial and human resources. They set up empire-wide tax systems, slave trades and so on, so that they can desperately cling to life.
But as soon as serious problems emerge in just one of these elements, a chain reaction is set in motion bringing down the entire civilisation. This downward spiral is often accelerated by denial and refusal to adapt to changing circumstances. Whether we talk about the US, Russia, the Roman Empire or countless civilisations that thrived and perished, self-deception was always a key ingredient in keeping the show going for any civilisation, but ironically, also in accelerating its death. As long as the patrons in the restaurant have no idea there is a fire in the kitchen, they can continue eating until they become cooked themselves. As long as the house of cards grows taller, it doesn’t matter that it is beginning to wobble in the breeze. It all looks good right now, at this minute. And then suddenly, it doesn’t.
(from the upcoming “Little Book of Doom”)
George is an author, researcher, podcast host, chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons , listen to his Spotify podcast George reads George, sign up for blog alerts below, or enjoy his books