Throughout millennia, civilizations have lived out an all-too-familiar pattern: incredible advancement followed by societal collapse. Can we break this vicious cycle?
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Sargon of Akkad got there first. He is the man who many historians crown as the world’s first great empire builder. Reigning from around 2334-2279 BC, the king subjugated all of southern Mesopotamia as well as Syria, Anatolia and Elam (part of modern Iran).
Yet that is pretty much all we know for sure about Sargon. Everything else is based on legends and guesswork. Part of this lack of information is because he lived so long ago, the other is that the Sumerian civilization collapsed into obscurity. The ruins of Sargon’s capital city of Akkad have never been found.
The early civilization of Sumer had everything going for it. First, it was situated on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which the Bible defines as near the location of the Garden of Eden. This was the area known as the Fertile Crescent. These natural features led to incredible human advancements such as the first schools, government bureaucracy, massive architectural works, and irrigation techniques. There was also the first written language, cuneiform, and the oldest heroic tale, the Epic of Gilgamesh.
So what happened? Why did the Akkadian Empire fail? Why was Sumer lost to history?
In short, human beings happened. Many archaeologists point to aggressive irrigation tactics, leading to salinization of the soil, as a major cause for the fall of this empire. Look at the Mesopotamia region today, which was home to the Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian and Chaldean empires. Even thousands of years later, the area remains desolate!
This is just one cautionary tale of history in one region of the world. Yet the typical problems that plague mankind—war, famine, disease and environmental catastrophes—are no longer regional. Each of them now carries a global tone. This means global consequences.
Yet worldwide interconnectivity has a silver lining. For the first time, we can survey the entire planet and see where our practices are detrimental to humankind. In addition, we can comb the pages of history to learn from the trial and error of our ancestors.
We all stand at a crossroads. Civilizations have been down this path before and failed, with George Santayana’s famed words landing with a resounding thud: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
What can we learn from the templates of failure throughout history? What must we learn?
What is societal collapse? While there is no one definition, an article in the scholarly journal Proceedings B helps explain: “Virtually every past civilization has eventually undergone collapse, a loss of socio-political-economic complexity usually accompanied by a dramatic decline in population size. Some, such as those of Egypt and China, have recovered from collapses at various stages; others, such as that of Easter Island or the Classic Maya, were apparently permanent.”
Societal collapses are almost always complicated, with not just one thing causing the demise. Most often, however, overexploitation of the environment is a leading cause—or the straw that ultimately breaks the civilization’s back.
The article said today’s most serious problems stem from weather upsets, the rapidly increasing extinction of animals and plants, land degradation, a pole-to-pole spread of toxic compounds, ocean acidification and dead zones, conditions that more easily mutate and spread disease, depletion of rare resources, and depletion of groundwater.
What a Gordian Knot of evils and ills! And each has to do with how humankind interacts with the environment. Often, this is where the debate enters on climate change and carbon dioxide emissions—but clearly the problems are much beyond that. Set that aside and think of ecological footprint rather than carbon footprint. The global community must examine these issues to avoid the fate of past failed societies.
The Proceedings B article continued: “The human predicament is driven by overpopulation, overconsumption of natural resources and the use of unnecessarily environmentally damaging technologies and socio-economic-political arrangements to service Homo sapiens’ aggregate consumption.”
That is a mouthful, but it just means we are consuming more than Earth can handle. To make today’s consumption sustainable, we would need half an additional Earth. If everyone alive today consumed as much as the average American, we would need four to five more Earths.
Even if it is not hurtling toward complete collapse, society is heading toward at least a significant decline.
A Motherboard article examined the math in the article “MIT Predicted in 1972 That Society Will Collapse This Century. New Research Shows We’re on Schedule.”
After reviewing predictive models from the past decades, and comparing them to what has actually happened in the years since, researchers found the 1972 report The Limits to Growth. It has most closely aligned with what has occurred in the nearly 50 years since.
This new analysis examined 10 key variables: population, fertility rates, mortality rates, industrial output, food production, services, non-renewable resources, persistent pollution, human welfare, and ecological footprint. We are fully on track for a collapse by 2040.
Study author Gaya Herrington told Motherboard that collapse “does not mean that humanity will cease to exist,” but rather that “economic and industrial growth will stop, and then decline, which will hurt food production and standards of living.”
Despite this, Ms. Herrington clings to hope. While presenting at the World Economic Forum in 2020, she said: “Changing our societal priorities hardly needs to be a capitulation to grim necessity. Human activity can be regenerative and our productive capacities can be transformed. In fact, we are seeing examples of that happening right now. Expanding those efforts now creates a world full of opportunity that is also sustainable.”
“The necessary changes will not be easy and pose transition challenges but a sustainable and inclusive future is still possible,” said Ms. Herrington.
While change is still possible, the record of history is not on our side. Often, man can clearly see he needs to change and still fails to act.
Whenever societal collapse is mentioned, Easter Island is often brought out as the classic example. It is the cautionary tale.
Today, Easter Island is a near-treeless, 63-square-mile patch of land in the Pacific Ocean, 2,200 miles west of Chile. It has a single defining characteristic—its towering Moai figures. Most everyone can identify these iconic multi-ton statues cut from stone, with staring eyes and elongated features.
The Polynesian nation of Easter Island has become a metaphor for the crises facing mankind—a microcosm for the era of globalization.
The parallels ring with clarity for us today:
Easter Island is all by itself in the Pacific—Earth is a planet all by itself in space.
Polynesian settlers must have seen that they were tearing down the last tree—mankind can survey the world through the internet and satellite communication and see the destruction it is causing.
Both Easter Island and modern manmade catastrophes spark the same question: Why do we never stop ourselves?
Surprisingly, Easter Island was once a lushly forested subtropical paradise. It supported a prosperous and complex society of up to 30,000 people.
The climate was well suited for habitation; three long-dormant volcanoes left rich deposits of fertile soil across the terrain. Open grasslands covered the island in between Easter Palm forests, with trees that grew over 70 feet tall. The volcanic deposit at Rano Raraku to the southeast provided plentiful stores of rock for construction.
The tribes that migrated to the island formed a loose collective government that created a unique culture. Primarily farming and seafaring, these groups had a structured tribal society, with a leading chief and class of priests, along with farmers and tradesmen. The religious pantheon included hundreds of animalistic gods.
Chiefs raised the Moai, each weighing an average of 10 tons, to prove their status with the gods, and exercise power over their followers. The chiefs’ elite status allowed a ruling class to structure society and maintain order among tribes. Under them, vast projects were organized. Trading harvested resources from the small island encouraged construction on a broad scale. Large plantations produced food surpluses, which aided population growth. Religious worship, fueled by even larger Moai and elaborate funeral services, united the tribes.
But it all came crashing down.
An August 1995 article in Discover magazine suggested that the environmental collapse of Easter Island happened “not with a bang but with a whimper.” After several generations, islanders slowly consumed most available resources.
Forests were clear-cut for canoes, ropes and firewood. Farms producing sweet potatoes, taro and sugarcane stripped soils of available nutrients. Bird, fish and porpoise populations dwindled to extinction by overhunting. Blind to the impact that a growing population had on the environment, inhabitants used up the island’s resources until there was nothing left.
A massive migration was impossible due to the great distance from the nearest landmass. The isolated island was unable to draw needed resources from elsewhere; it was forced to continue on its own. Populations, now too large for the island to support, soon began to die out. Easter Island descended into civil war as chiefs-turned-warlords vied for leftover resources.
Internal conflict and violence turned into anarchy, as the only way to survive was to steal food from opposing tribes. The wars hindered communication and made transportation between tribes almost impossible. The island was no longer unified—cooperation between peoples ceased. The greed of individuals nullified any attempt at an organized solution to the now catastrophic problems.
The islanders’ use of resources was unsustainable. Great amounts of forest were cut for materials to erect the gigantic Moai. While scientists today do not fully understand how these ancient peoples raised the monoliths, most agree that strong lumber and rope were necessary. This, coupled with unchecked growth, eventually led to a food shortage. The tribes sank into a starvation-fueled population decline.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond, who wrote Collapse: Why Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail defines the earmarks of collapse as a combination of five broad factors: (1) human environmental impact; (2) natural changes in climate; (3) hostile neighbor nations; (4) loss of allies; and (5) breakdown or shortsightedness of economic and social institutions.
Easter Island is just one example. Sumer was another example of collapse from great heights. As is Rome, which had a lethal cocktail of problems that caused its demise around AD 476.
The Romans followed the formula for collapse: (1) they pushed their soil to its limits, sparking famine and leading to disease pandemics such as the Black Death, smallpox and measles; (2) a climate shift caused too much rain, which routinely ruined crops; (3) a dwindling Roman army forced emperors to hire Germanic tribes to defend their borders; (4) a band of these mistreated mercenaries, the Visigoths, later conquered the weakened city; (5) even at its lowest point, the citizenry attended extravagant chariot races and gladiator battles.
The Dark Ages followed on the heels of Rome’s fall!
Time and again, the cycle repeats. Incredible advancement, terrible decline.
In his book A Short History of Progress, Ronald Wright demonstrated the truth of the anonymous quote, “Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up.”
He wrote, “The collapse of the first civilization on earth, the Sumerian, affected only half a million people. The fall of Rome affected tens of millions. If ours were to fail, it would, of course, bring catastrophe on billions.”
In the television special “National Geographic: Collapse,” which was based on Dr. Diamond’s book, Harvard University social psychologist Daniel Gilbert stated, “What’s so curious about human beings is that we can look deeply into the future, foresee disaster, and still do nothing in the present to stop it. The majority of people on this planet, they’re overwhelmed with concerns about their immediate well being.”
Despite the track record of history, many scholars, thinkers and scientists cling to hope.
Dr. Diamond believes there are about a dozen major factors threatening modern man. All 12 of these must be solved. Even if 11 problems are addressed perfectly, the 12th would still bring utter disaster. Yet seeing certain positive changes across the globe, and having the record of history as a guide, he is cautiously optimistic about humanity’s future.
In A Short History of Progress, Ronald Wright said, “We are now at the stage when the Easter Islanders could still have halted the senseless cutting and carving, could have gathered the last trees’ seeds to plant out of reach of the rats. We have the tools and the means to share resources, clean up pollution, dispense basic health care and birth control, set economic limits in line with natural ones.”
Many look to science and technology to dig us out of this mess. Yet such solutions are always a double-edged sword. Look at the humble plow for farming. It has allowed an awesome advancement throughout centuries—but it is also often the cause of soil degradation and topsoil loss.
When we throw in bioengineering and complex technological achievements, these unintended side effects often balloon.
The 2011 documentary “Surviving Progress,” based on Mr. Wright’s book, featured cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus: “One of the challenges…that faces the human species is we are more and more in a position of acting like gods…This is [going to] be even more true with genetic technologies, we’re [going to] be able to manipulate other species, and eventually ourselves.”
Also in “Surviving Progress,” award-winning author and scholar Robert Wright stated that man must quickly develop the moral side to being a “god”: “If we don’t develop what you might call the moral perspective of God, then we’ll [mishandle] the engineering part of playing God, because the actual engineering solutions depend on seeing things from the point of view of other people, ensuring that their lives don’t get too bad, because if they do it’ll come back to haunt us. So you know, kind of half of being God has just been handed to us and then the question is whether we’ll master the other half of being God, the moral half.”
He continued, “The bad news is that the enlightenment is…sometimes hard to come by because of human nature…”
Hope for the Future?
In the end, man must learn this stark lesson from history: human nature stands in the way of real peace, abundance and happiness. It blocks man from true moral understanding. It is the root cause of humanity’s problems.
Many thinkers, scientists and leaders have concluded this, but feel powerless to modify how society thinks and acts.
Amazingly, efforts in fields such as synthetic biology show that man would rather attempt to change nature itself than address his own human nature!
In his 1860 Cooper Union Address, Abraham Lincoln stated, “Human action can be modified to some extent, but human nature cannot be changed.”
The same is true today. During a lecture for non-profit group TED, British Prime Minister David Cameron stated, “Government is essentially today learning to go with the grain of human nature.”
Yet most cannot concisely describe what this nature is.
Unknown to almost all, there is an instruction manual for mankind that succinctly defines human nature. The Bible plainly outlines man’s true colors—helping make sense of the modern world. This is just one reason The Real Truth uses this Book as the lens through which to view current events.
The Bible begins to define the human condition almost immediately. The first chapter of Genesis reveals why “god-like” aspirations are deep-seated. Notice: “And God said, Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness…” (vs. 26).
The notion of mankind having a mastery over nature is also immediately addressed. Verse 26 continues, “…and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
These trees represent two opposite ways of life, which can be summed up as give and get. The “tree of life” describes a life of genuine, outflowing concern for others. The tree of knowledge of good and evil symbolizes a way of experimenting to discern what is “good” and what is “evil.”
In the account, Adam and Eve chose to eat from the tree of get.
Look at human nature throughout history. Civilizations have regularly implemented seemingly “good” solutions (almost exclusively devised for personal gain), later to reap unintended “evil” consequences.
This way of get—human nature—can be summarized in four words: vanity, jealousy, lust and greed. All of today’s problems stem from these four characteristics.
Yet does this mean mankind is doomed to fail?
Ultimate History Lesson
Throughout time, there has remained a sense that the purpose of mankind is much grander than the here and now. This is never so evident as when gazing at a star-filled sky on a clear night, away from city lights—or when viewing the Hubble Telescope’s jaw-dropping images. Man looks to the universe for his future, whether to see planets he will one day explore or to understand the basic laws of science governing all things.
Consider. The light from those stars took billions of years to reach Earth. So, while peering into the distant past, we often contemplate our future.
In the Old Testament, Israel’s King David captured this feeling in the book of Psalms: “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained; what is man, that You are mindful of him?” (8:3-4).
This question’s answer is the single most exciting theme found within the Bible. It reveals a deeper, hopeful purpose for mankind.
The New Testament book of Hebrews quotes David and then begins to answer his question: “What is man, that You are mindful of him?…You [God] crowned him with glory and honor, and did set him over the works of Your hands: You have put all things in subjection under his feet. For in that He put all in subjection under him, He left nothing that is not put under him. But now we see not yet all things put under him” (2:6-8).
At first these verses may seem to contradict each other. God put “all things in subjection under” man, but “we see not yet all things put under him.” Put another way, in the future, all things will be put under the rulership of man, but this has not yet happened.
The Moffatt translation of the Bible renders the Greek word for “all things” as “the universe.” Man is to rule over the entire universe!
Yet to do so, he must first learn the way of give, which can be done by building the character of God, as seen within the Bible and throughout Creation. Human nature must be overcome, and genuine outflowing concern must take its place.
Although man has moments of incredible ingenuity, human nature is holding him back. Imagine how much more he could achieve if vanity, jealousy, lust and greed came to an end!
For many more details about mankind’s incredible future and the grand purpose for human existence, read the enlightening and inspiring free book The Awesome Potential of Man.
Despite the bleak picture seen in headlines today, man is not doomed to fail—he is destined to succeed!