The Great Regression
How civilizations collapse and what we can do about it
The internet bustles with many complaints about modern life: crime, racism, rent, corruption, prices etc. You’d be forgiven if you’re an eternal pessimist. But by many measures, we live in the best time in human history. Our chronic dissatisfaction with modern life exemplifies a certain ignorance of just how far we’ve come and a complacency with how we got here. We don’t understand or respect progress, and because of this, civilization is on the precipice of possible collapse.
A Prosperous World
I would never claim that the world is perfect. War, disease, and tragedy still abound. But looking at the raw data, there is no disputing that the life has never been better for most. In 1820 only 12 percent of the population was literate. Today this is flipped, with less than 16 percent illiterate.
In 1950, the global life expectancy was 46 years of age, today it is 73. Global GDP, a rough proxy for wealth, is 10 times greater than it was in 1950. Since 1990 alone, more than 1.2 billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. Global wealth inequality has been reduced, and even if it hadn’t, the poor are much better off than they were decades ago.
You may not feel rich in your studio apartment, but if you have a refrigerator, ready access to food, air conditioning, a soft bed, running water, and a toilet….you have luxuries that were but a dream for a King in the 16th Century. Remember, First Class passengers on the Titanic, the epitome of luxury a century ago, didn’t even have their own bathrooms.
And while it may be hard to believe, the world is getting more peaceful. Fewer people are dying in warfare with each passing decade. When controlling for relative population growth, that trend toward is even more stark.
This is all to say that the era that we live in is unquestionably the most prosperous for humankind. But what of the future? In the midst of a global pandemic, a war in Europe, and climate change, have we reached the peak of human civilization? Is it all downhill from here?
A Great Regression
Science fiction literature focuses on two possible futures for humanity. The first is the “optimistic” outcome, that economic and technological growth continues. Humanity spreads outward, colonizes the Moon and other planets, civilization marches on. The “optimistic” scenario is often cast in a dystopian light, but it is still optimistic because it assumes continued social progress.
The other future is the “pessimistic” outcome, an apocalypse-type scenario, with a small population living like cave men in the ruins of the cities their ancestors built. This scenario is typically imagined to take place after a sudden trigger event, such as a nuclear war.
Both of the above scenarios have a non-zero probability of coming true. But I propose a third possible outcome, one that sees a partial collapse and/or stagnation, followed by slow agonizing decline, which I call the Regression. The Regression may ultimately result in the apocalypse-type scenario, but civilization would limp onward for decades before total collapse.
What would the Regression world look like? It would be a world where declining fertility rates and shorter life expectancies lead to shrinking populations. The value of assets, such as real estate, would slowly but steadily march downward as the population shrank.
Political instability and dissatisfaction with ruling elites would fuel xenophobia. Some nations might close their borders altogether. Global trade would decline as the benefits of comparative advantage were chucked out the window in favor of ideological protectionism. Prices for most goods would rise steadily, alongside chronic shortages, especially for increasingly scarce high-tech goods.
Technology wouldn’t advance, it would run slowly backward as generations of engineers retired or died off, and were not replaced by sufficient younger talent. Depopulation and global trade restrictions exacerbate this, by make it impossible to achieve the economies of scale or diversification necessary to manufacture high-tech goods at an affordable price.
Citizens of this world would still have the computers and cell phones, but most would be old, used even with cracked screens, and valuable in a gray market. Airlines would still exist, but high prices and parts shortages would make air travel unsafe and expensive. The few people with means to travel would increasingly do so on repurposed freighter ships that no longer have goods to transport.
Society would limp on, maybe for 2-3 generations, before either turning around and bouncing back, or a total collapse ensues. Some nations might fare better than others, but in an interconnected world, no nation would be immune to the Regression.
This all might seem alarmist, and perhaps it is. But unlike the apocalypse scenario where the trigger event is clearly definable, the Regression would begin slowly. Indeed, those living in the Regression’s early years might not even realize it.
What Causes Civilization’s Collapse?
Ian Morris, Professor of History at Stanford University, has extensively studied the fall of ancient societies. Although there are often dozens of factors that can lead to collapse, they tend to fall into five broad categories: uncontrollable population movements; new diseases; increased warfare; collapse of trade; and climate change.
These categories are rather broad, and one or two factors might very well feed into and off of another, creating a feedback loop that makes it difficult to separate cause from effect. But the more interesting aspect of his research is not what factors cause collapse, but rather why some civilizations do not collapse, even when all five factors are present. In those examples, we find lessons for today’s world.
Morris suggests that three factors appear to prevent the collapse of civilizations: effective political leadership, strong economic growth, and an aversion to violence. I cannot help but feel that the latter two are just consequences of the first. Effective leadership/smart policy choices, could certainly spur economic growth and deter solutions sought through violence. So perhaps Morris is just identifying three sides of the same coin.
Historian Joseph Tainter has come to a similar conclusion in his work, The Collapse of Complex Societies. Tainter proposes that the collapse of societies follow from the failure of problem-solving institutions to solve the problems that arise as it grows in complexity. While civilization solves a great number of problems, it creates new ones as well. When that society can no longer keep up, perhaps helped along by a new disease or climate change, it collapses under its own weight.
If you think about it, this is rather obvious. Society is just an organizational structure between humans. Morris and Tainter suggest that external challenges matter, but the success or failure of civilization to overcome these challenges depends upon its problem-solving capability. Can a civilization invent solutions and adapt to the challenges that confront it? If it cannot, it collapses.
We might imagine society as a kid riding a bicycle. The further he runs, the more of his friends join in to the case to stop him. He must ride faster, but the faster he goes, the more perilous that race becomes, with obstructions on the sidewalk able to trip him up more easily. In a sense, for its surival, society has to outrun its own demons. It must do this while looking three steps forward to avoid tripping on the obstructions the lie ahead.
The Canary in the Coal Mine
The single greatest threat to humanity, and perhaps the most neglected problem in world history, is depopulation. This might seem disingenuous in a world facing climate change, but the alarm bells have been sounding for some time. Recent research, including one published in The Lancet, forecasts that the world population will peak at about 9.7 billion in 2064, before falling to 8.8 billion by the end of 2100.
They project that fertility rates in 183 nations will fall below the 2.1 threshold needed to maintain population levels. In more than 23 countries, populations will shrink by more than 50 percent. These include Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Spain, Italy, and Portugal.
Why does this matter? Aren’t resources stretched thinly enough? It matters because in order to avert societal collapse, per Morris and Tainter, we need to maintain economic growth, and double down on our problem-solving capability. A shrinking and aging population cannot do this.
Past a certain age, no matter what we do, or how healthy we are, our mental faculties weaken. Capable engineers, policymakers, and doctors retire, and eventually they die off. With fewer people to replace them, there are fewer problem-solvers from which to draw from.
Shrinking populations also engender greater strain on global pension systems, weakening labor output, and declining economic productivity. All of the above inhibits economic growth, placing greater financial strain on the young who are forced to put off having children, creating a feedback loop that inevitably leads to further decline.
The only possible savior could be AI and mechanization. Perhaps the emergence of thinking computers and automation could maintain productive growth and problem-solving capability. But with humanity also approaching the limits of Moore’s Law, don't hold your breath.
The Final Days
So are we in the closing days of civilization? We don’t know. But the warning signs are here. The decline of society could be slow and agonizing. There need not be a catastrophic event to tell us that we have arrived. Our best bet is smart policy choices, like those proposed by The Lianeon Project, that encourage growth and innovation to solve the problems that confront us.
Some might question this wisdom, why push growth and technology at all? Might we be better off freezing civilization in place so as not to endure ever greater strain? No. Like riding a bicycle, standing in place is akin to falling over. Without growth, societal collapse is a certainty, followed by an eventual extinction event. Our only option is to bravely march forward.
Perhaps this will only buy us time. Like the stars in the night sky, they glow as they process their hydrogen fuel. They too inevitably collapse under their own weight, as the outward pressure of their fuel processing can no longer sustain itself against its own mass.
Perhaps collapse is inevitable and civilization is an aberration, a brief twinkle in the night sky that inevitably burns itself out. Perhaps this is the one true answer to Fermi’s Paradox, where are the aliens? Maybe all the civilizations that came before us failed to outrun their own demons. We don’t know the answer. But we do know this, we have only one option: Run as fast as you can.