The Great Regression
How civilizations collapse and what it means for us
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 kind of ignorance of just how far we’ve come and complacency with how we got here. We don’t understand or respect progress, and because of this, we are in danger of losing what we have gained.
A Prosperous World
I would never claim that the world is perfect. Quite far from it. War, disease, and tragedy still abound. But looking at the raw data, there is no disputing that life has never been better for most, though there is still a long way to go.
In 1820 only 12 percent of the population was literate. Today this is flipped, with less than 16 percent illiterate. In 1950, 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 1950 the proportion of people living in extreme poverty fell from over 70 percent to under 10 percent, and since 1990 alone, more than 1.2 billion people have been lifted out of poverty.
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 suites on the Titanic, the epitome of luxury just 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 population growth, that trend is even more profound. Stability and prosperity are increasingly the norm, not the exception.
This is all to say that the era that we live in is unquestionably the most prosperous in human history. But what of the future? In the midst of a global pandemic, a war in Europe, and the threat of 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” future, where economic and technological growth continues. Humanity spreads outward, colonizes the Moon and other planets, and civilization marches on. This is the "Expanding Cosmos” future, and while often cast in a dystopian light, it still assumes continued progress.
The other future is the one of collapse, an apocalypse-type scenario, with a small population of survivors living like cavemen 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 realization. But I propose a third possible future, one of stagnation, followed by a slow agonizing decline, which I call the Great Regression. The Regression may ultimately result in the apocalypse-type scenario, but civilization would limp onward for decades before total collapse.
This all might seem alarmist, and perhaps it is. But unlike the apocalypse scenario where the trigger event is clearly identifiable, the Great Regression would begin slowly. Indeed, those living in the Regression’s early years might not even realize it.
What Causes Civilization’s Collapse?
We will revisit the Regression in a moment, but first, it is important to understand what factors can lead to societal collapse. Ian Morris, a Professor of History at Stanford University, has extensively studied the fall of ancient societies. Factors tend to fall into five broad categories: uncontrollable population movements; new diseases; increased warfare; the collapse of trade; and climate change.
These factors are broad and certainly engender a feedback loop that makes it difficult to separate cause from effect. But Morris’s findings are more useful in the inverse: why do some civilizations not collapse, even when all five factors are present? In those examples, we find lessons for today’s world.
Morris suggests that three elements appear to prevent the collapse of civilizations: effective political leadership, strong economic growth, and an aversion to violence. The latter two, arguably, 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 collapse follows from the failure of problem-solving institutions to solve the challenges that arise as it grows in complexity. In a sense, civilizations collapse under their own weight, perhaps helped along by a new disease or climate change.
If you think about it, this is rather obvious. Society is an organizational structure intended to solve collective problems. Morris and Tainter suggest that external challenges matter, but the success or failure of a civilization to overcome these challenges depends upon its problem-solving capability. The issue becomes, can a civilization discover solutions and adapt to the challenges that confront it? If it cannot, it collapses.
The Empty Planet
Collapse need not be sudden, the Great Regression may begin stealthily: enter depopulation, the greatest threat to humanity. This might seem disingenuous in a world facing climate change, but the alarm bells are sounding. 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 stable 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. This means we need to begin thinking about the ramifications of global population reversal.
Economist Charles Jones sought to investigate what happens to economic expansion and technological advancement in the midst of negative population growth. In a study published in the National Bureau of Economic Research, he concludes that negative population growth, what he calls the “Empty Planet” future (essentially my Great Regression), is particularly harmful to society as knowledge and living standards stagnate for a population that gradually disappears.
The greatest challenge of the 21st Century may not be too many people, it may be too few. Yet, so ingrained is the overpopulation narrative that convincing anyone otherwise is met with hostility, as if the suggestion was the epitome of blasphemy.
Degrowth advocates falsely believe that fewer people means lower prices, better living standards, and more sustainability. But this is false. Many products have high fixed costs and low marginal costs. That is, they require enormous capital and talent to develop and build the factory of production, but relatively little to make each unit for sale. The smartphone in your pocket is a great example of such a product.
One needs sufficient market size to sell enough copies of a product to justify the high fixed investment cost. The exponential growth and the steady improvement that we have come to expect in our products and technology depend upon market size growth. We have better and cheaper products because there are so many of us.
Falling populations throw this mechanism into reverse, promising to make many goods more, not less, expensive. Eventually, the population shrinks enough such that innovation itself slows or stops, as the market becomes too small and research incentives disappear.
But won’t Earth’s resources be overburdened by a growing population? Not necessarily. The nature of innovation and growth is that we discover means of doing more with less. Historically, studies have found that resources became more, not less, abundant as the population expanded. They also found that resource abundance increased faster than the population. That is, on average, every additional human creates more value than he or she consumes.
To be fair, there is probably a limit to this effect so long as we are confined to Earth’s surface. But space is vast and even small asteroids can contain trillions of dollars in minerals and resources. That’s the beauty of a future where we explore the cosmos. Growth and innovation can continue to incalculable limits.
What Would the Great Regression Look Like?
Should humanity continue down the degrowth/depopulation path, what would the Regression/Empty Planet world look like? It would be a world where housing blocks slowly emptied and decayed. Roads fell into disrepair due to a lack of usage and tax revenue. The value of assets, such as real estate, would steadily march downward as demand evaporated.
Living standards would stagnate and soon 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 ignored in favor of ideological protectionism. Prices for most goods would rise, alongside chronic shortages, especially for increasingly scarce high-tech goods.
Technology wouldn’t advance, it would stagnate and possibly run slowly backward as generations of engineers retired or died off, and were not replaced by sufficient younger talent. Over time, airline routes would be canceled due to disuse and the cost of flights would increase. The few people with the 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 bouncing back or totally collapsing. Some nations might fare better than others, but in an interconnected world, no nation would be immune to the Great Regression.
Why Not Stagnate?
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.
Shrinking populations also place greater strain on global pension systems, weakening labor output, and economic productivity. All of the above places 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, ironically, could be AI and mechanization. Perhaps the emergence of thinking computers and automation could maintain productive growth and problem-solving capability in the face of the “Empty Planet.” But with Moore’s Law also slowing at the same time, don't hold your breath.
The Final Days
So are we in the closing generations of civilization? We can’t be sure, but the warning signs are here. The decline 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.
Some might question the notion of progress entirely, preferring that we prioritize nature over humanity. I see this as a false choice. No matter what we do as a species, all life on Earth will inevitably come to an end. Millions of years from now, the Sun will expand and boil off our oceans, suffocating every form of life in the known universe. I’d argue that a true conservationist, a true champion of nature, would want life to thrive and spread throughout the universe, and be spared the decimation that ultimately awaits.
It’s true, maybe human progress can only borrow time. Like stars in the night, they glow as they process their hydrogen fuel. But inevitably they too collapse under their own weight, as the outward force of their fuel processing can no longer sustain the crushing force of its own mass.
Perhaps collapse is inevitable and civilization is an aberration, a brief twinkle in the night sky that inevitably burns out. Perhaps this is the one true answer to Fermi’s Paradox, where are the aliens? Maybe all the civilizations that came before us simply failed to outrun their own demons, and we will too. I don’t know the answer. But we have a choice, either take our chances with progress or lie down and wait for inevitable annihilation.