I get it. We're exceptional. In the history of humanity there's never been anything like us, here, today. We're all but invincible, masters of all we survey.
We tend to look at the world as one giant civilization. Perhaps that's because we're a collection of civilizations all integrated through common conventions, communications, trade and such. We've developed institutions to facilitate this integration - the United Nations, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization, the "world" this, the "world" that. Then there's a second tier of regional conventions and alliances. After a while it's all a blur.
What is a civilization? What is it really? Luke Kemp of the Cambridge University's Centre for the Study of Existential Risk defines it as, "a society with agriculture, multiple cities, military dominance in its geographical region and a continuous political structure. Given this definition, all empires are civilisations, but not all civilisations are empires."
There have been many civilizations in the span of human history. Many believe the Sumerians/Mesopotamians (6500 B.C.E.) were the first to develop agriculture, animal husbandry, cities, trade, a system of writing, that sort of thing. It's as good a place as any to start. Kemp has a list of all civilizations going way, way back.
Some civilizations were huge, others weren't. Some were long-lived, i.e. Rome, Egypt, others less so. On average, a civilization lasts 336 years. Not very long.
Americans like to boast that their civilization is today's oldest ongoing civilization. They base that claim on the fact that their constitution predates other nations'. Other countries have made significant changes to their constitutional settlements in the meantime. You could argue what that means is that America's unchanged constitution is the most outdated, obsolete of the lot but that would only piss them off.
The future of our modern civilization(s) is a bit worrisome. Humans have never had so much wealth and power nor have we had such means and inclination to bring our civilization(s) crashing down. Some scientists warn we're even on the verge of triggering a sixth mass extinction.
The question then becomes, what have we learned about how civilizational collapse is triggered. Here Kemp has assembled the collective wisdom of those who theorize on such things.
If the fate of previous civilisations can be a roadmap to our future, what does it say? One method is to examine the trends that preceded historic collapses and see how they are unfolding today.
You can read the list as well as I can. What do you make of it?
Kemp gives us another handy graphic to help makes sense of all this.
The author says there are other trends that may help fend off collapse even if temporarily rather than permanently, in part instead of entirely. Kemp finds that, globally, we have become more resilient through diversification of our economies and we are technologically far more advanced and more innovative.
Still, when we look at all these collapse and resilience indicators as a whole, the message is clear that we should not be complacent. There are some reasons to be optimistic, thanks to our ability to innovate and diversify away from disaster. Yet the world is worsening in areas that have contributed to the collapse of previous societies. The climate is changing, the gap between the rich and poor is widening, the world is becoming increasingly complex, and our demands on the environment are outstripping planetary carrying capacity.
Yet we have created our own vulnerabilities, our Achilles Heel(s). The neoliberal era ushered in globalism, global free trade. We may come to regret that.
We still have a slim chance to turn this around. All we need is the will to continue and leaders unlike today's crop, those who would herd us over a cliff.
The collapse of our civilisation is not inevitable. History suggests it is likely, but we have the unique advantage of being able to learn from the wreckages of societies past.