The collapse of complex systems, both natural and manmade, is as inevitable as their growth. But practice makes perfect as the old saying goes, and a theory that has been rattling around in my head is that every cycle of collapse makes the process a little less disastrous and a little more functional. Maybe in time the fruit that plummets from the tree and rots upon the earth learns to better release its seed and start the cycle again. This article is an exploration of this idea, which I playfully think of as the diminishing returns on collapse, a riff on the diminishing returns of complexity proposed by Tainter to be key in civilizational collapse.
Looking at the long history of life on Earth we have a useful set of major mass extinction events over the last half a billion years of multicellular life, though prior to that the great oxidation event around 2 000 million years ago (mya) might be a good starting point, killing 99 % of bacterial species present at the time and taking another 1000 million years for ecosystem function to recover. The next major event was around 450 mya, where 85% of species were lost, with recovery in 5 million years to a very similar ecosystem. Next at 370 mya a two phase extinction saw 75% species lost, and 40 million years for recovery. Then at 250 mya the most severe mass extinction occurred with 80% marine and 70% terrestrial species loss, though forests took only 5 million years to recover, with terrestrial vertebrates recovered in 30 million years. At 200 mya 70% of species were lost in the second biggest extinction, but the surviving groups were relatively untouched and recovered in under 30 million years. The most recent mass extinction at 66 mya also took 75% of species but recovery only took around 6 million years. The percentage species lost during each crisis is difficult to compare since it depended on the specific events of each catastrophe, but a general trend emerges with recovery of ecosystem functions happening on a shorter time scale after every mass extinction event. Larger animals tend to be the most vulnerable to extinction, but are more rapidly replaced in subsequent extinction events. Life on Earth is getting pretty good at taking a cosmic beating and bouncing back swiftly. A look of all extinction metrics for marine life over the last 500 million years also shows a general decline in extinction intensity outside of the dramatic events as well.
A similar pattern could be argued about the history of collapse of human civilisations. This analysis focuses on western Eurasia but I would be interested to hear from people with more insight into history elsewhere to see if the pattern is more widely apparent. The first wave of multiregional globalisation, trade and specialisation occurred during the late Bronze Age, when a handful of nations around the eastern Mediterranean formed an interdependent structure. When this was destroyed during the Bronze Age collapse (around 3200 years ago) due to a large volcanic eruption followed by mass human migration that only Egypt barely managed to survive. I would estimate this as a 90% destruction of existing structures and territories. Recovery took about 450 years in Greece though varied in different regions. The next example of a widespread trade network in the region was the Roman Empire, encompassing more land to the north and west than the Bronze Age system and the entire Mediterranean Sea. When it finally collapsed around 1500 years ago only the western half was truly abandoned, with the eastern part of the empire maintaining political and economic continuity for another thousand years. The collapsed 50 % of the former empire recovered in around 300 years to mark the start of the middle ages.
The maritime and colonial empires of the Spanish and then British represented a new form of globalised trading network, though different in structure to previous land based empires. When these systems collapsed they underwent a relatively smooth process of severing colonial organs, often on a more political than economic level, with trade often continuing during the transition. Often the drive to relinquish territory was purely economic, with the captured territories costing more in military outlays than they brought in from trade. The process is reminiscent of a water stressed tree dropping its leaves. The collapse of these maritime empires effectively left a head with no body, which went on to live a fairly long and prosperous life with obvious but mostly manageable declines in standard of living. The USSR represented another large and mostly land based trading and specialisation network which lost coherence as resource and economic restrictions weakened it. In contrast to the collapse of the British maritime empires the highest centres of soviet power blinked out but left the robust organs of production in place to continue functioning independently, in this case like a body that continued to live on without a head.
And now today many of us feel like we are on the precipice of the collapse of the US global empire. The USA is in many ways an extension and refinement of the British colonial model, except it goes further in that it claims very little territory in the traditional sense, simply because it does not need to. It does claim tiny parcels for military bases across the planet, a thousand launch pads to maintain naval dominance in order to keep the ocean shipping lanes open and secure (and to knock any troublesome nations into line if they threaten that global order). The US system relies on the soft power of cultural influence (though prolific export of mass media) and economic infiltration (as so artfully explained in “Confessions of an Economic Hitman”). As such the partial collapse of such a system could be almost as invisible as the system itself, with unprofitable sectors quietly cut loose much as the British “liberated” their former colonies when there was no more blood left to suck. The main hurdle though is that relinquishing power of any significant region could mean that US military resources then need to be devoted to securing the boundaries of that sector. By contrast global dominance has a certain economy of scale since there are no more outer borders to patrol when the entire planet is secured (the ultimate solution to the Roman problem of expanding territory creating expanding borders with their inevitable conflicts). The US Empire is interesting to compare to Rome in one key way. The power centres of Rome were kept viable for so long due to massive imports of grain by ship from North Africa, the foundation for the bread that kept urban populations pacified and armies fed. This made their conflict with Carthage for control of the Mediterranean Sea an existential one, where even a victorious Rome was severely wounded. The USA by contrast is the major source of export grain in the world, with its productive interior combined with industrial agriculture producing vast quantities of surplus export ready food, a diplomatic weapon that it wields against all food importing nations. Even with diminishing food production the US still has the potential to wield this weapon if it manages to curtail the use of grain to grow excessive domestic feedlot meat production.
As the world passed through the period of peak energy production per person (falling since 1985 as population growth outpaced increasing total energy production) how the US centred empire collapses is a topic of great debate. Based on these longer trends I believe that the US Empire will be the most functional collapse to date with the most rapid recovery. The fate of US citizens though will still be pretty dire in comparison with their recent history, but more akin to the millionaire who spirals into depression when they are forced to live at subsistence levels that would be quite tolerable by the majority of humans who ever lived in history. The empire however itself has ample resources to maintain itself while becoming less resource intensive and wasteful, especially through the erosion of its internal consumer culture. This was manufactured with the crude mass media of the 1950s to absorb surplus production and could be even more rapidly reimagined to reduce consumption using the full spectrum digital immersion of the early 21st century.
It can be argued that the USA is already a half century into its collapse with domestic conventional oil production peaking in the 1970’s. In that light the future merely holds a further acceleration of those trends, with a few bumps in the road of course. The centre of US power no longer resides in the mouldering organs of its government, but has been effectively transferred to a diverse host of economic powers (multinational corporations and financial institutions) and the US military-industrial complex. While this does present the risk of a major conflict arising between these many interconnected entities, it does have the advantage that the seat of power of the global network is dispersed and mobile in a way that makes it possible for it to untether itself from locally unfavourable conditions, much like the centre of power shifted from Rome to Byzantium. While I still ultimately believe that a system wide collapse and dark age lies ahead of us I also believe that we will first go through a prolonged period of further energetic/economic/political rationalisation as the flourishes and excesses that were feasible under conditions of rising energy per capita during the 19th and early 20th century become a liability during this era of falling per capita energy. This should leave us at least a couple of generations to continue preparing for the inevitable dark ages ahead, and pondering what shape the next global trading network will take in a world scrubbed clean of easy fossil fuel energy sources. Just as the global ecosystem has gotten better at picking itself up, dusting itself off and starting all over again so has human civilisation. This means the unfolding collapse could pleasantly surprise us in its duration, depth and eventual recovery.