COVID-19 and the Collapse of Complex Societies

Sometimes pressure causes breakdowns, but sometimes it causes breakthroughs.


With the world experiencing the worst pandemic since 1918, many people may wonder if civilization is as secure as it might be. History offers insight into this question. Civilizational breakdown is a recurring historical process. Looking at how it has happened before can help us understand what causes it, the forms it may take, and how far away from it we may be. Civilizational crisis and collapse were given a formal scholarly definition in Joseph Tainter's 1988 book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, and Tainter's model underlies the work of later generations of scholars.

The model works this way. Since at least the advent of agriculture, people have responded to challenges and sought to improve their condition. One form this takes is through social cooperation and the division of labor, an approach that leads to more complex forms of economy, society, and politics. In the abstract, complexity means higher levels of heterogeneity, as opposed to uniformity. In concrete economic terms, it means a more elaborate division of labor, a larger number of distinct occupations, and greater specialization both geographically and among people. Socially, it means a greater number of roles and ways of living, more variety in the stages of life, increased differentiation, and more varied and changeable interpersonal relations. Politically, it means more structured political units, more elaborate administration, and higher levels of urbanization. Complexity in all of these forms brings a positive payoff in terms of more production, higher living standards, more inventiveness, and a more varied and commodious way of living. It therefore pays to move toward more complex ways of doing things and living.

But there are limits to this approach. Complexity has diminishing marginal returns: The gains from complexity become less as it increases, while the costs (such as information problems, ineffectuality, and difficulty in changing course) become greater. Eventually, increased complexity has negative returns. Moreover, as social, economic, and political orders become more complex they also become more fragile and brittle, less resilient and adaptable. They become less able to cope with unexpected shocks (or even shocks that are anticipated). As the system becomes more complex and interdependent—in ways that the people who are part of it do not fully understand—it becomes susceptible to a general breakdown caused by cascade effects. These happen when a failure in one part of the system leads to unforeseeable failures in other parts. These failures may have no obvious connection to the original problem, which in turn leads to further breakdowns elsewhere.

Underlying all of this for most (or all?) of history is the fundamental reality of limited resources. These impose constraints on the level of complexity that a given type of economic and social organization can support. These limits usually lurk in the background, but as the population, level of human activity, and complexity reach such constraints, they start to pinch in many ways. It is that pressure that brings the collapse of a complex order. For Tainter and his successors, the process is actually one of simplification, the breakdown and decomposition of complex forms of organization into simpler and less diverse ones. This has many aspects, including a decline in population and urbanization; a move from large polities to smaller, more local ones; and a decay of elaborate trade systems and divisions of labor. Sometimes the process is arrested or even reversed, and sometimes it continues until a new, simpler equilibrium is reached.

Importantly, collapse does not usually mean cataclysm: The process takes place over two or three human lifetimes rather than as a single, dramatic event. A number of indicators suggest that a society is entering such an episode: overproduction of elites, intensified social conflict, diminishing returns on investment across the whole range of assets, increasingly severe shortages of key resources and materials, conflicts over access to resources between groups and states, large-scale migration, and increasingly severe environmental degradation. One common feature is widespread epidemics. Another is famines, caused as much by interruptions to the food supply and distribution system as by natural events. All these things are both causes and components of the process of collapse.

Much of human history consequently has a cyclical quality. A society will start off relatively simple ("undeveloped," we might say) and gradually become more complex, sophisticated, and wealthy. Eventually it reaches the limits of that process and a crisis ensues. It may adapt or surmount it, but more often it does not; the society returns to a simpler, less complex form. There are several well-known examples of this, such as the collapse of the classical Mayan civilization in the eighth and ninth centuries, the breakdown of the ancient civilizations of the Middle East and the lands around the Mediterranean in the sixth century, and the disintegration of the civilizations of the late Bronze Age in the 12th century B.C. It has happened several times in Chinese history. But the process is not straightforwardly cyclical. Sometimes civilizations rebound, as the Roman Empire did after the great crisis of the third century. The simplification process can be arrested at a number of levels of complexity above that of original simplicity, depending on a number of factors.

There is a force that works against the dynamic identified by Tainter and described above. That is the process of innovation, derived from the combination of human ingenuity and the liberty that gives it expression and encourages it. The innovative process can be spurred by the challenge of reaching a natural limit, opening up ways of pushing that limit further out and so checking or reversing the breakdown.

Since 1300, the world has experienced two major episodes of civilizational crisis on a global scale, one in the 14th century and the other in the 17th. On both occasions, although the damage was considerable, human civilization in all parts of the world survived the challenge. Since the middle of the 18th century, the world has pushed up against natural limits several times. On each of these occasions there was a major crisis, but the outcome was not a collapse but a breakthrough to a new level of technology and organization that resolved the crisis.

It seems very likely that we are currently experiencing the fourth such crisis since the early 18th century. We certainly see many signs of a crisis of complexity. This probably explains the current popular fascination with novels, movies, TV shows, comic books, and video games centering on the breakdown of civilization, with the precipitating disasters ranging from plagues to asteroid impacts to nuclear war to zombies. Alongside all this fiction is a flourishing prepper industry and subculture This sort of apocalyptic thinking tends to lull and surge, and lately we've been experiencing the latter. I don't think that's a coincidence.

A major pandemic is one of the classic aspects of a civilizational crisis. All of our systems—social, political, and economic—are being put through what we may regard as a stress test. We will discover which are resilient and robust, which are fragile and brittle, and which are actually antifragile, thriving on the breakdown of structures. Quite apart from COVID-19, if we look at the signs of systemic stress we can observe that, once again, human ingenuity is producing technologies and ways of doing things that will enable us to overcome this time of troubles. We may be facing a rather challenging time, perhaps lasting many years. But we should be confident that global civilization will overcome this, as it has before.