COVID-19 and the Collapse of Complex Societies


With the world experiencing the worst pandemic since 1918, people may be wondering whether our way of life is secure. Looking at how civilizational breakdown has happened before can help us understand what causes it, the forms it may take, and whether it's in our future.

Civilizational crisis and collapse were given a formal scholarly definition in Joseph A. Tainter's 1988 book, The Collapse of Complex Societies. 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, 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 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 more varied and commodious lifestyles. In other words, it pays to move toward more complex ways of doing things.

But there are limits to this approach. Complexity has diminishing marginal returns: The gains from complexity decrease as complexity increases, while the costs (such as information problems and difficulty 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 have a harder time coping with unexpected shocks (or even shocks that are anticipated). As the system becomes more 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," which 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, and they in turn lead to further breakdowns elsewhere.

Underlying all of this is the fundamental reality of limited resources, which imposes constraints on the level of complexity that a given type of economic and social organization can support. The limits usually lurk in the background, but as levels of population, 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 of civilizational breakdown is actually one of 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.

Yet the process is not straightforwardly cyclical. Sometimes civilizations rebound, as the Roman Empire did after the great crisis of the third century. Between 235 and 284 A.D. there were over 50 recognized emperors or claimants to that title; the empire was riven by civil wars, barbarian invasions, massive epidemics, currency debasement, and peasant rebellions. Toward the end, it had effectively split into three states. But a series of soldier-emperors restored and stabilized Roman civilization, and it went on to flourish for another two centuries. The simplification process can also be arrested at a level of complexity above that of original simplicity.

There is a force that works against the dynamic identified by Tainter: the process of innovation, derived from a combination of human ingenuity and the liberty that gives it expression and encourages it. The innovative process, spurred by the challenges that arise when society reaches a natural limit, may open 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. In the 14th century, the Black Death killed around 40 percent of the population of Eurasia, urban life went into decline in many places, there was a dramatic slump in long-distance trade, and the level of political unrest and war rose dramatically all over the Old World. In the 17th century, the Little Ice Age helped produce popular rebellions from the Atlantic to the Pacific, culminating in violent revolutions in 1648–49 in almost every part of Europe—and sometimes beyond. Again, there was a severe economic slowdown and a global decline of long-distance trade. But on both occasions, although the damage was considerable, human civilization survived in all parts of the world.

Since the middle of the 18th century, the world has pushed up against natural limits several times. It happened in the period from the 1770s through the first decade of the 1800s, it happened in the period from the later 1840s through the 1860s, and it happened at the turn of the 20th century. These were all times when an existing level of technology began to reach the limit of complexity it could sustain, leading to economic and political breakdowns. On each of these occasions there was a major crisis, marked by the classic signs of systemic stress and collapse, but the outcome was not a collapse. In the modern world, unlike most pre-modern eras, each crisis has led to a breakthrough to a higher level of complexity, as the resource limit is pushed back.

It seems very likely that we are experiencing another instance of this phenomenon. 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 markers of a civilizational crisis. All of our systems are being put through 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. Fortunately, by looking at the signs of systemic stress, we can observe that human ingenuity is producing technologies and ways of doing things that will very likely enable us to overcome this time of troubles. We may be facing challenges, perhaps lasting many years. But we should be confident that global civilization will overcome this, as it has before.