If the coronavirus pandemic marks the collapse of civilization, would we know? Experts weigh in.
For the most part, history is more complicated and more nuanced than we give it credit for. Hindsight serves to soften and streamline the narrative. Understanding contemporary motivations requires a sense of cultural relativism that’s often neglected.
There are, however, some universals that transcend millennia: “Every single civilization to date has collapsed.”
So explains Eric H. Cline, a professor of ancient history and archaeology at the George Washington University and author of the book 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, which tracks the end of the Bronze Age.
The modern civilization that we call America will likely not be exempt, he says.
“To say, ‘Oh, we’re so great, we’re so technologically advanced, we will not collapse,’ that’s hogwash. Every civilization has collapsed,” Cline tells Yahoo Life. “It would be hubristic to think that we would be immune.”
The coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe and crippling a particularly ill-prepared United States has an apocalyptic quality. It’s hard to imagine how we will ever return to normal while disease ravages the population and economic depression leaves millions more unemployed each week. Is this the beginning of the end? Or else, as some people see it, the catalyst on a downturn that started with the 2016 election?
For weeks I’ve been wondering not just if this is how our modern civilization collapses, but whether we would even know if it was. In contrast to what the well-meaning voice-overs on soft-focus PSAs would have us believe, I worry our spirit is in fact too resilient. That we’re missing an incredibly unsubtle sign. A literal plague and the ensuing widespread poverty feel a discernible inflection point or perhaps even the end.
Can historians help us understand what it would feel like to live through a collapse? Or whether we can even see a collapse coming before it’s too late?
What the end of our civilization would look like
First, what would it mean for the United States to “collapse”?
“It’s actually a fairly easy parallel,” says Patrick Wyman, who hosted the podcast The Fall of Rome and wrote about the topic himself for Mother Jones. The effects of a collapse similar to what Rome experienced in the 5th century, in terms of our modern geopolitical landscape, would look like a fracturing of our nation into smaller, more isolated kingdoms.
“It’s like, what if the United States just didn’t exist anymore? What if a warlord set up shop in California, another warlord set up shop in Texas, and another warlord set up shop in New England, and each of those were now just separate countries?” he tells Yahoo Life. “That would be paralleled by an accompanying breakdown of the economic systems that unite the nation and connect the country to the rest of the world.”
On a small scale, that would feel like an inability to get the same goods and information everywhere across what had been a homogenized country. Mail wouldn’t run as smoothly. Products produced in one part of now disjointed America wouldn’t be accessible elsewhere.
That may sound sort of trendy — everything would be “locally grown” and “farm to table” — but an ability to essentially share the wealth across a vast region is what made the Roman Empire so advanced for its time.
“In a very basic economic sense, the Roman Empire allowed for regional specialization and comparative advantage,” Wyman explains. “And that broke down after the end of the Roman Empire because you couldn’t get from point A to point B.”
Without a centralized economy, we’d see a so-called systems collapse, like what happened at the end of the Bronze Age around 1200 B.C., ushering in the Dark Ages. Large kingdoms would be replaced by small city-states. There would be no more big buildings, scientific study would decrease and the population would disperse away from the formerly big cities.
“It is a retreat back to the lowest levels of culture,” Cline says.
And a key feature of that, in many cases, is a decline in literacy. “They forgot how to write,” Cline says. “Suddenly they couldn’t write anymore.”
Or, more broadly, no one was being paid to write anymore.
“Imagine a city in which populations are diminishing,” says Stephen D. Houston, an anthropology professor at Brown University who studies the Mayan civilization, which somewhat mysteriously declined around the 9th century A.D. and was effectively decimated by European conquest in the 1500s and 1600s. “You’re not really supporting scribes anymore. You don’t have temple schools where people might be learning how to read and write, and there’s no one commissioning those works.”
For the ancient Mediterranean civilizations and even the more recent Mayans, that meant the small percentage of people who had been literate died or dispersed, or else their benefactors did. It’s hard to imagine something so extreme taking place in a society where almost everyone can read and write — but the necessary funding of written records has already started to suffer under the economic crisis caused by the pandemic.
The news industry, which has been steadily shrinking over the past decade, has been stripped all but bare recently. In a matter of weeks, tens of thousands of jobs were cut from the newspapers and new media organizations that act as 21st century scribes.
“Having literacy is an investment,” Houston says.
Living through collapsing empires
Each of the experts I spoke to specializes in an era that can consume a lifetime of study. My intent was not to draw direct comparisons between the causes of those collapses to what’s occurring globally now. It always takes a perfect storm of coinciding stressors to bring down a civilization — structural weaknesses compounded by environmental factors and often exploited by unfriendly neighbors. An epidemic, for instance, crippled the immunologically defenseless Mayans much like the coronavirus has done to our country today, but it was accompanied by the violent invaders who unwittingly bore the disease.
Rather, I wanted to look to the past for signs of self-awareness at the end. And whether those reactions mirror what many people are thinking and feeling today.
“Do people know they’re living in a collapsing empire?” says Wyman. “The answer to that is no. Usually, no.”
It seems that ancient peoples would have recognized the perils facing their immediate vicinity while failing to recognize the scope of what was changing.
“Maybe they didn’t know, ‘Oh my God the Bronze Age is ending, get ready for the Iron Age,’ but they certainly knew that there was a drought, and that there were famines, and that there were others in the same boat,” Cline explains.
The Bronze Age Mediterranean and Near East civilizations were incredibly interconnected. And as that globalized society crumbled, leaders wrote to one another asking for help, calling it “a matter of life and death.”
“They knew it, for sure, on the smaller scale. I’m sure, though, they had no idea overall that their entire way of life was collapsing,” Cline says.
It’s almost impossible to conceive of the end of an era — the large-scale collapse of which can take up to a century — even, if not especially, while facing obvious and immediate upheaval.
“You don’t stop thinking of yourself as a Roman just because there’s no emperor anymore. You don’t stop thinking of yourself as a Roman just because there’s no Roman army anymore,” Wyman says.
If you grew up in the Roman Empire, you saw the world through the lens of Roman framework. Often, that is, until it was too late.
“If you have a Roman aristocrat who’s like, ‘Oh you’re telling me I need to give up on my land to pay the soldiers? No, that’s cool, we’ll just do without the soldiers.’ And then when the barbarians come through and your village is attacked, it’s like, ‘Oh man, maybe I should have paid for the soldiers,’” Wyman says.
In each of those examples, it seemingly took several hundred years for the remaining culture to come to terms with what had been lost. It wasn’t until Homer and Hesiod in the Iron Age and the Carolingian Renaissance in the 8th and 9th centuries that people recorded their recognition of the declines — reminiscing and glorifying the eras that had come before.
“I think if you have enough perspective to be looking backwards and think of this as a thing that you want to preserve or bring back, if it can be a renaissance or a renewal, then you have enough perspective to say, ‘Oh yeah, this was a thing that existed and now no longer does,’” Wyman says.
“I don’t have an answer yet as to whether or not they really knew they were collapsing,” Cline says. “Just as I don’t have an answer today for whether we’re going to actually realize we’ve collapsed until it’s too late.”
Can we see the fall coming?
Both Cline and Wyman compared themselves to Cassandra, the apocryphal princess of Troy who was blessed with an ability to foretell the future and cursed to never have her prophecies believed. This meant that she could predict the fall of Troy but not prevent it.
But Troy did fall.
And the historians I spoke to do see parallels between what they’ve studied and what’s happening right now in the United States.
“Too many to feel comfortable,” Wyman says. He worries that the resilience of our mental frameworks will insulate us from understanding the stakes. Conceiving of this moment in time, the one into which you were born, as the end of civilization is an almost paralyzingly impossible task.
“Not just for the people on the street,” Wyman continues, ”but even for kind of elite political actors because that would force them to come to terms with their own political mortality and/or irrelevance.”
Overcoming that is our best hope.
“I’m really seriously a little bit concerned that we’re in another perfect storm, and that we’re not going to come out of this, but that’s a little bit pessimistic,” Cline says.
He’s clinging now to the hope that a modern understanding of all the challenges we face will save us. Take climate change, which was one of the factors that brought down the Bronze Age. It’s once again a real, pressing threat, but modern civilizations have the benefit of increased scientific study and technology to combat it — or at least, we should.
“Yes, there is one final straw that’s going to break the camel’s back. The question is, which is it? And I would say more importantly, what are the ripple effects that it’s going to cause? The pandemic just now, yes, in and of itself is horrible,” Cline says, ticking off the resulting problems with unemployment and volatility in the stock markets. The pandemic is just the driver.
While Cline is “optimistic that we are smart enough to get ourselves out of the mess that we’ve created,” he says that “every time I look at the news, I’m thinking, well, maybe I’m overestimating our capabilities.
“Maybe we’re not that smart.”
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