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Is Complex Systems Collapse in Our Future?

A sign of troubled times: the Cyclopean walls of Homer’s Golden Mycenae

Eric H. Cline. 1177 B.C. The Year Civilization Collapsed. Princeton University Press. 2014.

You might be wondering why I am reviewing a book about the collapse of the Late Bronze Age civilizations, what has been called “the first great international era in world history.” It is because of the causes put forward for that collapse, which as you will see, are very relevant in our own time.

The Late Bronze Age was a world very much like our own in the sense that it was an inter-connected group of kingdoms comprising all the various political units of the age, from large to small, and spanning the known world – the Eastern Mediterranean from Greece all the way to the borders of modern Iran.

In their correspondence, to which archaeology has granted us access, these kings addressed each other, if they were equals, as “brother,” and if the other king was older, or more powerful, as “father.” These were more than empty words, as they treated each other as part of an extended family, more or less getting along but at times, fighting. Yet, though jealous of their status, they always, in the end, came together again in peace.

These men (and sometimes women) not only engaged in trade with each other, but sent ambassadors with gifts to each other’s courts. They consulted one another on all the great issues of their day, and these connections enabled them to avoid conflict where otherwise there might have been war. The lingua franca of the day was Akkadian, the already ancient Semitic language of Mesopotamia.

The very earliest example of a peace treaty in world history hangs in the UN today: the so-called Treaty of Kadesh, which established peace between the Hittites who ruled much of what is modern Turkey, and Egypt. The two kingdoms would remain friends until the collapse of the Bronze Age swept the Hittite kingdom away, and cast Egypt into its long decline.

As Cline tells us, towards the end, the Pharaoh Merneptah (who gives us history’s first mention of Israel), declared in an inscription that he “caused grain to be taken in ships, to keep alive this land of Hatti.” Another letter from the Hittite capital asks poignantly, “Do you not know that there was a famine in the midst of my lands?”

Already, by the Late Bronze Age, this was an ancient system, dating all the way back to a thousand years before. (Those interested in the era should consult Amanda H. Podany, Brotherhood of Kings: How International Relations Shaped the Ancient Near East, Oxford, 2010). Our own age is not nearly so old, which might be enough to give us pause, but there is more.

Cline’s book devotes itself to the last years of the Late Bronze Age, which ended 1200 BCE, and the early years of the Iron Age, as the title suggests, down to 1177 BCE., when the final waves of invasion washed against the shores of Egypt. What concerns us here are the theories (and some more than theories) about what brought these great civilizations down in such a short period of time:

  • Natural disasters (a 50-year-long series of earthquakes, an “earthquake storm” or “unzipping”);
  • Climate change (Mediterranean core samples show a drop in sea temperature, resulting in reduced precipitation on land);
  • Drought lasting decades (famine is confirmed by surviving Bronze Age documents and verified by pollen counts of Bronze Age sediment);
  • War (including internal rebellions/revolts);
  • The interruption of trade through wars and natural disasters (collapse of the international trading system upsetting fragile economies);
  • Scarcity of resources (it has been noted that tin was for the Late Bronze Age what oil is for us); and,
  • General Systems Collapse (“A systemic failure with both a domino and a multiplier effect.”)

The relevance of these should be apparent today. We too are facing the effects of climate change. Drought has gripped much of the Western United States for years. Water is becoming scarce resource (there is a finite amount, after all) and everyone except Republicans know our reliance on fossil fuels will eventually exceed the available supply. We have seen many devastating natural disasters in recent years, from typhoons and hurricanes to earthquakes and tornadoes.

General Systems Collapse theory is of particular interest. Cline cites the work of archaeologist Colin Renfrew, who, in “Systems Collapse as Social Transformation” (1979) pointed to four general features of a systems collapse:

  1. collapse of the central administrative organization;
  2. disappearance of the traditional elite class;
  3. collapse of centralized economy; and,
  4. settlement shift and population decline.

Keep in mind, these are not the causes, but the results of a systems collapse. All these were present at the end of the Bronze Age.

Cline looks at the last half-century of the Late Bronze Age, 1225 to 1175 B.C.E. as a “perfect storm.” None of the causes given above could be alone responsible for such a complete collapse, but “they could have combined to produce a scenario in which the repercussions of each factor were magnified, in what some scholars have called a ‘magnifier effect.'”

Imagine dominoes tumbling down, each domino a major civilization, the Mycenaeans, the Minoans, the Hittites, the Canaanites, the Babylonians, and despite Ramses victories, the Egyptians. It was their very interconnectivity that left them vulnerable to the fate of the others.

Cline refers to the highly globalized nature of the Late Bronze Age world, pointing out that one society’s collapse could have triggered the collapse of the next, and the next. As he quips, “they were not too big to fail.” Is ours?

In particular, Cline reminds us that “In our case, since there has never been a civilization in the history of the world that hasn’t collapsed eventually” there is no reason to suppose we are immune. He cites Carol Bell, who reminds us that the LBA’s trading networks are examples of complex systems, and to Ken Dark of the University of Reading, who says, “[T]he more complex a system is, the more liable it is to collapse.”

Can you imagine a system more complex than our own globalized world?

We often dismiss doomsayers as cranks, but there has been plenty of doom to go around in world history and it is not only conspiracy theorists who have noticed. Noted historian Arnold Toynbee put forward the idea in 1931, that Western Civilization was a bubble in the stream of world history. “Isn’t it most probable that our bubble will burst like the rest?”

He was thinking about Rome, another example of systems collapse, but this at a time before the Bronze Age was well known, let alone understood. Our knowledge comes from the Amarna Letters (first published between 1907 and 1915), the Hittite royal archives (discovered in 1906), the Ugarit royal archives (only discovered in 1929), and the story of Ramses III’s victory over the Sea Peoples he accused of bringing down the other great empires, which was not published until the 1930s.

The Great War, said Toynbee, had made people realize ‘that the Western system of society might break down and cease to work.’ In 1961, with nuclear arsenals on the table, he was still not sure it could survive.

And as Cline reminds us, there were some who thought our civilization might be headed down the same path in 2008, if the banking institutions were not bailed out, with the president of the World Bank pointing to a “tipping point” where things spin out of control beyond the ability of governments to control them.

We do not realize how precarious our existence is. We take it for granted. But we are not immune, just as the civilizations of the Late Bronze Age, which had endured so long, were not immune.

As recently as 2012 we dodged a bullet in the form of a coronal mass ejection, which would have devastated our electrical grid, satellites, and of course, the GPS we have come so much to rely on. We would still be recovering from its effects today, possibly for as long as a decade.

What if this were combined with another economic crisis, the effects of drought and water shortages, wars (I think here about the wars Republicans want to rush us into) and rebellions (like ISIL, consequence of those wars), and the other effects of climate change in the form of rising sea levels and erratic weather, and natural disasters? Would our complex systems survive? No civilization endures forever, and as Cline reminds us, it is not so much a question of “if” but of “when.”

If it is not time to start building your survival bunker, or, if you’re rich, a survival condo, at the rate we are destroying our environment, it is past time for some sober reflection, and time to realize that you cannot learn from history, if, like some among us, you are constantly inventing it.

Further reading:

Drake, B.L., The influence of climatic change on the Late Bronze Age Collapse and the Greek Dark Ages, Journal of Archaeological Science (2012), doi:10.1016/j.jas.2012.01.029 “Such climatic pressures would have influenced social tensions, and eventually led to competition for limited resources. This climatic change could have influenced the systems collapse of complex society in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as influence the population declines, urban abandonments, and long-distance migrations associated with the period.”

D. Kaniewski, E. Paulissen, E. Van Campo, H. Weiss, T. Otto, J. Bretschneider, K. Van Lerberghe, Late second-early first millennium BC abrupt climate changes in coastal Syria and their possible significance for the history of the Eastern Mediterranean Quaternary Research 74 (2010), doi:10.1016/j.yqres.2010.07.010 “At the late 13th/early 12th centuries BC period, the climate change may have induced cultural collapse.”

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