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If There’s One Lesson History Makes Clear, It’s That Societies Have a Shelf-Life.
There’s still little agreement on what caused the fall of the Roman Empire. It’s commonly referred to as a gradual decline. The Third Reich ended in the flames of World War II, although German society collapsed well before that with the rise of Nazism.
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Dynasties across ancient China have come and gone, the Maya seemed to disappear overnight, and the British Empire just seemed to fade away. Societies have a shelf-life and while some are measured in thousands of years, others come and go in a generation.
What is a Societal Collapse?
Societal collapse is generally defined as the disintegration of human societies along with their life support systems. According to a recent study by The University of Maryland, “The stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity and the economic stratification of society into Elites and Masses is the primary cause of societal collapse.”
Contrary to some reports, NASA did not sponsor this study although some statistical tools developed by NASA were used for analysis in the study.
In simpler terms, societal collapse is often caused by a growing separation between the haves and the have nots and a failure to feed the people. Examples include the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, The British Revolution, and the American Revolution. But in the cases of many societies, their failure has been due to any number of other probable causes.
Other Probable Causes
Disasters are often the trigger for the collapse of society. Some are natural disasters, others are manmade. For any natural disaster to cause a societal collapse, the event has to be either catastrophic or of long duration. The disappearance of the Mayan civilization in Yucatan within a generation was believed to be caused by drought. The same is true for the Anasazi in the Southwestern U.S.
Manmade disasters have also had an impact. Most every war has had overwhelming consequences not only for societies but the ever-evolving shape of the geopolitical map and the global distribution and redistribution of power.
Another set of triggers for a societal collapse are systemic factors. These include population size, geography, political stability, natural resources, alliances, infrastructure, and education.
A weakness defined by one or more of those factors exposes a society to greater risk when confronted by a disaster or significant challenge of any type.
Significant Natural Disasters
Depending on the systemic factors defining a society, the following natural disasters can cause a collapse that radically affects the population.
In countries with a large population and significant geographical size, an earthquake tends to be a localized event. Resources from unaffected parts of the society are offered as aid and assistance and the disaster is eventually relieved.
Smaller countries geographically and with other systemic issues may be severely challenged by a catastrophic earthquake, especially if it strikes one of the largest and key population centers.
Related: 35 Tips to Survive an Earthquake
2. Volcanic Eruption
This is another natural disaster that tends to be localized but the possibility of a super-volcano, which is believed to potentially affect a significant geographic area measured in hundreds of miles if not thousands, could collapse a societal structure regards of that country or societies systemic strength.
The tsunamis that struck Indonesia in 2004 and Japan in 2011 made a definite impression on the world as a news event but did not cause a societal collapse. However, there is a significant potential threat that has been identified by a geological factor in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa.
One of the islands has a large rift down its side. An earthquake or volcanic eruption could cause this rift to separate sending half of the island crashing into the Atlantic Ocean. This would cause a tsunami. Some estimates put the height of the tsunami wave at 300 feet with its destination on the East Coast of the United States.
Other sources say that estimate is over-exaggerated, but if true, it would severely tax even a country like the United States regardless of its systemic strength.
Droughts are common everywhere. At one time or another at someplace on the planet, an area is experiencing a drought. It’s when the drought duration grows into years that the impacts become significant. Many historians believe that numerous civilizations ceased to exist due to drought.
The Dust Bowl that swept the plains of the U.S. in the 1930’s was due to a long duration drought. The fact that it happened at the height of the Depression had definite effects on many millions of Americans. It wasn’t a societal collapse but the effects on American society in terms of life and lifestyle were significant.
The question that looms today is the degree to which climate change can cause droughts to spread and extend their duration. Time will tell.
5. Meteorite or Asteroid strike
It sounds like the stuff of science-fiction. Tell that to the dinosaurs. It’s a proven fact that an asteroid strike 65 million years ago in the Gulf of Mexico caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. Dinosaurs may not have had much of a society but when you’re talking about a global, extinction-level event, the health of any society is the least of anyone’s worries.
Dinosaurs aside, the threat is real. It’s why NASA has dedicated satellites and telescopes around the world to track objects in space as they approach the Earth. The University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS 1 telescope on Haleakala is solely dedicated to a nightly search for Near-Earth Objects. In fact, a comet from outside our solar system has just been identified and recently circled the sun.
A pandemic is a catastrophic epidemic. The Spanish flu of 1918 was a pandemic. It affected most of North America and Europe and it’s estimated more than half a billion people were infected and 20,000,000 people died.
Some historians believe it was the reason World War I ended. Soldiers in the trenches lived in very cramped and unsanitary conditions and the disease was highly contagious as an airborne virus.
The Black Plague of the Dark Ages is believed to have wiped out 1/3 of the world’s population. That may point to the simplest definition of societal collapse: Dark Ages.
Pandemics continue to stay on the radar screen at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). We still hear the occasional story about a Bird Flu scare or another Ebola outbreak in Africa. The greatest threat from a pandemic is as a bio-terror weapon.
Regardless of the global, systemic strength of society, a new pandemic would represent a true catastrophe.
It sounds like a thing of the past but it’s a very real threat even today. Blight is a rampant disease affecting specific crops on a massive scale. It’s usually the result of a fungus or insect.
The Irish Potato famine was the result of a fungus that devasted Ireland driving many people in its society to emigrate to the United States. Trees across North America have been decimated from Dutch Elm disease to the Emerald Ash Borer.
The contemporary solution offered to offset blight are GMO’s or genetically modified organisms. The danger is that the biodiversity of strains within any plant family is reduced with one GMO strain emerging as the only variety planted and harvested resulting in a monoculture.
A blight unique to that strain could cause a sudden and catastrophic crop failure of any entire food source. Any failure of a significant food source like corn, soybeans or wheat puts an immediate burden on any society.
Significant Manmade Disasters
The cause of manmade disasters varies widely from human error to corruption to terrorism. War is the most significant manmade disaster, but other human factors often drive actions from greed to hatred, bigotry, racism and other predispositions.
Society is not without its flaws, but there are some examples of significant manmade disasters that have in fact caused a societal collapse and could do so again in the future.
8. Human Error
A Broken Arrow is the code-word for the crash of a plane carrying nuclear weapons. It has happened on more than three dozen occasions and it’s believed that many more Broken Arrow events have occurred that are unreported.
This isn’t about nuclear war this is about human error causing a disaster that could have significant and lingering effects across a wide area of any country in the world.
A Meltdown occurs when a nuclear reactor used for the generation of electricity is not sufficiently cooled and the heat from the nuclear reactor causes the apparatus to melt. The result is often a massive release of radioactive steam into the surrounding area.
Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima are familiar names for meltdown incidents. The worst was Chernobyl and the effects on the population were considerate. None caused a total societal breakdown, but a catastrophic meltdown could have wide-ranging effects.
9. Civil War
Civil war typically begins as an uprising of a civilian population against a government for a variety of reasons. The duration of a civil war is what has the greatest impact on society.
Significant civil wars that have had profound impacts on societies include the American civil war, the Spanish civil war, civil war in Cambodia at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, and civil wars that continue to this day in countries around the world.
10. Economic collapse
Economic collapse occurred around the world in 1929 and dominated societies throughout the 1930s. Greed and lack of government regulation are the two most common causes.
The failure of Savings and Loan institutions in the U.S. could have resulted in a major economic collapse if not for a government bailout that American taxpayers are paying for to this day.
Terrorism is nothing new and organized terrorism when funded by governments to pursue an extremist agenda have and continue to have profound effects on societies worldwide.
Bioterrorism could have the unintended consequence (or intended) of causing deaths on the level of the black plague. The result would be a cascade of systemic failures affecting the global economy, food supply manufacturing and distribution, and a total breakdown of fundamental life support systems.
Chemical terrorism usually falls in the category of a localized incident, but the effects can be wide-ranging when implemented on a massive scale as evidenced in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, the battlefields of World War I, Syria under the Assad regime.
12. Electromagnetic Pulse
EMP is an electromagnetic pulse that’s a by-product of a nuclear detonation. The blast and fallout tend to be the primary concern related to any nuclear explosion, but the EMP will literally fry electronics and can spread over a thousand miles from the blast.
EMP can also originate from space, specifically the sun. Regardless of the source, the result of an electromagnetic pulse would be total grid failure, computer failure, loss of most communication, loss of most broadcast capabilities, loss of e-commerce, and even the failure of fundamental transportation. Society wouldn’t collapse. It would crumble.
This is the most devastating manmade disaster and in every incident, the society within a country or culture was severely affected and forever changed. The extent of the societal collapse is proportional to the level of destruction and the duration of the war.
There Are Few Solutions
Every effort is usually made to prevent, forestall or remedy any threat to society. Unfortunately, some effects are gradual and not recognized until the damage has been done. In other incidents, the effects are immediate and the ability of any society to cope depends on the will and resourcefulness of the population, and time.
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