“The image of lost civilizations is compelling; cities buried by drifting sands or tangled jungle, ruin and desolation where once there were people and abundance.” No this is not a recent news headline, but the opening sentence of Joseph Tainter’s book on the collapse of complex societies, published in 1988 and one of my favorite books in my early archaeology days. Tainter continues: “How could flourishing civilizations have existed in what are now such devastated circumstances? Did people degrade the environment, did the climate change, or did civil conflict lead to collapse…the implication is clear: civilizations are fragile, impermanent things.”

Interestingly, his book is an important one of only a handful I know on the topic. Maybe the reason for this is that we try to ignore this reality and assume, like Tainter states, that we prefer to “believe that modern civilization, with its scientific and technological capacity, its energy sources, and its knowledge of economics and history, should be able to survive whatever crisis ancient and simpler societies found insurmountable. We prefer to study the development of societies to ever more complexities, Societies become more complex as they try to solve problems. For instance the Romans ‘solved’ the problem of declining agricultural production in the face of its rising population by conquering neighbors and appropriate their energy surplus. Such practices of imperialism and colonialism are still the order of the day, a mainstay of human history.

Reading the news these days makes you wonder how long it will take before balance of power will shift, when will current societies implode. For long, the western world could divert attention away from climate change effects, from social inequalities, but this year seems different, global pandemic, and rampant wildfires hit close to everybody’s home. People ordered to stay home, people forced to move. 

While resourced depleted, a common characteristic behavior of societies in decline is what is known as conspicuous consumption, making a show of wealth, of what is left, to display confidence of economic and political power. 

Waking up on Sunday morning and opening the paper then, two articles that immediately catch my eye.

The first is an article in a series on climate crisis migration, and this time focused on migration from within the US, raising the question, where will people go?

mu last flight during COID times, from New York to Amsterdam…

Apparently people go nowhere, The second article is maybe even more shocking. As we are all made aware that our flying behavior is a major cause of or our rising temperatures, some people miss the flying very much that  airlines have successfully begun to offer flights that return to the same place as it departs from. 

I hardly dare to ask: the Collapse of Complex societies, are we experiencing it in action?