Colosseo Enigmatico, by Stuck In Customs
Why do civilizations collapse? I would posit that they, like humans, simply get old and die. They get cancer.
1/3 of women and 1/2 of men get cancer as they age. Broadly, cancer is when a group of cells exhibits uncontrolled growth, gradually killing the host. One theory of why civilizations collapse is much the same.
Joseph Tainter calls this the diminishing returns to complexity. Basically, while things are good, a society develops a huge bureaucracy and elite around their resources. As diminishing returns set in (more work to get less stuff, like ecstasy dosage), the bureaucracy and elite doesn’t shrink, and you eventually start getting negative returns. That elite doesn’t scale down, however, it clings on for dear life until the whole thing topples down.
I haven’t read him, but apparently Arnold Toynbee went further and said that ‘The cause of the fall of a civilization occurred when a cultural elite became a parasitic elite, leading to the rise of internal and external proletariats.’
In a more modern example, Jack Goldstone has said:
In short a key difficulty faced by regimes in decline was selfish elites. Nations that were the richest countries in their day suffered fiscal crises because elites preferred to protect their private wealth, even at the expense of a deterioration of state finances, public services, and long-term international strength.
This rather pointedly alludes to the modern US Republican party. The broader take-away here is that some subset of a civilization starts growing out of control, leading to internal contradictions and collapse.
While I broadly get this theory, I still didn’t really get why. I mean, this explanation is more of a how. Then I was in the shower and thinking, wait a minute, that sounds like cancer. With age, some cells grow out of control and kill the whole thing.
While the why of cancer is still unexplained, it may be that the same natural pressures of aging and disintegration apply to any sort of identity, be it personal or corporate or civilizational. It still doesn’t quite explain the why, but it does lump it with a broader question of why stuff declines in general. Or perhaps it’s just another metaphor. Why do civilizations collapse? Because they get cancer.