Patterns of Civilization Collapse

An unsustainable way of life is bound to end in collapse. Numerous civilizations and empires have met the same end. In this piece, Kara Huntermoon discusses patterns of civilization collapse.

For further reading, check out John Michael Greer on the onset of collapse, Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” the collapse scenarios in the book “Deep Green Resistance,” and Max Wilbert’s recent piece about the collapse of the American empire.

Understanding Patterns of Civilization Collapse

By Kara Huntermoon

Ecology is the basis of all economies. No human economic system can exist without the gifts of  water, land, plants, animals, insects, air, and other members of our ecological communities.  When capitalism treats “natural resources” as free and unlimited, it ignores the fact that these are living, spirit-filled entities who have needs, preferences, and boundaries.  All over the world, we have already crossed their limits.

 ‘Economy’ means how humans meet their daily needs.

Human groups have options about how to meet their daily needs.  Capitalism is only one option.  It is a relatively new and short-lived option which is coming to an end.  Capitalism is inherently oppressive and relies on separating people into constituencies which are given more or less power and privilege.  Capitalism is also inherently destructive to the ecological basis of all life.  It is not possible to have capitalism without oppression and ecological destruction.

Humans need direct relationships with ecology in order to receive feedback about whether their economic activities are enhancing, destroying, or neutral to the systems of life that support daily human needs.  Ecological feedback is often so slow that multiple generations of humans must be engaged in the conversation before the feedback is understood and human communities are able to respond to the information.  The information received through ecological relationships is often coded into religious practices and educational systems, including stories told to children.

‘Civilization’ means a human community organized around cities and their adjacent exploited ecological communities.

When human populations concentrate in cities, large areas of surrounding ecology are required to support urban human life, but the ‘consumers’ are not able to directly listen to the ecological feedback.  Consequently, the human culture becomes disconnected from the information needed to support all life.  Humans throughout time and place have tried organizing in urban centers and importing their needs from their surrounding ecology, including through empire (controlling adjacent ecological communities and importing goods from them).  

No civilization has ever been sustainable. Civilizations collapse when the human-ecological relationship breaks down far enough for the ecology to be unable to continue supporting the urban infrastructure and population.  Cities are not a sustainable way to organize human communities and ecologies. When city-states are organized into empires, the civilization collapses unevenly.  In some areas, life seems to continue in a way that would support the city continuing.  In other areas, cities collapse and are abandoned earlier in the widespread empire’s collapse.

‘Collapse’ means that social and physical infrastructure is abandoned or destroyed as it becomes obvious that it is obsolete.   The amount of true wealth available from ecological relationships is no longer enough to maintain the unsustainable infrastructure.  The amount of physical infrastructure decreases, the overall population of humans decreases, and a greater proportion of the human population returns to a direct relationship with ecological communities (subsistence agriculture, foraging, hunting).

The Early Stages of Civilization Collapse.
During the early stages of an empire’s collapse, people flee collapsing cities and move to other cities that are not yet collapsing.  Sometimes those cities collapse because of empire-related economic shifts (as in the “Rust Belt” cities of the US), sometimes because of ecological destruction (as in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or Paradise after the Camp Creek Fire).  Regardless of the reason, the cities are not rebuilt because the ecological basis for creating true wealth (the capacity to meet human needs) is unable to support the rebuilding.

Later stages of collapse.

During later stages of an empire’s collapse, people flee cities to return to the countryside where they can grow food and attempt to meet their needs.  There is a steep learning curve while the relationship communication between humans and their ecology is not robust enough to support the current human population size.  People die because they do not know how to relate to the plants, animals, soils, and waters who support life.  The conversation also begins with the ecological communities running at a deficit, impoverished by the collapsing civilization’s exploitation.

It takes time for recovery, relationship building, and forgiveness.

Historically speaking, the average time it takes a civilization to collapse is about 300 years.  Civilizations collapse in a stair-step pattern, with large-scale economic shocks followed by partial recoveries.  In our recent history, collapse shocks happened in the 1970s (“Energy Crisis”),  in 2007 during the sub-prime mortgage crisis (“The Great Recession”), and now during the Covid-19 Pandemic (“The Global Downturn of 2020”).

Most of us remember the “Great Recession” and the Occupy Movement, and we have heard federal officials claim that the economy recovered from that and was booming (“the best ever” before Covid-19).  Concurrent with these claims, visible markers of decline have led to an increase of the number of homeless people on the streets in most major cities, including Eugene. Buildings are demolished without funding to replace them, including Eugene’s City Hall. There is  increasing personal and government debt and decreasing possibility of gaining stable well-paid employment, even with a college degree.

It is reasonable to assume that we are in the early stages of our civilization’s collapse, and that we will continue to see stair-step degradations in physical and social infrastructure.

Considering history, it is likely we will have a partial economic recovery after the pandemic ends.  Considering climate change, we need to be prepared for further rapid down-steps as ecological shocks increase and spread.  We may not live to see the end of our civilization, but we will see continued disorder, political circuses, domestic and international violence, and rapid economic shifts as a ‘new normal.’

Within seven generations, our descendents will see the end of our civilization.

Marked by a complete abandonment of city infrastructure and a return to direct relationship with ecological economies.  There is much we can do now to prepare them. For the purpose of our own preparation for the future, we should assume that there will never be a recovery. This is it.  Things will never “return to normal.” We are not going to get through this and continue our previous lives. We cannot expect our children to have access to the same privileges we have enjoyed.

How can we impact the way our communities respond to the Covid-19 Pandemic and the resulting economic crisis?  In what ways can we support and organize alternatives to the current economic system and its inherent systems of oppression?  How can we organize our own lives to be fully in service of sustainability and liberation?  How can we reach for people we love, people in our neighborhoods, people in our workplaces, and model for them the changes we wish to see?

The pandemic will bring up early feelings that are not about present time.   

Unhealed emotional scars from childhood can confuse us as we try to think about responding to novel situations. To help free our minds of early distresses, we can spend time journalling, talking to trusted loved ones, or meditating on the following: In what ways do you try to avoid suffering? What suffering of your earlier life do you never want to experience again? Go back there and give that young person a hand. You survived that. You won. It’s actually over, and you won. I know it doesn’t feel like you won; it feels like you barely escaped and you are irreparably harmed, no longer intact. But that is just a feeling.

The truth is that you won.

If you can make friends with those feelings―of loss, isolation, hopelessness, discouragement, terror, powerlessness―you will be able to notice that you are intact. You survived. You won. You get to have a big life now. You don’t have to settle for what you can salvage. You get to have people close-in who can fully support you.

We get to work together to make big lives for ourselves.

It is possible to see the current pandemic, economic collapse, and climate emergency as a fascinating challenge that will never stop giving us meaningful work to do.

It is possible to feel satisfied that we are fulfilling our reasons for coming to this life, that we are giving fully of our gifts to our communities.

Let us reach for each other, reach for full acceptance of ourselves at all stages of our lives, and reach for implementing our visions of a sustainable society in full communication with its ecological community.

Kara Huntermoon is one of seven co-owners of Heart-Culture Farm Community, near Eugene, Oregon. She spends most of her time in unpaid labor in service of community: child-raising, garden-growing, and emotion/relationship management among the community residents. She also teaches Liberation Listening, a form of co-counseling that focuses on ending oppression.

Featured image: Deep Green Resistance food distribution in response to the CoViD-19 pandemic.

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8 thoughts on “Patterns of Civilization Collapse”

  1. Unfortunately, Kara appears to be living in a utopia of the mind, where the collapse of civilization is a gentle thing, nudging us back into balance with Nature. She sees our civilization collapsing over 7 generations, which we can prepare for if we “reach for each other, reach for full acceptance of ourselves…”

    Since there is no polite way to say this, I’ll be blunt: This is psychobabble — a touchy-feely fantasy that we can prepare for capitalism’s apocalypse by holding hands around the campfire and singing folk songs.

    With continued scientific warnings of a population growth of two billion within 30 years, a planet unlivable for 3 billion of them within the same time period (due to climate change), and a 40% global water shortage by 2030, most people today will live — and, in many cases, die — to see civilization’s collapse. And it will not come by people gradually moving back to the land.

    If we’re lucky (relatively speaking), collapse will come by mass starvation, global revolution, and an unhappy chaos of deprivation for the survivors. If we’re not so lucky, it will happen something like this:

    Eight years ago, scientists predicted that by now, the aquifers that make agriculture possible in 20 nations — including, China, India, and the U.S., the world’s top 3 grain producers — would have encountered serious or total shortages, resulting in something like a global famine. Fortunately, they were somewhat pessimistic, and the doomsday date has since been moved out another 10 years.

    Let’s suppose it happens in China first. A nuclear power with ICBMs demands that Canada, Australia, Russia, and the U.S. hand over half of their grain, or Vancouver, Sydney, Vladivostok, or Los Angeles will be taken off the map. The “have” nations do not fully comply, and China either fulfills its promise, or there is a pre-emptive nuclear strike by the U.S. or Russia. Either way, the other side calls the bluff, and the world is annihilated.

    There are somewhat milder versions of this scenario, of course (India’s water runs out first, and the nuclear confrontation is regional rather than global, etc.) But you get the picture.

    If collective humanity had half a brain, we would take the following steps immediately, and forego the worst scenarios: The governments of all countries explain to their people the simple, suicidal arithmetic of perpetual growth on a finite planet. Government aid and jobs are cut off to people with more than 2 children (this has already been done in 2 Indian states, with the immediate result of zero population growth), with incentives for couples who have 1 child or none.

    Farming of frivolous and water-intensive crops is banned (cattle, wine grapes, and almonds come to mind), and sustainable irrigation quotas are imposed elsewhere. International trade in non-essential products is phased out over 10 years, reversing globalization. And, in the biggest awakening to reality of all, profit is recognized as the essential component of economic growth, and all enterprises above the mom-and-pop level become non-profits as a matter of law.

    That’s if we had half a brain, of course. By the evidence to date, however, the search for intelligent life on Earth continues, and collapse remains in the forecast.

    1. Hello Mark,
      If you re-read my article, you will see that I clearly state the expectation that many people will suffer and die during collapse, and that our lives will be characterized by increasing chaos and suffering.

      I do not expect any rational top-down government/corporate action to prevent suffering or prolong civilization. Fantasizing that that might happen is a lesson in futility.

      Instead, I encourage people to work on clearing the emotional scars that stop us from taking action ourselves. There are many effective actions that each of us can take to respond to and ease the transition away from civilization on a local level. These include learning to grow food, creating relationship networks for mutual aid, reclaiming ancestral skills for survival, and working to restore health to our local ecosystem/community of non-human life.

      There are NO actions that any of us can take to prevent the collapse itself, since the end of an unsustainable system is inevitable. That is the definition of “unsustainable”–it cannot continue. There are also many things that are out of our control, like nuclear war, large-scale fires, droughts, and storms, and the actions of multinational corporations.

      If we give up our own power and go along with the system, and complain that only system-wide changes can do anything effective against the big problems we face, we are like most people in society. But our feelings of powerlessness are not rational. Each of us can do what one person can do–and we should be doing it!

      A forest is made by many individual trees, each one doing what one tree can do to make a forest. If a tree is surrounded by concrete, bathed in car exhaust, and sprayed with chemicals, it does not give up. It remembers, deep in its heart, its own purpose. It continues doing what one tree can do to make a forest.

      We, too, can remember our purpose for being on this planet. Not to destroy, not to endure, but to love. To work for a better world. The world needs us. And it matters what we do (or don’t do)–regardless of how powerless we feel.

  2. India’s population in 1950 was 376 million. Today it’s 1.378 billion. The rate of increase started to decline in 1983, but is still increasing at 1% (14 million) per year. The only states where it isn’t increasing are the two that have restricted benefits for the parents of 3 or more.

  3. Is there concrete evidence that the environmental situation has improved in those states *as a result of these policies*?

    1. Hello Mark and I,
      I am frankly horrified at the thought that punishing parents with multiple children would be considered as a rational top-down policy to address collapse. I realize this has been done in China for many years with the One Child Policy, and I even wrote a high school research paper advocating for the One Child Policy. But that was before I was a mother.

      My horror stems from the knowledge that “reducing the birth rate” through policies like those that you suggest, Mark, means targeting women. There is no top-down policy anywhere in the world that forcibly sterilizes men through vasectomies once they have fathered a certain number of children.

      Also, those same sexist policies are widely instituted in ways that align with other systems of oppression. For example, Black and Indigenous women are more likely to be forcibly sterilized (or manipulated into sterilization) in the US, compared to white women. Impoverished and mentally ill women are also more likely to be forcibly sterilized, compared to middle class and wealthy women.

      The reality of women’s lives is far more complicated than these policies suggest. In reality, the most effective ways to reduce the number of children women have is to increase women’s education and create easy access to birth control, including abortion. Increasing women’s equality, including reducing domestic violence and sexual assault, and ending policies that give men control over women, also serve to reduce the birth rate.

      Sustainable societies that I have studied do not ignore, sideline, or belittle the needs of women. This is one reason Deep Green Resistance is a feminist organization: because living on the Earth in a sustainable way goes hand in hand with respecting the needs of women (and children).

  4. “Historically speaking, the average time it takes a civilization to collapse is about 300 years. Civilizations collapse in a stair-step pattern, with large-scale economic shocks followed by partial recoveries.”

    If this is how the collapse of the world-wide techno-industrial system will happen, then we might as well all give up. There won’t be anything left on the planet worth living in if the techno-system continues for 300 more years! Let alone 100. Here we’ve mostly accounted for the environmental devastation that is in store for us if things continue for much longer–we have said nothing of the innumerable SOCIAL devastations that are in store if the techno-system is allowed to continue (loss of freedom, dignity, autonomy).

    The good news is this conception of a protracted collapse (50-300 years) is out of touch with reality. The world-wide technological system is highly complex and tightly-coupled, and highly artificial, unlike the previous collapses this author looks to for reference. It is absolutely without precedent. We can’t look to history alone, we have to comprehend the unique nature of our current global industrial civilization. Student of complex artificial systems understand how rapidly and systemic collapse of those systems are. Likewise the collapse of the modern techno-system will inevitably be rapid. Very rapid.

    1. Hi Ari,
      For the sake of all life on this planet, I hope you are right that civilization will collapse more quickly this time. However, I see a lot of people failing to act because they are waiting for “the collapse.” Or if they do act, they are preparing for “the collapse” as if it will be a single large shock that shuts down everything at once.

      I even know people who are confident they are prepared for “the collapse” because they have two years of food stored for their family–in an urban home, where they spend their time driving, looking at screens, and working for a corporation. What will they eat when their food runs out? They do not know how to grow food, nor do they have access to land for farming. And food is just one of the things we must be prepared to provide for ourselves (for our local communities) when the systems of international civilization shut down.

      The important point of the historical timeframe is to notice that this IS the collapse. We are currently living in a collapsing society. This is what collapse looks like: market crashes, the Occupy Movement, the coronavirus pandemic, increasing inequality, increasing homelessness, climate refugees, droughts, storms, fires, Black Lives Matters, President Donald Trump, the Proud Boys, the January 6th Insurrection, supply chain shortages, inflation. It is simultaneously very quick, and not quick enough.

      It is time to act now. Not to stockpile food, but to replace civilization with systems of mutual care. To create an ecologically integrated economy where we increase the resilience and abundance of life in the places where we take what we need for human sustenance. The science is available. There are successful models of sustainable living from indigenous nations on all continents.

      It is time to abandon the sinking ship. We must accept that we are living on this land in the wrong way, and learn to assimilate to the needs of nature.

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