The Lifespan of Ancient Civilizations Detailed in a Handy Infographic: Are We Headed Towards Our Own Collapse?

Any­one liv­ing in the West today sure­ly feels they’ve heard quite enough about its decline. (Unless, of course, they’re fans of 1980s punk rock.) Giv­en how long civ­i­liza­tions usu­al­ly out­live indi­vid­u­als, how can an indi­vid­ual grasp the prospects for longevi­ty of the civ­i­liza­tion in which they find them­selves? His­to­ry, a dis­ci­pline which has long had every­thing to do with chart­ing the rise and fall of set­tle­ments, cul­tures, and empires, can pro­vide the con­text nec­es­sary for under­stand­ing, but more of it has been writ­ten than even a human with the lifes­pan of a civ­i­liza­tion can digest. Come to pro­vide some clar­i­ty is Luke Kemp of Cam­bridge’s Cen­tre for the Study of Exis­ten­tial Risk, cre­ator of the info­graph­ic above. View it here in a larg­er for­mat, cour­tesy of the BBC.

“There is no strict def­i­n­i­tion of civil­i­sa­tion,” Kemp admits, “nor an over­ar­ch­ing data­base of their births and deaths.” This forced him to come up with his own def­i­n­i­tion for this info­graph­ic: “as a soci­ety with agri­cul­ture, mul­ti­ple cities, mil­i­tary dom­i­nance in its geo­graph­i­cal region and a con­tin­u­ous polit­i­cal struc­ture. Giv­en this def­i­n­i­tion, all empires are civil­i­sa­tions, but not all civil­i­sa­tions are empires.”

What comes at the end of vir­tu­al­ly all of them, he calls a col­lapse: “a rapid and endur­ing loss of pop­u­la­tion, iden­ti­ty and socio-eco­nom­ic com­plex­i­ty. Pub­lic ser­vices crum­ble and dis­or­der ensues as gov­ern­ment los­es con­trol of its monop­oly on vio­lence.”

When civ­i­liza­tions have col­lapsed, as they’ve done with fair fre­quen­cy over the past five mil­len­nia, “some recov­ered or trans­formed, such as the Chi­nese and Egypt­ian. Oth­er col­laps­es were per­ma­nent, as was the case of East­er Island. Some­times the cities at the epi­cen­tre of col­lapse are revived, as was the case with Rome. In oth­er cas­es, such as the Mayan ruins, they are left aban­doned as a mau­soleum for future tourists.” The Roman Empire, “the vic­tim of many ills includ­ing over­ex­pan­sion, cli­mat­ic change, envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion and poor lead­er­ship” before its sack­ing by the Visig­oths in the year 410 and the Van­dals in 455, has come up espe­cial­ly often in cur­rent dis­cus­sions about the fate of the Amer­i­ca-led West­ern — or even glob­al — order.

The Roman Empire, as we can see on Kem­p’s info­graph­ic, last­ed 525 years: much longer than the Akka­di­an Empire, which last­ed 187 years, but less than half as long as the African Aksum­ite Empire, which last­ed 1100. “We may be more tech­no­log­i­cal­ly advanced now,” Kemp writes,” but this gives lit­tle ground to believe that we are immune to the threats that undid our ances­tors. Our new­found tech­no­log­i­cal abil­i­ties even bring new, unprece­dent­ed chal­lenges to the mix. ” Kemp names among the pos­si­ble fac­tors in the next big col­lapse cli­mate change, envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion, inequal­i­ty and oli­garchy, as well as plain ran­dom­ness and bad luck. Giv­en the inevitabil­i­ty of col­lapse, per­haps we can only hope that our civ­i­liza­tion is ulti­mate­ly suc­ceed­ed by a supe­ri­or one. But then, Kemp adds, ” “We will only march into col­lapse if we advance blind­ly. We are only doomed if we are unwill­ing to lis­ten to the past.”

via the BBC

Relat­ed Con­tent:

M.I.T. Com­put­er Pro­gram Alarm­ing­ly Pre­dicts in 1973 That Civ­i­liza­tion Will End by 2040

In 1704, Isaac New­ton Pre­dicts the World Will End in 2060

The Rise & Fall of the Romans: Every Year Shown in a Time­lapse Map Ani­ma­tion (753 BC ‑1479 AD)

The West­ern Tra­di­tion by Eugen Weber: 52 Video Lec­tures

Stew­art Brand’s List of 76 Books for Rebuild­ing Civ­i­liza­tion

The His­to­ry of Civ­i­liza­tion Mapped in 13 Min­utes: 5000 BC to 2014 AD

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Dan Miller says:

    re: »>The Roman Empire, “the vic­tim of many ills includ­ing over­ex­pan­sion, cli­mat­ic change, envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion and poor lead­er­ship”«<

    Every­one has his own analy­sis into why the Roman empire col­lapsed, and all are accu­rate to some degree. So with­out debat­ing Mr. Mar­shal­l’s list, I add that the Roman empire failed because Rome’s cen­tral­ized gov­ern­ment col­lapsed in a swamp of cor­rup­tion, bribery and inep­ti­tude. By 455 AD (Mr. Marhsal­l’s mile­post), the empire’s gov­ern­ment in Rome had come to be feared by what was left of the plebs, and the tax col­lec­tor most of all was to be avoid­ed at all costs. As for the enor­mous­ly wealthy Roman landown­ers, gov­ern­ment was to be ignored at all costs, until anoth­er round of debt-for­give­ness was inau­gu­rat­ed or until the local rep­re­sen­ta­tive could be bribed away.

    The com­mon folk, the poor and land­less turned to the nobles for pro­tec­tion, and the nobles pro­tect­ed from plebs from the tax col­lec­tor and the mil­i­tary recruiters. That set the stage for the feu­dal sys­tem that defined Europe for the next mil­len­ni­um.

  • Dennis says:

    I could­n’t find a ver­sion that iden­ti­fied all of the civ­i­liza­tions on the chart. I expect­ed one of them to have a rollover ID fea­ture, but appar­ent­ly not. Very inter­est­ing but a lit­tle dis­ap­point­ing to see labels only for a select few.

  • Nicola Larosa says:

    Den­nis, the linked BBC arti­cle has a link in the image cap­tion:

    “Here’s the full list of the civil­i­sa­tions dis­played above.”

  • oroo says:

    You have packed into this dia­tribe which can be fur­ther elu­ci­dat­ed in Asi­mov’s Guide to the Bible, way too much!

    Also, most of this (regard­ing gov­ern­ment) can be parsed with the text, Para­bles as Sub­ver­sive Speech…

    Pro­found­ly, the thread run­ning through Asi­mov’s work is that man has been con­quer­ing man (one anoth­er) for over eight thou­sand years; I want to find the cause for this para­dox with di-syn­chro­nous time causal­i­ty.

    Ger­ma­nia: The Bat­tle Against Rome — Doc­u­men­tary

    It is in the nature of sub­nu­clear affects (con­stituents) which are eter­nal as we know from a big bang hypoth­e­sis, the stan­dard mod­el of what is known about phys­i­cal immi­nent real­i­ty and our epis­te­mo­log­i­cal prob­lem of per­cep­tion, that con­scious­ness and the uncon­scious are the per­pet­u­al dia­logue by which the con­strast between the macro­scop­ic and micro­scop­ic main­tain dis­tinct­ly, this dif­fer­ent time valence of the uni­verse as space, every­thing with­in and sur­round­ing space; this valence between mat­ter and non-mat­ter is di-syn­chro­nous time…

    Net­works and Pow­er from the Freema­sons to Face­book

    This Incred­i­ble 4K Video of the Sun Took NASA 300 Hours to Make

    Ency­clo­pe­dia Bri­tan­ni­ca
    [paintiress­es not the Now­ness]


    (5:55 Di-syn­chro­nous spin & tack)
    Quan­tum Mechan­ics: Schrödinger’s dis­cov­ery of the shape of atoms

    The pro­tein fold­ing prob­lem: a major conun­drum of sci­ence: Ken Dill at TEDxS­BU

    The Uni­verse of Minds ROMAN V. YAMPOLSKIY

    Silent Weapons For Qui­et Wars Doc­u­ment — Full Read

  • BONI ADITYA says:

    Where are the great­est and the longest Civ­i­liza­tions of India and Chi­na? It is as if they nev­er exist­ed or if they did, they nev­er mat­tered to the Eng­lish speak­ing world. The west is known for its Hubris! But please draw two very long lines below the graph and name one the Chi­nese and the oth­er Indi­an, for name­sake!

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