• Issue 53 / January - March 2006

    A Rationale for the Collapse of Civilizations

    Firat Kocol

    Any observant individual walking among the ruins of an ancient city is immediately faced with the following question: “How did the once magnificent civilization that ruled this place, that built this city, end like this?” The same person will certainly generalize his observation to the whole of world history and notice that no civilization, ever, was able to hold on to its powerful status among other nations. It appears that each one of them, like a human being, was destined to be born, age and die. This observation may go against our intuition. We expect that once a civilization becomes powerful, it will use its power to stay dominant. But somehow, this happens not to be the case. To name the most quoted examples, the civilizations of the Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Olmecs, Romans, Mongols, and Ottomans, all of which were deemed indestructible, fell one after another, leaving us in awe and puzzled. However, the question of “What went wrong?” is much more important than satisfying curiosity: Thousands of years later, will another observant individual walk among the ruins of the cities in which we are living built by our civilization? Or can we learn from the mistakes of the extinct civilizations and avoid their fate?

    Qur’anic Perspective

    At this point it would be interesting to look at what Ali Unal has to say as to why no past civilization could resist decadence and time’s corrosive power. His approach refers more to the individual and free will, rather than visible causes:1

    . . . [C]ontrary to the fatalism of all other philosophies, including even Ibn Khaldun’s, the Qur’an stresses the individual’s free choice and moral conduct. Although the Divine Will, as emphasized in the Qur’an, could be regarded in some respects as the counterpart of Hegel’s Geist or as other philosophies’ absolute and irresistible laws of history, the Qur’an never denies human free will

    . . . . Ibn Khaldun, Toynbee, Spengler, and other philosophers of history formed a mistaken conception of history because they did not try to discover the real dynamics of historical movements. Rather, they sought to explain the apparent causes behind a civilization’s establishment, flourishing, and decay. Whoever looks to the past will arrive at the same conclusions. But just because no community has remained at its peak this does not mean that this is an inevitable end or a determinist grip on the fate of each nation. Past civilizations collapsed because they did not heed the warnings of what had happened to earlier peoples. Accepting historical determinism causes us to nullify free will and consider the warnings and advice found in the Divine Scriptures and social sciences as useless and absurd.

    This is strongly confirmed by the Qur’an in the following verses:

    . . . surely God does not change the condition of a people until they change their own condition. (Rad 13:11)

    . . . God never changes the grace He has bestowed on any people until they first change that which is in their hearts. (Anfal 8:53)

    Theories concerning the collapse of civilizations

    There are many theories concerning the collapse of civilizations, but of course, if a theory does not conform to reality, it is worth nothing. In this article, I will first give a brief account of widely held beliefs about the collapse of civilizations, explain the weaknesses of these theories, and then give a rationale that I believe better explains the historical data we have. As for most social problems, we will perhaps never know the truth about why societies collapse. However, the stakes at hand are so high that we must make every effort to understand, and to an extent, solve this problem.

    The most common explanation for such collapses is some insurmountable natural disaster, like an epidemic, hurricane, drought, or earthquake that leads to the demise of a civilization by killing the population and crippling the economy. Widely-cited examples are the eruption of the volcano in Thera that preceded the collapse of the Minoan civilization, the malaria epidemic in the Roman Empire or earthquakes in Mesoamerican societies. These arguments, which are very appealing to our human nature, that desires simple explanations for all questions, are in fact very unsound. Societies constantly experience such disasters, yet survive them. The potato blight in Ireland in 1845 halved the island’s population but there was no cease of sociopolitical complexity as a result of the disaster. It is strange to think that the Roman Empire, which survived many disasters before, including the eruption of Pompei in AD 79, fell to malaria. We should consider that complex civilizations are designed to absorb such disasters, and they do. Just recalling the constant earthquakes in Japan added to the loss of a world war with two nuclear bombs exploding in the heart of two large cities will sufficiently prove this notion. Japanese civilization did not collapse. On the contrary, it is one of the strongest economies in today’s international arena. It is peculiar then that some civilizations are no longer able to fight such disasters. However, an act of God can certainly collectively destroy any civilization, as it did in the past like Sodom and Gomorrah. This is clearly narrated in the divine scriptures.

    The other common explanations for such collapses are intruders and competition with other civilizations. The barbarian tribes, which brought the end of Rome in the fifth century, and the Mongolians that invaded Baghdad in the thirteenth century are clear examples of the intruder argument. This argument suffers from the realization that civilizations are attacked by outsiders throughout their existence, yet for some reason they cannot defend themselves near the time of their collapse. Competition with other societies however, is in principle expected to lead to growth and expansion instead of collapse. There is no end to the examples from this category too, like the competition of the Ottoman Empire with Persia, which indirectly weakened its western front. But the competition argument is both intuitively confusing and it fails to account for major cases, like the fall of the Roman Empire.

    Another widely held belief about such collapses is that at a certain point in the life of a civilization a resource is depleted and the civilization that depends on this resource is prone to collapse. The Romans and the Ottomans both depended on military expansion for their economy, and when the relatively weak nations around them were engulfed or when they were barred from further expansion by geographical limitations, such as seas or large mountains, they were no longer able to use this resource. There seems to be some truth and lessons in this argument. To the uninformed, it is a very curious fact that the cradle of civilization was Mesopotamia, where modern day Iraq is. How is it possible that the superpowers of that era, the Sumerians (~3000 BC) and the Babylonians (~1000 BC) chose to live in these deserts? How is it possible that they irrigated the land, raised armies, and built world wonders in these sand dunes? These questions actually are easily answered when we realize that Mesopotamia was not a dessert in that era after all. It is now a generally accepted theory that this place had a fragile ecosystem, which was destroyed after thousands of years of environmental pressure. The potential for these lands to accommodate great civilizations was lost after this fragile ecosystem was slowly destroyed by its inhabitants.

    However, the argument of resource depletion inherently asserts that the elite of a civilization facing resource depletion passively waits for the predictable demise. I will argue below that this case, although strange, is true. Another difficulty of the resource depletion argument is that in some instances of collapse resources were never depleted. The fertile lands of Mesopotamia still remained green until later than 1000 AD, while many civilizations experienced collapses. The Romans, who used irrigation as a resource, kept farming till the very end. Finally, one may wonder why societies aim at possessing a higher amount of resources all the time. Population increase is only a partial answer to this question. We can easily imagine a society whose population stays the same; it is not a far-fetched hypothesis that this society will naturally also try to increase its resources to fend off a variety of calamities it may experience, such as intruders and catastrophes. I believe herein lies an interesting rationale that brings together the mentioned theories that are flawed. To understand this, we first have to appreciate a law in economics, called the “law of diminishing returns.”

    It is very rare in economics and in general social sciences that some series of observations can be identified as a “law.” However, the “law of diminishing returns,” first put forward in 1965 by Ester Boserup, is so comprehensive in its nature and explains such a variety of trends that it is now universally accepted. It goes: The return for an investment in a particular activity is great at the beginning, and then it gradually decreases. At a point, further investment brings no further benefits. At this point, the facility (a person, a group, a society, a factory) can no longer increase its returns, however much they would invest in that activity.

    Figure 1. Curves depicting cases for law of diminishing returns. a) The returns obtained from a certain type of activity always levels off with further investment. b) Two civilizations using different types of resources for returns.The red civilization, although triumphant in the beginning, is locked in a dead-end, since the return it gets from its resources (say, taxation) is leveling off. The bBlue civilization starts later, however but uses another type of resource (say, industrialization), and quickly catches up with and surpasses the red civilization. c) When a society is flexible in the resources it utilizes, it can switch to another high return activity when the previous resource gives diminishing returns.

    A simple example will clarify the law. Suppose we have a piece of land that we want to use for irrigation. In the beginning, we would just disperse seeds and wait for the crops to grow. Notice that our investment is minimal (say 1 unit of investment), and we get some food for our investment (again define this to be 1 unit of return). Then, if we want to increase the amount of crops we have, we may dig some canals for watering. It is straightforward to recognize that the canal digging is a lot harder than just dispersing seeds (say 5 times harder). However, it is again straightforward to recognize that although now we make 6 times more investment, we probably will not get 6 times the crop. Nevertheless, we want to maximize our return, so we still dig the canals. The next step would be to use motorized vehicles, which is maybe a 10 times increase in investment, but everybody will surely accept that it is not possible to get a crop that is 16 times greater than our original from the same plot of land. (Readers who may object that once the investments of canals and vehicles are made they will provide constant returns are reminded of the maintenance costs of these investments.) A further increase in returns may require genetically engineered crops that will require years of expensive research (more investment). The return per investment will always decrease for a certain type of activity, in this case irrigation (see Figure 1a).

    This law is everywhere in life: If one week of studying suffices a result of 80 on one exam, in order to get 90, you need to study two more weeks. Most healthy people can run 100m in 20 seconds; to run it in 10 seconds you need years of exercising. Depending on one’s abilities (which determine an individual’s possible investment) these may even be impossible for many people. A vivid example is the heating problem in England during the nineteenth century. Heating, which was primarily carried out by burning wood from forests, with the increase in population had to be switched over to the burning of coal. The mining and distribution of coal, which is much more difficult than simply getting some wood from a nearby forest, was made even more difficult when the easily mined surface coal was rapidly depleted and deeper tunnels with lighting and airing problems had to be developed. It is intuitive why this law is in effect: Obviously, always, the easier solutions are adapted first, then the harder ones. Mining coal when you have easily available and plentiful wood is not reasonable. Consequently, we have a decline for our returns per investment.

    The resources that civilizations use are no exception. A civilization that uses irrigation as a resource is bound to be limited by a certain level of return. Resource does not have to be depleted; it just cannot produce a return more than at a certain level. Another civilization that is dependent on taxation, mercenary or military expansion can achieve no more return after a certain level, no matter what adjustments it makes to its existing policy. Having said this, we can understand why a civilization that depends on a certain type of energy or resource cannot expand its influence beyond a certain level. Moreover, when energy becomes scarce, the civilization can become less agile in terms of trying new resources and new ways to produce returns, since agility and innovation mostly depend on using some of the surplus resources on strategies that will most probably yield no returns. Hence the rise of large architectural structures and many inefficient military operations are carried out during the ascent of a young civilization. These activities, which are easily buffered by the large returns that come from initial investment on the main resource of a civilization become impossibly costly later when the returns from the same investment is declining.

    One last piece of the puzzle completes the rationale as to why civilizations collapse, and this piece is an easily accepted assumption: A civilization is like a dinosaur. It is large and strong, but it is adapted to the conditions into which it was born. The conditions change, however, the dinosaur cannot change its behavior. It helplessly tries to maximize the returns for the type of resource that it is adapted to use, and after a point, it simply cannot, thanks to the universal and unforgiving law of diminishing returns. At this point, another civilization, that primarily uses another superior resource, will have larger returns, build a larger army to invade the former civilization, build larger ships to cut off the trade routes, and produce goods to cripple its economy… This is just a matter of time, and it is unavoidable (see Figure 1b). The strength of the civilization in its golden age is now its weakness. In such a weakness, since there is no extra resource to fight new problems-all resource is either used up by the population, or goes toward defense costs-even a natural disaster can bring an end to a civilization that once seemed to be indestructible.

    The Ottoman Empire’s strength in its rise was its perfect hierarchical organization which led to the accumulation of all power under the Sultan. Its main resource was military expansion and taxation of trade. These adaptations, which were ideal for the time between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, led to one of the most powerful empires that have ever reigned. However, by the sixteenth century, these strategies had become burdens: Due to the strong hierarchy, an intelligentsia that supported science and art as in the West could never develop. Military expansion had to stop. Taxation could no longer work since the Mediterranean Sea was no longer used for trade. The strategies were not abandoned though, instead, more investments were made in order to increase the returns, which as we saw above is a nonviable alternative. Eventually, other civilizations that used better resources brought about the end of the Empire. A similar order of events can be observed for other civilizations that collapsed. The great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun of the fourteenth century likens the lives of civilizations to the natural lifespan of individuals. They are born, they grow old, and they die. In my view, a civilization does not die because it gets old; it dies because it cannot compete with a stronger civilization.

    The natural question to ask is if our current civilization will collapse. From the analysis above, we can conclude that there are two reasons for the collapse of a civilization: 1) Dependence on a certain type of investment and failing to adapt to the new conditions. 2) The invention by another competitor civilization of a new type of investment with higher returns. In today’s world, both of these reasons are in some ways different than those that existed in the past. First, with the advancement of science, the current civilizations are flexible in the resources they utilize, the options are constantly evaluated, the heating in United Kingdom does not collapse when wood is depleted; instead, coal, then gas, then nuclear power is used. The return for the investment made for some utility is similar to the curve shown in Figure 1c: whenever the return for a type of investment declines, we can shift to the next resource. Second, by the immense advancement in information processing and communication, the whole world is aware of the types of investments other societies are using, and a leading civilization that follows the developments in other countries is very unlikely to be threatened by a sudden development in a rival civilization. Third, because of progress in international trade, the old sense that any other civilization is an enemy has lost its significance.

    Notwithstanding these reasons, only a few decades ago, at the height of the cold war, we witnessed the possibility of the immediate collapse of our civilization. Global warming and the depletion of petrol reserves were only two of the many alarming cues that we may have turned to declining returns for our investment curve. It is imperative to remember again that the stakes are very high. The next civilization to fall may bring about the fall of the human species.


    1 Tainter, J. (1988). The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 1988.
    2 Grigg D. Ester Boserup's theory of agrarian change: a critical review. Prog Hum Geogr. 1979; 3 (1): 64-84.
    3 Unal, Ali, Islam Addresses Contemporary Issues, Kaynak, Izmir:1998, p. 142.


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