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Old Age and Societal Decline

People grow old and die. Civilizations eventually fail. For centuries amateur philosophers have used the former as a metaphor for the latter, leading to a few useful insights and just as many misleading generalizations. The comparison becomes more immediately interesting as our own civilization stumbles blindly toward collapse. While not the cheeriest of subjects, it’s worth exploring.

A metaphor is not an explanation.

First, it’s important to point out that serious contemporary researchers studying the phenomenon of societal collapse generally find little or no explanatory value in the metaphorical link with individual human mortality.

The reasons for individual decline and death have to do with genetics, disease, nutrition, and personal history (including accidents and habits such as smoking). We are all genetically programmed to age and die, though lifespans differ greatly.

Reasons for societal decline appear to have little or nothing to do with genetics. Some complex societies have failed due to invasion by foreign marauders (and sometimes the diseases they brought); others have succumbed to resource depletion, unforeseeable natural catastrophe, or class conflict. Anthropologist Joseph Tainter proposed what is perhaps the best general theory of collapse in his 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies, which argued that the development of societal complexity is a problem-solving strategy that’s subject to diminishing marginal returns. Once a civilization’s return on investment in complexity goes negative, that civilization becomes vulnerable to stresses of all sorts that it previously could have withstood.

There is a superficial similarity between individual aging, on one hand, and societal vulnerability once returns on investments in complexity have gone negative, on the other. In both cases, what would otherwise be survivable becomes deadly—whether it’s a fall on an uneven sidewalk or a barbarian invasion. But this similarity doesn’t provide explanatory value in either case. No physician or historian will be able to do her job better by use of the metaphor.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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