How societies can collapse

Some say that the western economies are doomed and that China is taking over as the main economic power. I do not think we are quite there yet, after all China is still not the largest economy, and by far, despite its huge population. And China may itself be at risk of a financial crisis due to its very inefficient banking system. At least it could diffuse an impeding real estate bubble, but this is not the topic of this post. The worst case scenario, however unlikely it may be, is the western society would collapse. It has happened before, so it would be interesting to learn how this could happen.

Rodrigo Pacheco, Newton Paulo Bueno, Ednando Vieira and Raissa Bragança study the collapse of the Mayan civilization, which was well organized, covered a lot of territory and had a long history. Yet it appeared to collapse within a few years in the 9th century. How could this unravel to quickly?

Their point of departure is that societies are inherently resilient. They can be subject to shocks, even large shocks, and they bounce back. Yet, sometimes they do not. What makes this happen? The main point is that dynamics are important. It is believed that a severe drought was the trigger. But this civilization had such drought before and survived. The last one was different because it brought about systemic changes. There precise nature is difficult to determine, after all we do not know that much about Mayan history. One hypothesis is that the drought brought some unrest which made it worse. For example, agriculture used terraces, which are costly to maintain and rely on the good shape of the ones uphill. Under a severe drought, maintenance may have been lacking, and after some time the terracing system fell apart, and with it probably the structure of society. In short, there needs to be the dynamics of a death spiral for a collapse to happen, but it will still take some time.

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