Good. Now that I have your attention, you can probably go back to whatever you were doing an generally ignore everything I’m about to say. For those of you who stick around and get the reference, yes, I really am referencing the Late Bronze Age Collapse. With that out of the way, on with the wild speculation.
So, for those who don’t know about the Bronze Age Collapse, here’s a quick summary of what we know about it. Some time around 1175BCE, the major civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia all either disappeared or were substantially diminished suddenly. There are records of “sea peoples” potentially invading or arriving as refugees from elsewhere. There is also evidence of a major natural or climatological disaster. End of summary. Yes. That’s right. We know almost nothing about what actually happened. We just know that whatever it was was so significant and so rapid that it erased powerful nations and basically ended written records in the region.
I’ve heard a few theories about the Bronze Age Collapse. The one I find most compelling is that of a systems collapse. Basically the idea is that some shock, say a natural disaster, damages underlying infrastructure for a nation. While that infrastructure is being rebuilt, another shock, say another natural disaster which does further damage to the infrastructure. Suppose this prevents production of a critical export commodity for a time. This leads to broken delivery contracts and subsequent supply shortages. The exporter loses income that is necessary for rebuilding and must focus on the most critical infrastructure to the detriment of important but less critical systems. Meanwhile, the importers of that commodity, who may also have faced the first and/or second shock, now have the shock of commodity shortages which then impacts their economic well being and causes them to have to scale back recovery efforts. And so on through the supply chain.
Even that may not be enough to ruin a sufficiently strong society. Given some time, odds are good that recovery would happen. However, if yet another shock, say an influx of refugees from elsewhere, occurs, it would strain an already strained system which would struggle to absorb this new population which needs to be fed, housed, and employed using infrastructure that is already insufficient for the existing indiginous population. Add in the inevitable plague that would follow such an influx of foreign populations, and it is not difficult to imagine how social structures that had weathered all manner of shocks over centuries could be overwhelmed and fail.
There is almost certainly more to the Bronze Age Collapse than such a simplistic sequence of events, of course. Human societies are complex and those Bronze Age civilizations were no exception. But what does that have to do with the Information Age?
Well, our modern world is not so different to that of the late Bronze Age. We have interconnected national economies and world trade on a grand scale. Critical supply chains span national borders and the world financial system is highly interconnected. We have a very large fraction of our populations that does not produce subsistence resources (food, largerly). While this has allowed us to make unprecedented achievements, it also leaves us far more vulnerable to a systems collapse than more agrarian societies.
Let’s take a very broad look at what is occurring in the world today. I should be clear that everything is far more nuanced than what I am about to describe. I’m using the modern world as setting for a hypothetical situation. It’s a thought excercise.
It might be argued that the first stage of a modern systems collapse may already have occurred. Mounting severity of natural disasters as a result of changing climate have certainly strained many nations’ ability to react effectively. Combine this with the global financial crisis which, arguably, still hasn’t actually eased. Add in the migrant crisis in Europe as people attempt to escape war and famine. All of these on their own would be an irritant that causes major problems for a few nations at any given time but wouldn’t cause substantial global impact over more than the short term.
Some people will argue whether climate change is happening. Others will argue whether it is due to human activity. Yet others will insist the science is stil not in. But none of that matters. The impact of natural disasters is becoming more severe whether you agree that climate change is the cause or not.
The migrant crisis is really just a massive migration of people from one part of the world to another. These always cause problems at the destination. This has actually led to the collapse of empires due to sudden demographic shifts, or huge changes in national culture. Such changes can lead to destabilization of national institutions, massive shift in laws, and so on, to the point that the resulting nation has little or no resemblance to its pre-migration self. To be fair, this does not always happen. But massive population migrations tend to bring their culture with them and displace the previously dominant one.
Now, let’s look at the financial crisis which was caused entirely by human actions. We did that to ourselves. The fundamentals of the world economic system that allowed it to be a problem have not changed. The global economic system is still predicated on perpetual growth. Anyone who thinks through the implications of that will realize it is preposterous. Economic growth is far more likely to follow a logistic curve just like so much else does. Up to the late twentieth century, however, it seems we were still on the early part of the logistic curve where it appears exponential. Since the financial crisis hit, it seems like we’ve passed the inflection point of the curve, something that was probably delayed by explosive population growth over the past century or so.
Of course, this is all just the first stage. It’s not enough on its own to collapse the modern world completely. Some nations will fail. Others will rise. But overall, the situation is recoverable.
Enter COVID19. This is the modern equivalent of a plague though the fashionable term these days is “pandemic”. The world is no stranger to pandemics. We have records of them going back millennia from the Plague of Justinian and the Black Death to the 1918 “Spanish Flu”, these have had far reaching consequences. Historical plagues, however, have had a far more dramatic effect on population due to lack of modern medical knowledge. With modern epidemiology, understanding of the causes of disease, and unprecedented information sharing, the mortality rates from modern pandemics are often far lower than they would have been.
Even so, when a new pathogen appears, or an old one resurfaces, it can put immense strain on the nations affected. As I write this, we are just now starting to see the impact of COVID19. Even with modern medical knowledge, COVID19 is spreading rapidly and we do not yet have a vaccine, though immense resources have been dedicated worldwide to finding one. For the moment, the best modern medicine can offer is quarrantine and the standard hygiene recommendations. This comes with travel bans, travel advisories, people being out of work due to mandatory quarrantines, and so on. Add in the human propensity to panic and make irrational decisions, you have what is going on in the world today.
In the next months, we are going to see supply chain problems as more and more people and organizations who work on the logistics of getting goods from point A to point B are affected. As containment and delay activities continue, more and more economic activity will also be eliminated as conferences, meetings, and travel are further restricted. As more and more people who can work from home do, telecommunication infrastructure will be severely tested. Places that rely on customers’ physical patronage will be forced to lay off staff as business declines or they are forced to close their doors. Depending how long this continues, this will cause ongoing domino effects for potentially years.
I don’t actually know what will happen next. I can, however, speculate. The economic strain caused by natural disasters, financial crises, migrants, and political unrest will almost certainly be put to a much harsher test.
With the United States becoming more and more isolationist, and not actually needing substantial trading partners outside of North America to survive for the medium and long term, it is likely that they will be much like Egypt during the Bronze Age Collapse and will likely emerge battered but somewhat intact. However, those isolationist policies also represent a slow pullback from the globalized economy. Considering the size of the US economy, this cannot help but have an impact globally. This will probably be one of the factors leading to the next major shock to an already reeling world.
But the US isn’t the only nation that is poised to have an impact on the world economy. China’s economy is basically a house of cards propped up by endless government spending. Eventually, that must fail. Perhaps the impact of COVID19 will be enough to trigger that collapse. It won’t happen in the next year or so – there’s too much inertia – but, eventually, as smaller economies contract due to COVID19 and other factors, China will feel the effects, directly and indirectly. When that finally happens, this will provide a major shock to Oceania, South-East Asia, Northern Africa, and Eastern Europe. Yes, China’s economic and political influence is that substantial. This will be the leading part of the next world shock.
I’m sure everyone is expecting me to mention Brexit and the EU. And, yes, this is where that factors in. Brexit has touched off substantial tensions within the EU which turns out to be a lot less united than it would have outsiders believe. The “EU 27” have been behaving like petulant children since the UK took its head out of its ass and committed to a proper Brexit. Add in the yellow vest protests still ongoing in France, economic trouble in Greece (which I assume is still going on), COVID19, EU budget brangling, massive unrestrained immigration into the EU, and other factors. It seems likely that the EU is going to be facing major economic and political crises for years to come. To be clear, it’s not due entirely to Brexit. Brexit is a symptom. But a successful Brexit is certainly going to stir the pot, and, COVID19 aside, it does look like Brexit might be successful, at least in the short term.
Basically, the point of that is that with a Chinese collapse, US isolationism, and EU instability combined with other events around the world like the emergence of a reverse sort of Apartheid in South Africa, things could very easily destabilize further, and quite rapidly.
This is the final stage in my hypothetical Information Age Collapse. The final shock is not going to be due to climate, political unrest, racism, or even pandemics. The final shock is going to be demographics.
The world population is aging. The advent of modern medicine has led to far fewer people dying in childhood, and far more people living into their eighties and beyond. Retiring around age sixty-five used to mean you would enjoy a handful of years before you eventually passed on, assuming you weren’t forced to retire before then for health reasons. Now, more and more people are living decades in retirement.
Combine that with demographic distortions like the post World War II baby boom which is currently leading to a disproprortionate number of senior citizens compared to the younger working age people in many countries. Another important distortion is that the birth rate has declined markedly among the nations with the highest standards of living, presumably partly because better education, contraception, and freedom for women has led to them choosing to have fewer or no children. (Some think this will ultimately doom humanity to extinction. I think there is more going on than it obvious and projecting that trend line into the future is risky at best. It may be that other mechanisms areleading to lower fertility fates and those trends will almost certainly reverse at some point.)
Basically, the point here is that there is a demographic crisis looming and that crisis will affect most nations. The exact causes of the crisis will vary by nation. China is facing one due to the consequences of its one child policy combined with traditional Chinese culture. Much of the western world is facing one due to the baby boom and subsquent declining birth rates. Regardless, the result is the same. There will be far too many senior citizens compared to younger people. Senior citizens tend not to buy nearly as much stuff as young people just getting started in life, or starting families. As a result, the demand side of the economic equation will fall off. So will the supply side as fewer people are available in the work force.
You might think that balances out, but keep in mind my remarks about how the modern economic system is predicated on perpetual growth. The transition into this demographic situation will ultimately lead to shrinking demands for most goods. That leads to a contraction on the supply side and eventually will lead to reduction in work force requirements. Eventually, it would normalize as the elders die off and it would almost certainly establish a new equilibrium with a smaller economy.
There is far more to this than that, of course. But the demographic impact is real and it’s already starting to be felt in many nations. On its own, I don’t think it would be enough to collapse global civilization. However, coming as it is on the heels of the other shocks mentioned above, it could very well be the proverbial straw or nail.
So what would be the conquences of an “Information Age Collapse”? Well, let’s be honest. It’s unlikely to be nearly as catastrophic as the Late Bronze Age Collapse. The most likely outcome is countries pulling inward and a rise of nationalism. Unnecessary globalization would be resisted and the grand liberal experiment of erasing national borders will be regarded as a failure. Some nations will fail completely and possibly break up, be conquered by neighbors, or face revolutions. Others will survive but with diminished influence. Yet others will continue largely as they always have with relatively little impact.
Keep in mind that all of this will happen over the space of decades. There will be no specific point at which people alive will say, “this is when the collapse happened”. People will keep on keeping on. The most significant impact will be seen by historians in centuries to come when they look at the rise of nation states in the nineteenth century and the vast period of relative global stability of the latter half of the twentieth century and early twenty-first. Should an Informaiton Age Collapse occur, it will be marked not by the major powers of the world being erased from history suddenly but by a rapid diminishment of global integration and a marked rise in nationalism punctuated by a substantial economic contraction. Basically, an Information Age Collapse would likely be what historians mark as the end of a golden age. It certainly won’t be as mysterious as the Late Bronze Age Collapse.
As I said at the start, this is all wild speculation. I don’t actually expect anything like a systems collapse to actually occur. Instead, we will put our heads together and solve the COVID19 situation. Global trade will continue even in the face of many economies facing demographic crises. We will paper over problems with the global economic system and keep on muddling along. We may even see currency reforms and the like. Some nations will fall. Others will rise. But for the average person, life will continue on and most of us will grumble about current events and our own personal hardships, but we won’t see the end of modern civilization without a much greater shock than demographic shifts, COVID19 pandemics, or even the economic implosion of major world economies. Is such a shock possible? Sure. But I don’t think it’s any more likely to happen today, or to have happened last decade, than it is tomorrow or in the next decade.
So there you go. That’s my semi-annual blog post for spring 2020. Here’s hoping I’m basically wrong about everything.