Covid-19 and the Collapse of Complex Societies

Sometimes pressure causes breakdowns, but sometimes it causes breakthroughs.

by Stephen Davies

With the world experiencing the worst pandemic since 1918, many people may wonder if civilization is as secure as it might be. History offers insight into this question. Civilizational breakdown is a recurring historical process. Looking at how it has happened before can help us understand what causes it, the forms it may take, and how far away from it we may be. Civilizational crisis and collapse were given a formal scholarly definition in Joseph Tainter’s 1988 book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, and Tainter’s model underlies the work of later generations of scholars.

The model works this way. Since at least the advent of agriculture, people have responded to challenges and sought to improve their condition. One form this takes is through social cooperation and the division of labor, an approach that leads to more complex forms of economy, society, and politics. In the abstract, complexity means higher levels of heterogeneity, as opposed to uniformity.

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