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Societal collapse

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Societal collapse broadly includes both quite abrupt societal failures typified by collapses (such as that of the Mayan Civilization), as well as more extended gradual declines of superpowers (like the Roman empire in Western Europe and the Han Dynasty in East Asia). The general subject arises in anthropology, history, sociology, politics and other fields, and more recently in complex systems science.

In systems science it refers to the presumed organizational structures of societies and how they prevent societies from adapting to change in their circumstances. A simple example would be the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The abrupt disappearance of a global superpower in the course of a few months, without any external attack, was evidently caused by some kind of structural change in its internal complex system. That researchers, as yet, have very little ability to identify such internal structures for large distributed systems like human societies is an important scientific problem. That genuine structural collapse seems, in many cases, the only plausible explanation supports the idea that such structures exist. However, until they can be concretely identified, scientific inquiry appears limited to the construction of scientific narratives, using systems thinking for careful story telling about systemic organization and change. History includes many examples of the appearance and disappearance of human societies with no obvious explanation.

Although a societal collapse is generally an endpoint for that form of administering the social and economic life of a culture, it can be as another kind of change of administration of the same culture (Russian culture would seem to have outlived both the society of Imperial Russia and the society of the Soviet Union, for example). Frequently the phenomenon is also a process of decentralization of authority after a 'classic' period of centralized social order, perhaps replaced by competing centers as the central authority weakens. As when the black plague contributed to breaking the hold of European feudal society on its underclass in the 15th century, societal failure may also result in a degree of empowerment for the lower levels of a former climax society, who escape from the burden of onerous taxes and control by exploitative elites. Societal collapse is not a benign social process, but remnants may linger long after the high culture of the society vanishes.

Causes of collapse: Common factors that may contribute to societal collapse are economic, environmental, social and cultural, but they manifest combined effects like a whole system out of balance. For information on financial collapse please check financial collapse. In some cases a natural disaster (e.g. tsunami, earthquake, massive fire or climate change) may seem to be an immediate cause. Other factors such as a Malthusian catastrophe, overpopulation, dysgenics or resource depletion might be the proximate cause of collapse.

This is the reasoning method used by Joseph Tainter, and how he examined the evidence to eliminate the insufficient causes in his thesis that societies essentially exhausted their own designs, and were unable to adapt to natural diminishing returns for what they knew as their method of survival. It matches closely Toynbee's idea that "they find problems they can't solve".

The diversity of forms that societies evolve corresponds to diversity in their failures too. In other instances significant inequity may combine with lack of loyalty to a central power structure and result in an oppressed lower class rising up and taking power from a smaller wealthy elite.

If there is a general "antidote" to collapse, it would seem to be social cohesion, economic growth and adaptability.

Linking social/environmental dynamics: Modern social critics commonly interpret things like sedentary social behavior as symptomatic of societal decay, and link what appears to be laziness with the depletion of important non-renewable resources. However, many primitive cultures also have high degrees of leisure, so if that is a cause in one place it may not be in another—leisure or apparent laziness is then not a sufficient cause.

What produces modern sedentary life, unlike nomadic hunter-gatherers, is extraordinary modern economic productivity. Tainter argues that exceptional productivity is actually more the sign of hidden weakness, both because of a society's dependence on it, and its potential to undermine its own basis for success by not being self limiting as demonstrated in Western culture's ideal of perpetual growth.

As a population grows and technology makes it easier to exploit depleting resources, the environment's diminishing returns are hidden from view. Societal complexity is then potentially threatened if it develops beyond what is actually sustainable, and a disorderly reorganization were to follow. This is like the scissors model of Malthusian collapse where the population grows without limit and resources do not, and is the usual simple idea of great opposing environmental forces cutting into each other.

It also appears to occur in complex forms in real collapses. For the modern world economy, for example, the growing conflict between food and fuel, depending on many of the same finite and diminishing resources is visible in the recent major commodity price shocks, and is one of the key relationships people since the early studies of the Club of Rome have been most concerned with.

Collapse vs. decline: The term "societal collapse" usually refers to the disappearance of human societies along with their life support systems, but due to the lack of clear definition for why that occurs includes both quite abrupt societal failures typified by collapses such as that of the Mayan Civilization, as well as more extended gradual declines of superpowers like the Roman Empire in Western Europe and the Han Dynasty in East Asia. The great irony expressed by these and others like them is that civilizations that seem ideally designed to creatively solve problems find themselves doing so self-destructively.

What distinguishes the more dramatic failures of human societies, seeming to deserve the term "collapse", from less dramatic long term decline is not widely agreed on. The subject also then generally includes any other long term decline of a culture, its civil institutions or other major characteristics of it as a society or a civilization, generally permanent.

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