From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Societal collapse broadly includes both quite abrupt societal failures typified by collapses such as that of the Mayan Civilization, as well as more extended grinding 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 these 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.
The coupled breakdown of economic, cultural and social institutions with ecological relationships is perhaps the most common feature of collapse. The most accessible and thorough discussions of the subject are the review of the scientific anthropology literature by J.A. Tainter and the popular but thorough book of the same title by Jared Diamond.
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 the Czars 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.
Societal collapse is certainly not a benign social process, but remnants may linger long after the high culture of the society vanishes. As when the black plague contributed to breaking the hold of European feudal society on its underclass in the 1400s, 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.
The common factors appearing to contribute to societal collapse are economic, environmental, social and cultural, but they manifest combined effects like a whole system out of balance. In many cases a natural disaster (e.g. tsunami, earthquake, massive fire or climate change) may seem to be an immediate cause. However, other cases of civilizations in similar situations that were resilient and survived the same kind of insult show that such causes are not sufficient.
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 societal cohesion, diversity, and adaptability.
Examples of civilizations and societies which have collapsed
- Hittite Empire
- Mycenaean Greece
- The Neo-Assyrian Empire
- Indus Valley Civilization
- Mauryan and Gupta states
- Angkor civilization of the Khmer Empire
- Han and Tang Dynasty of China
- Western Roman Empire, Decline of the Roman Empire
- Maya, Classic Maya collapse
- Munhumutapa Empire
- Ancient Egypt
- Ancient Levant
- Classical Greece
- Eastern Roman Empire (Medieval Greek) of the Byzantines
- Modern North East Asian civilisations, Hindu and Mughal India
- Qin, Song, Mongol and Qing China
- Tokugawa Shogunate of Japan, ending with the Meiji Restoration
- Aztecs and Incas
Places which are believed to represent past "societal collapses"
Malthusian and environmental collapse themes
- Behavioral sink - rat colony collapse
- Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
- Earth 2100
- Ecological collapse
- Exploitation of natural resources
- Malthusian catastrophe
- Medieval demography
- Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
- Peak oil
- Risks to civilization, humans, and planet Earth
Cultural and institutional collapse themes:
- Crisis state
- Dependency ratio
- Economic collapse
- Evolution of society
- Failed state
- Fragile state
- Resource depletion
- Social contract
- Social cohesion
- Social cycle theory
- Social disintegration
- Sub-replacement fertility
- Urban decay
- Social solidarity