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Societal collapse (also known as civilizational collapse) is the fall of a complex human society characterized by the loss of cultural identity and of socioeconomic complexity, the downfall of government, and the rise of violence.[1] Possible causes of a societal collapse include natural catastrophe, war, pestilence, famine, and depopulation. A collapsed society may revert to a more primitive state, be absorbed into a stronger society, or completely disappear.

Virtually all civilizations have suffered this fate regardless of size or complexity. But some revived and transformed, such as China and Egypt, while others never recovered, such as the Mayan Empire and the civilization on Easter Island. Societal collapse is generally a quick process,[1] but rarely abrupt.[2] Yet some have not collapsed but have only gradually faded away, as in the case of the British Empire since 1918.[3]

Anthropologists, (quantitative) historians, and sociologists have proposed a variety of explanations for the collapse of civilizations involving causative factors such as environmental change, depletion of resources, unsustainable complexity, decay of social cohesion, rising inequality, secular decline of cognitive abilities, loss of creativity, and misfortune.[1][4][5] However, complete extinction of a culture is rare; in most cases, the new societies that arise from the ashes of the old one are evidently its offspring, despite a dramatic reduction in sophistication.[4] Moreover, the influence of a collapsed society, say that of the Roman Empire, may linger on long after its death.[6]

Societal collapse is studied by specialists of history, anthropology, sociology, and political science. More recently, they are joined by experts in cliodynamics and study of complex systems.[7][4]

Societal longevity

Social scientist Luke Kemp analyzed dozens of civilizations—which he defined as "a society with agriculture, multiple cities, military dominance in its geographical region and a continuous political structure"—from 3000 B.C. to 600 A.D. and calculated that the average life span of

Virtually all civilizations have suffered this fate regardless of size or complexity. But some revived and transformed, such as China and Egypt, while others never recovered, such as the Mayan Empire and the civilization on Easter Island. Societal collapse is generally a quick process,[1] but rarely abrupt.[2] Yet some have not collapsed but have only gradually faded away, as in the case of the British Empire since 1918.[3]

Anthropologists, (quantitative) historians, and sociologists have proposed a variety of explanations for the collapse of civilizations involving causative factors such as environmental change, depletion of resources, unsustainable complexity, decay of social cohesion, rising inequality, secular decline of cognitive abilities, loss of creativity, and misfortune.[1][4][5] However, complete extinction of a culture is rare; in most cases, the new societies that arise from the ashes of the old one are evidently its offspring, despite a dramatic reduction in sophistication.[4] Moreover, the influence of a collapsed society, say that of the Roman Empire, may linger on long after its death.[6]

Societal collapse is studied by specialists of history, anthropology, sociology, and political science. More recently, they are joined by experts in cliodynamics and study of complex systems.[7][4]

Social scientist Luke Kemp analyzed dozens of civilizations—which he defined as "a society with agriculture, multiple cities, military dominance in its geographical region and a continuous political structure"—from 3000 B.C. to 600 A.D. and calculated that the average life span of a civilization close to 340 years.[1] Of these, the most durable were the Kushite Kingdom in Northeast Africa (1,150 years), the Aksumite Empire in Africa (1,100 years), and the Vedic Civilization in South Asia and the Olmecs in Mesoamerica (both 1,000 years), while the shortest-lived were the Yuen-Yuen Dynasty (30), the Nanda Empire in India (24), and the Qin Dynasty in China (14).[8]

A statistical analysis of empires by complex systems specialist Samuel Arbesman suggests that collapse is generally a random event and does not depend on age. This is analogous to what evolutionary biologists call the Red Queen Hypothesis, which asserts that for a species in a harsh ecology, extinction is a persistent possibility.[1]

Causes of collapse

Because human societies are complex systems, common factors that may contribute to their decline—economical, environmental, demographic, social and cultural—can cascade into another, building up to the point that could overwhelm any mechanisms that would otherwise maintain stability. Unexpected and abrupt changes, what experts call non-linearities, are some of the danger signs.[3] In some cases a natural disaster (e.g. tsunami, earthquake, pandemic, massive fire or climate change) may precipitate a collapse. Other factors such as a Malthusian catastrophe, overpopulation or resource depletion might be the proximate cause of collapse. Significant inequity and exposed corruption may combine with lack of loyalty to established political institutions and result in an oppressed lower class rising up and seizing power from a smaller wealthy elite in a revolution. The diversity of forms that societies evolve corresponds to diversity in their failures. Jared Diamond suggests that societies have also collapsed through deforestation, loss of soil fertility, restrictions of trade and/or rising endemic violence.[9]

Any society has periods of prosperity and hardship. But when decline from the height of civilization is so dramatic, one can safely talk about its having collapsed.[10]

Natural disasters and climate change

Archeologists identified signs of a mega-drought for a millennium between 5,000 and 4,000 years ago in Africa and Asia. The drying of the Green Sahara not only turned it into a desert but also disrupted the monsoon seasons in South and Southeast Asia and caused flooding in East Asia, thereby preventing successful harvest and the development of complex culture. It coincided and may have caused

The Thirty Years' War devastated much of Europe and was one of the many political upheavals during the General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century, causally linked to the Little Ice Age.

Archeologists identified signs of a mega-drought for a millennium between 5,000 and 4,000 years ago in Africa and Asia. The drying of the Green Sahara not only turned it into a desert but also disrupted the monsoon seasons in South and Southeast Asia and caused flooding in East Asia, thereby preventing successful harvest and the development of complex culture. It coincided and may have caused the decline and fall of the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley Civilization.[11] The dramatic shift in climate is known as the Archeologists identified signs of a mega-drought for a millennium between 5,000 and 4,000 years ago in Africa and Asia. The drying of the Green Sahara not only turned it into a desert but also disrupted the monsoon seasons in South and Southeast Asia and caused flooding in East Asia, thereby preventing successful harvest and the development of complex culture. It coincided and may have caused the decline and fall of the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley Civilization.[11] The dramatic shift in climate is known as the 4.2 kiloyear event.[12]

The highly advanced The highly advanced Indus Valley Civilization took roots around 3000 B.C. in what is now Pakistan and collapsed around 1700 B.C. Since the Indus script has yet to be deciphered, the causes of its demise remain a mystery, though there is some evidence pointing to natural disasters.[13] Signs of a gradual decline began to emerge in 1900 B.C., and two centuries later, most of the cities had been abandoned. Archeological evidence suggests an increase in inter-personal violence and in infectious diseases like leprosy and tuberculosis.[14][15] Historians and archeologists believe that severe and long-lasting drought, and a decline in trade with Egypt and Mesopotamia, caused the collapse of this culture.[16] Evidence for earthquakes has also been discovered. Sea level changes are also found at two possible seaport sites along the Makran coast which are now inland. Earthquakes may have contributed to decline of several sites by direct shaking damage, by sea level change or by change in water supply.[17][18][19]

Volcanic eruptions can abruptly influence the climate. During a large eruption, sulfur dioxide (SO2) is expelled into the stratosphere, where it could stay for years and gradually get oxidized into sulfate aerosols. Being highly reflective, sulfate aerosols reduce the incident sunlight and cool the Earth's surface. By drilling into glaciers and ice sheets, scientists can access the archives of the history of atmospheric composition. A team of multidisciplinary researchers led by Joseph McConnell of the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada deduced that a volcanic eruption occurred in 43 B.C., a year after the assassination of Julius Caesar in the Ides of March (March 15) in 44 B.C, which left a power vacuum and led to bloody civil wars. According to historical accounts, this was also a period of poor weather, crop failure, widespread famine, and disease. Analyses of tree rings and cave stalagmites from different parts of the globe provided complementary data. The Northern Hemisphere got drier while the Southern Hemisphere became wetter. Indeed, Greek historian Appian recorded that there was a lack of flooding in Egypt, which also faced famine and pestilence. Rome's interest in Egypt as a source of food intensified, while the aforementioned problems and civil unrest weakened Egypt's ability to resist. It came under Roman rule after Cleopatra's suicide in 30 B.C. While it is difficult to say for certain whether Egypt becoming a Roman province would have happened if Okmok volcano (in modern-day Alaska) had not erupted, the eruption likely hastened the process.[20]

More generally, recent research pointed to climate change as a key player in the decline and fall of historical societies in China, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas. In fact, paleoclimatogical temperature reconstruction suggests that historical periods of social unrest, societal collapse, and population crash and significant climate change often occurred simultaneously. A team of researchers from mainland China and Hong Kong were able to establish a causal connection between climate change and large-scale human crises in pre-industrial times. Short-term crises may be due to social problems, but climate change was the ultimate cause of major crises, starting with economic depressions.[22]

A recent example is the General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century in Europe, a period of inclement weather, crop failure, economic hardship, extreme inter-group violence, and high mortality. It was due to the Little Ice Age, caused by a period called the Maunder Minimum when sunspots were exceedingly rare. Episodes of social instability track the cooling with a time lap of up to 15 years, and many developed into armed conflicts, such as the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648).[22] It started as a war of succession to the Bohemian throne. Animosity between Protestants and Catholics in the Holy Roman Empire (in modern-day Germany) added fuel to the fire. Soon, it escalated to a huge conflict involving all major European powers that devastated much of Germany. By the war's end, some regions of the Holy Roman Empire saw their population drop by as much as 70%.[23][note 1] But not all societies faced crises during this period. Tropical countries with high carrying capacities and trading economies did not suffer much, because changing climate did not induce an economic depression in these places.[22] Moreover, by the mid-eighteenth c

A recent example is the General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century in Europe, a period of inclement weather, crop failure, economic hardship, extreme inter-group violence, and high mortality. It was due to the Little Ice Age, caused by a period called the Maunder Minimum when sunspots were exceedingly rare. Episodes of social instability track the cooling with a time lap of up to 15 years, and many developed into armed conflicts, such as the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648).[22] It started as a war of succession to the Bohemian throne. Animosity between Protestants and Catholics in the Holy Roman Empire (in modern-day Germany) added fuel to the fire. Soon, it escalated to a huge conflict involving all major European powers that devastated much of Germany. By the war's end, some regions of the Holy Roman Empire saw their population drop by as much as 70%.[23][note 1] But not all societies faced crises during this period. Tropical countries with high carrying capacities and trading economies did not suffer much, because changing climate did not induce an economic depression in these places.[22] Moreover, by the mid-eighteenth century, as global temperatures started to rise, the ecological stress faced by Europeans also began to fade. Mortality rates dropped and the level of violence fell, paving the way for a period known as Pax Britannica, which witnessed the emergence of a variety of innovations in technology (which enabled industrialization), medicine (which improved hygiene), and social welfare (such as the world's first welfare programs in Germany), making life even more comfortable.[10]

Map of the Late Bronze Age Collapse (ca 1200 B.C.) in the Eastern Mediterranean

  • Barbarian invasions played an important role in the fall of the Roman Empire.

  • A mysterious loose confederation of fierce maritime marauders known as the Sea Peoples was identified as one of the main causes of the Late Bronze Age Collapse in the Eastern Mediterranean.[24] It is possible that the Sea Peoples were themselves victims of the environmental changes that led to widespread famine and prec

    Barbarian invasions played an important role in the fall of the Roman Empire.

    A mysterious loose confederation of fierce maritime marauders known as the Sea Peoples was identified as one of the main causes of the Late Bronze Age Collapse in the Eastern Mediterranean.[24] It is possible that the Sea Peoples were themselves victims of the environmental changes that led to widespread famine and precipitated the Collapse.[2] After the Battle of Kadesh against the Egyptians in 1285 B.C., the Hittite Empire began to show signs of decline. Attacks

    A mysterious loose confederation of fierce maritime marauders known as the Sea Peoples was identified as one of the main causes of the Late Bronze Age Collapse in the Eastern Mediterranean.[24] It is possible that the Sea Peoples were themselves victims of the environmental changes that led to widespread famine and precipitated the Collapse.[2] After the Battle of Kadesh against the Egyptians in 1285 B.C., the Hittite Empire began to show signs of decline. Attacks by the Sea Peoples accelerated the process while internal power struggles, crop failures, and famine were contributory factors. The Egyptians, with whom the Hittites signed a peace treaty, supplied them with food in times of famine, but it was not enough. Around 1200 B.C., the Sea Peoples seized a port on the west coast of Asia Minor, cutting of the Hittites from their trade routes from which their supply of grain came. Hattusa the Hittite capital was destroyed. While some Hittite territories survived, these were captured by the Assyrians in the seventh century B.C.[25]

    The Minoan Civilization, based on Crete, was based around religious rituals and seaborne trade. In around 1450 B.C., it was absorbed into Mycenaean Greece. Mycenaean Greece itself went into serious decline around 1200 B.C. due to various military conflicts, including the Dorian invasion from the north and attacks from the Sea Peoples.[26]

    In the third century B.C., a Eurasian nomadic people called the Xiongnu began threatening China's frontiers, but by the first century B.C., they were completely expelled. They then turned their attention westward and displaced various other tribes in Eastern and Central Europe, leading to a cascade of events. Attila rose to power as leader of the Huns and initiated a campaign of invasions and looting and went as far as Gaul (today's France). Attila's Huns were clashing with the Roman Empire, which had already been divided into two halves for ease of administration: the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire. Despite their decisive victory at the Battle of Chalons in 451 A.D., the Romans were unable to stop Attila from attacking Roman Italy. Northern Italian cities, like Milan, were ravaged. The Huns never posed a threat to the Roman Empire again after Attila's death, but the rise of the Huns also forced the Germanic peoples out of their territories. These groups pressed their way into parts of France, Spain, Italy, and even as far south as North Africa. The city of Rome itself came under attack by the Visigoths in 410 and was plundered by the Vandals in 455.[note 2][27] A combination of internal strife, economic weakness, and relentless invasions by the Germanic peoples pushed the Western Roman Empire into terminal decline. The last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was dethroned in 476 by the German Odoacer, who declared himself King of Italy.[28]

    In the eleventh century A.D., North Africa's populous and flourishing civilization collapsed after exhausting its resources in internal fighting and suffering devastation from the invasion of the Bedouin tribes of Banu Sulaym and Banu Hilal.[29] Ibn Khaldun noted that the lands ravaged by Banu Hilal invaders had become completely arid desert.[30]

    In 1206 a warlord achieved dominance over all Mongols with the title Genghis Khan and began his campaign of territorial expansion. The Mongols' highly flexible and mobile cavalry enabled them to conquer their enemies with efficiency and swiftness.[31] In the brutal pillaging that followed Mongol invasions during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the invaders decimated the populations of China, Russia, the Middle East, and Islamic Central Asia. Later Mongol leaders, such as Timur, destroyed many cities, slaughtered thousands of people and did irreparable damage to the ancient irrigation systems of Mesopotamia. These invasions transformed a settled society to a nomadic one.[32] They also displaced large numbers of people and created power vacuums. The Khmer Empire went into decline and was replaced by the Thais, who were pushed southward by the Mongols. The Vietnamese, who succeeded in defeating the Mongols, also turned their attention to the south and by 1471, they began subjugating the Chams.[33] When Vietnam's Later Lê Dynasty went into decline in the late 1700s, a bloody civil war erupted between the Trịnh family in the North and the Nguyễn family in the South.[34][note 3] More Cham provinces were seized by the Nguyễn warlords.[35] Finally, Nguyễn Ánh emerged victorious and declared himself Emperor of Vietnam (changing the name from Annam) with the title Gia Long and established the Nguyễn Dynasty.[34] The last remaining principality of Champa, Panduranga, survived until 1832,[36] when Emperor Minh Mạng (Nguyễn Phúc Đảm) conquered it after the centuries long Cham–Vietnamese wars. Vietnam's policy of assimilation involved the force-feeding of pork to Muslims and beef to Hindus, which fueled resentment. An uprising followed, the first and only war between Vietnam and the jihadists. It was crushed.[37][38][39]

    Famine, economic depression, and internal strife

    In around 1210 B.C., the New Kingdom of Egypt shipped large amounts of grains to the then disintegrating Hittite Empire, meaning there had been a food shortage in Anatolia but not the Nile Valley.[2] But this soon changed. Although Egypt managed to decisively deliver a final defeat to the Sea Peoples at the Battle of Xois, Egypt itself went int

    In around 1210 B.C., the New Kingdom of Egypt shipped large amounts of grains to the then disintegrating Hittite Empire, meaning there had been a food shortage in Anatolia but not the Nile Valley.[2] But this soon changed. Although Egypt managed to decisively deliver a final defeat to the Sea Peoples at the Battle of Xois, Egypt itself went into steep decline. The collapse of all the other societies of the Eastern Mediterranean disrupted established trade routes and caused widespread economic depression. Government workers went underpaid, which resulted in the first labor dispute in recorded history and undermined royal authority.[24] There was also political infighting between different factions of government. Bad harvest due to reduced flooding at the Nile led to a major famine. Food prices rose up to eight times their normal values, and occasionally even reached twenty-four. Runaway inflation followed. Attacks by the Libyans and Nubians made things even worse. Thus through the course of its rule the Twentieth Dynasty (∼1187–1064 B.C) saw Egypt devolving from a major power in the Mediterranean into a deeply divided and weakened state that later came to be ruled by the Libyans and the Nubians.[2]

    In the early fourteenth century, Britain had unusually heavy rainfall, flooding and suffered repeated rounds of crop failures. Much livestock either starved or drowned. Food prices skyrocketed. While King Edward II attempted to rectify the situation by imposing price controls, vendors simply refused to sell at such low prices. In any case, the act was abolished by the Lincoln Parliament in 1316. Soon, people from commoners to nobles were finding themselves short of food. Many resorted to begging, criminality, and eating an

    In the early fourteenth century, Britain had unusually heavy rainfall, flooding and suffered repeated rounds of crop failures. Much livestock either starved or drowned. Food prices skyrocketed. While King Edward II attempted to rectify the situation by imposing price controls, vendors simply refused to sell at such low prices. In any case, the act was abolished by the Lincoln Parliament in 1316. Soon, people from commoners to nobles were finding themselves short of food. Many resorted to begging, criminality, and eating animals they otherwise would not eat. People in the North of England had to deal with raids from Scotland. There were even reports of cannibalism. In Continental Europe, things were at least as bad. This Great Famine of 1315–1317 coincided with the end of the Medieval Warm Period and the start of the Little Ice Age. Some historians suspect this change in climate was due to Mount Tarawera in New Zealand erupting in 1314.[40] The Great Famine was, however, only one of the calamities striking Europe that century, as the Hundred Years' War and Black Death were soon to follow.[40][41] (Also see the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages.) Recent analysis of tree rings complemented historical records: the summers of 1314–16 were some of the wettest on record over a period of 700 years.[41]

    Historically, the dawn of agriculture led to the rise of contagious diseases.[42] Compared to their hunting-gathering counterparts, agrarian societies tended to be sedentary and had higher population densities, were in frequent contact with livestock, and were more exposed to contaminated water supplies and higher concentrations of garbage. Poor sanitation, a lack of medical knowledge, superstitions, and sometimes a combination of disasters exacerbated the problem.[1][42][43] Journalist Michael Rosenwald wrote, "...history shows that past pandemics have reshaped societies in profound ways. Hundreds of millions of people have died. Empires have fallen. Governments have cracked. Generations have been annihilated."[44]

    From the description of symptoms by Greek physician Galen, which included coughing, fever, (blackish) diarrhea, swollen throat, thirstiness, modern experts identified the probable culprits of the Antonine Plague (A.D. 165-180) to be smallpox or measles.[44][45] The disease likely started in China and spread to the West via the Silk Road. Roman troops first contracted the disease in the East before returning home. Striking a 'virgin population', the Antonine Plague had dreadful mortality rates; between one third to a half of the population, 60 to 70 million people, perished. Roman cities suffered from a combination of overcrowding, poor hygiene, and unhealthy diets. They quickly became epicenters. Soon, the disease reached as far as Gaul and mauled Roman defenses along the Rhine. The ranks of the previously formidable Roman army had to be filled with freed slaves, German mercenaries, criminals, and gladiators. It ultimately failed to prevent the Germanic tribes from crossing the Rhine. On the civilian side, the Antonine Plague created drastic shortages of businessmen, which disrupted trade, and farmers, which led to a food crisis. An economic depression followed and government revenue fell. Some accused Emperor Galen, which included coughing, fever, (blackish) diarrhea, swollen throat, thirstiness, modern experts identified the probable culprits of the Antonine Plague (A.D. 165-180) to be smallpox or measles.[44][45] The disease likely started in China and spread to the West via the Silk Road. Roman troops first contracted the disease in the East before returning home. Striking a 'virgin population', the Antonine Plague had dreadful mortality rates; between one third to a half of the population, 60 to 70 million people, perished. Roman cities suffered from a combination of overcrowding, poor hygiene, and unhealthy diets. They quickly became epicenters. Soon, the disease reached as far as Gaul and mauled Roman defenses along the Rhine. The ranks of the previously formidable Roman army had to be filled with freed slaves, German mercenaries, criminals, and gladiators. It ultimately failed to prevent the Germanic tribes from crossing the Rhine. On the civilian side, the Antonine Plague created drastic shortages of businessmen, which disrupted trade, and farmers, which led to a food crisis. An economic depression followed and government revenue fell. Some accused Emperor Marcus Aurelius and Co-emperor Lucius Verus, both of whom victims of the disease, of affronting the gods while others blamed Christians. Yet the Antonine Plague strengthened the position of the monotheistic religion of Christianity in a heretofore polytheistic society as Christians won public admiration for their good works. Ultimately it was the Roman army, Roman cities, the size of the empire and its trade routes, without which Roman power and influence would not exist, that facilitated the spread of the disease. The Antonine Plague is considered by some historians as a useful starting point for understanding the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire. It was followed by the Plague of Cyprian (A.D. 249-262) and the Plague of Justinian (541-542). Together, they cracked the foundations of the Roman Empire.[45]

    In the sixth century A.D., while the Western Roman Empire had already succumbed to attacks by the Germanic tribes, the Eastern Empire stood its ground. In fact, thanks to a peace treaty with the Persians, Emperor Justinian the Great was able to concentrate on re-capturing territories belonging to the Western Empire. His generals, Belisarius and Narses, achieved a number of important victories against the Ostrogoths and the Vandals.[46] However, their hope of re-establishing the Roman Empire was dashed by the arrival of what became known as the Plague of Justinian (541-542). According to Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea, this epidemic originated in China and Northeastern India and reached the Eastern Roman Empire via trade routes terminating in the Mediterranean. While modern scholarship was able to deduced that it was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, the same one that would later bring the Black Death, the single deadliest pandemic in human history, it remains uncertain how many actually died because of it. Current estimates put the figure between thirty and fifty million people,[43] a significant portion of the human population at that time.[47] The Plague arguably cemented the fate of Rome.[43]

    It also devastated the Sassanid Persian Empire. Caliph Abu Bakr seized the opportunity to launch military campaigns that overran the Sassanians and captured Roman-held territories in the Caucasus, the Levant, Egypt, and elsewhere in North Africa. Before the Justinian Plague, the Mediterranean world had been commercially and culturally stable. After the Plague, it fractured into a trio of civilizations battling for power: the Islamic Civilization, the Byzantine Empire, and what became known as Medieval Europe. With so many people dead, the supply of workers, many of whom slaves, was critically short. Landowners had no choice but to lend pieces of land to serfs who work the land in exchange for military protection and other privileges. Thus sowed the seeds of feudalism.[48]

    There is evidence that the Mongol expeditions may have spread the bubonic plague across much of Eurasia, helping to spark the Black Death of the early fourteenth century.[49][50][51][52] Italian historian Gabriele de’ Mussi wrote that the Mongols catapulted the corpses of those who contracted the plague into Caffa (now Feodossia, Crimea) during the siege of that city and how soldiers transported from there brought the plague to Mediterranean ports. However, this account of the origin of the Black Death in Europe remains controversial, though plausible, because the complex epidemiology of the plague. Modern epidemiologists do not believe that the Black Death had a single source of spreading into Europe. Research into the past on this topic is further complicated by politics and the passage of time. It is difficult to distinguish between natural epidemics and biological warfare, both of which are common throughout human history.[50] Biological weapons are economical because they turn an enemy casualty into a delivery system and as such were favored in armed conflicts of the past. Furthermore, more soldiers had died of disease than in combat until recently.[note 4][47] In any case, by the 1340s, Europe faced a combination of overpopulation and famine. As a result, many had weakened immune systems, especially those living in squalid conditions.[10] Whatever its origins, the Black Death killed around one third of the population in medieval Europe,[10] or about 200 million people.[43] The widening trade routes in the Late Middle Ages helped the plague spread rapidly.[44] It took the European population more than two centuries to return its level before the pandemic.[43] Consequently, it destabilized most of society, and likely undermined feudalism and the authority of the Church.[53][10] In parts of England, for example, 80% of the population living in poverty were killed. Economic deprivation and war followed.[10] In England and France, for example, a combination of the plague and the Hundred Years' War killed about half the population.[54]

    With labor in short supply, workers' bargaining power increased dramatically. Various inventions that reduced the cost of labor, saved time, and raised productivity–such as the three-field crop rotation system, the iron plow, the use of manure to fertilize the soil, and the water pumps–were widely adopted. Many former serfs, now free from feudal obligations, relocated to the cities and changed profession to crafts and trades. The more successful became the new middle class. Trade flourished as demands for a myriad of consumer goods rose. Society be

    With labor in short supply, workers' bargaining power increased dramatically. Various inventions that reduced the cost of labor, saved time, and raised productivity–such as the three-field crop rotation system, the iron plow, the use of manure to fertilize the soil, and the water pumps–were widely adopted. Many former serfs, now free from feudal obligations, relocated to the cities and changed profession to crafts and trades. The more successful became the new middle class. Trade flourished as demands for a myriad of consumer goods rose. Society became wealthier and could afford to fund the arts and the sciences.[48] The Black Death marked the end of the Middle Ages in Europe;[10] the Renaissance had begun.[48]

    Encounters between European explorers and the Amerindians exposed the latter to variety of diseases of extraordinary virulence. Having migrated from Northeastern Asia 15,000 years ago, the Amerindians were hitherto not introduced to the plethora of contagious diseases that emerged after the rise of agriculture in the Old World. As such they had immune systems that were ill-equipped to handle the diseases that their counterparts Eurasia had grown resistant to. When the Europeans arrived in the Americas, in short order, the indigenous populations of the Americas found themselves facing smallpox, measles, whooping cough, and the bubonic plague, among others. In tropical areas, malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever, river blindness, and others appeared. Most of these tropical diseases were traced to Africa.[55] Smallpox ravaged Mexico in the 1520s, killing 150,000 in Tenochtitlán alone, including the emperor, and Peru in the 1530s, aiding the European conquerors.[56] A combination of Spanish military attacks and evolutionarily novel diseases finished off the Aztec Empire in the sixteenth century.[1][55] It is commonly believed that the death of as much as 90% or 95% of the Native American population of the New World was caused by Old World diseases,[55][57] though new research suggests tuberculosis from seals and sea lions played a significant part.[58]

    Similar events took place in Oceania and Madagascar.[55] Smallpox was externally brought to Australia. The first recorded outbreak, in 1789, devastated the Aboriginal population; while the extent of this outbreak is disputed, some sources claim that it killed about 50% of coastal Aboriginal populations on the east coast.[59] There is an ongoing historical debate concerning two rival and irreconcilable theories about how the disease first entered the continent - see History of smallpo

    Similar events took place in Oceania and Madagascar.[55] Smallpox was externally brought to Australia. The first recorded outbreak, in 1789, devastated the Aboriginal population; while the extent of this outbreak is disputed, some sources claim that it killed about 50% of coastal Aboriginal populations on the east coast.[59] There is an ongoing historical debate concerning two rival and irreconcilable theories about how the disease first entered the continent - see History of smallpox. Smallpox continued to be a deadly disease, killing an estimated 300 million people in the twentieth century alone, though a vaccine—the first of any kind—had been available since 1796.[47]

    As humans spread around the globe, as human societies flourish and become more dependent on trade, and because urbanization means that people leave sparsely populated rural areas for densely populated neighborhoods, it has become much easier for infectious diseases to spread. Outbreaks are frequent, even in the modern era, though medical advances have been able to alleviate their impacts.[43] In fact, even though the human population grew tremendously in the twentieth century, as did the population of farm animals, from which diseases could jump to humans, in the developed world and increasingly in the developing world, people are presently less likely to fall victim to infectious diseases than ever before. For instance, the advent of antibiotics, starting with penicillin in 1928, saw to it that hundreds of millions of people were rescued from death due to bacterial infections between then and now. But there is no guarantee this would continue because bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics, so much so that doctors and public health experts such as former Chief Medical Officer for England Sally Davies have warned of an incoming "antibiotic apocalypse." The World Health Organization warned in 2019 that the anti-vaccination movement was one of the top threats to global health because it has led to the return of almost forgotten diseases such as measles.[47]

    Writing in The Histories, Greek historian Polybius, largely blamed the decline of the Hellenistic world on low fertility rates. He asserted that while protracted wars and deadly epidemics were absent, people were generally more interested in "show and money and the pleasures of an idle life" rather than marrying and raising children. Those who did have children, he said, had no more than one or two, with the express intention of "leaving them well off or bringing them up in extravagant luxury."[60][61] However, it is difficult to estimate the actual fertility rate of Greece at this time because Polybius did not provide any data for analysis. He only gave a narrative that likely came from his impression of the kinds of Greeks with whom he was familiar, namely the elites rather than the commoners. Otherwise the population drop would have been abrupt. Nevertheless, the Greek case parallels the Roman one.[5]

  • ^ a b c d e f g h Butzer, Karl W. (March 6, 2012). "Collapse, environment, and society". Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 109 (10): 3632–3639. doi:10.1073/pnas.1114845109. PMC 3309741. PMID 22371579.
  • ^ a b Nuwer, Rachel (April 18, 2017). "How Western civilisation could collapse". BBC Future. Retrieved September 6, 2020.
  • ^ a b c Spinney, Laura (18 February 2020). "Panicking about societal collapse? Plunder the bookshelves". Nature. 578 (7795): 355–357. doi:10.1038/d41586-020-00436-3.
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