The BBC Looks At "How Western Civilization Could Collapse"

Tyler Durden's picture

Authored by Rachel Nuwer via,

The political economist Benjamin Friedman once compared modern Western society to a stable bicycle whose wheels are kept spinning by economic growth. Should that forward-propelling motion slow or cease, the pillars that define our society – democracy, individual liberties, social tolerance and more – would begin to teeter. Our world would become an increasingly ugly place, one defined by a scramble over limited resources and a rejection of anyone outside of our immediate group. Should we find no way to get the wheels back in motion, we’d eventually face total societal collapse.

Such collapses have occurred many times in human history, and no civilisation, no matter how seemingly great, is immune to the vulnerabilities that may lead a society to its end. Regardless of how well things are going in the present moment, the situation can always change. Putting aside species-ending events like an asteroid strike, nuclear winter or deadly pandemic, history tells us that it’s usually a plethora of factors that contribute to collapse. What are they, and which, if any, have already begun to surface? It should come as no surprise that humanity is currently on an unsustainable and uncertain path – but just how close are we to reaching the point of no return?

A South African police van is set on fire following protests about inequality in 2016

While it’s impossible to predict the future with certainty, mathematics, science and history can provide hints about the prospects of Western societies for long-term continuation.

Safa Motesharrei, a systems scientist at the University of Maryland, uses computer models to gain a deeper understanding of the mechanisms that can lead to local or global sustainability or collapse. According to findings that Motesharrei and his colleagues published in 2014, there are two factors that matter: ecological strain and economic stratification. The ecological category is the more widely understood and recognised path to potential doom, especially in terms of depletion of natural resources such as groundwater, soil, fisheries and forests – all of which could be worsened by climate change.

That economic stratification may lead to collapse on its own, on the other hand, came as more of a surprise to Motesharrei and his colleagues. Under this scenario, elites push society toward instability and eventual collapse by hoarding huge quantities of wealth and resources, and leaving little or none for commoners who vastly outnumber them yet support them with labour. Eventually, the working population crashes because the portion of wealth allocated to them is not enough, followed by collapse of the elites due to the absence of labour. The inequalities we see today both within and between countries already point to such disparities. For example, the top 10% of global income earners are responsible for almost as much total greenhouse gas emissions as the bottom 90% combined. Similarly, about half the world’s population lives on less than $3 per day.  

For both scenarios, the models define a carrying capacity – a total population level that a given environment’s resources can sustain over the long term. If the carrying capacity is overshot by too much, collapse becomes inevitable. That fate is avoidable, however. “If we make rational choices to reduce factors such as inequality, explosive population growth, the rate at which we deplete natural resources and the rate of pollution – all perfectly doable things – then we can avoid collapse and stabilise onto a sustainable trajectory,” Motesharrei said. “But we cannot wait forever to make those decisions.”

One of the most important lessons from Rome’s fall is that complexity has a cost

Unfortunately, some experts believe such tough decisions exceed our political and psychological capabilities. “The world will not rise to the occasion of solving the climate problem during this century, simply because it is more expensive in the short term to solve the problem than it is to just keep acting as usual,” says Jorgen Randers, a professor emeritus of climate strategy at the BI Norwegian Business School, and author of 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years. “The climate problem will get worse and worse and worse because we won’t be able to live up to what we’ve promised to do in the Paris Agreement and elsewhere.”  

While we are all in this together, the world’s poorest will feel the effects of collapse first. Indeed, some nations are already serving as canaries in the coal mine for the issues that may eventually pull apart more affluent ones. Syria, for example, enjoyed exceptionally high fertility rates for a time, which fueled rapid population growth. A severe drought in the late 2000s, likely made worse by human-induced climate change, combined with groundwater shortages to cripple agricultural production. That crisis left large numbers of people – especially young men – unemployed, discontent and desperate. Many flooded into urban centres, overwhelming limited resources and services there. Pre-existing ethnic tensions increased, creating fertile grounds for violence and conflict. On top of that, poor governance – including neoliberal policies that eliminated water subsidies in the middle of the drought – tipped the country into civil war in 2011 and sent it careening toward collapse.

In Syria’s case – as with so many other societal collapses throughout history – it was not one but a plethora of factors that contributed, says Thomas Homer-Dixon, chair of global systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Canada, and author of The Upside of Down. Homer-Dixon calls these combined forces tectonic stresses for the way in which they quietly build up and then abruptly erupt, overloading any stabilising mechanisms that otherwise keep a society in check.

The Syrian case aside, another sign that we’re entering into a danger zone, Homer-Dixon says, is the increasing occurrence of what experts call nonlinearities, or sudden, unexpected changes in the world’s order, such as the 2008 economic crisis, the rise of ISIS, Brexit, or Donald Trump’s election.

Some civilisations simply fade out of existence - becoming the stuff of history not with a bang but a whimper

The past can also provide hints for how the future might play out. Take, for example, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. By the end of the 100BC the Romans had spread across the Mediterranean, to the places most easily accessed by sea. They should have stopped there, but things were going well and they felt empowered to expand to new frontiers by land. While transportation by sea was economical, however, transportation across land was slow and expensive. All the while, they were overextending themselves and running up costs. The Empire managed to remain stable in the ensuing centuries, but repercussions for spreading themselves too thin caught up with them in the 3rd Century, which was plagued by civil war and invasions. The Empire tried to maintain its core lands, even as the army ate up its budget and inflation climbed ever higher as the government debased its silver currency to try to cover its mounting expenses. While some scholars cite the beginning of collapse as the year 410, when the invading Visigoths sacked the capital, that dramatic event was made possible by a downward spiral spanning more than a century.

According to Joseph Tainter, a professor of environment and society at Utah State University and author of The Collapse of Complex Societies, one of the most important lessons from Rome’s fall is that complexity has a cost. As stated in the laws of thermodynamics, it takes energy to maintain any system in a complex, ordered state – and human society is no exception. By the 3rd Century, Rome was increasingly adding new things – an army double the size, a cavalry, subdivided provinces that each needed their own bureaucracies, courts and defences – just to maintain its status quo and keep from sliding backwards. Eventually, it could no longer afford to prop up those heightened complexities. It was fiscal weakness, not war, that did the Empire in.

So far, modern Western societies have largely been able to postpone similar precipitators of collapse through fossil fuels and industrial technologies – think hydraulic fracturing coming along in 2008, just in time to offset soaring oil prices. Tainter suspects this will not always be the case, however. “Imagine the costs if we have to build a seawall around Manhattan, just to protect against storms and rising tides,” he says. Eventually, investment in complexity as a problem-solving strategy reaches a point of diminishing returns, leading to fiscal weakness and vulnerability to collapse. That is, he says “unless we find a way to pay for the complexity, as our ancestors did when they increasingly ran societies on fossil fuels.”

A protest group in Argentina demonstrates against United States interference in the crises in Syria and Venezuela

Also paralleling Rome, Homer-Dixon predicts that Western societies’ collapse will be preceded by a retraction of people and resources back to their core homelands. As poorer nations continue to disintegrate amid conflicts and natural disasters, enormous waves of migrants will stream out of failing regions, seeking refuge in more stable states. Western societies will respond with restrictions and even bans on immigration; multi-billion dollar walls and border-patrolling drones and troops; heightened security on who and what gets in; and more authoritarian, populist styles of governing. “It’s almost an immunological attempt by countries to sustain a periphery and push pressure back,” Homer-Dixon says.

Meanwhile, a widening gap between rich and poor within those already vulnerable Western nations will push society toward further instability from the inside. “By 2050, the US and UK will have evolved into two-class societies where a small elite lives a good life and there is declining well-being for the majority,” Randers says. “What will collapse is equity.”

Whether in the US, UK or elsewhere, the more dissatisfied and afraid people become, Homer-Dixon says, the more of a tendency they have to cling to their in-group identity – whether religious, racial or national. Denial, including of the emerging prospect of societal collapse itself, will be widespread, as will rejection of evidence-based fact. If people admit that problems exist at all, they will assign blame for those problems to everyone outside of their in-group, building up resentment. “You’re setting up the psychological and social prerequisites for mass violence,” Homer-Dixon says. When localised violence finally does break out, or another country or group decides to invade, collapse will be difficult to avoid.

Europe, with its close proximity to Africa, its land bridge to the Middle East and its neighbourly status with more politically volatile nations to the East, will feel these pressures first. The US will likely hold out longer, surrounded as it is by ocean buffers.

A severe drought in Syria left many people – especially young men – unemployed, discontent and desperate, which may have been a factor that led to civil war

On the other hand, Western societies may not meet with a violent, dramatic end. In some cases, civilisations simply fade out of existence – becoming the stuff of history not with a bang but a whimper. The British Empire has been on this path since 1918, Randers says, and other Western nations might go this route as well. As time passes, they will become increasingly inconsequential and, in response to the problems driving their slow fade-out, will also starkly depart from the values they hold dear today. “Western nations are not going to collapse, but the smooth operation and friendly nature of Western society will disappear, because inequity is going to explode,” Randers argues. “Democratic, liberal society will fail, while stronger governments like China will be the winners.” 

Some of these forecasts and early warning signs should sound familiar, precisely because they are already underway. While Homer-Dixon is not surprised at the world’s recent turn of events – he predicted some of them in his 2006 book – he didn’t expect these developments to occur before the mid-2020s.

Western civilisation is not a lost cause, however. Using reason and science to guide decisions, paired with extraordinary leadership and exceptional goodwill, human society can progress to higher and higher levels of well-being and development, Homer-Dixon says. Even as we weather the coming stresses of climate change, population growth and dropping energy returns, we can maintain our societies and better them. But that requires resisting the very natural urge, when confronted with such overwhelming pressures, to become less cooperative, less generous and less open to reason. “The question is, how can we manage to preserve some kind of humane world as we make our way through these changes?” Homer-Dixon says.

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Peterman333's picture

Let me sum it up without even having read one full sentence of this tripe.

Know Jesus, know peace, no Jesus, no peace.

Schlub's picture

Imagine a large population, like Britain, being told total bullshit, and most believing it... nevermind...

SanJoseMutza's picture

An extinction event seems more desirable to me. Homo sapien needs to go. The Universe will be much better off. 

Twee Surgeon's picture

It would be nice to see an Extinction Event for the BBC. What a pack of treasonous scammy shit balls.

DirtySanchez's picture

To any and all rag heads, jews, and niggers:

If you think I'm going down without killing hundreds of you savages first, you are sadly mistaken.

I am trained, ccl, well armed, and willing.

Bring it.

Have your affairs in order.

You will be dead within the day you attack me.

Solio's picture

Collapses into a mountain of pedos and totally destroyed victims.

Pliskin's picture

Did I read that right, are the BBC trying to point to a 'drought' and 'poor governance' that started all this shit in Syria?

Hey, BBC, why don't you mention the fact that Assad stood up to the U.S. Qatar and Saudi Arabia, not to mention the Israelis, why don't you tallk about Turkey and Saudi employing thousands of jihadis from around the world to go to Syria and fight, why don't you talk about the U.S. sending weapons into the country from Libya, why don't you talk about the fact that Saudi camel-jockeys are so scared of people seeeing through their facade of a country that they want to distract attention from it anyway they can, and why oh why BBC is there no mention of Hanoi John's involvement in all this?

Do they still have 'Points of View' in England?  Perhaps a strongly worded letter to Anne Robinson would be more appropriate?

Is the BBC still run by Jews and queers?

Fucking Pedo cover-upper mongs at the BBC.

onwisconsinbadger's picture

No such thing i.e. western civilization. All stolen with a power of guns and still going on. Who stole Saddam and Gaddafi gold ?

HenryHall's picture

Overpopulation will destroy civilization. All civilizations.

All other dangers are relatively insignificant compared with overpopulation.

Only Mao was able and willing to actually do something about overpopulation. Post-Mao China has backtracked on the one-child policy.

brushhog's picture

The message from this "BBC" article...If only we can stop 'global warming', adopt wealth redistribution, and stop Trump's multi-billion dollar, populist wall western society is doomed! LOL. You think they have a political agenda?? Naahh.

Lemme guess, we should restart the TPP, crank up NAFTA, empower the UN, and drop the "crazy" idea of a border tax too right?

Moros-is-Here's picture

Yeah, "explosive population growth." And how do you solve that, Comrade? I don't think the proles are going to voluntarily march like sheep to the Al Gore Population Reduction Centers for "elimination." Nor do I think they will put up with contraceptive junk being put into the water supply. Nope, The elites will cull the herd using the tried and true method of WAR! Nuclear war will eliminate the stupid, slow, old and weak rapidly. Of course, it's going to trash large chunks of the landscape, but the elite don't care, since they don't live there.....

SnottyBubbles's picture

All of the popuation growth on the planet for the remainder of the 21st century is demographically out of Africa. Any suggestions?

overmedicatedundersexed's picture

the progressive leftist post action report from Berkley ca fight with Trump groups:

"I honestly think we need a campaign to get more antifa armed. It seems that seems to be the biggest problem with our resistance. They’re mostly armed, why aren’t we?

Not getting disarmed is a big part of the problem, yes, but we need more than flags and bats. We need to take notes from the John Brown Gun Club and get firearms and training. I know getting firearms in states and cities we have a presence in is usually a hassle, but even handguns would help. It would certainly put a psychological element in while holding fash back. Who do you think a fascist is more afraid of? People with only flags and bats, or people with flags, bats, and guns?"



violent street fights ain't gunna be a big help to  western civilization making it thru this century

cherry picker's picture

ZH is starting to become fake news.  Over the weekend it was parroting other sources about the armada to NK and then later two more carriers.

There are no carriers or armadas close to NK and as of now who knows if one is heading that way.

All this war mongering and fear spreading for what purpose, click bait?

One other ZHer pointed out that the locations of the ships are available on the Navy site, so I checked.

I would rather ZH get rid of some of its contributers and have fewer articles, but have a little faith the article is worth reading and a little true.


AKKadian's picture

What a load of crap. Thats all I've heard my whole life, the world is doomed. BS. BBC, British fucking island, all those that live on Island are insane. At this point I would be thinking most people would love to see it all go to crap, so as not to here about it any more.!!!

FORCE's picture

stop talking out of your arse & think about this truism;you cannot have infinite growth (of population,pollution & resource extraction) on a finite planet.

Falconsixone's picture

I didn't know the british could write english. Is this translated from musmindless?

gcjohns1971's picture

"Drivel" is an optimistic assessment.

How about "Cartoonish"?



The author defines slogans as problems, without evidence of causeation.

You see, global crises such as gooberification require collective responses to avoid societal collapse.

Where we differ is on who is the goober, and what to do about it.

I have evidence and reason on my side...and this guy has an intellectual cargo cult for global centralization supported by...slogans for liberal arts majors that amount to less real substance than "8 out of 10 Dentists agree..."

Know what? 8 of 10 Dentists agree that they like breasts.

It proves nothing but that they are men.

ali-ali-al-qomfri's picture

Rome, meet Detroit.

He's a bit younger but did pretty much the same as you did Rome, but in a shorter time.

ou look thirsty, would you like a glass of Flint water?

SnottyBubbles's picture

Given the articles premise that environmental impact is the #1 cause of collapse. What was the environmental tragedy that led to the fall of the Roman Empire? The Bronze age collapse round about 1200BC? The 3rd Reich and Imperial Japan? ... the correct answers are ... in order ... Barbarians, the Sea People, and the Allies fought harder than the losers and both the winners and losers experienced the same weather.


Given the articles premise that economic inequality is the #2 cause of collapse. Why did absolute monarchs reign over human history until the end of WW2? 


ZH does a good job airing ridiculous leftist arguments for critical thinking.





MrSteve's picture

Are you calling out Howard Zinn's version of history? Karl Marx who couldn't support his family but knew what was wrong with the world? Those leftists? I like Diamond's concepts on collapse, society losing its energy subsidy and then local economic supports.

There is always Asimov's Foundation and Empire histories for broad reaches across human enterprise.

hooligan2009's picture

my read is that two things caused the fall of rome - christianity and lead piping in major cities including rome.

Deep Snorkeler's picture

Deeply Suppressed Thoughts

1. Corporate power has merged with, The State.

For both You and Me

2. They now employ a force called, US Army.

For both You and Me

3. They control the local, Militarized Police.

For both You and Me

I play trombone at the Kit Kat Club.



monad's picture

At its most extreme, authoritarianism is exemplified by the isms of the 20th Century - Communism, Fascism and Nazism. The Fascists and Nazis were responsible for the deaths of more than 30 million human beings, while more than 50 million are estimated to have been murdered by Stalin and the Russian Communists, while Mao Tse Tung and the Chinese Communists are believed to have accounted for some 80 million.

Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities, but the influence of the religion paralyzes the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world.

Winston Churchill

Add to this list the new isms.

Ali blabla's picture

How crowded the world must have been if not for all these wars.. 

oldguyonBMXbike's picture

this was before birth control and mass abortions...



monad's picture

Only to the chosenites, whiffing the atoms of Napolean's last breathes, and the aromas Catherine's more abundant bestial ardures. Ever since that smell, Whitey's fault!

Nothing against their slaves, mind you. Just that was enough to scare the Greys off.

Recriminator's picture

Historically and factually you are 95 % on target. However, of all the religions and "isms" Christianity is most "pure". Sure there have been episodes of violence connected to Christianity - but they are relatively few - and most of those were defensive in nature.

Vuke's picture

Every cliche in the book dragged into this including global warming . It's the end. Arm yourself and into the trenches.

lie_to_me's picture

I didn't know that the CIA could cause droughts

oldguyonBMXbike's picture

I read to the part about climate change and stopped reading.  



Recriminator's picture

A "rhetorical masterpiece" - filled with bovine fecal matter ! Any time you read either or both terms "ecological strain" or "climate change", you know (if you have any scientific or technical background) there is little or no validity to the argument. While it is hard to assign specific motives to each of these underlying Leftist themes, they all imply that the answer is MORE GOVERNMENT INVOLVEMENT. The rest of the dots you can connect for yourself.

Joe A's picture

Really?  We are currently putting so much pressure on the environment that that environment is losing its ability to sustain itself and human life. We depend on ecosystems and biodiversity for our welbeing and welfare. The planet is losing species are a unprecedented rate, including pollinators. 2/3 to 3/4 of what we eat depends on pollinators. It will become ever more expensive to sustain ourselves.

Fake Trump's picture

President Kushner and Trump are the human factor.

pcrs's picture

Syria was caused by climate change says the state paid professor. 

What a nonsense : Syria was caused by governments. A drought is easily handled with imports by a free society. It is like saying the dutch in the hunger winter of 1944 died of climate change. They died of nazis. 

Ace006's picture

Foreign governments. Chief among whom the USA.

Cardinal Fang's picture

Civilization is a very thin veneer.

We could discuss art as truth and how the theme of the breakdown of society is depicted in Conrad's Heart of Darkness...or...

Watch Apocalypse Now.

'I love the smell of Napalm in the morning...' smells like civilization.

Ace006's picture

Possibly one of the dumbest movies ever made.

onmail1's picture

west is destroying the rest
so it deserves

peippe's picture

usually I stay away from marinas, 

but do scope out which boat you'd take if it turns ugly.

you'll want 30 feet, minimum, sail power, of course, 

autopilot, look for solar array, you, me & others, we'll do fine.

Just get offshore when it hits.

Peanut butter, jerky,fishing pole & net. Vitamin C caplets.

Willpower & timing. Blow a little smoke up everyone's ass,

people have been lying to one another since the invention of the spoken word,

saywhat you have to say to survive.  If you fear water, it's the woods for you then, good luck. : ) 

Akhenaten II's picture

As soon as I saw they were factoring in man-made 'Climate Change' into their reckonings I stopped reading.

FAKE ANALYSIS based on FAKE NEWS.  We are heading for an ice-age now anyway:

bogbeagle's picture

I made it as far as "Syria" then quit.


The guy is simply advocating for more Central Planning.  Just another Commie, presenting his ideology in different packaging.

OliverAnd's picture

Western civilization could collapse???  Dear BBC with all the debt collected by all the western nations, western civilization has already begun to collapse. Don't believe me?  Ask your fellow citizens how much of their hard working pounds go towards paying all sorts of taxes because those we have voted for have done a ferocious job in balancing budgets.  Sooner rather than later people will be unable to pay taxes and live the lives they do; that is the most dangerous position to put your citizens in because it will lead to chaos, and chaos leads to despair, and with dispair we lead ourselves closer to extinction as our animal instincts take over any civilization we may have created.  Currently at 7 billion people that is a lot of animals.

Shue's picture

This cunt of a so called professor can shove his propaganda article up his bung hole. 

Fidelios Automata's picture

In Syria's case - CIA/Mossad/Turkish/Saudi conspiracy.
This chaos is intentional.

Manipuflation's picture

There are some cool people out there.  I have seen much more advanced versions of this.  I am not saying that I am one of them.

I tip my hat.  Precision and accuracy are not the same things.  

Farqued Up's picture

No rule of law, all Ponzis mature and run out of suckers, buying votes requires robbing Peter to pay Paul, Paul loves it, Peter starts stacking bullets, get an extra passport this shit is getting hot and is about to blow. Even the lazy, limp wrists at Berkeley are trying to fight, pathetic girly men can't whip their meat. Hilarious.

The real men in society are exercising extreme calm and restraint while the moonbeams and moonbats are going bug fucked without knowing how to really show their asses. They will get some training if they keep it up, they really don't realize the shit they are stirring and the class of shitkickers they are messing with.

I laugh every time I think of that socialist cunt teacher at Mizzou ordering "more muscle over here" and that big pussy lumbering over with the lost look. This is going to get entertaining before it's over. Buy gold metal and popcorn stocks, non GMO, of course. Show time!!

JSBach1's picture

Given historical precedent, as it pertains to human conquests over it's fellow-inhabitant, including quasi-intelligent forms of life, such as plants, animals, and other surviving/extinct-simple/distant life-forms, how much removed, from natural-evolution is the modern-human, given the prima facie evidence at-hand?

Let us take, for example, the primates, who persist in their ever-dwindling habitats, notwithstanding the self-serving maneuvers laid at their expense. The analogies, in the behavioral patterns are striking, at the onset of said foresight. They/We tend to live, communicate, hunt-for-nourishment-producing-sources-of-energy, develop a communal-sense-of-belonging, delegate-control-of-the-collective-community-to-some-pervasive-show-of-force, and ultimately rally-in-common-defense-and-support-of this abdication-of-rule when faced with a challenge to this arrangement. How far-reaching has progress been realized, in the end, when juxtaposed to it's descendants? There may be arguments on both sides, however, how fundamental is this progression really? Look at the communal structure in order to ascertain "progress".

In the final analysis, and akin to our predecessors, we, in all likelihood, will extinguish the very flame set by our forefathers. It is the populace, along with its' watchful(less) eye, that has the last-word, when determining in the fruits of its' manifestation.

floosy's picture

There is a Science Fiction book called "The Mote in Gods Eye" by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.  It is basically about first contact with an alien society.  But what is interesting is that eventually the humans work out that this is a very old alien race but the problem this alien society has is constant explosive population and technological growth followed by sudden total collapse when they reach a tipping point, in a never ending cycle of thousands of years. And the higher the societies technological advances when the collapse occurs the further back they fall and the longer the next rise takes.   

One could imagine that it was in fact an observation of Humanity.