2. And Then It Collapsed: Civilisation As The Ultimate Pyramid Scheme
There is a growing consensus in academia that unless we make rapid, radical and far reaching changes to our way of life, then there’s a good chance that at some point in the decades to come our entire civilisation may simply collapse.10 We not only face the prospect of climate breakdown, the threat of ongoing pandemics and the economic hardship that will follow, but also a combination of rapid biodiversity loss, increasingly vast inequalities in the distribution of wealth, widespread oppression of minority groups, rapid technological disruptions to our economic systems, the ever present threat of nuclear war and the increasing likelihood of a series of global food shortages. Just to name a few.
Though in many ways this high level of threat is nothing new, as our species has a long and colourful history of forming societal structures that have buckled under the weight of their own increasing levels of prosperity, and the complicatedness that tends to come with it. As the historian Ronald Wright explains ‘Civilizations...feed on their local ecology until it is degraded, thriving only while they grow. When they can no longer expand, they fall victim to their own success. Civilization is a pyramid scheme’.11 And sadly, as we continue to plunder the natural world at ever increasing rates, our current version of civilisation appears to be no different from the rest.
What’s even more disconcerting is that civilisations tend to falter just as they appear most robust. As Jared Diamond notes ‘One of the main lessons to be learned from the collapses of the Maya, Anasazi, Easter Islanders, and those other past societies...is that a society’s steep decline may begin only a decade or two after the society reaches its peak numbers (in population), wealth, and power.’12 Which means that in less than twenty years time, our own socio-economic system could also begin to come apart at the seams. And due to its global span, if it falls, it’s likely to fall very hard indeed.
Historically the survivors of such a collapse would often move along to an adjacent ecosystem and simply start over again. But now that humanity has already populated the vast majority of arable land on the planet, it seems that we’re finally being asked to radically change our ways. As Jeremy Lent puts it, ‘we need a fundamental transformation of society encompassing virtually every aspect of the human experience: our values, our goals and our collective behaviour. If we are to succeed in sustaining civilisation, the meaning we derive from our existence must arise from our connectedness: to ourselves, to other humans, and to the entire natural world.’13
So if we find ourselves the inheritors of a political, economic and cultural narrative that is leading us well and truly in the wrong direction, then it appears we have little choice but to come together and collectively rewrite a more resonant human story. But how do we do this? What are the narratives that need replacing? And which new ones might be waiting to emerge?