Our modern global human civilzation is a /complex system made up of hundreds of political, economic, industrial, and cultural subsystems, all interconnected in countless ways. All complex systems must maintain their balance or risk /collapse. A large enough to shock to any of our civilizational subsystems, or too many different smaller shocks at the same time, can cause civilization to crumble in the same way that a bridge can collapse if one of its joints give out.
Civilizational collapse, then, is not about paranoia or irrational thinking, but a natural possiblity due to the structure of civilization. A wooden building isn't guaranteed to burn down, but it is capable of burning down and so it's important to understand how to prevent fires. Likewise, civilization is a complex system which means it is structurally capable of collapsing, and so it's important to understand what the warning signs and consequences of collapse are.
Civilizational Collapse in Context
Thinking About Collapse is Rational
Civilizational collapse, in its broadest definition, can be thought of as "the end of civilization", though it's a lot more nuanced than, and not necessarily as catastrophic as that. In pop-culture media it is generally portrayed with this cartoonish simplicity, and when people or characters talk about civilizational collapse they are usually framed as doomsday preppers, conspiracy theorists, or otherwise disconnected from reality. We all understand that well adjusted people don't treat every bad news headline as a sign of the coming apocalypse, and in general this is a good thing that keeps the world humming along.
But as stresses on our civilization become greater, from wealth inequality to climate destabilization, we may become more and more curious about asking the question: "If human civilization were to collapse, what are the warning signs, and how will it play out?" After all, the only thing more disconnected from reality than believing the end is always nigh is believing that the end will never come. The end always comes. It never hurts to be prepared.
Understanding that the structure of modern civilization is a complex system with many connected components lets us see that systemic collapse is not an irrational fear, but a very real "civilizational engineering" concern. To put it another way: would you walk across a bridge designed by someone who thought that gravity was nonsense, or live in a house built by someone who didn't know that wood is flammable? Assuming not, then why would you live as part of a civilization that doesn't take collapse seriously?
Assessing the Risk of Collapse
After agreeing with the notion that collapse is possible, the next step is to assess the risk of it actually happening. If we were to analyze the risk of a bridge collapsing, we would look at what loads it is mathematically designed to support, understand the types of natural disturbances that the bridge can expect to encounter (like strong winds or earthquakes), and then finally look at the current state of wear on the bridge. In the end, we'd have what we call a "risk assessment" based on all of those factors.
What's important to note is that two of those factors are changing over time: the possible external events can change to become milder or more extreme, and the wear of the bridge is always increasing. This means that any risk assessment that we do is not permanently true, but just a snapshot of the risk at a certain moment in time. Without frequent re-assessment and maintenance, a bridge can collapse at unexpected times.
Civilizational Risk Assessment
Unfortunately, our modern world is a lot more complicated than a bridge. There are thousands of critical industries and institutions in the world that are all made up of thousands more sub-components. For example, we can generally assume that if our global food system suddenly failed, it would cause chaos, hunger, death, and political unrest that could unravel the rest of society. Likewise for logistics, energy, finance, and medicine.
But how can we get a grasp on how healthy those systems are?
(to be contd.)