US Elites Remain Incapable of Understanding China

by Pepe Escobar (February 16 2019)

A new report on US policy toward China launched by the Asia Society in New York is another example of how supposedly bipartisan US intellectual elites, instead of offering impartial advice, do little more than parrot Washington’s talking points, failing to admit they know nothing of substance about the existential “threats” posed by Russia and China.

The report “Course Correction: Toward an Effective and Sustainable China Policy” was written in collaboration with the 21st Century Chinese Center at the University of California, San Diego. Orville Schell, one of the chairs of the Task Force Report, should be seen as one of the least biased among an uneven basket of self-declared US experts on China.

Still, he frames the report as trying to find a way between “confronting China” and “accommodating China”. That does not include “respecting” China – considering all the nation’s achievements forty years after the reforms launched by Little Helmsman Deng Xiaoping.

Then Schell admits his experts are left “wondering what’s going on in the upper reaches of the leadership in China”. That’s even more serious, implying no intel on the ground.

So we’re left with China-bashing. We learn of devious attacks against the “rules-based global order” – which is always not so subtly equated with the “interests and values of the United States”; China’s “mercantilist zero-sum policies”; and the “lavishly funded state-led effort to build China into a high-tech superpower” – as if no country in the Global South should be allowed to go high-tech.

On foreign policy, the report warns about “expansive claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea”, which is a de facto regurgitation of the Pentagon’s master narrative.

Earlier this week, the head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that US-China competition represents “two incompatible visions of the future”, and that China is the “greatest long-term strategic threat to a free and open Indo-Pacific and to the United States”.

What about China’s Belt and Road Initiative (“BRI”)

The full report is at The Asia Society is promoting it as the most comprehensive analysis of the state of play between the US and China – the result of two years of work. Yet it walks and talks more like a summary of the frantically repetitive news cycle always focusing on China’s “hegemonic” designs on 5G, the suspicious, technology-stealing Made in China 2025, attacks on “freedom of navigation” and China’s insidious nationalism.

As if the Trump administration was not applying myriad forms of economic pressure – and not only on China – ranging from exercises of sovereignty to unabashed protectionism.

The report recommends applying more pressure and exercising more control to “correct” Chinese behavior. So, it’s easy to imagine how this condescending, exceptionalist-based attitude is totally dismissed by Beijing.

When one looks at the signatories of the report, it’s easy to see why.

Among them, there’s Winston Lord, a former US ambassador to China and former right-hand man to Henry Kissinger; Kurt Campbell, the man who invented the “pivot to Asia”, sold it to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who convinced President Obama about it; former trade negotiator and Clinton acolyte Charlene Barshevsky; and David Shambaugh from George Washington University, who used to be reliable but has recently veered toward a Sinophobic path.

Instead of “confronting” or “accommodating” China, what passes for the upper reaches of the US intellectual elite could do worse than trying to understand China. And that means understanding the scope of an actual policy; the New Silk Roads, or Belt and Road Initiative.

BRI is the de facto foreign policy developed for a geoeconomic superpower all the way to 2049, based on trade, investment, and internationalization of what is bound to become a major currency, the yuan.

Up to the end of last year, the China Development Bank, Exim Bank, the Silk Road Fund, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank (NDB) set up by the major emerging economies had invested at least $460 billion in myriad BRI projects.

BRI is already a global band. For all the 24/7 demonization, the absolute majority of BRI-related investments accrue China’s power projection, soft power included. That’s visible all across the Global South. Fine tunings, as in Malaysia or Sri Lanka, are inevitable. This is a massive work in progress – and it’s just beginning.

Until US elites understand what Belt and Road is all about, economically and geopolitically, expect think tank-concocted containment and accommodation strategies to flounder in irrelevance.


Asia Times is not responsible for the opinions, facts or any media content presented by contributors. In case of abuse, click here to report.

Pepe Escobar is a Brazilian journalist who has written for Asia Times for many years, covering events throughout Asia and the Middle East. He has also been an analyst for RT and Sputnik News and previously worked for Al Jazeera.

How Western Civilisation Could Collapse

Some possible precipitating factors are already in place. How the West reacts to them will determine the world’s future.

by Rachel Nuwer (April 18 2017)

This story is featured in BBC Future’s “Best of 2017” collection. Discover more of our picks:

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 (Credit: Getty Images)

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.


Disaster comes when elites push society toward instability and eventual collapse by hoarding huge quantities of wealth and resources


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 ten percent of global income earners are responsible for almost as much total greenhouse gas emissions as the bottom ninety percent 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 (Credit: Getty Images)

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 (2012). “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.


Another sign that we’re entering into a danger zone is the increasing occurrence of “nonlinearities”, or sudden, unexpected changes in the world’s order


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 (2008). 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 (Credit: iStock)

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 100 BC, 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 Third 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.


Eventually, Rome could no longer afford to prop up its heightened complexities


According to Joseph Tainter, a professor of environment and society at Utah State University and author of The Collapse of Complex Societies (1990), 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 Third 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 backward. 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 (Credit: Getty Images)

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 (Credit Getty Images)


As time passes, some empires simply become increasingly inconsequential


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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Carbon Dioxide Missions Fall …

in Eighteen Countries with Strong Policies, Study Finds

You develop the policies, you fund them, and then you get emission decreases.

by Nicole Mortillaro, Senior Reporter, Science

CBC News (February 25 2019)

Countries moving away from fossil fuels and toward renewables such as solar and wind energy are finding that it’s making a difference in decreasing their CO2 emissions. (Pat Martel/CBC)

In a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, researchers suggest that countries that are turning to renewable energy sources and moving away from fossil fuels are making progress in reducing CO2 emissions.

The study looked at emissions between 2005 and 2015. Globally, CO2 was on the rise – about 2.2 percent annually – but in eighteen countries, their emissions saw a decline. These eighteen countries account for 28 percent of global emissions.

“We went in these eighteen countries and looked at what policies they had in place … and we found that, in the countries where there’s more policy in place, the decreases in emissions were larger”, said Corinne Le Quere, a Canadian professor of climate change science at the University of East Anglia in the UK. “That suggests that the policies do work”.

But another contributing factor, they found, was that these countries were also using less energy overall. They might have more efficient heating systems, or more electric cars on the roads, for example.

While it may seem like common sense – better policies beget positive outcomes – there are other factors, such as economic growth (or decline) that influences emissions and energy output. For example, the researchers did find that the financial crisis of 2008–2009 showed up in the data, with a decrease in emissions.

What the researchers found most encouraging about their study is that, for the two countries that were the control group, if you removed their economic growth, policies encouraging energy efficiency were linked to cuts in emissions.

“Really, this study shows it’s not a mystery. We have the technology: you put the effort in place, you develop the policies, you fund them, and then you get emission decreases”, Le Quere said.

Unfortunately, Canada didn’t make the list. Emissions in Canada decreased by about half a percent, Le Quere said, compared to some countries that saw a three or four percent decrease.

“One of the messages that come out of our analysis is that policy matters, and the efforts of policies”, she said. “You need to have a lot of big policies in place and policies at the national level; policies that are well-funded, that are regulated”.

However, she did note that emissions are decreasing in Canada, albeit slowly.

And though China, the world’s biggest CO2 emitter, didn’t make the list of eighteen countries, their emissions have flatlined, she said.


The researcher said that, while many countries are making an effort to reduce emissions, more needs to be done if we’re to keep below two degrees Celsius of warming, a target set out by the Paris Agreement.

Climatologist Michael Mann, a professor at Penn State University in Pennsylvania and director of the university’s Earth System Science Center has hope.

“There is still an available path to stabilizing greenhouse warming below two degrees Celsius, a common threshold for defining dangerous human interference with the global climate”, he said. “But it requires a rapid decrease in carbon emissions (about ten percent a year over the next decade) at a time when emissions have shown a small uptick”.

Solar panels produce renewable energy at the photovoltaic park in Les Mees, in the department of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, southern France in March 2015. The solar farm of the Colle des Mees, the biggest in France, consists of 112,780 solar modules covering an area of 200 hectares of land and representing 100 MW of power. (Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters)

He notes that these eighteen countries are already ahead of the game when it comes to a renewable, energy-driven economy.

At a time when scientists and science communicators are trying to find more effective ways of communicating the impending threat of climate change, this study, the authors say, illustrates some positive news.

“New scientific research on climate change tends to ring the alarm bells ever more loudly”, said co-author Charlie Wilson, also from East Anglia. “Our findings add a thin sliver of hope”.

Le Quere said that countries need to invest more in renewables in order to make the cost come down, much in the same way that was done with solar energy.

“What we’re learning from the experience so far is that learning by doing pays off a lot”, she said.

Mann, who is well-known for the “hockey stick graph” he produced in 1998, illustrating a rapid rise in global temperatures, is also telling people that there is hope if we change to renewable energy.

“There is a clear path toward averting catastrophic climate change”, he said. “We just have to follow it”.


Nicole Mortillaro has an avid interest in all things science. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books.

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Why is China Building a New Silk Road?

by Anna Bruce-Lockhart, Editor


World Economic Forum (June 26 2016)


It’s proved costly and controversial. So why is China reopening its trade route with the west? Image: REUTERS/Bobby Yip


China is reviving the historic Silk Road trade route that runs between its own borders and Europe. Announced in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, the idea is that two new trade corridors – one overland, the other by sea – will connect the country with its neighbours in the west: Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.

The project has proved expensive and controversial. So why is China doing it?

Image: Wall Street Journal

There are strong commercial and geopolitical forces at play here, first among which is China’s vast industrial overcapacity – mainly in steel manufacturing and heavy equipment – for which the new trade route would serve as an outlet. As China’s domestic market slows down, opening new trade markets could go a long way towards keeping the national economy buoyant.

Hoping to lift the value of cross-border trade to $2.5 trillion within a decade, President Xi Jinping has channeled nearly $1 trillion of government money into the project. He’s also encouraging state-owned enterprises and financial institutions to invest in infrastructure and construction abroad.

“It is not an economic project, it is a geopolitical project – and it is very strategic”, Nadège Rolland, an analyst at the National Bureau for Asian Research, told He’s not alone in suspecting China of a tactical repositioning in the global economy; it’s clear that relationships with the ASEAN region, Central Asia, and European countries stand to improve significantly if China directs more of its capital into developing infrastructure overseas.

Moreover, by striking up economic and cultural partnerships with other countries, China cements its status as a dominant player in world affairs.

“We will support the One Belt, One Road project”, said President of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Jin Liquin. “But before we spend shareholders’ money, which is really the taxpayers’ money, we have three requirements. The new trade route should be promoting growth, be socially acceptable, and be environmentally friendly.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

The Lifespans of Ancient Civilisations

The graphic below presents a list of civilisations to compare how long they lasted.

by Luke Kemp (February 20 2019)

One way to look at the rise and fall of past civilisations is to compare their longevity. This can be difficult, because there is no strict definition of civilisation, nor an overarching database of their births and deaths.

In the graphic below, I have compared the lifespan of various civilisations, which I define as a society with agriculture, multiple cities, military dominance in its geographical region, and a continuous political structure. Given this definition, all empires are civilisations, but not all civilisations are empires. The data is drawn from two studies on the growth and decline of empires (for 3000~600BC and 600BC~600), and an informal, crowd-sourced survey of ancient civilisations (which I have amended).

Read the full article about this graphic and the stresses behind the demise of civilisations:

Pinch/zoom to enlarge (Credit: Nigel Hawtin)

Civilisation [Duration in years]

Ancient Egypt, Old Kingdom [505]

Ancient Egypt, Middle Kingdom [405]

Ancient Egypt, New Kingdom [501]

Norte Chico Civilisation [827]

Harappan Civilisation (Indus Valley Civilisation) [800]

Kerma [400]

Akkadian Empire [187]

Elam Civilisation (Awan Dynasty) [157]

Minoan Civilisation (Protopalatial) [500]

Xia Dynasty [500]

Third Dynasty of Ur [46]

Old Assyrian Empire [241]

Middle Assyrian Empire [313]

Neo Assyrian Empire [322]

Elam Civilisation (Eparti Dynasty) [210]

First Babylonian Dynasty [299]

Old Hittie Empire [250]

Minoan Civilisation (Neopalatial) [250]

Shang Dynasty [478]

Mycenae [400]

Vedic Civilisation [1000]

Middle Hittite Kingdom [70]

Elam Civilisation (Middle Elamite Period) [342]

New Hittite Kingdom [220]

Olmecs [1000]

Phoenicia [661]

Zhou Dynasty (Western Period) [351]

Kingdom of Israel and Judah [298]

Chavin Culture [700]

Urartu [225]

Kushite Kingdom [1150]

Etruscans [404]

Zhou Dynasty (Eastern Zhou Spring Period) [330]

Zhou Dynasty (Eastern Zhou Warring States Period) [411]

Ancient Rome [244]

Elam Civilisation (Neo-Elamite Period) [203]

Phrygia [43]

Lydia [144]

Magadha Empire [364]

Chaldean Dynasty (Babylon) [87]

Medean Empire [66]

Orontid Dynasty [540]

Scythians [800]

Mahanjanapadas [200]

Carthage [667]

Achaemenid Empire [220]

Roman Republic [461]

Nanda Empire [24]

Ptolemaic Egypt [302]

Classical Greek [265]

Hellenistic [177]

Maurya Empire [137]

Seleucid Empire [249]

First Chera Empire [500]

Early Chola Empire [500]

Maghada-Maurya [90]

Parthian Empire [469]

Satavahana Dynasty [450]

Qin Dynasty [14]

Xiongnu Empire [184]

Han Dynasty (Western Period) [197]

Numidia [156]

Teotihuacans [735]

Kingdom of Armenia [442]

Hsiung Nu Han [120]

Sunga Empire [112]

Andhra [370]

Aksumite Empire [1100]

Kanva Dynasty [45]

Three Kingdoms of Korea [725]

Saka [140]

Roman Empire [525]

Han Dynasty (Eastern Period) [195]

Kushan [200]

Bactria [70]

Ptolemaic [290]

Liu-Sung [250]

Gupta [90]

Hun [100]

Byzantine [350]

Yuen-Yuen [30]

Toba [130]

White Hun [100]

Visigoth [240]

T’u Chueh Turk [90]

Avar [220]

Western Turk [70]


Luke Kemp is a researcher based at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge. He tweets @lukakemp.

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital, and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.

Copyright (c) 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.

Are We on the Road to Civilisation Collapse?

Studying the demise of historic civilisations can tell us how much risk we face today. Worryingly, the signs are worsening.

by Luke Kemp (February 19 2019)

Abandoned statue in Syria (Credit: Getty Images)

Deep Civilisation

This article is part of a new BBC Future series about the long view of humanity, which aims to stand back from the daily news cycle and widen the lens of our current place in time. Modern society is suffering from “temporal exhaustion”, the sociologist Elise Boulding once said. “If one is mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present, there is no energy left for imagining the future”, she wrote.

That’s why the Deep Civilisation season will explore what really matters in the broader arc of human history and what it means for us and our descendants.


Great civilisations are not murdered. Instead, they take their own lives.


So concluded the historian Arnold Toynbee in his twelve-volume magnum opus, A Study of History (1934~1961). It was an exploration of the rise and fall of 28 different civilisations.

He was right in some respects: civilisations are often responsible for their own decline. However, their self-destruction is usually assisted.

The Roman Empire, for example, was the victim of many ills including overexpansion, climatic change, environmental degradation, and poor leadership. But it was also brought to its knees when Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 and the Vandals in 455.

Collapse is often quick and greatness provides no immunity. The Roman Empire covered 4.4 million square kilometers in 390. Five years later, it had plummeted to two million square kilometers. By 476, the empire’s reach was zero.

Our deep past is marked by recurring failure. As part of my research at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, I am attempting to find out why collapse occurs through a historical autopsy. What can the rise and fall of historic civilisations tell us about our own? What are the forces that precipitate or delay a collapse? And do we see similar patterns today?

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The first way to look at past civilisations is to compare their longevity. This can be difficult, because there is no strict definition of civilisation, nor an overarching database of their births and deaths.

In the graphic below, I have compared the lifespan of various civilisations, which I define as a society with agriculture, multiple cities, military dominance in its geographical region, and a continuous political structure. Given this definition, all empires are civilisations, but not all civilisations are empires. The data is drawn from two studies on the growth and decline of empires (for 3000~600 BC and 600 BC~600), and an informal, crowd-sourced survey of ancient civilisations (which I have amended).

Click/pinch to enlarge. (Credit: Nigel Hawtin)

Here’s the full list of the civilisations displayed above:

Collapse can be defined as a rapid and enduring loss of population, identity, and socio-economic complexity. Public services crumble and disorder ensues as government loses control of its monopoly on violence.

Virtually all past civilisations have faced this fate. Some recovered or transformed, such as the Chinese and Egyptian. Other collapses were permanent, as was the case of Easter Island. Sometimes the cities at the epicentre of collapse are revived, as was the case with Rome. In other cases, such as the Mayan ruins, they are left abandoned as a mausoleum for future tourists.

What can this tell us about the future of global modern civilisation? Are the lessons of agrarian empires applicable to our post-18th Century period of industrial capitalism?



Collapse may be a normal phenomenon for civilisations, regardless of their size and technological stage


I would argue that they are. Societies of the past and present are just complex systems composed of people and technology. The theory of “normal accidents” suggests that complex technological systems regularly give way to failure. So collapse may be a normal phenomenon for civilisations, regardless of their size and stage.

We may be more technologically advanced now. But this gives little ground to believe that we are immune to the threats that undid our ancestors. Our newfound technological abilities even bring new, unprecedented challenges to the mix.

And while our scale may now be global, collapse appears to happen to both sprawling empires and fledgling kingdoms alike. There is no reason to believe that greater size is armour against societal dissolution. Our tightly-coupled, globalised economic system is, if anything, more likely to make crisis spread.

Climatic pressures are worsening (Credit: Getty Images)

If the fate of previous civilisations can be a roadmap to our future, what does it say? One method is to examine the trends that preceded historic collapses and see how they are unfolding today.

While there is no single accepted theory for why collapses happen, historians, anthropologists, and others have proposed various explanations, including:

CLIMATIC CHANGE: When climatic stability changes, the results can be disastrous, resulting in crop failure, starvation, and desertification. The collapse of the Anasazi, the Tiwanaku civilisation, the Akkadians, the Mayan, the Roman Empire, and many others have all coincided with abrupt climatic changes, usually droughts.

ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION: Collapse can occur when societies overshoot the carrying capacity of their environment. This ecological collapse theory, which has been the subject of bestselling books, points to excessive deforestation, water pollution, soil degradation, and the loss of biodiversity as precipitating causes.

INEQUALITY AND OLIGARCHY: Wealth and political inequality can be central drivers of social disintegration, as can oligarchy and centralisation of power among leaders. This not only causes social distress, but handicaps a society’s ability to respond to ecological, social, and economic problems.

The field of cliodynamics models how factors such as equality and demography correlate with political violence. Statistical analysis of previous societies suggests that this happens in cycles. As population increases, the supply of labour outstrips demand, workers become cheap, and society becomes top-heavy. This inequality undermines collective solidarity and political turbulence follows.

COMPLEXITY: Collapse expert and historian Joseph Tainter has proposed that societies eventually collapse under the weight of their own accumulated complexity and bureaucracy. Societies are problem-solving collectives that grow in complexity in order to overcome new issues. However, the returns from complexity eventually reach a point of diminishing returns. After this point, collapse will eventually ensue.

Another measure of increasing complexity is called Energy Return on Investment (EROI). This refers to the ratio between the amount of energy produced by a resource relative to the energy needed to obtain it. Like complexity, EROI appears to have a point of diminishing returns. In his book The Upside of Down (2008), the political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon observed that environmental degradation throughout the Roman Empire led to falling EROI from their staple energy source: crops of wheat and alfalfa. The empire fell alongside their EROI. Tainter also blames it as a chief culprit of collapse, including for the Mayan.

EXTERNAL SHOCKS: In other words, the “four horsemen”: war, natural disasters, famine, and plagues. The Aztec Empire, for example, was brought to an end by Spanish invaders. Most early agrarian states were fleeting due to deadly epidemics. The concentration of humans and cattle in walled settlements with poor hygiene made disease outbreaks unavoidable and catastrophic. Sometimes disasters combined, as was the case with the Spanish introducing salmonella to the Americas.

RANDOMNESS/BAD LUCK: Statistical analysis on empires suggests that collapse is random and independent of age. Evolutionary biologist and data scientist Indre Zliobaite and her colleagues have observed a similar pattern in the evolutionary record of species. A common explanation of this apparent randomness is the “Red Queen Effect”: If species are constantly fighting for survival in a changing environment with numerous competitors, extinction is a consistent possibility.




Despite the abundance of books and articles, we don’t have a conclusive explanation as to why civilisations collapse. What we do know is this: the factors highlighted above can all contribute. Collapse is a tipping point phenomena, when compounding stressors overrun societal coping capacity.

We can examine these indicators of danger to see if our chance of collapse is falling or rising. Here are four of those possible metrics, measured over the past few decades:

Click/pinch to enlarge (Credit: Nigel Hawtin)

Temperature is a clear metric for climate change, GDP is a proxy for complexity, and the ecological footprint is an indicator for environmental degradation. Each of these has been trending steeply upwards.

Inequality is more difficult to calculate. The typical measurement of the Gini Index suggests that inequality has decreased slightly globally (although it is increasing within countries). However, the Gini Index can be misleading as it only measures relative changes in income. In other words, if two individuals earning $1 and $100,000 both doubled their income, the Gini would show no change. But the gap between the two would have jumped from $99,999 to $198,000.

Because of this, I have also depicted the income share of the global top one percent. The one percent have increased in their share of global income from approximately sixteen percent in 1980 to over twenty percent today. Importantly, wealth inequality is even worse. The share of global wealth from the one percent has swelled from 25 to thirty percent in the 1980s to approximately forty percent in 2016. The reality is likely to be starker as these numbers do not capture wealth and income siphoned into overseas tax havens.

The rich are getting richer, which in past civilisations has created additional stress on societies (Credit: Getty Images)

Studies suggest that the EROI for fossil fuels has been steadily decreasing over time as the easiest to reach and richest reserves are depleted. Unfortunately, most renewable replacements, such as solar, have a markedly lower EROI, largely due to their energy density and the rare earth metals and manufacturing required to produce them.

This has led much of the literature to discuss the possibility of an “energy cliff” as EROI declines to a point where current societal levels of affluence can no longer be maintained. The energy cliff need not be terminal if renewable technologies continue to improve and energy efficiency measures are speedily implemented.

Measures of Resilience

The somewhat reassuring news is that collapse metrics are not the entire picture. Societal resilience may be able to delay or prevent collapse.

For example, globally “economic diversity” – a measurement of the diversity and sophistication of country exports ­– is greater today than it was in the 1960s and 1970s, as measured by the Economic Complexity Index (ECI). Nations are, on average, less reliant on single types of exports than they once were. For example, a nation that had diversified beyond only exporting agricultural products would be more likely to weather ecological degradation or the loss of trading partners. The ECI also measures the knowledge-intensity of exports. More skilled populations may have a greater capacity to respond to crises as they arise.



There are some reasons to be optimistic, thanks to our ability to innovate and diversify away from disaster. Yet the world is worsening in areas that have contributed to the collapse of previous societies


Similarly, innovation – as measured by per capita patent applications – is also rising. In theory, a civilisation might be less vulnerable to collapse if new technologies can mitigate against pressures such as climate change.

It’s also possible that “collapse” can happen without violent catastrophe. As Rachel Nuwer wrote on BBC Future in 2017, “in some cases, civilisations simply fade out of existence – becoming the stuff of history not with a bang but a whimper”.

Our technological capabilities may have the potential to delay collapse (Credit: Getty Images)

Still, when we look at all these collapse and resilience indicators as a whole, the message is clear that we should not be complacent. There are some reasons to be optimistic, thanks to our ability to innovate and diversify away from disaster. Yet the world is worsening in areas that have contributed to the collapse of previous societies. The climate is changing, the gap between the rich and poor is widening, the world is becoming increasingly complex, and our demands on the environment are outstripping planetary carrying capacity.

The Rungless Ladder

That’s not all. Worryingly, the world is now deeply interconnected and interdependent. In the past, collapse was confined to regions – it was a temporary setback, and people often could easily return to agrarian or hunter-gatherer lifestyles. For many, it was even a welcome reprieve from the oppression of early states. Moreover, the weapons available during social disorder were rudimentary: swords, arrows, and occasionally guns.

Today, societal collapse is a more treacherous prospect. The weapons available to a state, and sometimes even groups, during a breakdown now range from biological agents to nuclear weapons. New instruments of violence, such as lethal autonomous weapons, may be available in the near future. People are increasingly specialised and disconnected from the production of food and basic goods. And a changing climate may irreparably damage our ability to return to simple farming practices.

Think of civilisation as a poorly-built ladder. As you climb, each step that you used falls away. A fall from a height of just a few rungs is fine. Yet the higher you climb, the larger the fall. Eventually, once you reach a sufficient height, any drop from the ladder is fatal.

With the proliferation of nuclear weapons, we may have already reached this point of civilisational “terminal velocity”. Any collapse – any fall from the ladder – risks being permanent. Nuclear war in itself could result in an existential risk: either the extinction of our species, or a permanent catapult back to the Stone Age.

A woman walks in the ruins of a town in Syria following conflict between fighters (Credit: Getty Images)

While we are becoming more economically powerful and resilient, our technological capabilities also present unprecedented threats that no civilisation has had to contend with. For example, the climatic changes we face are of a different nature to what undid the Maya or Anazasi. They are global, human-driven, quicker, and more severe.

Assistance in our self-imposed ruin will not come from hostile neighbors, but from our own technological powers. Collapse, in our case, would be a progress trap.

The collapse of our civilisation is not inevitable. History suggests it is likely, but we have the unique advantage of being able to learn from the wreckages of societies past.

We know what needs to be done: emissions can be reduced, inequalities leveled, environmental degradation reversed, innovation unleashed, and economies diversified. The policy proposals are there. Only the political will is lacking. We can also invest in recovery. There are already well-developed ideas for improving the ability of food and knowledge systems to be recuperated after catastrophe. Avoiding the creation of dangerous and widely-accessible technologies is also critical. Such steps will lessen the chance of a future collapse becoming irreversible.

We will only march into collapse if we advance blindly. We are only doomed if we are unwilling to listen to the past.


Luke Kemp is a researcher based at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge. He tweets @lukakemp.

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The original version of this article, at the URL below, contains several links to further information.

Get Used to It, America:

We’re No Longer Number One

China probably has become the world’s biggest economy and will reap the benefits that once flowed to the US

by Noah Smith (December 18 2018)

Can this relationship be saved? Photographer: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

What a difference two decades makes. In 1997, China’s gross domestic product was about eleven percent of the US’s. By 2017, it was up to 63 percent:

===>Please insert URL of chart here
China gross domestic product relative to US *
Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis
* Base on market exchange rates

But this overstates the difference in living standards between the two countries since prices are generally lower in China. In purchasing-power-parity terms, China’s economy became the world’s largest in about 2013:

The Chase is Over
China purchasing power parity gross domestic product relative to US
===>Please insert URL of chart here
Source: Federal Reserve Bank of Saint Louis

So which country’s economy is really bigger? The truth probably lies somewhere between these two figures. If China were to abolish its capital controls and open its currency to foreign speculation, there’s a good chance the yuan would rise in value, bringing China’s GDP at market-exchange rates closer to its PPP numbers. In other words, the economies of China and the US are now fairly evenly matched in size. But with four times the US population, China has more room to grow. And China is already the world’s largest manufacturer and biggest exporter.

In other words, if it’s not already the world’s dominant economic power, China soon will be. But what does this mean? What are the implications of Chinese economic dominance, for the world and for US policy?

The biggest effect will be that China becomes the leading beneficiary of what economists call agglomeration effects. Agglomeration refers to the tendency of businesses to cluster together in the same region because one company’s workers are another’s customers. As economists Paul Krugman, Masahisa Fujita, and Anthony Venables showed two decades ago, agglomeration can bring big benefits to whatever region has the densest concentration of economic activity.

Increasingly, that region is China rather than the US. China is where the biggest markets are, so that’s where multinational companies want to build their factories and offices. That, in turn, leads to whole supply chains migrating to China, as companies try to locate near their upstream suppliers and downstream customers. This process is accelerated by another phenomenon known as clustering effects – the collection of a huge repository of manufacturing talent and know-how in Chinese cities. China’s general hostility to foreign companies will slow this process, but the gravitational pull of the world’s biggest economy will be hard to resist.

This also means that President Donald Trump will be fighting an uphill battle in his trade war against China. To push a company to move out of China, US tariffs would have to be very high, since they will have to overcome not just labor-cost differences between the two countries but the pull of the Chinese market, the concentration of manufacturing know-how, and the existence of stable supply chains. Many companies say they’re ready to pull out, but the reality may be very different – for example, last year Ford Motor Company declared that it would build its next-generation car in China.

Another result of China’s new economic heft is that the web of institutions that the US built to regulate the global economy after World War Two will be increasingly irrelevant and toothless. The World Bank, for example, which lends money to poor countries, is already finding itself sidelined as Chinese loans pour into developing nations.

One of the most important US-led economic institutions is the dollar itself. For decades, the dollar has functioned as the world’s reserve currency – nations around the world hold their foreign exchange stockpiles in dollars, many issue dollar-denominated debt, and commodities such as oil are often priced in dollars. Some believe this has put strains on the US economy, because the increasing demand for dollars tends to make the currency more expensive, contributing to persistent US trade deficits.

If this theory is right, then as China’s economy grows, the US will be less able to handle the capital inflows that are necessary to remain the world’s reserve currency. It would seem like a good idea for China to shoulder some of the burden of being the global reserve currency, just as the US took over this duty from the UK a century ago. But China insists on maintaining its system of capital controls, making it hard to move money in and out of the country. That will prevent the yuan from joining or replacing the dollar in international markets. But as China further eclipses the US in size, that could lead to greater instability in the international monetary system.

The final impact of China’s economic rise is geopolitical. Countries that once would cater to the US in military and political matters in order to secure access to US markets will now be tempted to switch their allegiance to China. This pressure will be especially acute for East Asian countries that are close to Chinese markets.

The US, of course, could have acted to counter or slow this process by establishing a trading bloc with other East Asian countries that excluded the Chinese. President Barack Obama tried to do exactly this with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but Trump killed that deal as soon as he came into office.

So the fact that China is now or will soon be the world’s biggest economy matters a lot. It means the US can no longer depend as much on its large markets to secure investment or geopolitical fealty. Unless China makes severe missteps in the near future – like barring foreign companies, crushing productivity with excessive government control, or precipitating domestic conflict – it will enjoy many of the benefits that once flowed to its chief rival.


This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Noah Smith at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Greiff at


Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.