Civilization Re-Emerging After a Catastrophic Collapse

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In this EAGxNordics 2019 talk, Karim Je­bari dis­cusses how likely it is that civ­i­liza­tion would re­cover af­ter a col­lapse, and how much similar­ity we should ex­pect be­tween a civ­i­liza­tion that has re­cov­ered and one that never col­lapsed in the first place. I see these as cru­cial and ne­glected ques­tions (though see some rele­vant sources here), as they could in­form how much we should pri­ori­tise work on pre­vent­ing, or im­prov­ing our chances of re­cov­ery from, civ­i­liza­tional col­lapse. I also thought Je­bari cov­ered a se­ries of very in­ter­est­ing and thought-pro­vok­ing ar­gu­ments and ideas—most of which I won’t try to sum­marise here—so I’d highly recom­mend watch­ing the talk. (For some rea­son there’s mu­sic play­ing for the first minute or two of the video, but then it goes away, so just sol­dier on through it!)

Here, I want to com­ment on one of Je­bari’s key ar­gu­ments. He noted that many differ­ent so­cieties in­de­pen­dently con­verged on things like agri­cul­ture, but that only one so­ciety ar­rived at things like in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion, mass pro­duc­tion, etc. He ar­gued that this sug­gests that, fol­low­ing civ­i­liza­tional col­lapse, we have rea­son to be­lieve we’d re­cover agri­cul­ture, but not much rea­son to be­lieve we’d re­cover in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion. And he sug­gested that this ar­gu­ment is bolstered by the fact that other so­cieties (par­tic­u­larly China and Ben­gal) seem to have had most of the things that are of­ten seen as the key in­gre­di­ents re­quired for an in­dus­trial rev­olu­tion, such as a cap­i­tal-in­ten­sive man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor. His claim was that this sug­gests the de­vel­op­ment of in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion de­pends on more fac­tors, and is more of a “lucky shot”, than we might oth­er­wise think. (See also The long-term sig­nifi­cance of re­duc­ing global catas­trophic risks.)

I think this is an in­ter­est­ing ar­gu­ment, that it mer­its at­ten­tion, and that it should push us some­what to­wards pri­ori­tis­ing work on civ­i­liza­tional col­lapse. But I can also think of a po­ten­tial coun­ter­ar­gu­ment: Per­haps the key rea­son in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion only emerged in one place, rather than in­de­pen­dently emerg­ing in mul­ti­ple places, is that things “sped up” and be­came more in­ter­con­nected be­tween the agri­cul­tural and in­dus­trial rev­olu­tions, and then even more so once in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion oc­curred. To flesh this out slightly more, per­haps:

  • There’s about as much of a “nat­u­ral ten­dency” for an in­dus­trial rev­olu­tion to oc­cur as for an agri­cul­tural rev­olu­tion to oc­cur.

  • But in both cases there’s a lot of ran­dom­ness and noise in­volved.

  • There­fore, you can ex­pect two so­cieties to in­de­pen­dently ar­rive at the same de­vel­op­ment within a few cen­turies or mil­len­nia of each other.

  • There was time for that in the case of the de­vel­op­ment of agri­cul­ture.

  • But in the case of in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion, the de­vel­op­ment was ex­ported too fast for that. That is, other so­cieties might have in­de­pen­dently had in­dus­trial rev­olu­tions in the fol­low­ing cen­turies, if not for the fact that in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion already ar­rived at their doors within decades.

This is a very spec­u­la­tive coun­ter­ar­gu­ment. For one thing, I haven’t checked rele­vant facts like how long there was be­tween agri­cul­tural de­vel­op­ments in differ­ent so­cieties. Also, at most this coun­ter­ar­gu­ment would re­duce the force of the par­tic­u­lar ar­gu­ment Je­bari made, rather than this pro­vid­ing a spe­cific rea­son to think re­cov­ery of in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion is likely; I still feel very un­cer­tain about how likely such a re­cov­ery is.

So I’d be in­ter­ested to hear other peo­ple’s thoughts on Je­bari’s ar­gu­ment and my pro­posed coun­ter­ar­gu­ment, on other as­pects of Je­bari’s talk, or on the more gen­eral mat­ter of the like­li­hood of re­cov­ery from col­lapse. (And if you know of rele­vant sources, please com­ment about them here.)