Stages of Collapse

“Collapse” here refers to the process and stages a civilization descends through as it falls, crumbles, and collapses into extinction. Or manages to turn itself around at pivotal points on the way down before its too late. The term originated from the title of Dr. Jared M. Diamond’s pivotal 2005 book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

What human-made forces and institutions kill most people? History provides the answers. Political and religious institutions kill the most as they shape our beliefs, perceptions, and cultural reactions to reality. Civilizations arise within these structures. As nomadic hunter-gatherers settled down and began to congregate and work together in increasing levels of complexity, their populations expanded. Cities develop as local villages, markets, and fortifications merge and consolidate.

Populations continued to grow. Growing populations created demand for resources including food, water, precious materials, and land. Demand for energy becomes singular, and with increasing desperation some civilizations turn to livestock and human slaves for energy and cut down all the trees, dry up the waterways, lose topsoil to erosion, and tear open up the earth to extract anything precious. Even slaves need fuel.

Overpopulation impacted the environment of the tribe, kingdom, city-state, or empire. This still occurs today. Population growth becomes exponential. We humans recently passed the 7 billion mark in spite of all our wars, accidents, crime, and diseases. As a toxic overgrowth of algae or metastatic cancer cells, humanity continues its biological sprawl of self-destruction throughout our biosphere. Our overpopulation explosion is from a planetary perspective a truly historic event, the Holocene Mass Extinction.

Our shortsighted destruction of our environment generates relentlessly uniform results: environmental collapse leads to economic collapse leads to state collapse leads to social collapse. These phases overlap during transitory phases, and in turn social collapse leads to further ecocide and political turmoil. In many cases food shortages lead to revolution, mass migration, civil war, warlordism, invasion, and even cannibalism as government and society disintegrates.

Cannibalism, interestingly enough, proves to be a common last resort during extended famine. It demonstrates the desperation of human beings at all levels of society. In some cases there were common threads of local even regional extinctions of the human population. These scenarios repeated themselves in different societies at different times and civilizations in different areas of the planet. The outcomes of certain choices remain the same: change and either adapt to survive and maybe even thrive, or the population vanished.

Quick Bullet Review:

  • Overpopulation
  • Food, Energy, Resources needs escalate
  • Economic Overexpansion
  • Environmental destruction
  • Economic instability
  • Environmental collapse
  • Economic and financial collapse
  • State collapse*
  • Social collapse*

*a mix of riots, wars, invasions, revolutions,

civil wars, coups, warlords, state terror,

crime waves, mass migrations of refugees

  • Famine
  • Cannibalism
  • Extinction

The landmark research of evolutionary biologist and geographer-historian Jared Diamond illuminates these patterns in the history of humans as a mammalian species. His work is well documented in his critically acclaimed trilogy. The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal came out in 1991 and won several prizes. Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies was published in 1997 and galvanized attention on alternative ways to view history and reframe so-called traditional interpretations. His highly acclaimed 2005 follow-up, Collapse: Why Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed links many disciplines together for a novel and planetary perspective of humanity at the brink with a call for action.

Diamond’s salient point, despite criticisms of his work by those stuck in traditional viewpoints, is not mere consideration of geographic determinism but the role of human impact on the environment. We must acknowledge how humans chose to respond to the consequences of ecocide rather than ignore such significant issues. History, sadly enough, really does have a tendency to repeat itself.

As do many people in different times and places, even today those of us who live in the moment are so busy making a living we are unable to perceive the long-term consequences of our actions. At best we may believe we will force results to turn out differently or hope someone else will clean up our mess as if God, science, technology, or the wisdom of our grandchildren will save us. It is therefore easy to see how, considering Albert Einstein’s frequently disseminated quote “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again hoping to achieve different results,” it is often declared that we humans are “insane.”

As Diamond points out, for the first time we humans are a planet-wide species with a global civilization. We currently lack a unified world government of any kind, although the majority of people polled at different times around the world acknowledge humanity would be better off under a Democratic World Government (DWG). The benefits of integrating ourselves into a constitutional, transparent, and democratic federated Earth republic are enormous and obvious.

Avalanches of multiple regional and global challenges threaten to overwhelm us. Although the bulk of these wicked problems are of our own making, together we stand a far greater chance to turn away from the abyss or even fly over it to land on the other side. Instead we fight and squabble among ourselves as we continue to stink up and bloody our own nests.

There are those among us, however, amassing great power, building an enormous empire based upon financial and economic domination of governments and markets. Various labels are used to describe “them” and “they.” Among them are the international superrich, the global financial elite and their allies, and the power elite and their allies. More recent terms range from the startling phrase “breakaway civilization” and more terse, “the 1%.”

They’re building a neo-feudal, post-fascist global empire disguised as a democracy. Faux elections are staged between indebted politicians, the unruly masses showered and placated with conveniences in today’s version of the Roman bread and circuses, and those fortunate, gifted, or determined enough to have good-paying jobs or run a productive business find themselves working hard and working smart to create value in exchange for money which has no real value.

Such fiat currency depreciates in imaginary yet volatile value relative to commodities of tangible value, and is circulated in increasingly large amounts to generate higher levels of both debt and taxation because taxes must be harvested. It becomes even more challenging for middle class investors to build assets of real value.

In both North American and in Europe, for example, federal tax regimes harvest money primarily from the middle and working classes to pay the interest on monies borrowed by the national governments from the international central banks but printed by the national governments for redistribution back into the big banks.

The wealthy hide their assets in corporate structures, restructured sophisticated financial instruments, and in offshore accounts. Corporations are granted the rights of personhood not to make them equal to people but to allow the ultrarich with their resources to better protect their assets behind the gates of their breakaway civilization.

Wait! Stop! Let me get off my soapbox before it collapses from all this crap. And we as a species need to do the same thing. Get off our artificial and unsustainable roller coaster ride and stop the Empire before our worldwide civilization collapses into Abyss. To reclaim our liberties and our marketplaces and our homes and streets and communities as our own and link up around the world in a planetary network of local communities.

With technology and innovation we can cooperate on a global scale to resolve our common problems in defiance of the those who wish to stay mired in the archaic age of nationalism, institutionalized religious orthodoxy, constant warfare, institutionalized poverty and greed, hypercompetition, unsustainable overgrowth, and overconsumption.

Otherwise we will collapse in stages as a crumbling one world civilization. One by one the nations of the Europe Union and North America follow Somalia, North Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Congo, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, and on and on. Behind Europe and North America fall Russia, China, India, Brazil, and the rest as the contagion spreads.

We don’t need a zombie virus. We need to wake up and move past our political, ethnic, economic, and religious differences and cooperate or die.

The oft-forgotten premise of Jared Diamond’s epic opus is we have choices. While the drama of local civilizations collapsing all the down into extinction mesmerizes us, Diamond highlights civilizations which stopped their descent into Abyss and pivoted. They thrived and prospered. Our global civilization has the same choice today. And that includes all of you and me. Are you willing to change without waiting to be ready?


Bass, William Dudley. “Collapse is a Choice,” On Earth at the Brink, <>.

“Extinctions: Cycles of Life and Death Through Time,” Canada Parks and Hooper Virtual Paleontological Museum, <>.

“Holocene Extinction,” Wikipedia, <>.

Kavanagh, Michael. “Jared Diamond’s Collapse traces the fates of societies to their treatment of the environment,” Grist: A Beacon in the Smog, <>.

Porritt, Jonathon. “Man vs Nature: Jared Diamond’s timely reminder of our destructive instincts, Collapse,” The Guardian, <>.

Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, <>.

Diamond, Jared. “Jared Diamond on why societies collapse,” TED: Ideas worth spread (TALKS), <>.

“The Pleistocene-Holocene Event: The Sixth Great Extinction,” The Rewilding Institute, <>.

Wake, David B. and Vance T. Vredenburg, “Are we in the midst of the sixth mass extinction? A view from the world of amphibians,”(Abstract), PNAS, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, <>.


William Dudley Bass
Seattle, Washington
December 2011


Copyright © 2011, 2016 by William Dudley Bass. All Rights Reserved until we Humans establish Wise Stewardship of and for our Earth and Solarian Commons. Thank you.


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