A Happier World just published a video on collapse, broadly summarizing the chapter from Will MacAskill's book What We Owe The Future. The book doesn't mention the bronze age collapse, but we thought it was important to include as well.
Would love to hear what you think. Feel free to use it for your EA events!
Thanks to Sarah Emminghaus for helping write the script!
Sources are marked with an asterisk. Text might differ slightly in wording from the final video.
Historical collapse events
In the fourteenth century, the black death killed between one-quarter and one half of all Europeans. The Middle East was also affected. Around a tenth of the global population died of the disease spread by infected fleas transported across the world by rats on trade ships. But still: That did little to negatively influence technological and economic development in Europe. Population size in Europe returned to pre-pandemic levels two centuries after the black death.
Humanity has survived a few really dangerous and grim events like these.
A more recent example is how the city of Hiroshima was rebuilt after the atomic bombing in 1945. Around 140 000 people died, ninety percent of buildings were at least partially destroyed or reduced to rubble. Only a few days after the catastrophe however, the nearby bank reopened, there was a limited rail service running and water pumps were working again. The population of the city returned to predestruction levels within only a decade. Now Hiroshima is a thriving city of 1.2 million people.*
Two other examples are the collapse of Rome and the Bronze Age collapse. Both brought down impressive civilizations that enjoyed technological and economic progress and had forms of international trade.
The Bronze Age collapse happened between 1200 and 1150 BC, when the Mycenaean Greece and Hittite civilizations fell and the Egyptian and Assyrian civilizations severely weakened. To this day, historians aren’t completely sure why the bronze age collapse happened.
After Rome being the first city to surpass a million inhabitants and being the seat of the Western Roman Empire for centuries, the city declined dramatically in the fifth century. A few decades after that, the whole empire collapsed. It took 1400 years until the 1930s for Rome to surpass its peak population.
Sounds quite bad. But really, for local civilizations it can be said that it’s rather the rule than an exception to collapse.
But can the entire human civilization collapse? By civilizational collapse we mean an event in which society loses the ability to create most industrial and postindustrial technology. This is probably likelier than full extinction and would still be really horrible.
Could we collapse now?
It’s difficult to predict how likely it is that civilization as a whole would collapse. So far, luckily!, there are no historical examples of collapse events that killed more than 20 percent of the global population.
Modern civilization is very different from the historical civilizations that collapsed. In some ways we might be able to better handle risks to our civilization, but in other ways the risks might be higher. In our previous video we talked about existential threats, some of which historical civilizations didn’t have to worry about, like anthropogenic climate change, global pandemics and nuclear war. Even if these don’t make humanity go extinct, they could still collapse human civilization.
But let’s try and think about what would happen if for example an all out nuclear war would happen. The direct death toll alone could amount to tens to hundreds of millions of people. Or maybe even billions.
If, in an absolute worst case scenario, 99 percent of the world population would die, that would leave 80 million people alive. Meaning in terms of population we would be back to 2500 BC.
But would this lead to a collapse?
Probably not! Parts of our physical infrastructure like machines, tools and buildings would still be there and could be used afterwards, which already puts us in a much better position than 2500 BC. Also the remaining 80 million people could access all of the knowledge humanity has assembled. There’s also a decent chance that among the survivors some have critical jobs like airplane engineers or organic chemists.
Also it’s pretty likely there would be some people left with knowledge about agriculture that would help feed the population.
Another crucial question is: Would we re-industrialize? We think so, yes!
Some tools and machines would probably survive the catastrophe and could be used to reverse engineer. But renewable energy might be difficult to recreate at first, which means we’d probably have to rely on fossil fuels like coal first. Currently however, easily accessible coal is disappearing rapidly. If coal becomes hard to access, a population of 80 million will have an incredibly hard time industrializing. This means we should shut down coal plants as quickly as possible. I mean, we should already do so anyway for our climate, so it’s a great extra reason to do so.
Overall, it seems likely that humanity will get back on its feet even if 99% of us vanish. Still, it could take centuries to get back to where we are today. And in any case, such an event would be horrible and we should avoid it at all costs.
We just summarized a chapter from Oxford philosopher Will MacAskill’s book called What We Owe The Future. The book makes the case for caring about our long-term future and explores what we can do. We’re making a video series summarizing its most important points. We’re visiting Chinese history, the islamic golden age, the possible end of humanity and more. So subscribe and ring that notification bell to get notified when more episodes come out! Thanks for watching.