Civilization Re-Emerging After a Catastrophic Collapse

by MichaelA1 min read27th Jun 202017 comments

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Civilizational Collapse & RecoveryLongtermism (Philosophy)History of EAExistential Risk
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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.)

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