Thoughts on civilization collapse

Epistemic sta­tus: an idea I be­lieve mod­er­ately strongly, based on ex­ten­sive read­ing but not rigor­ous anal­y­sis.

We may have a dra­mat­i­cally wrong idea of civ­i­liza­tion col­lapse, mainly in­spired by movies that ob­sess over dra­matic tales of in­di­vi­d­ual hero­ism.

Tra­di­tional view:

    In a col­lapse, an­ar­chy will break out, and it will be a war of all against all or small groups against small groups. In­di­vi­d­ual weaponry (in­clud­ing heavy weapons) and ba­sic food pro­duc­tion will be­come paramount; tra­di­tional poli­ti­cal skills, not so much. Govern­ment col­lapse is long term. Towns and cities will suffer more than the coun­tryside. The best course of ac­tion is to have a cache of weapons and food, and to run for the hills.

    Alter­na­tive view:

    In a col­lapse, peo­ple will cling to their iden­ti­fied tribe for pro­tec­tion. Large groups will have no difficulty sup­press­ing or tak­ing over in­di­vi­d­u­als and small groups within their ar­eas of in­fluence. In­di­vi­d­ual weaponry may be im­por­tant (given less of a po­lice force), but heavy weaponry will be al­most ir­rele­vant as no small group will sur­vive alone. Food pro­duc­tion will be con­trol­led by the large groups. Though the for­mal “gov­ern­ment” may fall, and coun­tries may splin­ter into more lo­cal groups, gov­ern­ment will con­tinue un­der the con­trol of war­lords, tribal el­ders, or lo­cal var­i­ants. Cities, with their large and varied-skill work­force, will suffer less than the coun­tryside. The best course of ac­tion is to have a stash of minor lux­ury goods (so­lar-pow­ered calcu­la­tors, comic books, pornog­ra­phy, bat­ter­ies, an­ti­sep­tics) and to make con­tacts with those likely to be­come pow­er­ful af­ter a col­lapse (army officers, po­lice chiefs, re­li­gious lead­ers, in­fluen­tial fam­i­lies).

    Pos­si­ble sources to back up this al­ter­na­tive view:

    • The book Sapi­ens ar­gues that gov­ern­ments and mar­kets are the ul­ti­mate en­ablers of in­di­vi­d­u­al­ism, with ex­tended-fam­ily-based trib­al­ism as the “nat­u­ral” state of hu­man­ity.

    • The his­tory of So­ma­lia demon­strates that laws and en­force­ment con­tinue even af­ter a gov­ern­ment col­lapse, by go­ing back to more tra­di­tional struc­tures.

    • Dur­ing China’s pe­riod of an­ar­chy, large groups re­mained pow­er­ful: the na­tion­al­ists, the com­mu­nists, the Ja­panese in­vaders. The other sec­tions of the coun­try were gen­er­ally un­der the con­trol of lo­cal war­lords.

    • Ra­tional Wiki ar­gues that ex­am­ples of col­lapse go against the in­di­vi­d­u­al­ism nar­ra­tive.