The Template of National/Imperial Decay and Collapse

January 24, 2024

The point is the good times of seemingly endless expansion are never permanent yet human regimes become accustomed to managing only expansion.

Correspondent David L. recently posed a topic I have often pondered: "I am curious how the Mayan empire collapsed." While there may a definitive answer out there, I have yet to come across it. From my reading on the subject, it seems likely that there may not be a definitive answer due to the paucity of written records (most of whatever remained in the 1500s were destroyed by the Spanish as infidel texts; only three pre-Columbian books / codices of Maya hieroglyphics and fragments of a fourth are known to have survived) and archeological evidence.

From what I can gather from various sources, the decay and collapse of the Mayan civilization may have followed the classic template outlined in many of the books I've recommended over the years: (see below for a short list). Here is my summary template of the classic cycle of expansion, decay and collapse:

1. Agricultural productivity increases, generally due to expanding lands under cultivation, agreeable weather and advances in technology.

2. This expanding surplus enables a sustained increase in the human population (for example, the population of China nearly doubled between 1766 and 1833 even as the amount of cultivated land remained stable) and a concurrent increase in social and economic complexity overseen by an expanding classes of managerial elites: civil and political administration, priesthood, military and merchants / lenders.

3. Then climate change reduces crop yields, introducing a situation--a sustained period of fewer resources rather than more--that is novel to the managerial elites, who respond by doing whatever worked in the past to get through seasonal causes of crop failures.

4. In this new era of climate change, the poor weather isn't reversed the following season: the drier, cooler conditions persist and worsen, further reducing crop yields. With fewer calories, people become more prone to disease, and this adds additional pressure on ruling elites.

5. Taking resources and productive land from nearby kingdoms / states becomes an increasingly attractive option, and so war breaks out. Unless one of the neighboring states has an overwhelming military advantage and is thus able to quickly subjugate all competing states, the wars drag on, consuming whatever resources are left; impoverishing the populace and the state. (The 1600s in Europe and China offer examples of this dynamic.)

Even victorious states soon run into the same problem of declining crop yields. Conquered lands are producing less, a hungry populace falls prey to illness and social disorder, and the ruling elites raise taxes to continue their military adventures and own resource-rich lifestyles.

6. Stymied, the ruling elites "do more of what's failed" (make more sacrifices to the angered gods, increase taxes even more, etc.) rather than grasp the severity of the crisis and the need to make radical changes in the status quo.

7. The reasons for their reluctance to recognize, much less act on, the need for fundamentally novel responses are many. We can summarize the many influences at work into a few categories:

8. The status quo is a balance of various elites, each of which is fearful of any change which might upset the status quo and their share of the resources, i.e. any necessary adaptations. This self-interest fuels their risk avoidance and reluctance to make sacrifices.

9. The ruling elites' long success in managing the state / empire's expansion has institutionalized overconfidence in the power and stability of the regime, generating a fatal hubris.

10. The complacency nurtured by a history of success and self-serving elites breed incompetence and in-fighting; the competent are weeded out as threats, leaving only the most corrupt, venal and incompetent in charge. No one seriously believes the state / empire is at risk of collapse, freeing the elites to waste precious time and treasure on internecine-elite warfare.

11. The masses are equally wedded to the immense status quo and fear any change as well. Those who opt out and melt into the countryside to escape oppression, taxes, etc., are either apathic and focused on obtaining their next meal or they've concluded the status quo is no longer worthy of the sacrifices being demanded of them.

12. Neither the ruling elites nor the structure of the society and economy are capable of making the necessary radical adaptations to the new conditions, which can be summarized as a "polycrisis" of mutually-reinforcing dynamics. The core structures of the society, political system and the economy decay and collapse.

Climate change is cyclical in nature, and these cycles can be exacerbated by disturbances such as volcanic activity. As covered by several of the books listed below, it is not entirely chance that the tumultuous 1600s in Europe coincided with The Little Ice Age, which happened to occur during the Maunder Minimum, a solar cycle likely made worse by The 1600 AD Huaynaputina Eruption in Peru, one of the largest volcanic eruptions in the past 2,000 years.

The Taiping Rebellion in China (1850 to 1864) may overlap with the Gleissberg drought cycle and other solar cycles that are associated with drier, cooler weather.

The point is the good times of seemingly endless expansion are never permanent yet human regimes become accustomed to managing only expansion. Lacking the institutional structure and motivation to undertake risky, fundamental adaptations that require cooperation, shared sacrifices and the accelerated evolution of trial-and-error, the regimes decay and collapse, overwhelmed by their own sclerosis and hubris and the mutually-reinforcing storms of a polycrisis.

A short list of books on these topics:

The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire

Global Crisis: War, Climate Change, & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century

The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History

The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization

The Collapse of Complex Societies

Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change

War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires

End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration

The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century

1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline

My books on these dynamics:

Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform

Why Things Are Falling Apart and What We Can Do About It

Global Crisis, National Renewal

New podcast: Self Reliance (45 min).

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