Adam T. Smith, professor of anthropology at Cornell University and author of The Political Landscape: Constellations of Authority in Early Complex Polities reflects on the recent study sponsored by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, which warns of an impending collapse of global industrial civilization due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly economic inequality.
“The archaeological record is quite unambiguous: every prior society in every part of the world has ultimately been eclipsed. Human communities are kinds of machines – machines for social life – and just like any machine they fall apart and are discarded. However, civilizational collapse is actually quite rare.
“Civilizational collapse typically involves the disappearance of entire ways of life, systems of thought, cultural values and worldviews. These generally do not disappear due to convulsive periods of collapse but rather fade over time as alternative systems of belief take their place.
“However, although civilizational collapse is rare, political collapse is constant. Kingdoms, principalities, republics and states come and go and typically their downfall is violent and convulsive. The warnings in the recent study should carry significant warnings to current global political leaders: address the threats posed by climate change and economic inequality or face the rapid undoing of the current political order. The archaeological record suggests that while civilization will likely endure, politics as we know it, odds are, will not.”
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