How Civilizations Collapse — And Ours is Beginning To

This Is Why the World Is Spinning Out of Control

Photo from Unsplash

Written by Umair Haque and published in Medium.com 2/21/2022

You and I woke up to a terrifying new world today. War in Europe is now all but a reality again, after a lifetime of peace. War by a major military power, seemingly bent on Nazi style dominance and aggression.

That was only the second relevant fact of the day. The first?

Our governments have basically given up on Covid — to the desperate pleas of doctors and scientists, all of whom know that doing so will only prolong the pandemic, and make it much worse. We are as little as nine letters of DNA away from a truly terrible variant — one that makes Delta look like a walk in the park. That’s what science knows — not politics says.

What is really going on here? If you feel that all this is deeply frightening, chilling, that’s because it is. You are probably, like most of us, consumed with dread, which is the “freeze” part of the trauma response. That’s psychology. But the more urgent question is about our world.

So what happens from here?

In every great collapse, there are roughly three stages. We might call them something like neglect, decadence, and implosion. Sure, I’m oversimplifying — but all models do that. We are just trying to explain the present and predict the future a little bit, its general contours, its shape and weight.

Where we’ve been is cycling through the first two stages of collapse, neglect and decadence. And now we are approaching the event horizon of implosion. That is the last and final stage of collapse.

What happens in the “implosion” stage of collapse? Things spin out of control. They reach a point where they can no longer be managed. The conventional systems and orthodoxies and paradigms stop working. Tipping points are hit, and dynamics accelerate into implosive trajectories, which, by and large, become unstoppable.

Does it feel like the world is spinning out of control right about now? That is because we are at the edge of the “implosion” stage of collapse. We are dancing right at its verge. That is the point at which control is well and truly lost, and then things really go to hell.

I know that sounds dire. Please take a moment to hear me. I don’t tell you these things because I want to “doomsay,” which I’m often accused of. My motivations are always under question and attack. Do you know why that is? Because they hard to understand under our capitalist system and its values. I warn you because I genuinely care about you. That’s baffling to most because in our system, it’s not supposed to happen. People are supposed to do what’s profitable, not what’s right. Listen. I walked away from a lucrative career being a typical pundit because I couldn’t bear it. The good matters to me. I never want any being — you, a little animal, anyone — to suffer. I warn you because I care. That is totally incomprehensible to pundits, within the capitalist system, and that is why they constantly attack me with ad hominems.

I digress because I really want you to understand my motivations at this point in our relationship. I value our trust and community a very, very great deal. It is a wonderful and beautiful thing to experience every day.

We have built a community here that is pure of heart and rich in caring, intellect, wisdom, truth, goodness. But in that way, it is completely different from the corrupt and malicious world which surrounds us.

That world is now spinning out of control. And that loss of control is the hallmark of the “implosion” stage of collapse.

Let’s do a couple of examples to bring this little framework — three stages of collapse — home. Think of the canonical example, Rome. My little framework is very much along the lines of Toynbee, the great scholar of Roman collapse. Rome fell through, first, neglect. Its great public goods were underinvested in — whether aqueducts or fountains or squares and temples. People grew poor as a result. And finally, democracy collapsed. Caesar crossed the Rubicon, and took over, in a desperate, misguided attempt to become Rome’s saviour — and tyrant. He failed — thanks to Brutus and the Senate. But then nobody saved Rome — and the negligence only continued. Augustus became its first emperor, as democracy waned.

So then, because the negligence never ended, came the period of decadence. A hundred short years after Caesar crossed the Rubicon, Caligula was emperor. And his corruption, his orgies, his horse in the Senate — all these have become the stuff of legend. Fifteen year later came Nero, and his fiddle.

Negligence bred decadence. Instead of deciding to address the negligence which was bringing Rome to the point of ruin — leaving people impoverished, desperate, the empire crumbling at the edges — inequality had now spiralled to the point where Rome’s elites simply stopped caring at all. They preferred their orgies and wine and villas to trying to restore order and justice and prosperity. Who cared if their civilization was crumbling? Surely it would last another millennium or five anyways.

And decadence bred, at last, implosion. The empire flew apart. Its enemies marched and attacked it. Cults grew. The average person lost faith in it. Its once proud democracy was now a distant memory. Its armies could not keep the peace, or even secure its borders. Bang. A century after Nero came Commodus — the witless fool under whom Roman implosion has become the stuff of legend.

Why am I going through this retelling of history with you? Imagine life at each of these three stages. In the period of neglect, life wasn’t too bad. Sure, maybe your local aqueduct didn’t work very well, or your town square was in need of maintenance. But society’s basic systems — security, food, water, medicine, democracy — they all still worked.

Nobody much, in that era, would have predicted the ugliness and sordid humiliation of what was to come just a few short decades later, under Caligula and Nero. That Caligula would try to put his horse in the Senate, to drive the point home that Roman democracy was a joke. That basic systems like democracy, food, water, security, medicine would all have begun to break down. That Rome itself would burn, while its emperor fiddled. Life in that age? The age of decadence? It was brutal and desperate and ugly, for the average person. It was beginning to become a desperate battle for self-preservation and survival, while elites mostly laughed and partied and ate fine desserts.

But even then, few could have predicted what was to come next. The age of implosion. What was life like then? Society as Romans once knew it had basically stopped existing. The most basic guarantees — rights, security, stability, systems for food and water and money, had simply stopped working. You didn’t know when your village might be invaded, when life might simply fall apart into shattering violence and brutality and irrevocable ruin.

Life at each of these stages got worse — in special ways. Dramatically worse. Worse in ways that the last stage didn’t predict, and largely laughed at the warning of. And so much worse, by the end of it, that everything was out of control. By Commodus’s era, Rome could not manage its problems. Its mechanisms of order didn’t work anymore. It couldn’t impose control. Its armies were shattered. Its fields were barren. Its great waterways were crumbling ruins. And so on. Everything had spun out of control.

Now. Maybe you begin to see where we really are as a world. We have gone way, way past the age of neglect. Past the age of decadence. Now we are at the edge of the age of implosion.

Let me walk you — quickly — through how each of those stages played out for us. The age of neglect for us? We had a chance, my friends. We could have spent the surplus of our civilization doing things that genuinely expanded the human good. Like educating every single child on the planet, and giving every adult a thorough education, too — inoculating ourselves against fascism. Like giving every life on the planet healthcare — preventing today’s pandemics. Like creating a democracy that genuinely worked for the globe — not just ones that were still contested by fanatics globally — a democracy that let the world’s once abundant resources be shared fairly, and thus used wisely. Such a democracy would have prevented the economies of the richest nations, like America, from being based solely on overconsumption.

We had a century or more to do that. But we didn’t do that. And so we entered the age of decadence. That age was when the entire global economy’s point was to supply goods and services for Americans to overconsume. Our consumption ratio as a civilization is far, far too high: 80% of our economy is consumption. Any farmer can tell you: you can’t reap 80% and only plant 20% and hope to have a harvest for very long. But the entire global economy was predicated on this. China and India became labour centers which basically supplied Americans with huge cars and cheap steel and pointless gadgets and so on. Walmart and Amazon became the way station of this economy.

This age of decadence is best exemplified by the American McMansion. By the 90s, American culture had become a quest for a certain kind of life — a McMansion and a fleet of huge cars, in some giant suburb, at the end of some giant highway. Who really needed to live like this? If everyone in America was going to live like a king — then the truth was that it was costing the planet. Democracy. Life on it.

Instead of investing those resources in educating the planet or giving it healthcare or rights or freedoms…the entire point of global political economy became to let Americans live the lifestyles of mindless ultra-consumption. The very ones for which they became scorned and mocked around the globe as selfish, thoughtless idiots. Could any civilization like this really last? Americans numbered 300 million people or so — and the resources of an entire planet, from its raw materials to its labour, were basically pressed into service so they could live like kings.

Decadence. In Rome, in any civilization, the age of decadence is about a kind of corrosive inequality. How was it fair that if you were in 90% of the world, you’d be consigned to a life of poverty and poor education and illness…while America took all the world’s gains and goods, in a way that was about excess, greed, selfishness, narcissism?

The opposite of decadence is intellect, goodness, truth, justice, equality. We didn’t build a world like that. We built one where Americans could live flashy lifestyles of complete and utter excess — huge houses, multiples of huge cars, multiple air conditioners, huge debts — while the entire rest of the world was neglected. And so, ultimately, was America itself.

The next stage of decadence was American elites growing rich while its own working and middle class fell into penury. Remember how Roman elites partied and were fed grapes and had orgies while their citizens fell into poverty, unable to find work, feed themselves, educate their kids? That was more or less exactly what was happening in America. Go to Manhattan or DC or San Francisco, and you’d see huge, huge mansions or penthouses in the sky rising — by the hundreds. But go to any town or smaller city, and you’d see devastation, poverty, drug addiction, despair, and blight. Decadence had spread from America versus the world, to American elites versus their own average citizens.

And now we are at the stage of implosion. Things are spinning out of control. Precisely because we underinvested for so long. We didn’t give every life on earth healthcare — from poor people to animals — and so we are getting pandemics. And because our leaders cannot find a way to manage them, we are simply giving up. War is breaking out in Europe again, as demagoguery rises — the very same demagogue starting that war is the one who destabilised America, too. Not a coincidence. Decadence. Neglect. Breeding implosion.

I could go on with plenty of examples. We’ve barely bothered to do anything about climate change — and within a decade now, swathes of the planet will be uninhabitable. The consequences will make Covid’s lockdown look like cakewalks. People won’t have homes to be locked down in. Economies will have to bear the immense costs of cities sinking, regions burning, provinces turning into Fire or Flood Belts, refugees fleeing, businesses closing for good, harvests failing.

That’s not even the big one. Then comes mass extinction — life on this planet beginning to die off at the species level. It is happening now, but we will feel it when one species critical to a certain chain is gone — and bang, that chain suddenly stops working. There goes our food. Water. Medicine. There go our oceans, rivers, forests, fields. The world as we know it no longer exists then. Remember not being able to get stuff on the shelves when Covid hit? Now imagine that, but permanent. That is the future we’re heading into.

I need to warn you about this. And you need to plan for itI don’t mean that you should turn into Glenn from the Yukon on that one survival show I like to watch. Run for the hills! You can if you want, but the truth is that isn’t going to work for most of us. We need to exist in collectives and communities — not just as rugged individuals.

You need to begin thinking all this through nowHow will I survive the age of implosion? How will I educate my kids? Where will my income come from? Where will I put my savings? Do I have a way to feed my family, if things fail for a time? I even mean simple things like wearing masks, because yes, they work, even cloth ones, and a worse variant is coming. Or simpler things, too, like saving more and spending less, because lean times are coming.

I can’t tell you what your plan should be. But I can tell you that you are going to need one, now. It could involved leaving a failing state — like moving out of America, if you have the resources. That is a very wise thing to do. It could mean thinking of a new career altogether. It could mean retiring, and building a more independent life in a working country, even if your kids don’t understand why yet. Or it could mean listening to your kids, who are often far more attuned to all this than we adults are, and asking them for their answers.

We are going to have to make these plans. And share them. So that we become communities and collectives. It only works that way. Yes, you can survive in a shack by yourself with a gun and knife — not a problem. But we are talking about something bigger. Not just surviving, but retaining some aspect of civilization. Surviving with goodness, grace, truth, nobility. With art and science and literature and culture and society intact. We cannot do that as individuals.

So we need to, in my opinion, begin making plans and sharing them. This is how I’m going to deal with implosion. This is how I’m going to. Oh, that’s a great idea. I didn’t think of that before! Thank you. May I join you? Sure you can — let’s join hands and do it together. You bring the art, I’ll bring the science. We are stronger together.

Our future, my friends, is in community. Communities which let civilisation survive a dark age. We need to start building them now. It’s not going to be easy, and I don’t have a magic wand. We just have something even stronger. Each other.

Live Like the Ancient Cynics

Modern cynicism traps you in an unhappy cycle.

The original version will set you free.

Written by Arthur C. Brooks and published in the Atlantic 1/20/2022

Jan Buchzik

How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.


There are a growing number of Marxists today. By which I mean followers of Groucho, not Karl. “Whatever it is, I’m against it,” Marx sang in his 1932 film, Horse Feathers. “I don’t know what they have to say / It makes no difference anyway.”

What was satire then is ideology today: Cynicism—the belief that people are generally morally bankrupt and behave treacherously in order to maximize self-interest—dominates American culture. Since 1964, the percentage of Americans who say they trust the government to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time” has fallen 53 points, from 77 to 24 percent. Sentiments about other institutions in society follow similar patterns.

Whether cynicism is more warranted now than ever is yours to decide. But it won’t change the fact that the modern cynical outlook on life is terrible for your well-being. It makes you less healthy, less happy, less successful, and less respected by others.

The problem isn’t cynicism per se; it’s that modern people have lost the original meaning of cynicism. Instead of assuming that everyone and everything sucks, we should all live like the ancient Greek cynics, who rebelled against convention in a search for truth and enlightenment.

The original cynicism was a philosophical movement likely founded by Antisthenes, a student of Socrates, and popularized by Diogenes of Sinope around the fifth century B.C. It was based on a refusal to accept the assumptions and habits that discourage people from questioning conventional dogmas, and thus hold us back from the search for deep wisdom and happiness. Whereas a modern cynic might say, for instance, that the president is an idiot and thus his policies aren’t worth considering, the ancient cynic would examine each policy impartially.

The modern cynic rejects things out of hand (“This is stupid”), while the ancient cynic simply withholds judgment (“This may be right or wrong”). “Modern cynicism [has] come to describe something antithetical to its previous meanings, a psychological state hardened against both moral reflection and intellectual persuasion,” the University of Houston’s David Mazella wrote in The Making of Modern Cynicism.

There were no happiness surveys in Antisthenes’s times, so we can’t compare the ancient cynics’ life satisfaction with that of those around them who did not share their philosophy. We can most definitely conclude, however, that modern cynicism is detrimental. In one 2009 study, researchers examining negative cynical attitudes found that people who scored high in this characteristic on a personality test were roughly five times more likely to suffer from depression later in life. In other words, that smirking 25-year-old is at elevated risk of turning into a depressed 44-year-old.

Modern cynics also suffer poorer health than others. In 1991, researchers studying middle-aged men found that a cynical outlook significantly increased the odds of death from both cancer and heart disease—possibly because the cynics consumed more alcohol and tobacco than the non-cynics. In one 2017 study on middle-aged Finnish men, high cynicism also predicted premature mortality. (Although both of these studies involved only men, nothing suggests that the results are gender-specific.)

Adding insult to injury, people tend not to respect cynics. Writing in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General in 2020, psychologists found that cynical attitudes lead to being treated disrespectfully—possibly because cynics tend to show disrespect to others, leading to a vicious cycle. You won’t be surprised to hear, then, that cynical people also earn less than others. Scholars writing in 2015 found that, even after correcting for gender, education, and age, the least cynical people saw an average monthly increase in income of about $300 over nine years. The most cynical saw no significant income increase at all. The authors explain this pattern by noting that cynics “are more likely to forgo valuable opportunities for cooperation and consequently less likely to reap the benefits of joint efforts and mutual help.” In other words, being a misanthrope is costly.

To improve your well-being, you shouldn’t merely try to avoid cynicism in all its forms. Instead, work to become a true cynic, in its original sense.The Making Of Modern CynicismDAVID MAZELLA,UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA PRESSBUY BOOKWhen you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

The ancient cynics strove to live by a set of principles characterized by mindfulness, detachment from worldly cravings, the radical equality of all people, and healthy living. If this sounds like Christianity or even Buddhism, it should: Greek philosophers, including skeptics, who were contemporaries of the cynics, were probably influenced by Indian traditions when they visited the subcontinent with Alexander the Great, and in the following centuries, the ideas of cynicism and its offshoot stoicism heavily influenced early Christian thought.

To pivot from the modern to the ancient, I recommend focusing each day on several original cynical concepts, none of which condemns the world but all of which lead us to question, and in many cases reject, worldly conventions and practices.

1. Eudaimonia (“satisfaction”)

The ancient cynics knew that lasting satisfaction cannot be derived from a constant struggle for possessions, pleasures, power, or prestige. Happiness can come only from detaching ourselves from the world’s false promises. Make a list of worldly rewards that are pulling at you—such as a luxury item or the admiration of others—and say out loud, “I will not be subjugated by this desire.”

2. Askesis (“discipline”)

We cannot clear our mind of confusion and obfuscation until we stop anesthetizing ourselves, whether it be with drugs and alcohol or idle distractions from real life. Each day, forgo a detrimental substance or habit. Instead of watching television after dinner, go for a walk. Instead of a cocktail, have a glass of water, and consider the refreshment you get from every sip. This discipline promises to strengthen your will and help you adopt routines that improve your happiness.

3. Autarkeia (“self-sufficiency”)

Relying on the world—especially on getting approval from the world—makes equanimity and true freedom impossible. Refuse to accept your craving for the high opinions of others. Think of a way that you habitually seek validation, be it for your looks, your cleverness in school, or your material prosperity. Make a plan to ignore this need completely. Note that this is not a modern-cynical practice of rejecting everything about the world; rather, you will simply be refusing to accept its conventional standards.

4. Kosmopolites (“cosmopolitanism”)

Seeing ourselves as better or worse than others sets us against one another and makes love and friendship difficult, which is self-destructive. This can be as obvious as thinking, I am better than someone else because I was born in this country, or as subtle as feeling slightly superior to a colleague because of my academic affiliation. Start each day by reminding yourself that the world belongs equally to everyone, and resolve not to treat anyone differently because of her status. Act exactly the same with your boss and your barista.

The modern cynic is miserable because he is enchained to the outside world, which oppresses him because it is corrupt. The ancient cynic, by contrast, is happy—not because she thinks the outside world is perfect (it obviously is not) but because she chooses to focus on the integrity of her interior world, over which she has control.

One famous (and perhaps apocryphal) story summarizes the power of this latter way of living. Diogenes, the philosopher who popularized cynicism, was known for showing no bias toward any party or clique, and was thus not well liked by those in power, who could have given him a comfortable life. One day, a philosopher named Aristippus, who was much favored by the royalty, found Diogenes in the task of washing vegetables, a low and disdained food for the ancient Greeks. Far from being ashamed of his paltry diet, Diogenes reminded Aristippus, “If you had learned to eat these vegetables, you would not have been a slave in the palace of a tyrant.”

If you want to be a good cynic and a happier person, learn to eat your vegetables. They may not seem like a sumptuous feast to the people around you, but you’ll find that they nourish you far more than the empty calories of social conformity.

The Making Of Modern Cynicism by DAVID MAZELLA, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA PRESSBUY BOOK

Arthur C. Brooks is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, the William Henry Bloomberg Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, and a professor of management practice at the Harvard Business School. He’s the host of the podcast seriesHow to Build a Happy Life and the author of From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life.