because history just ain't what it used to be

Thought for the Day

In Thought-for-the-Day on February 23, 2010 at 08:54

by Becca Kotula

The Harappan civilization was one of the most developed civilizations of its time, but still ended up falling. Though archaeologists are proposing theories, no one knows for sure why this happened.

Just because a civilization is on top does not mean that it is safe from everything.

  1. I see what you’re doing there… 🙂

    I wonder what, historically, has been the downfall of most major civilizations: internal division? Conquest from another people group? External forces (such as climate) acting upon that civilization? Religious beliefs? Issues with money or trade? An unwillingness to adapt to change?

  2. You say, “Just because a civilization is on top does not mean that it is safe from everything.”

    But a civilization on top is really at risk FROM everything, isn’t it? Civilizations, like individuals and corporations and organizations, are really most at risk when they’re at the top. An Olympic athlete (to use a current example) is less likely to win in their second Olympiad if they won the first time, and much less likely to win on their third Olympiad or beyond — their bodies give out after twelve or sixteen years, and their imaginations tend to solidify around certain movements or processes in their sport.

    Likewise, corporations buy into a particular business model. They define their clients, their collaborators, their suppliers, and their fixed costs in a certain way. It becomes harder and harder to innovate. They also tend to be challenged by new, upstart businesses.

    Organisms experience overshoot, according to evolutionary biologists. They grow and consume resources until they reach a point where the carrying capacity of their environment can no longer support the organism, and then they are at risk of extinction.

    Civilizations also go through this process, don’t they? The Harrapans appear to have had an elaborate trade network spanning the Indus River valley, and connecting them to Mespotamia and China. But that placed their trade networks at risk of disease and banditry. Their water supply depended on Himalaya snows and Indian Ocean monsoons; a shift in either might have dried out their fields. Flooding might have filled their fields with salt and killed their crops.

    Maybe there was internecine warfare between cities, or tribes, or social classes within Harrappan civilization, as rich sought to exploit poor or the difference between the wealth and power of one faction rose out of balance with another. Maybe an outside force, like the so-called Aryan Invaders, saw the wealth of Harrappan civilization and its relative military weakness, and decided to invade. Maybe the new masters of the society lacked an understanding of the bureaucracy that urban civilizations need to function, and broke their new conquest. Maybe the bureaucracy broke down in the face of the failure of the religious establishment to which it was tied, as Rome may have buckled at the abandonment of paganism by the literate classes for Christianity.

    Maybe it was a series of subtle difficulties, little bits and pieces of all of the above.

    The point is, it’s rarely easy to piece together why a civilization collapses, specifically. The civilizations themselves tend to keep good records at their middle and height, but are too busy building or collapsing at the beginning and end. Yet the evidence suggests that mature, powerful civilizations at the top of their game are most at risk, because a variety of subtle factors can pull them down with relative ease. Mature civilizations lack an essential resiliency that allows them to bounce back from adversity.

    It makes me wonder where in the civilization cycle our own society is. How about you?

  3. I think when a civilization is “on top” it becomes a target for someone else to knock off. In addition, when things are going well, we tend to relax and not work so hard. By the time we realize it’s not such a great idea, the slide has already begun. Sometimes hard to stop.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: