Saturday, March 21, 2009

Lessons of the Bronze Age Collapse


The Destruction of Troy by Jan Brueghel--coming soon to a city near you?

As I look for historic precedents for the imminent collapse of industrial civilization, I am discovering frightening parallels between our time and a surprisingly obscure previous era of apocalyptic change: the Bronze Age collapse of eastern Mediterranean civilization circa 1200 B.C.E. As Wikipedia describes it:

"As part of the Late Bronze Age-Early Iron Age Dark Ages, it was a period associated with the collapse of central authorities, a general depopulation, particularly of highly urban areas, the loss of literacy in Anatolia and the Aegean, and its restriction elsewhere, the disappearance of established patterns of long-distance international trade, increasingly vicious intra-elite struggles for power, and reduced options for the elite if not for the general mass of population."

Let’s see, increasingly vicious intra-elite struggles for power....check! Disappearance of long distance trade....check! Depopulation of urban areas....check! Loss of literacy....check! Collapse of central authorities....check, and given the insolvency of Western governments, soon to be checkmate!

What I find most frightening about the Bronze Age collapse is its sudden and violent nature. Here is how Wikipedia describes events in various regions of the then-civilized world:

Anatolia

Every site important during the preceding Late Bronze Age shows a destruction layer, and it appears that here civilization did not recover to the same level as that of the Hittites for another thousand years. Hattusas, the Hittite capital, was burned and abandoned, and never reoccupied. Karaoglan was burned and the corpses left unburied. Troy was destroyed at least twice, before being abandoned until Roman times.

Greece

None of the Mycenaean palaces of the Late Bronze Age survived, with destruction being heaviest at palaces and fortified sites. Up to 90% of small sites in the Peloponnese were abandoned, suggesting a major depopulation. The End Bronze Age collapse marked the start of what has been called the Greek Dark Ages, which lasted for more than 400 years. Other cities, like Athens, continued to be occupied, but with a more local sphere of influence, limited evidence of trade and an impoverished culture, from which it took centuries to recover.

Levant

All centres along the sea route, now being called Via Maris, from Gaza north were destroyed, and evidence shows Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Akko, and Jaffa were burned and not reoccupied for up to thirty years. Inland Hazor, Bethel, Beit Shemesh, Eglon, Debir, and other sites were destroyed. Refugees escaping the collapse of coastal centres may have fused with incoming nomadic and Anatolian elements to begin the growth of terraced hillside hamlets in the highlands region, that was associated with the later development of the state of Israel.


Similar accounts tell of destruction in Egypt, Mesopatamia, Syria and Cyprus. There are frequent mentions of attacks by “Sea Peoples”, mysterious seafaring raiders who plundered cities throughout the region and were apparently more than a match for the militaries of the time.


Modern-day "Sea People"?

Now consider some of the proposed causes of the Bronze Age Collapse and their modern parallels:

1) Migration and Raids. Modern parallels: the US immigration crisis, kidnappings in the Southwest, cross-border raids by drug traffickers, etc. Migration is expected to accelerate worldwide as climate change and economic instability drive millions of desperate people from the Third World to the First in the coming years.

2) Drought. Modern parallels: extreme drought in the American Southwest, China, Africa, India, etc. This could be the biggest global killer this century as climate change transforms large regions of the planet into inarable desert.

3) Changes in Warfare.

“new weaponry, furnished to a proto-hoplite model who were able to withstand attacks of massed chariotry, destabilized states that were based upon the use of chariots by the ruling class and precipitated an abrupt social collapse when raiders and/or infantry mercenaries were able to conquer, loot, and burn the cities.”

Modern parallels: The Global Guerillas paradigm that John Robb has written about so insightfully. From 9/11 to Hezbollah to the Somali Pirates to the Mumbai attacks to future nuclear and biological terrorism, technologically empowered non-state actors threaten to tip global civilization into long-term disorder.

4) General Systems Collapse.

"a variety of factors - including population rise, soil degradation, drought, cast bronze weapon and iron production technologies - conceivably could have combined to push the relative price of weaponry compared to arable land to a level that ultimately proved to be beyond the control of traditional warrior aristocracies."

Modern parallels: most of these factors are still present, along with the key natural resource equation of our own age: fossil fuel production. As we enter the post-peak oil world, we can expect to see economic systems based on abundant, cheap petroleum begin to fail en masse. This includes everything from electric power to transportation, manufacturing, agriculture and finance. In fact, some argue that peak oil is the underlying cause of the current financial crisis. While it hasn’t yet brought on a general collapse and loss of control by our modern-day aristocracies, the rumblings are growing louder by the day.

The overall picture then is one of a sudden descent into anarchy around 1200 B.C.E, over an entire region and across national and ethnic lines. While the precise causes are unclear, it seems reasonable to assume that a collapse on this scale was not the result of any one factor, but some combination of environmental, socio-economic, military and technological disruptions that precipitated a cascading systems failure.

When you compare the causes of the Bronze Age collapse with the confluence of catastrophes converging upon modern industrial civilization, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that we may be facing a similar fate, but this time on a global scale. Will archaeologists of the far future (assuming there are any) uncover a “destruction layer” that covers the entire globe during the early or middle years of the 21st century? Will they excavate the ruins of great ancient cities, such as Los Angeles, London, Paris and Tel Aviv, to find buildings burned and abandoned, full of corpses left unburied? Is the collapse of our own civilization already well underway, and will it culminate in the destruction of cities globally and a Dark Age that lasts for centuries?

Perhaps, but the lessons of the Bronze Age collapse aren’t all negative. For out of this turbulent period came some of the greatest stories in all of recorded history--the era of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, and the book of Exodus, with its chronicle of the birth of the kingdom of Israel. Could the death of our civilization give rise to a new Homeric or Biblical age? After Homer came the classical age of ancient Greece, followed by Rome, which of course fell to an apocalypse of its own 1600 years after the Bronze Age collapse. In fact, if we take a cyclical view of these things, it has been almost 1600 years exactly since the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths, so by my calculations another great civilizational collapse is due any day now. Are you ready for the "Industrial Age Collapse"?


Could a new Heroic Age emerge from the ashes of our own?

6 comments:

  1. Interesting thesis and quite worrying too. Then again I wonder how many times in the past 100s of years people have wondered whether they are on the verge of some prescipitous collapase.

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  2. It would seem odd from a historical standpoint to think that even 50 years could go by without some form of minor collapse (for example, Europe after WWII). However, the disasters mentioned above are much more extreme. It cannot be said with complete certainty that a disater of this magnitude would unfold. Of course I have done only limited research into this matter so my opinion isn't worth much. But it seems that every generation thinks it is going to be a part of the "end of the world" scenario mentioned in genesis... and then it never happens. Only time will tell.

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  3. We have a large number of converging crises, several of which have been mediatized and manipulated so heavily they are not understood. One is Climate Change (rather than Global Warming), another is Peak Oil.
    Climate change is climatic instability, not at all necessarily atmospheric and oceanic warming, which could in fact be reversing if only on a short term basis.
    Peak oil is on a vastly shorter timescale and is so real that politicians drum the Global Warming message as a way to - very feebly - attempt to get consumers to use less fossil energy. Any kind of economic recovery in 2009-2010 will trigger increased demand for fossil fuels, and oil prices will explode.
    Whether or not this triggers geopolitical conflict, perhaps over trade, US dollar decline, access to oil reserves, etc, isnt easy to say. Any long Great depression like the 1930s is however unlikely to *not* trigger social conflict, starting in big cities.

    The IEA is now openly talking about catastrophic shortage of oil, soon (check newswires and IEA sites,August 2009)

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  4. Thus Spake Zarathustra! Nietzsche had his flaws but ancient history certainly wasn't one of them. In fact, I think he would have served better as a paleontologist in Greece than as a philologist. Anywho .....

    So of course Nietzsche would have known of the Bronze Age Collapse. I've never heard of him trying to find a comminality between that event and current events.

    I agree that things are bad now, and with the coming real estate bust and banking fiasco in China things are only going to get worse for a while. Look for Bank of America to either be recapped by the feds or go under within two years as well. I don't see how they can suffer Countrywide.

    But even with all that and lets throw in a nuke by terrorist and the US losing it's grasp on the "reserve currency" we still wouldn't fair nearly as bad as the Bronze Age Collapse. Or, for that matter, nearly as bad as the Black Death (Bubonic Plague).

    So in closing I appreciate your writing, but I disagree with your attempted corralation.

    - Peace!

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  5. I strongly disagree with the last post. It has elements of why people wont be able to stop it and.won't seem it coming. His examples are to narrow in scope to disprove anything and saying it wont get that bad is the same way Romans felt before it crashed and burned. Bronze age people too i imagine!

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