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General systems collapse

2 min read
Apparently in the Late Bronze Age, starting about 1,500 years before the Christian era, the Eastern Mediterranean region was characterised by a system of centralised palace governments, which redistributed money and goods thorugh complex and specialised city economies. I read about this on Wikipedia. Trade routes were highly developed at this time and written languages emerged. Expensive luxury goods were produced and traded over huge distances—in the 1980s a single wrecked ship from the period was discovered off the coast of Turkey, carrying Egyptian jewellery, Greek pottery, blackwood from Sudan, Irish copper, pomegranates, ivory. Then, during a seventy-five year period from about 1225 to 1150 BCE, civilisation collapsed. The great cities of the Eastern Mediterranean were destroyed or abandoned. Literacy all but died out, and entire writing systems were lost. No one is sure why any of this happened, by the way. Wikipedia suggests a theory called 'general systems collapse,' whereby 'centralisation, specialisation, complexity, and top-heavy political structure' made Late Bronze Age civilisation particularly vulnerable to breakdown. Another of the theories is headlined simply: 'Climage change'. I think this puts our present civilisation in a kind of ominous light, don't you? General systems collapse is not something I had ever really thought about as a possibility before. Of course I know in my brain that everything we tell ourselves about human civilisation is a lie. But imagine having to find out in real life.

That's a passage, a letter one character is writing to another, from Sally Rooney's new book Beautiful World, Where Are You.

I read it and wondered: Did the people who lived in that seventy-five year period know they were in a period of "general systems collapse"? Did it creep up on them or was it frighteningly obvious in every aspect of every day of their lived experience? What does general systems collapse feel like from the inside? Could it feel anything like life on Earth in the first quarter of the 21st century? Does it feel like compromised and corrupt political leaders, like devastating wildfires and heat waves and hurricanes wandering unfamiliar countrysides, like whole waves of fresh human stupidity, rising up to shout down science and logic even as their opposition leads them to their own deaths in hospital beds, on ventilators?

How would you stop it, or reverse it? Could you? Could anyone? Would it be like stopping the crowd behavior known as 'the wave' dead in its tracks at a baseball game? One person couldn't do that. A dozen, a hundred, could, if they all worked together in opposition, or simply through convenient complacency. But maybe that only works if the thing you're trying to stop feels coordinated and strategic, with momentum moving in a single direction, like the wave. Would it work with fifty waves, all coming from different directions, at different speeds and sizes, at overlapping intervals?

And once the system had defeated itself, and collapsed, what did everyone do next? Those who were still standing, dazed but alive. What next?

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