I read a fascinating article on BBC.com the other day about the decline of civilizations.

The article by Luke Kemp looked back for a few thousand years at what happened to great civilizations like the Akkadian Empire, Xia Dynasty, Ancient Egypt, Olmecs, Phonecia, Carthage, Classical Greek, Roman Empire and about 70 others from 3,000 B.C. to 1,000 A.D.

Kemp is a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge.

The article looked at the collapses of these great civilizations and asked, “What can this tell us about the future of global modern civilisation? Are the lessons of agrarian empires applicable to our post-18th century period of industrial capitalism?”

It explored the biggest threats to current civilizations based on what happened to the earlier ones.

He defined collapse as “a rapid and enduring loss of population, identity and socio-economic complexity. Public services crumble and disorder ensues as government loses control of its monopoly on violence.”





He says “virtually all past civilizations have faced this fate. Some recovered or transformed, such as the Chinese and Egyptian. Other collapses were permanent, as was the case of Easter Island. Sometimes the cities at the epicenter of collapse are revived, as was the case with Rome. In other cases, such as the Mayan ruins, they are left abandoned as a mausoleum for future tourists.”

He then goes through the reasons why civilizations fail.

• Climatic change –  It can result in crop failure, starvation and desertification. He says the collapse of many civilizations has coincided with abrupt climatic changes, usually droughts.

• Environmental degradation – Societies “overshoot the carrying capacity of their environment,” meaning things like excessive deforestation, water pollution, soil degradation and the loss of biodiversity.

• Inequality and oligarchy – Wealth and political inequality can drive social disintegration. So can oligarchy and centralization of power among leaders. This  also handicaps a society’s ability to respond to ecological, social and economic problems.

Here’s how it works: As population increases, the supply of labor outstrips demand, workers become cheap and society becomes top-heavy. This inequality undermines collective solidarity and political turbulence follows.

• Complexity – Kemp quotes “collapse expert and historian” Joseph Tainter. Tainter says “societies eventually collapse under the weight of their own accumulated complexity and bureaucracy. Societies are problem-solving collectives that grow in complexity in order to overcome new issues. However, the returns from complexity eventually reach a point of diminishing returns. After this point, collapse will eventually ensue.”

• External shocks – Natural disasters, famine and plagues, etc.

• Randomness/bad luck – Statistical analysis on empires suggests that collapse is random and independent of age. Evolutionary biologists call this the “Red Queen Effect,” which says that if species are constantly fighting for survival in a changing environment with numerous competitors, extinction is a consistent possibility

Now, I don’t claim to know how much of this applies to the great civilization that is the United States of America. And I’m not some gloom and doomer who thinks this civilization is about to grind to a standstill.

But I do see some pretty troubling things that seem to coincide with what Kemp is talking about. Especially with regard to the environment, inequality and oligarchy, and complexity pieces.

I don’t think anyone would argue that weather is not getting weird and extreme. Would anyone be surprised if we had a really nasty drought across much of the U.S.? Of course, I’m sure we’re equipped to handle it much better than the Romans, but it could still be devastating.

With regard to political structure, I’ve been harping about how our “constitutional republic” has turned into a “corporate oligarchy” for decades.

Congress doesn’t pass laws based on what’s best for the American people. They pass laws based on what’s best for their benefactors – the K Street lobbyists who represent the interest of corporate American. I have a T-shirt that says “Invest in America! Buy a Congressman!”

The effect is obvious. If you get to make the rules, who will benefit from the rules that are made? You will, of course. It’s human nature.

Fifty years ago, CEOs might have made 20 or 30 times what their workers made. Last year, Microsoft Corp. CEO Satya Nadella made 154 times more than the company's median employee.

Public policies drive inequality because corporations drive the public policies.

In a political and economic climate like that, the condition of average folks is largely overlooked. This makes the system even more top heavy. Stronger oligarchy. More centralization of power. Will this lead to social unrest and disintegration? Maybe not in our lifetimes, but you could make a pretty strong case that we’re headed down that path.

And complexity?

Who would argue that over the past 100 years our government has not become onerously complex. The tax code alone is 2,600 pages.

The Federal Register is basically the official journal of federal government. It has all the agency rules, proposed rules and public notices. It is published daily. On Thursday – that one day – the federal register was 313 pages.

Government has grown to the point where even though it is taking in record amounts of revenue from taxpayers it is running up $1 trillion deficits year over year.

Earlier I quoted Tainter. It bears repeating here: “Societies eventually collapse under the weight of their own accumulated complexity and bureaucracy.” If he’s right – and he probably is – I would argue we’re already more than a few steps down that path as well.

We are $22 trillion dollars in debt with no end in sight. Government is gobbling up massive amounts of this country’s financial resources.

And what do a fair number of our venerable presidential candidates tell us?

We must spend even more! Free health care, free college, guaranteed income for all, retrofit every building in America, and on and on. More bureaucracy. More complexity. Pile it on until it crumbles under its own weight.

It’s unbelievable.

I guess my hope is that somewhere alone the line, cooler heads will prevail.

I’m not holding my breath.