In the fall of 2019, an international survey carried out by the IFOP for the so called “Fondation Jean Jaurès” revealed that 71% of Italians and 65% of French people agreed with the assertion that “civilization as we know it today will collapse in the years to come ”. This apocalyptic view was shared by “only” 56% of Britons, 52% of Americans … and 39% of Germans.
Since then, we have been struck by a serious pandemic, and have witnessed, dumbfounded, the inability of our modern societies to face without using methods of another age (confinement and derogatory authorization to travel), and for an extraordinary economic cost.
In this context, it is likely that any new poll would not invalidate the first one.
Why the collapse?
In The Collapse of Complex Societies published in 1988, American anthropologist and historian Joseph A. Tainter questioned why states, empires and civilizations collapse. Is there a model in their history that systemically explains their collapse? Can we deduce a better way for today’s world?
Reviewing some twenty cases of collapse, he focused in particular on the case of the Roman Empire and the Mayan civilization.
Its conclusions turn around four observations:
- human societies are organizations serving as a framework for problem solving;
- socio-political systems need energy for their maintenance;
- the increase in complexity brings with it an increase in per capita costs, understood as costs of services, maintenance, etc …
- Investing in complexity as a means of solving problems always ends up reaching a point where the returns are diminishing.
This last idea, that of a “decreasing return on investment in complexity” corresponds to a society characterized according to Tainter by:
- the increase in the size and specialization of bureaucracies;
- the cumulative cost of solutions to resolve the resulting problems;
- the increased cost of maintaining order and social peace;
- the increase in the tax burden to pay 2) as well as 3)
- increased investments by the central authority in activities whose function is to confirm the legitimacy of the government (public works, health, bread and circuses) to combat unpopularity due to 4)
These “theorems” do not hold true only at the level of state administration: anyone who has worked with the governing bodies of large companies or financial institutions cannot have missed it.
What do we want to do with it?
The good news is that, for Tainter, collapse is not a fall into primordial chaos, but a return to less complexity. And for societies crumbling under the weight of their complexity, it may therefore be the most appropriate response.
In Europe, the United States, and throughout the Muslim world, this “collapse” is underway.
In 2008, it struck the sector which had pushed the cult of complexity the furthest, the financial sector, bringing down, for a little over ten years, all the institutions in this sector which proved incapable of reinventing themselves.
In the political sphere, it has resulted in revolts in the polls (Brexit, Trump …) or in the street (yellow vests …) carrying in the same anger the media and the socio-political system, accused of participating in this complexity (“they don’t talk to real people”).
The European Union and its relish for the standard has also largely borne the cost of this pillory.
Since 2001, the Muslim world has found itself caught up in violence that has become endemic, against a backdrop of terrorism and a minority desire to return to the fundamentals of Sharia.
And it is today, on both sides of the Atlantic, our whole system of governance which is entangled in an unintelligent management of the health crisis and a culpable oblivion on the subject of the climate.
In his “prison notebooks, Gramsci wrote:“The crisis is the moment when the old order of the world is blurred and the new must prevail despite all resistance and all contradictions. This transitional phase is precisely marked by many errors and many torments.”
Let us now accept the herald of a collapsing world, to finally find what we really want to do with it.
Iconography: Maya ruins, Cancun, Mexico © Pegleess Barrios
After working as an international banker for emerging countries, Laurent Lascols became global head of country risk / sovereign risk (from 2008 to 2013) then global director of public affairs (from 2014 to 2019) for Societe Generale. In 2021, he founded Aristote, an advisory firm and training organization dedicated to environmental economics, sustainable finance and impact finance.