Lots of people are trying to save the world nowadays, but their efforts rely on maintaining a civilization that is advanced, wealthy, and increasingly complex. This essay examines two growing world-saving philosophies—effective altruism and existential risk reduction—and explains why anyone who is trying to save the world should care about civilization.
Prosperous Westerners view their societies as permanent, abundant, and thriving. They turn their focus to helping far-away countries or thinking through future risks of human extinction. Effective altruism is “a philosophy and social movement that applies evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to improve the world.” Typical interventions by effective altruists include malaria eradication, deworming, and direct cash transfers to the global poor. Existential risk reduction is a movement to lower the possibility of human extinction occurring through disasters such as asteroid impacts, nuclear war, ecological crisis, or unfriendly artificial intelligence.
Effective altruism and existential risk reduction face a single point of failure: they depend on civilization. Risks to civilization endanger effective altruism, existential risk reduction, and all significant humanitarian causes.
A civilizational risk is a threat that could destroy or damage a civilization or its key institutions. An asteroid impact, a nuclear war, ecological collapse, economic depression, food shortage, or an EMP strike could grind civilization to a halt.
In the short-term, civilizational risks might be local and endurable, but any significant decline is dangerous: damage to civilization could exacerbate catastrophic or existential risks. In the least, civilizational decline would make it harder to pursue charity or existential risk reduction.
GiveWell has a blog post describing the potential impact of global catastrophic risks, suggesting that:
a sufficiently severe catastrophe may risk changing the long-term trajectory of civilization in an unfavorable direction (potentially including human extinction if a catastrophe is particularly severe and our response is inadequate).”
This essay agrees that examining the risk to civilization is fruitful, but I am going a step further. If civilization is fragile and centralized, then it might not take a global, catastrophic event to damage or destroy it: even local shocks might be enough. If civilization starts to destabilize, we should be concerned about what might happen on the way down, if militaries and economies behave opportunistically. Sufficiently adverse events could raise the likelihood of more severe classes of risk.
Is civilizational risk serious?
You are probably going to read this essay wondering about the exact risks to civilization we might be facing today, so you can evaluate whether they are serious or not. And you will probably want to hear what can be done about it.
For this introductory essay, these are exactly the questions that I’m going to avoid. The reason I’m going to avoid them is that people aren’t on the same page about what civilizations are, how to tell when they are broken, and how to fix them. That's a much bigger discussion.
Instead, I’m going to introduce the subject of civilizational collapse with some ancient and recent historical examples, and focus on a particular claim: if civilization declined or collapsed, then it would be bad for your goals. I’m starting with this claim to establish that civilization is even worth talking about. Then in future discussions, when you encounter evidence that might indicate civilizational problems, you will be emotionally prepared to face it.
Civilizational decay or collapse
I used to be annoyed whenever people would talk about the Roman Empire. What could Rome possibly have to do with anything? That was a long time ago. What’s all this paranoid talk about civilization collapsing? Things seem just fine.
But many civilizations have declined or fallen in the past. When you take the long view, civilizational collapse happens all the time. In contrast, many existential risks are speculative or rare: either they have never happened before, like nanotechnology weapons, or they are extremely uncommon, like large asteroid strikes. This short video shows just a few civilizations rising and falling:
If you need to see more empire porn, you can watch 50 centuries in 10 minutes and try to catch all those names you haven’t heard of as they blink in and out of the map. See how far you get before you start to feel a little nervous about your civilization. I felt a punch to the gut around a couple minutes in. If you are still feeling confident, then you can watch a reconstruction of 320 AD Rome and marvel at what they accomplished around 1700 years ago. Imagine what the world would be like if the Roman Empire had been able to continue up to today. They were able to build the Pantheon such that the light from the dome lit the doorway on April 21st, the birthday festival of Rome.
They could engineer this wonder, but still they fell.
Today, from the inside, your civilization seems permanent, but tomorrow, it’s a shrinking blob on a map. Today, you are in a bustling city, but tomorrow, artists are reconstructing it from the ruins. Sobering, isn’t it? Hopefully at least they get the colors of the paint right.
After Ugo Bardi’s “peak civilization” essay introduced me to The Collapse of Complex Societies, it was hard to have the same unwavering faith in progress. I was forced to consider scenarios in which I don’t get to have the shining, technological, glorious transhumanist future I grew up hoping for.
As a layman or a generalist, it is very difficult to evaluate claims about the trajectory of civilizations. Resource depletion, peak everything, Limits to Growth, the doomsayers and the cornocupians—it’s exhausting to research, and we will not attempt to evaluate those claims here.
What Bardi’s essay convinced me is that the complexity of civilizations makes them fragile. In The Collapse of Complex Societies, historian Joseph Tainter argues that societies continually accrue complexity until they collapse. As civilizations solve problems, they accumulate social rules, institutions, bureaucracies, militaries, technologies, and laws. But complexity isn’t free. Tainter believes that there are diminishing returns to complexity because it costs time, energy, or resources.
Why Rome Fell
The conventional understanding of the fall of the Western Roman Empire is that the Romans got defeated by the Germanic barbarians. Or maybe it was because the Romans were too “decadent,” where decadence means something about getting naked and eating too many grapes while reclining on klinai.
Tainter objects to the notion that any single factor might cause civilizational collapse. Instead, he argues that pressures result in a feedback loop of stress on the system. During stress, the system initially compensates to maintain homeostasis. The more the system is stressed, the more work it takes to stay in the same place. Eventually, continuing becomes too costly and the whole thing falls apart.
Tainter summarizes his view of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. This quote is pretty long, but you probably want to know what happened to Rome, and this is the concise summary of Tainter’s explanation:
As a solar-energy based society which taxed heavily, the empire had little fiscal reserve. When confronted with military crises, Roman Emperors often had to respond by debasing the silver currency and trying to raise new funds. In the third century A.D. constant crises forced the emperors to double the size of the army and increase both the size and complexity of the government. To pay for this, masses of worthless coins were produced, supplies were commandeered from peasants, and the level of taxation was made even more oppressive (up to two-thirds of the net yield after payment of rent). Inflation devastated the economy. Lands and population were surveyed across the empire and assessed for taxes. Communities were held corporately liable for any unpaid amounts. While peasants went hungry or sold their children into slavery, massive fortifications were built, the size of the bureaucracy doubled, provincial administration was made more complex, large subsidies in gold were paid to Germanic tribes, and new imperial cities and courts were established. With rising taxes, marginal lands were abandoned and population declined. Peasants could no longer support large families. To avoid oppressive civic obligations, the wealthy fled from cities to establish self-sufficient rural estates. Ultimately, to escape taxation, peasants voluntarily entered into feudal relationships with these land holders. A few wealthy families came to own much of the land in the western empire, and were able to defy the imperial government. The empire came to sustain itself by consuming its capital resources; producing lands and peasant population. The Roman Empire provides history's best-documented example of how increasing complexity to resolve problems leads to higher costs, diminishing returns, alienation of a support population, economic weakness, and collapse. In the end it could no longer afford to solve the problems of its own existence.
There were a lot of variables going on behind Rome’s decline: land, military might, population, political power, energy. Eventually the balance of these variables could not be maintained, and Rome ran out of money and gave up.
Bardi sees a disturbing parallel between our society and Rome:
Our Druids may be better than those of the times of the Roman Empire, at least they have digital computers. But our leaders are no better apt at understanding complex system than the military commanders who ruled the Roman Empire. Even our leaders were better, they would face the same problems: there are no structures that can gently lead society to where it is going. We have only structures that are there to keep society where it is—no matter how difficult and uncomfortable it is to be there. It is exactly what Tainter says: we react to problems by building structures that are more and more complex and that, in the end, produce a negative return. That's why societies collapse.
If Bardi is correct that our leaders do not understand complex systems, this is sufficient to be concerned. Even if we don’t face a resource crisis now, mismanagement is perfectly capable of creating crises in the future. Human incompetence can dig us into a hole that’s too deep for markets and technology to dig us out of.
Once you become concerned about societal complexity and homeostasis, then any kind of civilizational shock becomes worrying, whether it comes from resource depletion, economic crises, ecological disasters, conquest, incompetence, or some other source that we can’t predict.
In our complex, specialized society, we take it for granted that someone else is responsible for keeping the whole thing going. We count on them doing a good job, while we focus on the goals we care about. What if our trust is misplaced, the people in charge don’t know what they are doing, and the whole thing could just fall apart one day?
Impact of civilizational decline or collapse
Now that I’ve thoroughly depressed you with apocalyptism, let’s make matters even darker by discussing the implications for humanitarians. Examining the worst-case scenarios is like exposure therapy: it will start training you to have the emotional grit that’s necessary to tackle civilization-scale questions.
An economic crash like the 2008 financial crisis or worse would be very damaging to philanthropy. Disposable incomes would be wiped out. Charitable giving would crash. Additionally, all of the effective altruist, existential risk, and AI risk organizations would face budget cuts or be placed on the chopping block. “Earning to give” would be forgotten in favor of earning to eat.
A total, global, economic collapse might reduce AI risk and some technological risks, like nanotechnology. But it would also have an immense cost, based on societal collapses that have already happened. An account from the Soviet Union:
St. Petersburg was a shock. There was a sense of despair that hung in the winter air. There were old women standing around in spontaneous open-air flea markets trying to sell toys that probably belonged to their grandchildren, to buy something to eat. Middle-class people could be seen digging around in the trash. Everyone's savings were wiped out by hyperinflation.
The collapse of Bosnia during the breakup of Yugoslavia was even worse:
After a month or two, gangs started operating, destroying everything. Hospitals, for example, turned into slaughterhouses. There was no more police. About 80 percent of the hospital staff were gone. I got lucky. My family at the time was fairly large (15 people in a large house, six pistols, three AKs), and we survived (most of us, at least).
The Americans dropped MREs every 10 days to help blockaded cities. This was never enough. Some—very few—had gardens. It took three months for the first rumors to spread of men dying from hunger and cold. We removed all the doors, the window frames from abandoned houses, ripped up the floors and burned the furniture for heat. Many died from diseases, especially from the water (two from my own family). We drank mostly rainwater, ate pigeons and even rats.
These situations sound pretty bad. The scenarios are not “existential risks,” because people are still alive. But these collapses would be disastrous for accomplishing any human goals. All the existential risk projects that require technology would become impossible, like asteroid prevention or dealing with pandemics. Scrabbling to survive without food and without rule of law, humans would lose their long-term orientation and ability to widely coordinate.
During a civilizational collapse, the downward trajectory could be very messy, and countries could burn through global resources or use weapons unwisely during the resulting destabilization. We could see a feedback loop where destabilization leads to greater destabilization. Even if only Western civilization collapses, then there will be no way to address technological risks emanating from Russia or China.
Even minor resource shortages or infrastructure problems would greatly disrupt philanthropists. Blackouts or brownouts would lower the productivity of people doing humanitarian work. For example, the power grid in South Africa is increasingly faltering due to massive infrastructural problems and mismanagement. In Nigeria, some companies only get four hours of power a day, and corrupt officials have pocketed money earmarked for infrastructure.
If you think the decline of the power grid is solely an African problem, think again. In the U.S. power cuts are on the rise due to decaying infrastructure, growing population, and bad weather. U.S. infrastructure is such a poor state that it was given a D+ grade by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Detroit has experienced citywide power cuts. Jails and fire stations lost power, and people were trapped in elevators. Rumors are that the problem wasn’t just infrastructural, it was also institutional: revenues from Detroit’s power grid went to the city coffers instead of appropriate reinvestment. It’s going to take an immense cash infusion of $200 million to return the system to homeostasis: the familiar themes of incompetent leadership, and working harder to stay in the same place.
If the power grid failed in your city, you wouldn’t be very productive in pursuing your goals.
These few examples of collapse or infrastructural problems do not prove that civilization in general is collapsing, but they acquaint you with some of the bad scenarios. Furthermore, they are worrying indicators. Given all the historical maps we looked at earlier, we know that civilizations collapse, and we should be on the lookout for warning signs that it’s happening to ours.
Civilization and saving the world
We live in civilization like fish live in water. We may not notice that water now, but we would certainly notice if it was gone. In a world of exponential curves, decline could sneak up on us, and we wouldn’t realize until it was too late.
It’s a historical oddity that a class of people is wealthy and willing to distribute a substantial portion of their income to people in other countries. It’s also an oddity for people to be spending a lot of time reducing the risks that future humans might face. The typical orientation of most human societies is to be constrained with their resources and to only extend charity towards kin or towards local people who might reciprocate. Most people in history have had bigger fish to fry than extensive philanthropy, like feeding their families or avoiding violence by the local warlord.
Philanthropy depends on civilization. Effective altruism requires civilization to be effective. Take away civilization, and the most altruism you can do is to share your meal rations. Most existential risk projects assume that there are people in a building somewhere with lights on. Effective altruism and existential risk reduction imply an additional subgoal: civilizational sustainability.
It’s demoralizing to consider that if civilization collapsed or severely declined, then the fallout could undo everything that you’ve spent your life working on. If you are serious about your values, then you also need to be serious about the civilizational machinery that allows you (or your successors) to pursue your values over the long-term. You invest in the things you value, but you also need to be investing in the thing that lets you pursue your values in the first place: civilization.
Will our civilization actually collapse? Only time will tell. Somehow we feel that the winds of time don’t apply to us, even though we know from history that other civilizations have been blown away. It doesn’t feel concrete. What is the concrete evidence of civilizational decline and impending collapse? That’s a deep and controversial subject.
For now, it’s sufficient to establish that civilization is an increasingly complex system struggling to maintain homeostasis, and that if declined or collapsed, it would be bad. Our values, our efforts, and our goals would be carried off by the winds.
What can we do? The first steps are to notice the machinery of civilization around us that helps us achieve our goals, to study the history of past collapses for lessons, and to stop taking civilization for granted. Once we can acknowledge what the stakes are, once we acknowledge that there is something worth protecting, then we can start figuring out exactly what’s wrong with civilization and how to fix it.
Update 1: Added section on likelihood of civilizational risks.
Update 2: Added mention of The long-term significance of reducing global catastrophic risks by Nick Beckstead at GiveWell.