In a new study, scientists have shown that societies and political structures are not immune to aging and just like the humans they are serving these structures do age and become more fragile.
Through analysis of hundreds of pre-modern societies scientists have been able to show in their study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that societies and political structures are not resilient indefinitely and that their resilience decreases over time. Evidence shows that pre-modern states faced a steeply increasing risk of collapse within the first two centuries after they formed. Evidence shows that while there were many factors for the collapse of these structures in the past, some of the mechanism like environmental degradation and growing economic inequality continue to play major role in modern societies as well.
SFI External Professor Tim Kohler (Washington State University) notes in the study that while external factors such as drought or catastrophes do play a role, there is a need to understand internal processes that may contribute to the demise of societies and political structures
How states and great powers rise and fall has been an enigma that has puzzled historians for years. In this study, the researchers looked at this question from a new angle, by analyzing longevity in 324 pre-modern states spanning five millennia.
“This approach is commonly used to study the risk of death in aging humans, but nobody had the idea to look at societies this way,” says SFI External Professor Marten Scheffer (Wageningen University), lead author of the study.
In humans, the risk of dying doubles approximately every 6-7 years after infancy. As that exponential process compounds with great age, few people survive more than 100 years. The authors show that it works differently for states. Their risk of termination rises steeply over the first two centuries but then levels off, allowing a few to persist much longer than usual.
They found a similar pattern all over the world from European pre-modern societies to early civilizations in the Americas to Chinese dynasties.
Societies today differ in many ways from the pre-modern states studied by the authors. Nonetheless, according to Scheffer, humans should not expect modern societies to be immune to the mechanisms that drove the waxing and waning of states for thousands of years.
“Mechanisms that destabilized past societies remain relevant today,” Sheffer says. “Indeed, perceived unfairness and scarcity exacerbated by climatic extremes may still drive discontent and violence.”
Current threats to global society make these findings particularly applicable, adds co-author Tim Lenton from the University of Exeter.
“As our society enters a climate and ecological crisis of our own making the evidence that it is getting less resilient just increases the systemic and existential risks we are facing,” he says. “A glimmer of hope is that some past societies pulled through crises and lived much longer — but they had to reinvent themselves in the process.”