The Late Bronze Age collapse is an interesting case I'd love to see more work on. Thanks a lot for posting this.
I once spent 1h looking into this as part of a literature review training exercise. Like you, I got the impression that there likely was a complex set of interacting causes rather than a single one. I also got the sense, perhaps even more so than you, that the scope, coherence, dating, and causes are somewhat controversial and uncertain. In particular, I got the impression that it's not clear whether the eruption of the Hekla volcano played a causal role since some (but not all) papers estimate it occurred after the collapse.
I'll paste my notes below, but obviously take them with a huge grain of salt given that I spent only 1h looking into this and had no prior familiarity with the topic.
Late Bronze Age collapse, also known as 3.2 ka event
In a recent paper, Knapp & Manning (2016) conclude the collapse had several causes and more research is needed to fully understand them:
“There is no final solution: the human-induced Late Bronze Age ‘collapse’ presents multiple material, social, and cultural realities that demand continuing, and collaborative, archaeological, historical, and scientific attention and interpretation.”
“Among them all, we should not expect to find any agreed-upon, overarching explanation that could account for all the changes within and beyond the eastern Mediterranean, some of which occurred at different times over nearly a century and a half, from the mid to late 13th throughout the 12th centuries B.C.E. The ambiguity of all the relevant but highly complex evidence—material, textual, climatic, chronological—and the very different contexts and environments in which events and human actions occurred, make it difficult to sort out what was cause and what was result. Furthermore, we must expect a complicated and multifaceted rather than simple explanatory framework. Even if, for example, the evidence shows that there is (in part) a relevant significant climate trigger, it remains the case that the immediate causes of the destructions are primarily human, and so a range of linking processes must be articulated to form any satisfactory account.”
While I’ll mostly focus on causes, note that also the scope of the collapse and associated societal transformation is at least somewhat controversial. E.g. Small:
“Current opinions on the upheaval in Late Bronze Age Greece state that the change from the Late Bronze Age to the Geometric period 300 years later involved a transformation from a society based upon complex chiefdoms or early states to one based upon less complex forms of social and political structure, often akin to bigman societies. I will argue that such a transformation was improbable and that archaeologists have misinterpreted the accurate nature of this change because their current models of Late Bronze Age culture have missed its real internal structure. Although Greece did witness a population decline and a shift at this time, as well as a loss of some palatial centers, the underlying structure of power lay in small-scale lineages and continued to remain there for at least 400 years.”
By contrast, Dickinson:
“In the first flush of the enthusiasm aroused by the decipherment of the Linear B script as Greek, Wace, wishing to see continuity of development from Mycenaean Greeks to Classical Greeks, attempted to minimize the cultural changes involved in the transition from the period of the Mycenaean palaces to later times (1956, xxxiii-xxxiv). However, it has become abundantly clear from detailed analysis of the Linear B material and the steadily accumulating archaeological evidence that this view cannot be accepted in the form in which he proposed it. There was certainly continuity in many features of material culture, as in the Greek language itself, but the Aegean world of the period following the Collapse was very different from that of the period when Mycenaean civilization was at its height, here termed the Third Palace Period. Further, the differences represent not simply a change but also a significant deterioration in material culture, which was the prelude to the even more limited culture of the early stages of the Iron Age.” (emphases mine)
Causes that have been discussed in the literature
Types of evidenceben_kuhn on We're Lincoln Quirk & Ben Kuhn from Wave, AMA!
Cool! With the understanding that these aren't your opinions, I'm going to engage with them anyway bc I think they're interesting. I think for all four of these I agree that they directionally push toward for-profits being less good, but that people overestimate the magnitude of the effect.
For-profit entrepreneurship has built-in incentives that already cause many entrepreneurs to try and implement any promising opportunities. As a result, we'd expect it to be drastically less neglected, or at least drastically less neglected relative to nonprofit opportunities that are similar in how promising they are
Despite the built-in incentives, I think "which companies get built" is still pretty contingent and random based on which people try to do things. For instance, it's been obvious that M-Pesa had an amazing business in Kenya since ~2012, but it still hasn't had equally successful copycats, let alone people trying to improve it, in other countries. If the market were really efficient here I think something like Wave would be 4+ years further along in its trajectory.
The specific cause areas that the EA movement currently sees as the most promising - including global poverty and health, animal welfare, and the longterm future - all serve recipients who (to different degrees) are incapable of significantly funding such work
Similarly, this is directionally correct but easy to overweight—there are still for-profit companies working in all of these spaces that seem likely to have very large impacts (Wave, Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, SpaceX, OpenAI...)
For-profit organizations may produce incentives that make it unlikely to make the decisions that will end up producing enormous impact (in the EA sense of that term).
This is definitely a risk, and something that we worry about at Wave. That said:
Finally, I've also heard from several people the claim that today EA has an immense amount of funding, and if you're a competent person founding a charity that works according to EA principles it is incredibly easy to get non-trivial amounts of funding
I think "nontrivial" for a nonprofit is trivial for a successful for-profit :) Wave has raised tens of millions of dollars in equity and hundreds of millions in debt, and we're likely to raise 10x+ more in success cases. We definitely could not have raised nearly this much as a nonprofit. Same with eg OpenAI which got $1b in nonprofit commitments but still had to become (capped) for-profit in order to grow.sella on We're Lincoln Quirk & Ben Kuhn from Wave, AMA!
Thank you both for your thoughtful answers.
To clarify, I don't have a strong opinion on this comparison myself, and would love to hear more points of view on this. Sadly I'm not aware of any reading materials on this topic, but have heard the following arguments made in one on one conversations:
Finally, the fact that I listed arguments in favor of nonprofit entrepreneurship over for-profit entrepreneurship may give the impression that this is my opinion, so I want to clarify again that it is not and I am highly uncertain about this topic.lincolnq on We're Lincoln Quirk & Ben Kuhn from Wave, AMA!
Yeah, that seems right to me, and is a good model that predicts the existing nonprofit startup ideas! My point is that it seems like a very narrow slice of all value-producing ideas.fjehn on The end of the Bronze Age as an example of a sudden collapse of civilization
Thank you. Yeah when I wrote this down I was a bit shocked myself on how many bad things can happen at the same time.
You're are right that the argument about the comparison with the other eruption is a bit flaky. The problem is that this is so long ago and most written sources were destroyed. So, we have to rely on climatic reconstructions and those are hard. Therefore, I found accounts that both eruptions were of similar strength, but also some which argued that one of them was stronger than the other. However, the earlier eruption happened smack in the middle of the Bronze Age empires, while the one during the collapse happened in Iceland. So, I would also be very interested in the opinion of someone about this who spend a career on it.
To your second argument: I agree that we have vastly more ressources and knowledge now. The problem is that it seems to me that our power to destroy ourselves increased as well and the society seems much more unlikely to recover when a really bad disaster would strike. So, my feeling is that stabilizing and destabilizing factors increased in a similar magnitude.
Thank you for the article from Cowen. I see this danger as well. Such topics always remind of this article. It is mainly a rant about programmers, but it also touches on the problem that much of our infrastructure will be very difficult to restart once its stopped, because so much of it are just improvised stopgap solutions.meerpirat on The end of the Bronze Age as an example of a sudden collapse of civilization
Wow, vulcano erupting, a famine, an earthquake, a pandemic, civil wars and rioting sea people, that's quite a task. Really interesting read, thanks for writing it! And the graph ended up really nicely.
But this climatic approach does not explain everything. The civilizations in this part of earth already survived similar events in the past. For example the destruction of the Minoan civilization on Crete (which is in the middle of the eastern Mediterranean) was caused by another major volcanic eruption (Marinatos, 1939). However, all other civilizations survived mostly unharmed. This indicates that also the societal structure comes into play.
This argument didn't seem super watertight to me. There seems to be a lot of randomness involved, and causal factors at play that are unrelated to societal structure, no? For example maybe the other eruption was a little bit weaker, or the year before yielded enough food to store? Or maybe the wind was stronger in that year or something? Would be interesting to hear why the mono- and/or some of the duo-causal historians disagree with societal structure mattering.
However, we also have more resources and more knowledge than the people in the Bronze Age.
I wondered how much this is an understatement. I have no idea of how people thought back then, only the vague idea that the people that spend the most time trying to make sense of things like this were religious leaders and highly confused about bascially everything?
Lastly, your warnings of tipping points and the problems around the breakdown of trade reminded me of these arguments from Tyler Cowen, warning that the current trade war between China and the US and the strains from the current pandemic could lead to a sudden breakdown of international trade, too.ben_kuhn on We're Lincoln Quirk & Ben Kuhn from Wave, AMA!
Hmm. This argument seems like it only works if there are no market failures (i.e. ideas where it's possible to capture a decent fraction of the value created), and it seems like most nonprofits address some sort of market failure? (e.g. "people do not understand the benefits of vitamin-fortified food," "vaccination has strong positive externalities"...)ben_kuhn on We're Lincoln Quirk & Ben Kuhn from Wave, AMA!
I agree with most of what Lincoln said and would also plug Why and how to start a for-profit company serving emerging markets [EA · GW] as material on this, if you haven't read it yet :)
Can you elaborate on the "various reasons" that people argue for-profit entrepreneurship is less promising than nonprofit entrepreneurship or provide any pointers on reading material? I haven't run across these arguments.ben_kuhn on We're Lincoln Quirk & Ben Kuhn from Wave, AMA!
What are common failure cases/traps to avoid
I don't know about "most common" as I think it varies by company, but the worst one for me was allowing myself to get distracted by problems that were more rewarding in the short term, but less important or leveraged. I wrote a bit about this in Attention is your scarcest resource.
How much should I be directly coding vs "architecting" vs process management
Related to the above, you should never be coding anything that's even remotely urgent (because it'll distract you too much from non-coding problems). For the first while, you should probably try not to code at all because learning how not to suck as a manager will be more than full-time. Later, it's reasonable to work in "important but not urgent" stuff in your slack time, as long as you have the discipline not to get distracted by it.
Architecting vs process management depends on what your problems are, what kind of leader you want to be and what you can delegate to other people.
How do I approach hiring?
If you are hiring, hiring is your #1 priority and you should spend as much time and attention on it as is practical. Hiring better people has a magical way of solving many of your other problems.
Hiring can also be really demoralizing (because you are constantly rejecting people and/or being rejected), so it's hard to have the conviction to put more effort into it until you've seen firsthand how much of a difference it makes.
For me, the biggest hiring improvement was getting our final interview to a point where I was quite confident that anyone who passed it would be a good engineer at Wave. This took many iterations, but lowering the risk of a bad hire meant that (a) I wasn't distracted by stressing out about tricky hire/no-hire decisions, (b) we could indiscriminately put people through our hiring funnel and trust that the process would come to a reasonable verdict. After this change, our 10th-percentile hire has been about as good as our 50th-percentile hire previously, and we went from 4 engineers to 25 in a bit over a year.
I expect the exact same thing goes for investing in people once you've hired them, but I'm not as good at that yet so don't have concrete advice.
Just generally, what would you have imparted on past-you?
Thanks for writing, I really enjoyed reading this and it makes me feel happy that you found the EA Student Summit so valuable! :)