Civilization Re-Emerging After a Catastrophic Collapse

post by MichaelA · 2020-06-27T03:22:43.226Z · score: 28 (12 votes) · EA · GW · 15 comments

This is a link post for https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zhx5ieX-HPY

In this EAGxNordics 2019 talk, Karim Jebari discusses how likely it is that civilization would recover after a collapse, and how much similarity we should expect between a civilization that has recovered and one that never collapsed in the first place. I see these as crucial and neglected questions (though see some relevant sources here [EA(p) · GW(p)]), as they could inform how much we should prioritise work on preventing, or improving our chances of recovery from, civilizational collapse. I also thought Jebari covered a series of very interesting and thought-provoking arguments and ideas - most of which I won't try to summarise here - so I'd highly recommend watching the talk. (For some reason there's music playing for the first minute or two of the video, but then it goes away, so just soldier on through it!)

Here, I want to comment on one of Jebari's key arguments. He noted that many different societies independently converged on things like agriculture, but that only one society arrived at things like industrialisation, mass production, etc. He argued that this suggests that, following civilizational collapse, we have reason to believe we'd recover agriculture, but not much reason to believe we'd recover industrialisation. And he suggested that this argument is bolstered by the fact that other societies (particularly China and Bengal) seem to have had most of the things that are often seen as the key ingredients required for an industrial revolution, such as a capital-intensive manufacturing sector. His claim was that this suggests the development of industrialisation depends on more factors, and is more of a "lucky shot", than we might otherwise think. (See also The long-term significance of reducing global catastrophic risks.)

I think this is an interesting argument, that it merits attention, and that it should push us somewhat towards prioritising work on civilizational collapse. But I can also think of a potential counterargument: Perhaps the key reason industrialisation only emerged in one place, rather than independently emerging in multiple places, is that things "sped up" and became more interconnected between the agricultural and industrial revolutions, and then even more so once industrialisation occurred. To flesh this out slightly more, perhaps:

This is a very speculative counterargument. For one thing, I haven't checked relevant facts like how long there was between agricultural developments in different societies. Also, at most this counterargument would reduce the force of the particular argument Jebari made, rather than this providing a specific reason to think recovery of industrialisation is likely; I still feel very uncertain about how likely such a recovery is.

So I'd be interested to hear other people's thoughts on Jebari's argument and my proposed counterargument, on other aspects of Jebari's talk, or on the more general matter of the likelihood of recovery from collapse. (And if you know of relevant sources, please comment about them here [EA(p) · GW(p)].)

15 comments

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comment by Davidmanheim · 2020-06-28T10:45:35.597Z · score: 19 (8 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think there's a clear counterargument, which is that the central ingredient lacking in developing technologies was a lack of awareness that progress in a given area is possible. Unless almost literally all knowledge is destroyed, a recovery doesn't have this problem.

(Note: this seems to be a consensus view among people I talk to who have thought about collapse scenarios, but I can claim that only very loosely, based on a few conversations.)

comment by MichaelA · 2020-06-28T23:50:52.829Z · score: 8 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Ah, yes, I think that's a more important point, in reality. I guess I see that as like a separate argument that pushes in favour of thinking recovering of industrialisation is likely (and that therefore pushes against Jebari's overall conclusion). There are also other arguments that push in favour of or against thinking such recovery is likely. But I implicitly meant something like "Jebari's argument may warrant some weight. So let's set aside other arguments on this topic for a moment, and just focus on how much weight his particular argument deserves." And my counterargument was something that might (if sound) limit the implications of Jebari's argument in particular. (I failed to make it clear that this was my intended scope.)

For example, I think my counterargument would be relevant even if literally all knowledge was destroyed, or if we're just thinking of the question of how likely it was that industrialisation would happen eventually (rather than how likely recovery would be). But I'd agree that those aren't the most decision-relevant questions; it was just the corner of the space I chose to focus on here. (But in any case, what you said is very relevant and useful in relation to "the more general matter of the likelihood of recovery from collapse".)

comment by Davidmanheim · 2020-06-29T09:51:41.204Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I was focusing on "how much similarity we should expect between a civilization that has recovered and one that never collapsed in the first place," and I was saying that the degree of similarity in terms of likely progress is low, conditioning on any level of societal memory of the idea that progress is possible, and knowing (or seeing artifacts of the fact) that there once were billions of people who had flying machines and instant communication.

comment by MichaelA · 2020-06-30T02:32:44.738Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Oh, interesting. So do you think that this is a reason to think a civilization that has recovered will end up looking quite different to one that never collapsed in the first place? Or just that the recovery period will look quite different from how the development period had looked in the first place (pre-collapse)?

It seems plausible to me that we should expect recovery to involve development towards a similar point - at least in terms of what technologies are developed - but with more speed and a somewhat different path (since those people would have a better idea of what point they're aiming towards than pre-collapse people did). But perhaps the difference in path means there'd likely be a difference in what technologies (and similar) we end up with, as well.

Also, in any case, I'm much less confident that we'd end up at a similar point in terms of political systems and moral views (e.g., liberal democracies and somewhat widespread cosmopolitan attitudes). And maybe this difference in path provides an additional reason to believe we'd end up in a different place on those dimensions, even if we end up in a similar place in terms of what technologies are developed.

comment by Davidmanheim · 2020-07-01T05:53:02.484Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm very uncertain about details, and have low confidence in all of these claims we agree about, but I agree with your assessment overall.

I've assumed that while speed changes, the technology-tree is fairly unalterable - you need goods metals and similar to make many things through 1800s-level technology, you need large-scale industry to make good metals, etc. But that's low confidence, and I'd want to think about it more. (This paper looks interesting: http://gamestudies.org/1201/articles/tuur_ghys.)

Regarding political systems, I think that market economies with some level of distributed control, and political systems that allow feedback in somewhat democratic ways are social technologies that we don't have clear superior alternatives to, despite centuries of thought. I'd argue that Fukuyama was right in "End of History" about the triumph of democracy and capitalism, it's just that the end state seems to take longer than he assumed.

And finally, yes, the details of how they technologies and social systems play out in terms of cosmopolitan attitudes and the societal goals they reflect are much less clear. In general, I think that humans are far more culturally plastic than people assume, and very different values are possible and compatible with flourishing in the general sense. But (if it were possible to know the answer,) I wouldn't be too surprised to find out that nearly fixed tech trees + nearly fixed social technology trees mean that cosmopolitan attitudes are a very strong default, rather than an accidental contingent reality.

comment by MichaelA · 2020-07-02T04:38:37.934Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Interesting perspectives, thanks for sharing.

I think the only point on which my view seem to differ from yours here is that I think I have lower confidence that market-style economies and democracy-style political systems would emerge by default. (But that's not informed by very much, and I hope to learn more on the topic in future. Relevantly, I haven't read The End of History.)

I think the following are some inputs informing my lower confidence on that matter. But note that I haven't looked into any of these points much, and I mean this more as laying out my current thinking than as trying to make a compelling case.

  • It seems quite plausible that, even if market-style economies and democracy-style political systems are the most effective types of systems given how the world has been for the past centuries, other types of systems might be more effective if the background conditions changed quite a bit.
    • E.g., perhaps if there was a major disruption, after which most countries had a Soviet style system with industry intact, market economies and democracies wouldn't perform well against that. Perhaps because of limited ability to trade, or because the Soviet style systems would coordinate to curtail the democracies and market economies.
    • One thing that makes me less concerned about this is that the "good" systems first began emerging when the rest of the world didn't have those systems. So clearly it's not necessary for everywhere to have free markets and democracies in order for that to emerge. But we don't have precedents for things like a global situation in which most countries are very non-democratic systems and have modern technology.
    • Perhaps this could be phrased as the possibility that there are multiple Nash equilibria for the international system, and in the current one it's best to be fairly democratic and have fairly free markets, but there might be other equilibria where that's not the case.
    • I think this and some of my other "inputs" were inspired in part by Beckstead.
  • Relatedly, it seems possible for a system to achieve something like "singleton" status, such that we no longer have evolution towards the most effective solutions, and the singleton can stay as it is indefinitely even if it's not very effective.
    • Perhaps this is analogous to a company attaining monopoly status, creating high barriers to entry, and then getting away with providing poor products at high prices.
  • The Soviet Union lasted for a while, and it doesn't seem that its eventual demise was a foregone conclusion. (Again, I should note that I haven't looked into these points much.)
  • China seems to have maintained decent growth and avoided substantial democratisation thus far, despite repeated predictions suggesting this would've changed by now.
  • When I was reading 1984, it did feel plausible that such a system could last for a very long time.
    • Arguably, this could serve as a sketch of the sort of singleton scenario I allude to above.
    • Though of course we should be wary of the way that a lot of vivid details can make something seem plausible, and of generalisation from fictional evidence [LW · GW].

As I said, I'm uncertain about these points, and I'd be interested to hear people's thoughts on them.

comment by Davidmanheim · 2020-07-03T11:32:23.717Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I disagree somewhat on a few things, but I'm not very strongly skeptical of any of these points. I do have a few points to consider about these issues.

Re: stable long term despotism, you might look into the idea of "hydraulic empires" and their stability. I think that short of having a similar monopoly, short of a global singleton, other systems are unstable enough that they should evolve towards whatever is optimal. However, nuclear weapons, if developed early by one state, could also create a quasi-singularity. And I think the Soviet Union was actually less stable than it appears in retrospect, except for their nuclear monopoly.

I do worry that some aspects of central control would be more effective at creating robust technological growth given clear tech ladders, compared to the way uncontrolled competition works in market economies, since markets are better at the explore side of the explore-exploit spectrum, and dictatorships are arguably better at exploitation. (In more than one sense.)

Re: China, the level of technology is stabilizing their otherwise fragile control of the country. I would be surprised if similar stability is possible longer term without either a hydraulic empire, per above, or similarly invasive advanced technologies - meaning that they would come fairly late. It's possible faster technology development would make this more likely.

In retrospect, 1984 seems far less worrying than a Brave New World - style anti-utopia. (But it's unclear that lots of happy people guided centrally is actually as negative as it is portrayed, at least according to some versions of utilitarianism.)

comment by gavintaylor · 2020-06-28T19:13:03.144Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

In Gun, Germs and Steel, Diamond comments briefly on technological stagnation and regression in small human populations (mostly in relation to Australian aborigines). I don't know if there is much theoretical basis for this, but he suggests that it is likely that the required population size to support even quite basic agricultural technology is much larger than the minimum genetically viable population.

So even if knowledge isn't explicitly destroyed in a catastrophe, if humanity is reduced to small groups of subsistence farmers then it seems probable that the technological level they can utilize will be much lower than that of the preceding society (although probably higher than the same population level without a proceeding society). The lifetime of unmaintained knowledge is also limiting factor - books and digital media may degrade before the new civilisation is ready to make use of them (unless they plan ahead to maintain them). But I agree that this is all very speculative.

comment by Aidan O'Gara · 2020-06-28T21:06:41.068Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

This makes sense. If 99% of humanity dies, the surviving groups might not be well-connected by transportation and trade. Modern manufacturing starts with natural resources from one country, assembles its products in the next, and ships and sells to a third. But if e.g. ships and planes can’t get fuel or maintenance, then international trade fails, supply chains break down, and survivors can’t utilize the full capacity of technology.

As gavintaylor says below, industrialization might need a critical mass of wealth to begin. (Maybe accumulated wealth affords freedom from sustenance work and allows specialization of labor?)

Though over thousands of years, the knowledge that progress is possible might end up encouraging people to rebuild the lost infrastructure.

comment by MichaelA · 2020-06-27T03:30:53.900Z · score: 9 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Also, I was surprised by how few views Jebari's talk had (given that it's great!). I'm guessing this might be simply because most EAs don't know that the YouTube channel EAGxNordics 2019 exists. In case there are a bunch of EAs who don't know about various sources of EA-related videos, but would like to, here's my list of such sources [EA · GW].

comment by gavintaylor · 2020-06-28T20:11:43.535Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I haven't seen the talk yet, but tend to agree that industrial ideas and technology were probably exported very quickly after their development in Europe (and later the US), which probably displaced any later and independent industrial revolution.

I think it's also worth noting that the industrial revolution occurred after several centuries of European colonial expansion, during which material wealth was being sent back to Europe. For example, in the 300 hundred years before the industrial revolution, American colonies accounted for >80% of the worlds silver production. So considering the Industrial Revolution to simply have been a European phenomena could be substantially understating the more global scope of the material contribution that may have facilitated it. However, it's hard to know if colonial wealth was required to create the right conditions for an industrial revolution or simply helped to speed it up. (Interestingly, China was going on successful voyages of discovery in the 14th century but had apparently abandoned their navy by the early 15th century. If China had instead gone on to start colonial activities around the same time as Europe, maybe Eastern industry would have started developing before the Western industrial tradition was imported.)

comment by Aidan O'Gara · 2020-06-28T06:31:42.376Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Some evidence for your counterargument: There was no agricultural revolution in humanity's first 500,000 years, yet an industrial revolution happened only 10,000 years later.

Seems like industrial revolutions are more likely than agricultural.

[I haven't listened to Jabari's talk yet, just a quick thought]

comment by gavintaylor · 2020-06-28T18:49:49.577Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think this needs clarifying: the probability of getting industry conditional on already having agriculture may be more likely than the probability of getting agriculture in the first place, but as agriculture seems to be necessary for industry, the total likelihood of getting industry is almost certainly lower than that of getting agriculture (i.e. most of the difficulty in developing an industrial society may be in developing that preceding agricultural society).

comment by Aidan O'Gara · 2020-06-28T20:50:40.674Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yep, agreed

comment by MichaelA · 2020-06-28T23:58:05.657Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Interesting point by Aidan. And yes, I interpreted it in the way Gavin's comment implies it should be interpreted, partly because I think Jebari was implicitly speaking in those terms: likelihood of agriculture developing, conditional on something like anatomically modern humans existing in substantial numbers, vs likelihood of industry developing, conditional on the same thing plus on agriculture being in place.

A possible counterargument to Aidan's idea: Maybe for some purposes the number of humans between one development and the next is more relevant than the number of years between them. That "metric" would presumably suggest the development of industry was either (a) more likely than the development of agriculture, but by a smaller margin than a focus on the number of years would suggest, or (b) less likely than the development of agriculture.

(I haven't looked at the estimated cumulative population of humans pre-agriculture vs between agriculture and industry, so I don't know whether this would end up suggesting (a) or (b). And in any case, our overall views should then of course also be influenced by a variety of other arguments and lines of evidence.)