Societal collapse (also known as civilizational collapse) is the fall of a complex human society characterized by the loss of cultural identity and of socioeconomic complexity, the downfall of government, and the rise of violence. Possible causes of a societal collapse include natural catastrophe, war, pestilence, famine, and depopulation. A collapsed society may revert to a more primitive state, be absorbed into a stronger society, or completely disappear.
Virtually all civilizations have suffered this fate regardless of size or complexity. But some revived and transformed, such as China and Egypt, while others never recovered, such as the Mayan Empire and the civilization on Easter Island. Societal collapse is generally a quick process, but rarely abrupt. Yet some have not collapsed but have only gradually faded away, as in the case of the British Empire since 1918.
Social scientist Luke Kemp analyzed dozens of civilizations—which he defined as “a society with agriculture, multiple cities, military dominance in its geographical region and a continuous political structure”—from 3000 B.C. to 600 A.D. and calculated that the average life span of a civilization close to 340 years. Of these, the most durable were the Kushite Kingdom in Northeast Africa (1,150 years), the Aksumite Empire in Africa (1,100 years), and the Vedic Civilization in South Asia and the Olmecs in Mesoamerica (both 1,000 years), while the shortest-lived were the Yuen-Yuen Dynasty (30), the Nanda Empire in India (24), and the Qin Dynasty in China (14).
Because human societies are complex systems, common factors that may contribute to their decline—economical, environmental, demographic, social and cultural—can cascade into another, building up to the point that could overwhelm any mechanisms that would otherwise maintain stability. Unexpected and abrupt changes, what experts call non-linearities, are some of the danger signs. In some cases a natural disaster (e.g. tsunami, earthquake, pandemic, massive fire or climate change) may precipitate a collapse. Other factors such as a Malthusian catastrophe, overpopulation or resource depletion might be the proximate cause of collapse. Significant inequity and exposed corruption may combine with lack of loyalty to established political institutions and result in an oppressed lower class rising up and seizing power from a smaller wealthy elite in a revolution. The diversity of forms that societies evolve corresponds to diversity in their failures. Jared Diamond suggests that societies have also collapsed through deforestation, loss of soil fertility, restrictions of trade and/or rising endemic violence.Societal collapse – Wikipedia