Fall of Civilizations is a podcast about why societies fail. Every episode, I look at a civilization of the past that collapsed into the ashes of history. I want to ask: what did they have in common? What led to their fall? And what did it feel like to be a person alive at the time, who witnessed the end of their world?

I am a historical novelist and I've just finished a PhD that combines elements of history, literature and cultural studies. The Fall of Civilizations podcast has been running for just over 6 months, and has been downloaded over 150,000 times. So far we've covered the collapse of Roman Britain, the mystery of the Bronze Age Collapse, the Mayans, the fall of Greenland's Viking settlements, the Khmer of Cambodia, Easter Island and West Africa's Songhai Empire, with many more to come.

Here's a picture of me for proof, and more proof here.

You can follow the podcast on Twitter at @Fall_of_Civ_Pod or on Reddit at /r/FallofCivilizations, and if you're new to it, you can listen to episodes here:

Official Site // iTunes // SoundCloud // Stitcher // Spotify // YouTube // RSS

You can also support the podcast on Patreon.


EDIT: Thank you so much for all your questions, guys! I'm really blown away by the interest. I'll be sticking around all evening to make sure I get to everyone.

EDIT 2: And thank you for the Reddit gold!

Comments: 509 • Responses: 89  • Date: 

thehyperflux244 karma

Have you found that your research into the podcast episodes has changed how you view current events? And do you find yourself linking any of the current trends in the news to specific things you’ve included in the podcasts?

paulmmcooper747 karma

I don't talk much about current events in the podcast, since I want to immerse people as much as possible in the past. But it's difficult to hear these stories and not make immediate connections to some of the challenges we're facing today.

Apart from colonialism, probably the greatest single cause of civilizational collapse is a rapid climate shift. In lots of collapses we've looked at so far (The Khmer, Bronze Age Collapse, The Maya, etc.), a period of rapid climate change has put a sustained stress on the society that its institutions are unable to withstand. Once the breaking point is reached, the society will usually enter into a freefall, and a series of cascading failures mean the whole thing collapses. So the destructive potential of today's climate change on our societies is something people should take very seriously. Inequality is another theme we see again and again: the closer a society gets to collapsing, the greater its difference between rich and poor. For me, these are the two biggest reflections on our society today.

I hope people leave the podcast a little bit energised politically. They should feel that a collapse of our society is a) totally possible, but b) totally avoidable... that is, if we can organise effectively.

kilbus104 karma

I wonder if the collapse of human societies is kind of a micro effect of climate change. I read that climate change is believed to be the main factor in the 6 previous known major extinction events.

paulmmcooper134 karma

Yes, our societies are themselves a kind of ecosystem, and they are damaged like any other by rapid climate shifts to which they are not adapted.

haveanairforceday4 karma

It seems to me that while we do experience significant inequality today, it's not as extreme as it was in the earlier parts of American History with the prevalence slavery and the economic power of large trading companies and wealthy European families (at least in the more stable and developed areas). If you are seeing growing inequality would you be considering our current American society to have started before that period, sometime back in European history?

paulmmcooper120 karma

Inequality throughout history is measured using a scientific standard known as the Gini coefficient. It's not a perfect science, but it is empirical and systematic. According to this measure, the distribution of world wealth is currently more unequal than it has ever been in history.

From this writeup of a paper published in the journal Nature:

A recent article in Nature reveals the results of the largest study on inequality in human history, which found that while degrees of inequality have been high in historical societies, they have never been as high as they are now, and the US currently has one of the highest in history—a world where now the richest one percent hoard half of the world’s wealth.

Inequality is measured using the Gini coefficient, which runs from perfectly egalitarian societies at 0 to high inequality societies at 1. The team of scientists examined levels of inequality, when and how inequality emerged, the factors leading to inequality, and the factors that shifted it. It found that “civilization tends to move toward inequality as some people gain the means to make others relatively poor—and employ it.”

According to the 2016 Allianz Global Wealth Report, “which puts the asset and debt situation of private households in more than 50 countries under the microscope,” the United States’ Gini score is about .81.

fliplock_28 karma

That's remarkable. I had no idea there was a metric for this. Thank you for sharing.

paulmmcooper12 karma

No problem!

krispolle10 karma

Yeah the richest part of society may hold a larger share of the wealth today than before, but I am pretty sure it sucked way more to be in the "middle" or "lower" portion of society only a hundred years ago and more so in say medieval Europe or ancient Europe.

I'd rather be working nine to five today than be a slave at the whim of a Roman or viking master. So in numbers the inequality might be greater, but in human experience the gap may not feel as bad as it did earlier in history one might argue.

paulmmcooper7 karma

Yes, there are plenty of comforts and compensations that modernism has brought us, so long as we are not among society's poorest. The question isn't whether it's better to live now or then for the median person. Remember, money is an expression of society's resources. The question is - is it a good use of those resources to build superyachts and mega-mansions and private islands for a few dozen people? And it's worth remembering that there is likely no option to "keep things as they are". Inequality will either get worse, or we will do something about it. And then the question is: how much worse can it get before something snaps?

krispolle3 karma

The question isn't whether it's better to live now or then for the median person

I am not so sure. I would argue that this is the first time in human history where the middle to lower-middle section of humanity do not have reason to fear starvation and are reasonably well educated.

The question is - is it a good use of those resources to build superyachts and mega-mansions and private islands for a few dozen people?

No I'm sure most would agree that it's not, even in the super rich class. But I don't think that is an important question either. As long as people are well fed, happy etc. then I don't think people in general care too much about this.

Remember, money is an expression of society's resources.

Yes money is an expression of society's resources but it's not a null sum game, and even less than it used to be. People in the middle classes of the west today can live better lives than princes and emperors of old used too. I don't think we can extrapolate from past times inequality like that. The share of the total "pie" matters, but the pie has become so huge and fat it seems that in many parts of the world the "share" does not matter as much I would hold.

paulmmcooper9 karma

Around 9 million people die every year due to hunger. Meanwhile 26 people own half of the world's wealth. And both hunger at the bottom and wealth at the top are currently growing. This is an unsustainable pattern, no matter your own personal experience.

someonetwoforget2 karma

Thanks for sharing this. Will check out your podcast and will be sending you a tip /r/BATtip4u

paulmmcooper3 karma

My pleasure! I hope you enjoy. But I don't know what that is haha.

GiraffeOnWheels1 karma

Hm I love history podcasts but I've had to drop a couple because of dopey and clumsy integration of modern politics (looking at you Making of a Historian). This is the first thing I've seen you reply to and it sounds like exactly that. I'll give it a try though, I'm very curious to see how climate change effected the Maya before the industrial revolution.

paulmmcooper6 karma

Like I said, I let people make up their own minds about what it all means. I just tell the story.

mjcarp98 karma

Now that you’ve finished your PhD, Paul, what are you going to do?

I was trying to decide which of the podcast episodes I enjoyed the most, a very difficult choice. But it has to be Easter Island. The effects of exploration/expansion captured at a scale we can grasp. Thank you for your hard work.

paulmmcooper111 karma

Thank you! I'm so glad you enjoyed that one - it's one of the episodes I worked the hardest on.

Now my PhD is done, I have a little more time to dedicate to the podcast. I do odd bits of journalism, teach part-time at a couple of universities in the UK, and I also have my second novel coming out (provisionally) in January 2020. So that should be enough to keep me busy until then at least!

mjcarp42 karma

I was expecting Disneyland, but a book will do! Cheers.

paulmmcooper39 karma

Haha, just a bottle of champagne and back to work unfortunately!

JohnFoxFlash84 karma

What's your personal opinion on who the Sea People were? I loved your podcast on it, and I know it's difficult to come to conclusions with so little evidence. What do you think life would have been like for a 'Sea Person'?

paulmmcooper111 karma

Of course it's impossible to say, until we find some reliable remains to excavate. But I do think the scenario I propose in the episode is plausible. There was severe climate chaos in the northern hemipshere during this time, possibly due to the Hekla III eruption. Decades of cruel winters would have almost certainly driven populations southward, placing enormous stress on southern European settled societies. Whether the Sea Peoples were climate refugees themselves, or whether they were the people of places like Sardinia and Sicily who were driven out by these moving populations, we can't say for sure! If this scenario is correct, I would imagine their life would be pretty harsh. Although like the Vandals, they may have grown quite wealthy after they had put a few cities to the sword...

flowersstorms48 karma

Hi Paul - are there any civilizations you'd like to cover, but are either too difficult to find credible information on, or are too far into the realm of mythology to be suitable for an episode?

paulmmcooper75 karma

Yes, there are some that I think might suit a kind of mini-episode. These include Cahokia, which is quite a mysterious site, the Anasazi, and Great Zimbabwe, all of which I want to do someday. When societies left behind no written records, it can reduce the amount of material I have to work with, and it becomes difficult to tell the kind of clear story that I like. We have to spend a lot of time saying "maybe this, maybe that..." But I'm determined to find a way to do them!

mattkolbe40 karma

The term “Anasazi” is now considered by most American Southwest archaeologists archaic, even slightly offensive, as it comes from the Navajo word for enemy. They are now usually called “Ancestral Puebloan.”

corduroy101852 karma

Cool, now we can worry about offending long lost civilizations. I love this trend.

mattkolbe45 karma

I’m an anthropology student in southwest CO, near Mesa Verde and a plethora of other archaeological sites. There are also living descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans all around, many of whom have a worldview in which respect for ancestors is incredibly important. I try to be sensitive to other people’s religions and identities (especially those who have been oppressed for centuries) and inform when I can. If you wanna call it PC and bitch and moan about it, go ahead.

paulmmcooper30 karma

Full support for you on this. I'd love to hear more about the work you're doing out there.

paulmmcooper30 karma

Yes, thanks for pointing that out!

LocoLegit25 karma

I live around two hours from Cahokia and have been many times. In the year 1000ad it was bigger than London! My wife laughs at my obsession with what a pain in the ass life must have been for mississippian cultures since there were no flood controls.

paulmmcooper12 karma

Yes, it must have been a constant problem! But also necessary for the fertilisation of fields...

WUchemginger5 karma

As a fan of the podcast loving in St. Louis, Missouri I am extremely excited about a Cohokia episode.

paulmmcooper7 karma

I'm excited too! Can't wait to dive into it.

squid50s41 karma

What’s the single most interesting fact you’ve learned while working on this podcast?

paulmmcooper216 karma

That's a hard question! I'm constantly getting blown away by little anecdotes that I stumble across, and the storyteller in me can't help including them. I'll include just a few from the latest episode on West Africa's Songhai Empire, since it's the freshest in my mind.

  1. Something I found incredible from the last episode was the history of the Green Sahara. Up until around 5,000 years ago, the Sahara desert was a green landscape of Savannahs, lakes and rivers where early humans lived, hunted and fished. In fact, neolithic rock paintings have been found in the central Sahara, in places like the Swimmer's Cave in Wadi Sura for instance, that depict abundant animal life, and even people swimming, in places that today is nothing but desert. The climatic change in the region was driven by changes in the earth's orbit known as its orbital precession, a change in tilt that cycles every 25,000 years, forcing the African monsoon rains southward, and causing the Sahara to become drier. While estimates vary wildly, some believe that this process could have taken only a few hundred years. Human societies fled the advance of the desert, moving to the coasts. This caused their populations to become denser, and they built settled societies that lived in the first cities. Their descendants would later build the pyramids. So it's possible we owe a great deal to this event!
  2. There was an African King who ruled the Mali Empire called Abu Bakr II, who became obsessed with the idea of sailing across the Atlantic. If the chronicles are to be believed, he made one of the first attempted transatlantic voyages, with a flotilla of two thousand ships, two centuries before Colombus. It's likely Abu Bakr was killed during the attempt.
  3. Another King of Mali, Mansa Musa, is thought to have been the richest man in the world during his reign. He went on a pilgrimage to mecca with the equivalent of $500 million in gold dust, which he gave out to everyone he met in cities like Medina and Cairo. His generosity caused a collapse in the price of gold, devastating the economies of these cities for decades. On his way back from his pilgrimage, he took out loans of as much gold as possible in an attempt to stabilise the price. It's the first and only time that one man has controlled the price of the world's gold.

Anyway those are just a handful from the latest episode. I'd be interested to hear what regular listeners think though!

elitesense21 karma

These summaries were a nice read. Thanks!

paulmmcooper39 karma

My pleasure! I remember also getting a moment of vertigo talking about how at one point, one in every thousand person on earth lived in the city of Angkor.

BonjellaFella38 karma

I'd never heard of this podcast but now I'm very interested, where can I listen?

paulmmcooper31 karma

I put a few links into my post, and if you have any podcast app like Stitcher or Podbase, you should be able to find it! Also Spotify and iTunes...

patmansf3 karma

Do you have any books or articles we can read?

paulmmcooper12 karma

Yes, what are you interested in particularly?

DrHivesPHD30 karma

When is the podcast going to cover current society?

paulmmcooper193 karma

It will just be me standing on a burned-out car and shouting about history to any wasteland wanderer who passes by.

buildingcommunity22 karma

I am interested in how you would tie the lessons from history to our current time. Are collapses inevitable because of human foibles?

paulmmcooper112 karma

There have been so many attempts to create a kind of "unified theory" of collapse, but I'm not sure any of them really hit the mark. Ultimately, human civilizations collapse for the same reason that mountains erode and cliffs fall into the sea: history is change, and nothing lasts forever.

However, I think it is possible to draw up a list of "warning signs" that a number of impending collapses had in common. These are just a handful that crop up again and again, but they're by no means an exhaustive list.

- Rising inequality between elites and the general population (Rome, Maya, Khmer)

- Rapid climatic shifts (Maya, Bronze Age, Greenland Vikings, Sumer)

- Large-scale movements of population (Maya, Bronze Age, Rome)

- Indiscriminate, excessive violence against enemies (Assyria, Rome)

So... probably nothing to worry about.

jsebrech44 karma

Could it be the reverse, not a central theory of collapse but a central theory of formation, where you need a number of elements in place to have a sustainable civilization and if any are missing civilization will not form or will collapse?

paulmmcooper53 karma

That's a really interesting idea, and I'll have to think about this. It's part of the reason I like to tell the story of the society's rise as well as its fall - so we get a sense of which adaptations and developments led it be successful. Every one of these stories of failure is also - up until the collapse, at least - a story of success. Societies succeed and succeed until eventually they don't. So that would certainly be an interesting way of thinking about things!

shipwreck-lotr21 karma

Why do you think the Byzantine Empire isn't discussed more regularly or in-depth in western history circles? (Or is it, and I'm just out of the loop?)

paulmmcooper20 karma

It depends on which circles! But you're right that there can be a Euro-centric and western bias in what gets published and consumed, especially in popular history.

nothingspeshulhere20 karma

Saw your tweet and just wanted to pop in and say thank you for having this podcast. The fact that you're willing to explore civilizations from all around the world throughout history with such incredible detail is so refreshing. I guess my only question is whether you could post any interesting books you've come across in your research? The Songhai episode was the first one I listened to and I'm dying to know more about Mansa Musa! But that's just an example. Thanks again!!

paulmmcooper20 karma

Thank you! I really appreciate the kind words.

For the last episode, I posted a full bibliography here, but apart from the Conrad, the sources for that were relatively academic and inaccessible.

One of the most incredible books I've come across is The Lost Chronicles of the Maya Kings By David Drew. It's such a wonderful and colourful account of the Maya world, while always being rigorously researched and rooted in excellent scholarship. For the Bronze Age, I also love Eric Cline's 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed. But if there are any other periods you're interested in, let me know...

spongebobish18 karma

I don’t know how pertinent to the op this question is but an argument a homophobic/transphobic highschool history teacher made and the ridiculousness of the point always stayed with me. The point he made was that there’s a correlation between the downfall of civilization and the advent of gender confusion/transgenderism/sexual deviance(homosexuality? Idk the whole thing is just a blur). Examples he gave was ancient greece, rome, middle ages(?). Again the whole thing is a blur. So I guess my question is how accurate is this statement, and if it does have any sort of correlation why or how?

paulmmcooper69 karma

This is absolutely ahistorical nonsense. I'm sorry you had such a teacher! This is the kind of narrative that was begun by ancient writers like Tacitus, who believed civilization had softened the Roman Empire. His depictions of manly, virile German barbarians were duly picked up by the Nazis in the 20th century, and fed into their myth of "Germania" and the Nordic superman. Fascism still relies heavily on the trope of a civilization weakened by decadence and degeneracy, and pushes the political fetishisation of masculinity in order to reverse that supposed weakening. Its a strain of narrative that is still common fare among neo-nazis, and unfortunately has to be confronted.


Hadn't heard of this podcast but I'm excited to listen to the first episode now!

My question is (and sorry if you cover this in your podcasts): what happens to the people of the fallen civilization typically? Do they die out, or move and join a new or different civilization?

paulmmcooper59 karma

That's a really interesting question, and it varies! We always see what historians will euphemistically call a "population decline". In reality, this is often people dying of disease, starvation or warfare. But you may also get migrations out of the affected area, and towards wherever the new locus of authority has ended up. So in Angkor, for instance, you get a mass movement down to where the modern capital of Phnom Penh is today.

In a lot of cases after the collapse of so-called complex society, people continue living around the cities and palaces and temples of the old world - they just live much simpler lives. So people went on living in Rome after what we would call its collapse, herding goats in the crumbling forum, venturing into the ruins of the Colosseum to pick wild wheat and herbs. After Roman London was abandoned and decayed, people still ventured into it to look for treasure, to steal its dressed stone masonry for use in their own constructions, and things like iron nails that it was no longer possible to produce. People reverted to old ways: they moved back into the Anglo-Saxon hill forts that had fallen out of use during the Roman period. All along Hadrians' Wall, the milecastles that had once held Roman garrisons basically turned into private castles. The garrisons turned into private armies, and the centurions into warlords. They began taxing the locals for protection themselves, and turned into the first Anglo-Saxon kings. Some were still wearing faded Roman uniforms and tattered old Roman banners, more than a hundred years after the Romans had left. These are just some examples!

Zixinus12 karma

Has all the research for your podcast caused you to be more depressed about the modern world? Or just more depressed in general?

paulmmcooper46 karma

Honestly, it has made me feel more politically engaged and energised. But at the same time, I see each episode as a kind of meditation on impermanence. In certain Buddhist practices, it's common to meditate on the passing of things, and how nothing lasts forever. Practitioners are asked to visualise the mountains eroding away into nothing, and the seas running dry, the sun growing dim. So for me each episode does form something of a meditation on impermanence. Nothing lasts forever; change is always coming, and we will always experience that change as a loss.

But I'm also constantly moved by researching the lived experiences of people who lived through these times of utter turmoil and loss. It reminds me that although it feels today like we are living through a time of unique crisis and danger, *this is how people have always felt*. It is one of the oldest human feelings. So that feeling of connection to the people of the past does help deal with the feeling of dread that I know a lot of people feel about the future.

And in the meantime, we have a moral imperative to reduce and prevent people's suffering around the world. So we have to organise and mobilise!

jayshosho10 karma

What are some settings you are looking at for future episodes? and are there any ideas such as more drama or more quotes with voice actors you are looking to introduce in the future?

paulmmcooper42 karma

I usually like to keep upcoming episodes a secret! But in the spirit of the AMA, here are some civilizations I want to look at for sure in the future:

- Sumer

- The Inca

- Indus Valley

- Babylon

- The Aztecs

- Great Zimbabwe

- Cahokia

- The Anasazi

I certainly want to keep using voice actors in the episodes. I always have fun getting people to come in and read out the voices. If I use too many of them, it can slow down the production of the episode, since I have to get people to come in, and book the recording studio for a time when everyone's free, so it can create delays. But all my actors have a lot of fun with the voices, and I think they add so much character to the episodes. I've got some cracking pieces of poetry for Sumer especially that I can't wait to record!

sammyp997 karma

Cahokia was really cool to me. Seems like this had to happen hundreds or thousands of times in human history

paulmmcooper6 karma

Yes, I'm not sure many people realise how large and developed it was! Larger than London at one point, by some estimates.

Souperplex9 karma

Any modern nations giving some "Red flags" from previous collapsed nations? If so which nations and what flags?

paulmmcooper51 karma

I think in general around the world, we are seeing an alarming rise in inequality that sees wealth hoarded by a tiny elite. This is a pattern you see throughout the histories of failed societies like Rome, the Khmer, the Maya. This isn't a natural state, and causes a huge number of problems for a society. Money is a store of energy, and we are simply not allocating the combined energy of our society effectively.

I think in countries like the United States, a refusal to invest in society means that elements of it are entering into an unsustainable decline. Some of the crumbling, under-funded infrastructure in the US reminds me of the last years of Roman Britain, when the baths began to silt up, and the cities began to degrade. But Britain was an Imperial possession, not the heartland...

Kreeperkow7 karma

Do you think brexit might be the fall of the British empire?

paulmmcooper18 karma

The British Empire is long gone. But British society... let's just see!

half-assed-CGI6 karma

Based on the trends you've seen, is America headed towards a collapse? And if so, what do you think the timeframe is?

paulmmcooper19 karma

I think we will see a collapse in what some people call "the American Empire". But I don't think that will lead to a societal collapse. But let's see what climate change throws at us!

half-assed-CGI4 karma

So our satellites will basically fall? Gotcha. Do you think dictators rising out of the chaos is a fairly common trend? Do you think people look for direction like that in the face of adversity?

paulmmcooper31 karma

The collapse of an Empire is often a time of great turmoil and uncertainty, as we saw following the fall of the British Empire. Dictatorships can arise out of those conditions.

But if we're keeping score, the US has overthrown more democratically elected governments than it has created. So whether it's a force for democracy or not is probably a question of your perspective...

paulmmcooper13 karma

I think we will see a collapse of its position as the only global superpower, but I don't think that will result in a societal collapse. But it's hard to know exactly what climate change will throw at us, so we can't say anything for sure!

teh_fizz6 karma

Hi Paul, I’m listening to your podcast on the fall of the Bronze Age, and it’s fantastic!

About 23 or so years ago my father took me to Ugarit. In the summers we would go back to Syria and his love for history spread to me, and that meant going to see different relics and sites across the country. I bought a poster that came with a replica of a clay tablet. Unfortunately I lost the replica, but I found a poster that claims Ugarit is birthplace of the first alphabet . Is this claim valid?

paulmmcooper7 karma

Thank you, I'm so glad you're enjoying! That sounds like an incredible experience. I think some would dispute that Ugaritic was the very first, but it was certainly among the first true alphabets.

giro_di_dante5 karma

Your AMA brought me to your podcast. Will definitely give it a listen.

Have you read Vanished Kingdoms: The History if Half-Forgotten Europe by Norman Davies? If so, did you like it, and would you consider covering any of the subject matter in the book to a greater extent?

paulmmcooper3 karma

Thank you, really hope you enjoy!

I haven't read this actually, but it looks right up my street. I'll give it a read for sure. In a similar vein is Phantom Atlas by Edward Brooke-Hitching, which is a beautiful coffee table book of old maps that show islands and other places that didn't actually exist...

bzr5 karma

Of all the civilizations you’ve studied, which one is the most bizarre or mysterious? Anything really out there, tough to find a good explanation for? I’m not saying Aliens,,

paulmmcooper24 karma

Certainly the most mysterious is the Bronze Age Collapse. Anywhere you go in the Eastern Mediterranean, across an area spanning over 1,000 km, virtually every large city was burned to the ground at some point between the year 1,200 and 1,100 BC. Civilization in this region just came to an end with virtually no warning, and we honestly don't have a very clear idea of what happened. Lots of theories have been posited, and we know it has something to do with a mysterious confederation known as "the Sea Peoples". In the episode, I put forward a particular theory that has been suggested by a few historians, which I think sounds plausible. But the mystery is incredibly tantalising!

A good deal of my Easter Island episode is trying to show that what people call "the mystery of Easter Island" isn't actually much of a mystery at all...

embarrfilms5 karma

Was there a civilization or moment from history that initially sparked your interest in the topic?

paulmmcooper17 karma

That's a great question! I think my first two episodes sparked it off in different ways. I was fascinated by the mystery of what actually happened during the Bronze Age Collapse. But I think it was the first episode on Roman Britain that really did it. It just kept giving me shivers while I researched.

When the Romans left, the city of London was gradually abandoned, and the huge stone roman forum began to crumble. Roman villas in the countryside became abandoned and overgrown. Roman baths began to fill with silt, and get overgrown with lilies and waterweed, while people began to loot the city and quarry it for stone and iron nails and the like. It must have been a haunting and eerie place. And then centuries later, the poem called The Ruin really set me off again. It was written by someone wandering through one of these ruins and just marvelling at what they saw.

Whenever I pick up a new civilization, I try to drill down to that moment: when someone much later comes along, and sees these enormous ruins and is struck all at once by the enormity of history. They realise all at once just how ancient their world is. It's a strange sense of vertigo. So these are always the moments that inspire me to write an episode!

Adamsoski5 karma

The 'fall of Rome' has been pretty heavily decried as ahistorical by modern academics, who prefer to see it as a transformation rather than a decline. Do you cover this sort of thing in your podcast - how a civilisation's 'fall' can usually be described as a change, and not necessarily a negative one?

paulmmcooper8 karma

Yes, I try to problematise simple narratives of collapse, especially in my Easter Island episode. It's one reason I look at Roman Britain in isolation in the first episode - because it is a much clearer story of central authority disappearing, and the complexity of society reducing. But as you say, this happened in a complicated patchwork across Europe. I like to begin each episode with a ruined building partly for this reason too. A ruin shows us a place where something broke in history: things were one way, and then they were another. But I also try not to moralise about collapse. I hope each episode can be something of a meditation on impermanence, and help people accept that change has always happened, and always will! But I really appreciate this question!

b_r_e_a_k_f_a_s_t4 karma

What’s your take on the main thesis in the book Why Nations Fail, that extractive institutions lead to failure?

paulmmcooper27 karma

I'm generally really suspicious of attempts to come up with some kind of simple system to describe either development or collapse, like Jared Diamond for instance. They're always well-meaning but end up deeply informed by the author's ideological biases. I think the authors' argument has dated quite badly, and predictions of the collapse of China due to its rigid extractive institutions probably won't bear out. To use just one example, US infrastructure is currently crumbling, while China is constantly expanding what is already the world's largest network of high speed rail. Regardless of what you think of China, I think this causes problems for their theory.

UKChemical4 karma

How much are you looking forward to doing one about the UK shortly after this brexit fiasco ends?

paulmmcooper19 karma

It's going to be how I make my living as we all gather around the oil drum fire and warm our hands.

theothergotoguy3 karma

Does the collapse of the USSR or the breakup of Yugoslavia fulfill any of your criteria for a collapsed society? If so, which ones? I'm intrigued by the recentness of those.

paulmmcooper11 karma

Yes, certainly. Although it's worth pointing out that there is a difference between the collapse of an empire and a societal collapse. When an empire collapses, all of its conquered client states reassert their independence, and the empire reverts to something like its original borders. This can be period of great turmoil, and it can lead to a societal collapse, such as in the examples of Songhai or Rome. But when the British Empire collapsed, for instance, London didn't burn down or get abandoned. The Soviet Union was more like the British Empire than Rome, I would say - the empire collapsed, but society largely remained in place. People with greater knowledge of this period than me might argue about that though! In Yugoslavia, we see more of a social breakdown, and outbursts of extreme violence. This is more the kind of collapse we might have seen in the ancient world.

waluigi6093 karma

Hey! i’ve always been interested in history and humanities and i’m so happy you’ve been making this podcast. out of all of the civilizations, which do you think is the scariest? like which collapsed civilization was so barbaric/evil/etc that you can’t believe is existed?

paulmmcooper5 karma

Thank you, really glad to hear that! I don't know if I moralise about these societies in that way. As Walter Benjamin said, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” But at times it can be difficult to balance my desire to tell a story, and the potentially upsetting nature of what I'm describing. I would like to cover the Mongols at some point, but the amount of death and suffering they caused always gives me pause. Similarly for the Assyrians, since they were very brutal in their warfare. I found it difficult to address the beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade in the last episode too, since it's still an issue that represents a lot of pain even today.

number1punjabi3 karma

Hi Paul! Love the enthusiasm and your work. I’m a Graduate student of South Asian Studies at Columbia University with a focus on ancient texts and storytelling. I noticed in another comment that you’d like to take on the Indus Valley civilization, which in theory is the oldest civilization. What would be your approach to a subject like that, considering the vastness of the source material?

paulmmcooper7 karma

Thank you! Really glad you've been enjoying. I haven't dived into this research yet, but I'd love to hear any suggestions you have of where to begin.

My approach to beginning to write an episode is to get a grounding on Wikipedia and Britannica etc, just to get a sense for the basic shape of the culture's history. Then I'll usually watch all the documentaries I can find. Then I head to my university library and take out everything they have on the subject. We're lucky enough to house a collection called the Sainsbury Research Unit Library, which is an incredible collection of anthropological and archaeological texts. Then I'll usually start writing, and let the subject suggest the shape of where to begin, what needs establishing etc. At this point I'll usually have worked out if I need any books not available in my library, so I'll make requests to have books sent to me from the British Library. One example of this for Episode /7 was a translation of the Tarikh al-Fattash, one of the Timbuktu chronicles, that I had to get ordered in. So this can all take a few weeks! Once I've written it, it only takes a day to record and maybe a work or a bit more to do the three rounds of edits that each episode needs.

onthefence9283 karma

Are you on Google play music?

paulmmcooper4 karma

Unfortunately not I think. They're really strict about people adding podcasts from outside the US for some reason. But all other podcasting platforms should carry it, and Spotify.

Lucyde3 karma

Hi Paul, thank you for your work on the podcast, it's incredible. What sparked your interest in history and ancient cultures in your past, and what did your early choices in education look like?

paulmmcooper6 karma

Thank you, I'm so glad you're enjoying it!

I've always been interested in history, but my background is largely in literature. I studied English Literature and History at college. At university, I wrote a historical novel called River of Ink, and while doing research for that, I spent time living in Sri Lanka, and exploring the ruins of a medieval city called Polonnaruwa. I then did a Masters, and I've just finished my PhD, which looks at how the ruins of both the ancient past and modern ruins have surfaced in the work of Iraqi filmmakes and writers. Once again, I spent some time in Iraq exploring ancient sites like Babylon, Ur, Uruk etc. I always feel happiest exploring some ruined place...

wineandcandles3 karma

  1. How aware or worried about their upcoming collapse were the societies you've studied generally?
  2. Did you come across any examples where you'd say a civilization was on the verge of collapse yet successfully rebounded?

paulmmcooper12 karma

This is sometimes hard to tell, as written sources are less likely to survive from times of turmoil and unrest. But in general, these collapses seem to come as a surprise. The Maya, for instance, have left behind no inscriptions that give any sense that anything was wrong in the early years of the tenth century, when the Classic Collapse set in. The Songhai don't seem to have expected their surprise military defeat at the Battle of Tondibi, either. Usually nobody sees the collapse coming until the tipping-point is passed, and once that happens it will be hard to miss. But at this point it is usually too late to do anything.

But there are some instances of people seeing the collapse coming, and trying to stop it. In Angkor, the seat of the Khmer Empire, we can see frenzied and drastic adjustments to the water system, trying to adapt it to a slew of extremely dry and then extremely wet weather that struck through the climatic changes of the 17th century.

EDIT: Just saw the second half of your question!

I think there are a lot of societies that are incredibly resilient, and come back from some serious problems. Babylon is one example of this, and Ur. Both survive extreme losses of central power, and go on to survive in some form for many centuries afterwards. Honestly most civilizations spend a lot of their history bouncing back from near-collapse events!

WilliestyleR793 karma

Would you rather live in the ascendancy of a civilization or during its decline?

paulmmcooper15 karma

I don't think I'd mind, so long as it wasn't a time of war! But it would be incredible to have seen cities like Babylon, Angkor, Alexandria, Nineveh, Tikal etc. when they were at their heights.

rgrtnlst3 karma

Holocene calendar, yay or nay?

paulmmcooper6 karma

It's a nice idea in my view! It might make people feel a little closer to their ancient ancestors. But other than this, it seems a little like a solution in search of a problem...

kbelli3 karma

Have you found there to be a common catalyst in the fall of various civilizations across different locations and time periods?

paulmmcooper8 karma

I'll post this from another answer if you don't mind!

I think it is possible to draw up a list of "warning signs" that a number of impending collapses had in common. These are just a handful that crop up again and again, but they're by no means an exhaustive list.

- Rising inequality between elites and the general population (Rome, Maya, Khmer)

- Rapid climatic shifts (Maya, Bronze Age, Greenland Vikings, Sumer)

- Large-scale movements of population (Maya, Bronze Age, Rome)

- Indiscriminate, excessive violence against enemies (Assyria, Rome)

Usually it's a confluence of different effects that combine to form a stress that the society cannot withstand. I think another key element is: how susceptible is your system to cascade failures? That is, if one part of your society fails, how likely is it to cause other parts to fail, and for a chain reaction to take place? If your society is built in a way that can mitigate cascading failures, its resilience to collapse will increase. For instance, if your supply of bronze is cut off, do you have a supply of iron that can be used instead? If a volcanic winter kills all your crops, how quickly can you switch to livestock? These same concerns can be applied to modern societies. And I'm not sure that (given a sufficient shock), they would fare too well.

sheppo422 karma

Hi Paul, I haven't heard of your podcast, but it's perfect timing because I've finished every hardcore history, the history of Rome and nearly caught up in revolutions. Will start this week.

But since I've got you here, what are your thoughts on the theory of the Younger Dryas Impact theory, relating to the collapse of an advanced civilization spreading technology around the world to places such as Gobekli Tepi, Mesoamerican precision masonry; and everywhere else there is the same 'man from the sea' that carry the same padlock shaped bag? All around the same time these areas 'civilized'..

I have only really learnt about this through Graham Hancock's lectures and 3 or 4 Joe Rogans podcast (especially with Randall Carlson). But those 10 hours had me convinced - plus it shuts down those ridiculous ancient alien episodes.

PS - Would you do a Joe Rogan Experience? He would love it.

paulmmcooper2 karma

Really hope you enjoy!

I'm not that familiar with all the research, but there are a few red flags for me with the involvement of people like Hancock. He's something of a pseudo archaeologist, and while his theories are fun thought experiments I would approach them with caution. People like him always begin with an answer and then seek out evidence to confirm it. It's not a good way to do science.

I don't know about Rogan in particular, but I'm happy to talk to anyone about my work!

hobosbindle2 karma

Have we passed the moment that future civilizations might point to as our turning point of decline, or do we still have plenty of upside to rise?

paulmmcooper4 karma

Impossible to say! We face some really unique challenges today, and it will all depend on what we do with those challenges in the coming century. I think this will rely on us understanding that the fight against climate change, and the fight for a living wage (just to take two random examples), or not separate struggles but all part of the same fight.

fixingthehole2 karma

Hi Paul, love your podcast, especially yhe episode on eastern islands. What are some other history podcasts that you enjoy? are you more Mike Dunkan or Dan Carlin fan?

paulmmcooper4 karma

Thank you!

I do like Dan Carlin - he's a wonderful storyteller. I'm also partial to Age of Napoleon, and Patrick Wyman, who did Fall of Rome and Tides of History.

BernieVill2 karma

I only discovered your podcasts recently but until now I’ve only listened to Easter Island and the Vikings. You’ve done amazing research to present these interesting podcasts. Can’t wait to listen to more. I’d love to buy a book based on these podcasts. Any plans for that? On one episode I heard that you had a Go Fund me/donations page. I couldn’t find a link. I’d be happy to donate in appreciation of the joy I get from theses podcasts. Many thanks

paulmmcooper4 karma

Thank you so much! I'm glad you enjoyed the episodes, and your encouragement really does mean a lot.

I have some vague ideas for a book based on the series, but what form this might take, I don't know. One approach would simply be an eBook of the scripts, so people could read along. But if there's any interest, I might properly expand the episodes into chapters and make it a project in its own right. It's a long-term goal for me certainly!

If you'd like to support the podcast, you can do so here! https://www.patreon.com/fallofcivilizations_podcast

pbmm12 karma

Do you listen to other history podcasts? What are your preferred ones if so?

paulmmcooper5 karma

Yes, I love Age of Napoleon, and I like Dan Carlin too. He's a great storyteller. Patrick Wyman's Fall or Rome, and Tides of History are both great. It's not history, but I also like Aaron Mahnke's Lore. It's about folklore and spooky mythology!

chaseguy212 karma

I don’t know if this would count as a lost civilization, but have you looked at all into the lost American colony at Roanoke?

paulmmcooper5 karma

Yes I've been wanting to do an episode on this for a while! And Jamestown too. Such a fascinating story.

Loostreaks2 karma

Hey Paul, thanks for the effort, love your videos.

My question: do you know of any civilizations/best examples that managed to drastically reverse their ( previously clearly indicated) cultural collapse? Through actions of ( ruling ) individuals/groups or technological breakthroughs?

Or is this ( based on your work/experience) something that has no lasting impact compared to global, "macro" factors ( like climate change, resource scarcity, etc)

Any ( best ) example of society Aware of it's drastic downward trend ( without attributing to nonsensical reasons) or it follows " We're-ignorant-until-we-Die"?

What do you think of popular Yt channels such as Sargon of Akkad and their interpretation of similar events ( related to past cultural collapses)?


paulmmcooper11 karma

Hi there, thank you for your kind words! Really glad you've been enjoying.

This is a really good question, but it's quite difficult to answer. Most societies go through a number of near-collapse events over their history, or at least appear to be going into decline. One example would be the Khmer Empire in the late 11th century, which was in a state of near constant civil war, and was being invaded repeatedly by its neighbours. It might have looked like it was on a trajectory of terminal decline. But the rule of Jayavarman VII turned that around. He was a fanatical builder, a good diplomat and a decent military leader. From the sources, it's said that he was a ruler who genuinely tried to rule in the interest of his people - and although he was of course in charge of writing these things, it does at least show us that this was how he wanted to be seen. His rule was a golden age for the kingdom, but the rulers who followed him resumed ruling in their own self-interest. This is a very simplistic retelling of complex events, but I think it is a good example of what you're talking about.

I'm not aware of any serious scholarship by Carl, and I wouldn't take much of his analysis seriously. As far as I know, he doesn't have any background of study in this area, and he seems only interested in building a political narrative that flatters his own biases.

dailyskeptic1 karma

Hi Paul. Congrats on earning your PhD!

What history podcasts do you enjoy? How about non-history?

I'm a big fan of Tides of History, American History Tellers, American Innovations, and The History of Rome podcasts.

paulmmcooper2 karma

Thank you! My examination was on Wednesday, so I'm still walking on air a little bit. Yes I love Patrick Wyman. I also like Age of Napoleon, and I'm partial to some Dan Carlin as well. It's not history exactly, but I've also listened to a lot of Lore - about folklore and spooky mythology...

Throwammay1 karma


You mentioned in another comment how some of the common trends of collapsing societies seems to be, amongst others, rapid climatic change, war and mass movements of population.

On the point of mass movements of populations I assume you’re referring to some of the huge migrations the Roman Empire experienced during the 3rd century crisis and the Attila period.

However could you expand upon how mass migrations actually lead to societal collapse in more detail? In what ways does mass migration actually damage a society and it’s systems and institutions? And what could past societies have done to mitigate these periods?

paulmmcooper5 karma

Humans have been migrating since the dawn of time, and all of our societies first began as a mix of different tribes and ethnicities coming together. The kind of population movements I'm describing are a mass exodus from a disaster area. For instance during the Maya collapse, when around 40 cities collapsed in the space of only a few decades, there's some evidence that people began evacuating drought-ridden areas to the south, and fleeing to cities further north. These cities were only just surviving themselves, and suddenly a large wave of climate refugees would have overwhelmed their systems and sent a chain reaction of collapse spreading north. The same thing may have happened during the Bronze Age collapse, when it seems climate refugees fled south from a volcanic winter that blighted Northern Europe for 18 years. If the worst case scenario surrounding modern climate change comes to pass, we could conceivably see vast exoduses out of the worst effected areas, and it's essential that we are ready to accommodate them.

ScytherScizor1 karma

Do you like games like Assassin’s Creed or any other fictional historical media?

paulmmcooper2 karma

Yes, I am a historical novelist myself, so I'm fascinated by historical storytelling! With video games specifically, I've always played strategy games like Total War and Paradox Interactive games as a way of scratching that itch. I've always been interested in the tides and forces at play beneath the surface of history, and I love how these games try, however simplistically, to replicate and simulate those. I love Assassins Creed games as ancient city simulators, though I'm not very good at the combat parts. I really liked the zen mode they included in the last one, which just let me wander around all these ancient cities without getting attacked by people. But my laptop wasn't really powerful enough to make it run very well. I thought their Constantinople was really breathtaking too.

MartmitNifflerKing1 karma

When are you doing an episode on the US of A?

paulmmcooper4 karma

Going to do a US & UK double-bill...

Due_Internal1 karma

Do you think America will exist as it currently does (50 states) in 50 years?

paulmmcooper3 karma

It's impossible to make predictions of this kind. I can't imagine any realistic scenario that sees a breakup of the United States. But then, our societies have always made us believe that they would last forever!

Appropriate_Stomach1 karma

hi! what are your favourite books? both fiction and non-fiction

paulmmcooper3 karma

I read a lot of history and historical fiction. One of my favourite books that crosses that boundary is HHhH by Laurent Binet, which is an incredible dive into one of the most dramatic event of WWII - the assassination attempt on Heydrich. It's somehow an amazing postmodern meditation on what it means to write history, and at the same time an absolutely gripping story. Can't recommend it enough.

My favourite 100% fiction book is My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, about the search for a murderer among the illuminators of an Ottoman Sultan's court.

One of my favourite non-fiction books of history is A History of Bombing by Sven Lindqvist. It's one of the most inventive pieces of history writing I've ever seen - sort of like a choose your own adventure through history.

MrBennyhasatie1 karma

Do you think that in the future someone will do a show about the ending of the western civilization? If so, what sources would they use?

paulmmcooper6 karma

To the extent that we can talk about "western civilization", perhaps! Everything changes, and nothing lasts forever. I'm not an expert in this, but imagine it will depend largely on how the Internet is archived. If some kind of catastrophic event were to destroy key parts on online infrastructure, we could lose so much of our documentation of the period we're living through. We need the equivalent of the Mesopotamian clay tablets, which are so robust that they have preserved a vast quantity of text from that period.

Olovnivojnik1 karma

How much do you know about Vinča civilization? Any thoughts about civilizations that lived in the Eastern Europe? Do you think that civilizations focused on wars and conquering destroyed some civilizations that were more focused on science/religion and less on army? Wow, I have so many questions about different civilizations like Indians, Mongols, Aborigins, Native Americans... Any book that covers this stuff? Thanks, I will check your podcast also.

paulmmcooper3 karma

I don't know much about them honestly, but I'm fascinated by the Neolithic. And of course this kind of thing certainly did happen, such as the sacking of Baghdad by Genghis Khan.

tiagoratto1 karma

Do you known abou Ricardo Felicio? A Brazilian scientist that supports that the main reason for climate change aren’t our actions? Any thoughts on that?

paulmmcooper2 karma

I don't know about his work, but this would make him an outlier totally at odds with the overwhelming majority of climate scientists.

jonkrieger8921 karma

What is the biggest "common factor" you see in fallen societies that the general public/history books fail to realize the magnitude of?

paulmmcooper4 karma

I think climate is well covered, but I'd like to see more on inequality as a driver of collapse. It seems to be a common thread in a lot of the collapses I've looked at, and I'd like to see more academic research done into comparative case studies of what the gap between rich and poor looked like in different failing societies.

KinnieBee1 karma

Will you be doing more podcasts on societies in the Americas? And do you have plans for Eastern European societies?

What is your PhD field, or your specialty within it? I'm coming from a Political Science+ History background and I can't wait to check out each episode!

paulmmcooper2 karma

Yes, I hope to look at the Inca, Aztecs, Puebloans, and Cahokia at some point. I even had a notion to do the Roanoake colony.

My PhD takes a mixed approach using history, literature and even some film studies to look at the ruins of Iraq and their cultural significance, what they've meant over time and how they're still being used in popular culture. It's been such an interesting project, and has meant going out to Iraq a few times, which was an incredible experience.

poopypantsposse1 karma

Do you think we are witnessing the decline and fall of American empire?

paulmmcooper3 karma

I am more at home in history than the present day! But I do think we will likely shift to a multi-polar world where the US is no longer the only superpower. But a collapse of the overseas American Empire is unlikely to lead to a societal collapse. It will probably look more like the collapse of the British Empire.

Runrocks26R1 karma

Hi again Paul.

Is it more likely societies who is more individualistic will fall or do collectivistic societies have a bigger tendency to fall?

paulmmcooper5 karma

I'm not sure I've got any data on this, and it sounds like something that would be quite hard to measure. My feeling is that it's unlikely to be a factor, as the collapses are the consequence of very material events. But maybe I've misunderstood the question!

dgk7801 karma

Are you on r/collapse or any other collapse related subreddits?

Faster than expected?

paulmmcooper2 karma

I've posted some episodes over there! People seemed quite enthusiastic (though a little stressed).

dgk7802 karma

They could use a hug that’s for sure. Thanks!

PS: prepare to be downvoted, they’re a sensitive bunch 🥺

paulmmcooper2 karma

Haha I got that impression. Some nice responses though!

Stargazer57811 karma

Do you think you'll do an episode on Harappa? I'd love to hear an expert dig into all the evidence there is on that mystery, including whether it was nuked.

paulmmcooper2 karma

Yes, I certainly intend to look at the Indus Valley civilization, of which Harappa was a part! But I can tell you right now that it was not nuked.


Are you aware that you’re dishy as hell?

paulmmcooper3 karma

I know only history!

Runrocks26R1 karma

Hi Paul.

  1. Do you think Denmark or Western Europe will fall in the next 50 years?

  2. What influential country is most likely to fall within the next 50 or 100 years?

  3. I have also heard many people talking about natural irreligion and/or atheism will make a fall of civilization in the country, do you believe in that theory or is there nothing to back it up?

paulmmcooper5 karma

Hi! It's impossible to make these kinds of predictions. I don't think religious belief has much to do with societal failure. Collapses of the kind I look at usually happen as a consequence of very material concerns - ie, there is a plague and a drought at the same time, causing a failure of agriculture, which causes a mass population exodus. Intangible things like people's religion doesn't really register.

bknight21 karma

Is there a common link between increase in violence seen in a civilization and a soon thereafter downfall? If so, would you say that any current civilizations are demonstrating similar tendencies?

paulmmcooper3 karma

Yes, an increase in violent deaths is usually a symptom of societal collapse. In the final century of Roman Britain for instance, deaths caused by blunt or stabbing weapons greatly increased, whereas there's evidence of widespread warfare in the Mayan world in its final years, and during the Bronze Age Collapse, virtually every city in the region was burned to the ground. This is usually a result of resources having become scarce, and people being pitted against each other for survival. But it is also a symptom of what happens when there is a rapid and sudden loss of central authority, and people begin fighting over where that authority will go.

AmerisaurausRex1 karma

As someone who has never listened to your podcast. Which episode do you think is the most interesting that would really capture my interest?

paulmmcooper2 karma

Well I've learned so much about podcasting over the course of the series, that I think the episodes have got better as they've gone on. So the most recent I think are the highest quality. I think the Songhai Empire is fascinating due to the effect its collapse had on history, while at the same time few people have even heard of it.

mjcarp0 karma

Do you provide detail citations for each podcast? Every time you referred to Mansa Musa, I kept thinking “I need a book on that!” :-)

paulmmcooper2 karma

He is a fascinating character! I've found citations a bit of a challenge in the podcasting format, but for the last couple of episodes I've made this a main focus.

You can find a full list of citations for episode 7 here.

It is actually quite hard to find a dedicated book on Musa, but David Conrad's Empires of Medieval West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay is good. 

YouTube_Elyrim0 karma

Whta inspired you to create your podcast?

paulmmcooper2 karma

I mention some inspirations in a previous answer, which I'll post here:

I think my first two episodes sparked it off in different ways. I was fascinated by the mystery of what actually happened during the Bronze Age Collapse. But I think it was the first episode on Roman Britain that really did it. It just kept giving me shivers while I researched.

When the Romans left, the city of London was gradually abandoned, and the huge stone roman forum began to crumble. Roman villas in the countryside became abandoned and overgrown. Roman baths began to fill with silt, and get overgrown with lilies and waterweed, while people began to loot the city and quarry it for stone and iron nails and the like. It must have been a haunting and eerie place. And then centuries later, the poem called The Ruin really set me off again. It was written by someone wandering through one of these ruins and just marvelling at what they saw.

Whenever I pick up a new civilization, I try to drill down to that moment: when someone much later comes along, and sees these enormous ruins and is struck all at once by the enormity of history. They realise all at once just how ancient their world is. It's a strange sense of vertigo. So these are always the moments that inspire me to write an episode!

But I will add that I think there are a lot of historical documentaries out there that don't quite do what I wanted to do with this project. A lot of documentaries follow the formula: "Here is an ancient mystery, and here's the new technology that's giving us the answers..."

I wanted Fall of Civilizations to be part mournful elegy about the loss of a whole world, part meditation on impermanence and loss, and part call to action. I think it was imagining a project that plotted this course through historical storytelling that really made me want to make it.