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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.

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!

paulmmcooper193 karma

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

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.

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.