We are not the first society to suffer decline. For all of the recent technological advances, our problems are the same ones that confronted the ancient Maya, Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Romans, Aztecs, Incas, and others. Scholars used to search for the fatal flaw in each of these communities, hoping that their collapse was caused by a single problem because we are good at addressing discrete threats to our way of life. Archaeologists, however, have reached a consensus: complex societies depend on complex systems. The environment, agriculture, economy, social organization, and resilience of these societies are interrelated, and if one changes, the others are affected. No single solution could have preserved these societies. In much the same way, addressing our current problems piecemeal will not stop systemic collapse.
All large-scale, complex societies thrived for a while and then collapsed, and I do not believe that today’s interconnected world is unique. It is not a question of “if,” but “how and when” our society will be forced to simplify itself. We have a choice to make in the coming years. We can accept our place as one of many species on a planet with finite resources and act accordingly, or continue to pretend that the world has a never-ending supply of minerals, plants, and animals just waiting to be used by humans. By admitting our hubris now, we can plan for a safer, saner future instead of crossing our fingers in hopes that the inevitable will never come.