Junior Ganymede
We endeavor to give satisfaction

The Causes of Collapse

July 30th, 2015 by G.

Let’s meander for a bit, my poppets.


Collapse is one of the myths of the West. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall crystallized the myth, but it didn’t create the myth. The elements of the myth were already there, in the fact that the West came to be in the middle of ruins. It is a true myth.


We have plenty of theories of collapse. (Side note: since collapse is a myth, it follows that these theories are, basically, theology. Odd when you think about it.)


Diamond talks about environmental exhaustion. Turchin’s model of collapse includes asabiya/solidarity slowly being eroded by growing economic inequality and the end of the original threat. Tainter has complexity theory. Lovable crank John Michael Greer’s model of catabolic collapse is well worth engaging with. Spengler seems to have believed that civilizations were literally alive in some sense, and grew old and died like all living things. There is also the incipient theory, associated with Woodley and Charlton as much as anyone, that prosperity leads to long term mutational load.

There are all over-arching theories of collapse—they all involve some kind of internal civilizational dynamic that tends to push in a direction that leads to collapse.

Is there a gospel account of the collapse of civilization? Apostasy isn’t quite the same thing. Assyria and Babylon collapse in the bible, though the model seems to be simply that God allows them to flourish for awhile until his patience is exhausted, then he doesn’t allow them to flourish anymore. The Babylonian captivity is a species of collapse, though again the scriptures don’t seem to offer any particular over-arching narrative for why Israel would have been wicked enough at that one time and not at others.

The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, is the story of the rise and fall of Nephite civilization. It begins with the story of the founders and ends when the Nephite people has been destroyed by invaders.

I’m not going to get into a detailed exposition of what the Book of Mormon has to say about the Nephite collapse, which is quite a bit, because we’re just meandering here. But it does seem to me that there isn’t an explicit Nephite theory of collapse either. The immediate cause is Nephite wickedness, but there doesn’t seem to be an account of underlying causes. There is no over-arching theory.

Tentatively, you may be able to tease out theories. It seems interesting that the Nephite society goes from lesser to greater levels of rejecting God, because it goes from lesser to greater levels of miraculous intervention. You have the relatively minor interventions for Alma and Captain Moroni, which consist of inspiration to build fortifications and to craft armor, along with some guidance about the Lamanite operational plans. Nothing that couldn’t be explained away in material terms. Then you have a prophet withholding rain. A greater level of intervention, but still maybe a little explicable as a coincidence. Then you have the star and the night without darkness. Then you have the destruction of the Nephite world by fire and flood and miraculous darkness and the voice of Jehovah claiming responsibility from the sky, and then descending in the presence of thousands, healing the sick, bringing angels with him, etc. Followed by a utopia. Once the utopia was rejected, it seems, there was no level of intervention that would have been possible after that. The dynamic would be that each level of wickedness requires a greater degree of divine intervention to overcome, but eventually falling away from that greater degree of intervention per se constitutes greater wickedness, so there is a ratchet mechanism at work.

But there is an even more tentative mechanism that I see.

The afore-mentioned John Michael Greer wrote an essay last week talking about why people need nature. It’s mostly hippy-dippy. But he makes one very interesting point. Nature, he says, provides people with negative feedback when your views or actions diverge from reality. Urban environments don’t. The urban reality is a cultural reality, not a physical one. Coincidentally, I ran across something similar in the context of explaining political divides.

The Great and Spacious Building is the Book of Mormon’s memorable image for a way of life—we could even say, for a civilization—that is ready for collapse. It is ready for collapse because it has no foundation. It is not based. It rests on air. It has, in other words, lost its ties to the earth. Would it be a stretch to interpret this image as a loss of connection with reality, and therefore with negative feedback? Perhaps civilizations collapse as they become more and more disconnected from the nature of things. Even the most hippy of parents will use force to keep their child from running into the road. The immediate danger forces a more realistic appraisal of parenting. But as the dangers become more concealed, what then? The dangers aren’t avoided.

If so, we have discovered an extra layer of meaning to the bar God set between us and the Tree of Life. We need death—mortality—reality and consequences—to keep us from permanently embracing sin.

Comments (12)
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July 30th, 2015 11:12:56

Jacob G.
July 30, 2015

My impression was that in england civilization collapsed when the Legions pulled out, but that elswhere in the empire civilization declined, hunkered down, suffered hostile takeovers and disruptions but did not actually collapse.
I’m a little skeptical of your thesis re: contact with nature keeps one grounded. A big part of Hippydom was get back to nature and attempts at self-sufficient communes, yet they I’d classify them as pretty looney all in all. When I mountain biked and rock climbed I got to know some of these people, nice people, but often disconnected with reality IMO, except with things they themselves had experience with. And I think that is the real problem right there. Our civilization is hyper specialized, and so everyone has but the vaguest idea of how our civilization works.
I think that disconnect makes constructing the great and spacious building easier, but I think its wilfully and interntionally built and maintained – not an accident.

Jacob G.
July 30, 2015

er that should be intentionally, not internationally.

July 30, 2015

“Even the most hippy of parents will use force to keep their child from running into the road.”

I suggest that even this is subject to change. If you penalize the use of physical restraint against children severely enough, you will have parents calculating that being stigmatized for standing there yelling at your kid to get out of street, rather than stopping the kid, is better than being stigmatized for getting your kid in a wrestling hold.

July 30, 2015

This poppet doesn’t mind a meander, but it has a question.

We need death—mortality—reality and consequences—to keep us from permanently embracing sin.

If the consequences of sin could be separated from sin in a permanent way, then (1) would sin really be sin? (2) why would we want to avoid embracing it?

July 30, 2015

Nathaniel, I think you’ve hit on why that statement isn’t quite on target.

It’s not that mortality is needed to show us the dread consequences of sin. It’s that mortality is needed to separate us from the dread consequences of sin, temporarily, to give us a meaningful moral choice.

But it’s certainly not a state we want to make permanent, even if that were possible. Hence, the time-limited nature of mortality. (Cherubim keeping us from the tree of life.)

July 30, 2015

I was listening to an interview with Brandon Sanderson, involving writing. They were discussing why he writes about some pretty horrible things (dictators, murder, etc). He made the interesting point that writing is immoral when it doesn’t show the consequences of actions. I suppose, James Bond would be immoral by that metric, because he kills and seduces at will, but never with any cost or problems. Others are simply there to be killed, manipulated, spied on, or seduced, or all the above. No STDs, no children out of wedlock, no view of broken lives by people he has had to kill. That isn’t to say I condemn all the killings he has had to do, but we don’t see the consequences. It is all just glamourized.

On a different note, I saw an observation on Twitter, that we no longer worry about offending God and his wrath. We worry about offending groups and their wrath – thus political correctness – things you simply don’t say.

Which is probably why Trump is doing so well. Not because he is a great candidate, but because he really does NOT worry about offending anyone. That is the only real change we have seen in Washington in a long time. And people want real change.

July 30, 2015

The problem with change is that it is usually for the worse.

People are really good at forgetting that.

B. O.
July 30, 2015


Bruce Charlton
July 30, 2015

@Vader – Some of the collapse theorists are keen on cyclical theories of history – but I am one who regards the current times (since the industrial revolution) as in essence unprecedented – the massive growth in production, and world population resulting from the decline from more than half to very low levels of child mortality, the mass irreligion, the sub-replacement fertility in the West etc…

There are some approximate parallels from history, here and there, but our current situation is unique. This means that there are so many reasons why it seems likely to be unsustainable, that it is difficult to pick just one of them – so collapse *seems* inevitable simply because the system seems a long way out of equilibrium and nobody is even trying to maintain it; although because the situation is unique, and poorly understood, it makes timing of predictions little better than guesswork.

What is most strange about the situation is the bland indifference of people en masse to common sense problems and weirdness.

So extreme is this state of mind that I feel some kind of mass pathology must be involved – clearly the media is one major malign influence, but endemic cumulative genetic damage (which, theoretically, seems almost certain) might also explain some of it.

July 31, 2015

I realize you’re analyzing the primary material causes, but: no great civilization has existed without the assistance of God.

The Book of Mormon and Bible make explicit the withdrawal of God’s assistance occurs among people who reject Him. Both also show that collapse is the default or primary rejection-of-God state.

As later-day evidence, we see above replacement fertility only existing among conservative religious groups presently – a minority. While it may be described as a punishment, I think sub-replacement fertility among the irreligious may be primarily a good necessity, to limit the damage (and higher incidences of abuse, spiritually, emotionally, or other) among the children of those who reject God.

August 4, 2015

“They were discussing why he writes about some pretty horrible things (dictators, murder, etc). He made the interesting point that writing is immoral when it doesn’t show the consequences of actions.”

Oooooooh. That resonates. The Book of Mormon and the Bible are similar in that they both contain atrocities. It has not escaped my notice that the two can be looked at as simply…histories. One could imagine reading the BoM, taking the devil’s lessons. “Abinadi: burnt at the stake. Nephi: driven from home multiple times, lived in the woods. Alma: had to give up his sweet priest position. Mormon/Moroni/Ether: wasted their lives trying to redeem the unredeemable. Don’t follow any of these examples.”

August 5, 2015

Why doesn’t the Book of Mormon come with trigger warnings at the top of each page?

My Grandpa was trying to tell me about some war once and I said “SHUT UP!! AGHH! TRIGGER!”

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