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.