Today I am wrapping up my series of posts on Eric H. Cline’s book, 1177 B.C., the Year Civilization Collapsed.
A major reason to take interest in the collapse of the world order in the late Bronze Age is that it relates directly to the rise of Israel. There was no possibility for anything like the kingdoms of Saul, David, Solomon, Omri and so on until Egypt could no longer project overwhelming military power into Canaan. During the previous 300 years or so, Egypt collected tribute from and held sway over the minor kingdoms in Canaan. It put down occasional rebellions. But it held full hegemony over the area where Israel would later establish itself.
That seemed to stop after 1177.
Some have called the period after collapse a dark age.
There is some reason for that. Cities, temples and, especially, palaces came down in a mass of architectural destruction. Many sites lay in ruins for centuries. Places, like Ugarit, had their populations flee and not return. Writing of the cuneiform type mostly disappeared. Literacy sharply declined.
More than all this, though, the diplomatic, trade, transportation and communications networks that had arisen during the previous centuries came up against an abrupt disruption. By mid 12th century the relationships that had connected what is now Greece, Turkey, the Middle East, and Egypt all dissolved.
Yet characterizing this time as a dark age may not tell the real story. People resettled. They built new cities and palaces and temples. The new technology of iron working evolved.
Israel arose and gave the world the Bible and a revolution in religion. Phoenicia replaced cuneiform writing with a more practical alphabet. The Philistines developed a strong group of city states that lasted a long time. And that was just in Canaan.
Cline quotes William Dever as pointing out that the West received much of its cultural heritage from Israel and Phoenicia, cultures that thrived in the aftermath of the Bronze Age collapse. So you can’t really consider it a dark age.
Cline considers the relevance of the collapse for today. He mentions climate change, but acknowledges that whatever climate change may have contributed to the drought and famine of the late 13th century was purely natural. The Hittites did not drive SUVs or otherwise contribute to climate change. They probably were just unlucky.
He briefly mentions the banking crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession. A bunch of factors caused the financial system to reach a “tipping point.” Similarly earthquakes, famine and military pressure may have caused the Bronze Age civilization to reach a “tipping point.”
I do not see the modern international system in immediate danger of a sudden collapse. Of course, just such obliviousness is what you would expect before a collapse. However, as best I can tell from the news I get, certain institutions in the West are candidates for collapse. These would include the university system, the European Union, and the Republican Party in the US. There is a collapse going on in Venezuela now.
Some think civilizational collapses come in cycles. I have never been a big fan of cyclical thinking. I think cycles are made up or read into the data after the fact. Cline’s view of the late Bronze Age collapse does not rely on cycles. It calls for us to look at vulnerabilities in systems. If you get enough stressors and vulnerable spots in a system, it may collapse. But even with catastrophes, a system may survive if those events can be isolated so that there is no multiplier factor.
Look at the university system in the United States. Here are some items.
Tuition and fees became wildly higher than they used to be. Lots of people went too far into debt to get their degrees. Many people who did get their degrees found themselves unemployed or underemployed probably because of things like slow growth policies after the recession, global competition, automation, robotics and cyber shopping. Many males opted out of college in favor of the military, a vocational skill, or–and this is probably a stereotype with a tinge of truth–video games in their parent’s basement. I am now seeing a major public backlash against the student protests at the University of Missouri and elsewhere.
I just mention these because they are a study in the kind of vulnerabilities we are talking about. Any one of these things would not endanger the whole system. But together? I don’t know. It looks to me like something has to give. Perhaps a perfect storm is brewing.
Studying a general systems collapse that happened about 3,000 years ago can at least make us aware of such possibilities today.