I’ve already argued that Arnold Toynbee’s work is useful for looking at whether societies will collapse or not. Here is a slightly different version.

One reason for societies failing, is that people, in particular the intellectual, power or riches elites, cannot face up to the new problems that arise during periods of change. Given that change is always happening in complex systems (such as social relations, ecological relations etc.), this is a problem itself. Societies may be especially resistant to solving problems generated by the established elites of that society, who have previously made the society a success.

This seems more likely to occur in societies with a ‘conservative culture’, because

  • They believe all problems are old problems or similar to old problems and can be solved in the old ways, which have always worked previously.
  • New solutions would imply uncertainty, and conservatives do not like uncertainty, as it disrupts established patterns of behaviour, everything could change including their power and status.
  • The elites of that society will be those who are good are the old ways, and using the old solutions.
  • The Elites will discourage any investigation of their role in creating the problem through their mastery of the old ways.
  • If they control the media then they will denounce or hide information dangerous to their rule and thus most people will be unaware, or not applying their abilities to solve the problem.
  • They will probably enforce their elite position and the ‘class system’, and stop society from challenging their actions or powers, and thus entrench the problems, which will keep getting worse.
  • The government will side with the elites as they have the riches and status. The elites can buy government members, or bless them, if its a religious elite.

The policies used to get a society through a period of growth, or maximal power, are generally not the same policies that will get a society through problems it is not faced before, or it has generated through those previously succesful policies. The tendency is that new problems will be ignored until its too late and the society cannot flex enough to get around them. Conservative society will fail if there are new problems. Otherwise it might do ok.

On the other hand a less ‘conservative’ society should be able to:

  • Admit the existence of new problems, and embrace the uncertainty around finding new solutions, and experimenting with new solutions.
  • Accept the likelihood that problem solving often leads to social change.
  • Have a circulation of elites, which allows the elites to change depending upon ability, and the flexibility to deal with new situations, as new situations are always arising. The elite is not completely hereditary.
  • The presence of new members in the elites can help old elites to see the probable need for change, that old solutions have not worked, and the need for new approaches.
  • People will be prepared to accept this probability of change, and get on with problem solving, not enforcing a set of non-working solutions.
  • The government will think about the solutions independently of the other elites.

Unfortunately, as we can see through climate change, most societies on the planet are conservative and are busy not responding to the problems, and certainly not thinking about how to use the change for everyone’s advantage.….

The Polluter and Market elites, especially fossil fuel elites, have way too much power, and too much control over governments. Circulation of elites seems to have declined. Nowadays people have to start rich to get anywhere. The Polluter elites just repeat endlessly that more free markets, and more suppression of ‘workers’ and protestors is all that is needed, Any interference in the economy, which is not support of them, is to be condemned. The attitude is that nothing need change for success, or there is no problem.