Stephen Coyle


I've gotten hooked on a fantastic YouTube channel and podcast recently, called Fall of Civilizations. It produces multi-hour-long documentaries about great ancient cities and cultures, and their decline. The one on The Sumerians is a great starting point.

The rise and fall of civilizations is such a fascinating topic, and taps into what feels like such a root theme for humanity. Everything we make has its rise, glory days, decline and collapse; this applies equally to TV shows, political systems, companies or indeed entire civilizations. Unlike most animals, we architect our own rises and falls, and constantly push and pull at equilibrium rather than drifting along with it.

It seems like the speed at which this happens to a civilization correlates with the rate of technological advancement within it. It's mind-bending to me that the Sumerians fell victim to an ecological disaster that unfolded as a result of millenia of broadly similar farming and irrigation practices. It's incredible that their habits lasted through enough generations to cause problems that only emerge after double-digit centuries. Modern-day farming has changed drastically in just the past 50 years.

What's interesting, though, is that humanity on the whole forms a much more resilient metastructure. Our transient creations emerge from the interaction between thousands, millions or billions of free agents, and seem inevitably to fall victim to what I describe above. But humanity itself is far more resilient; the comprising civilizations, the ones that weather their falls, are there to start afresh each time.