The late Bronze Age collapse and our future

Between about 1250 and 1150 BCE an essentially ‘globalised’ and multi-national civilisation based around the eastern Mediterranean collapsed into ruin. The collapse was violent, relatively swift, and marked the effective end not just of the age in which bronze was the primary alloy, but of multiple nations including the Hittite Empire, Mycenaean Greece, Kassite-era Babylonia, and Egypt’s New Kingdom.

It was a much more serious collapse than other ‘collapses’ of history such as the ‘fall’ of the Roman Empire, because it encompassed such a wide range of nations. In one frenetic burst a multi-national, multi-cultural civilisation with large complex societies, cities, trade, education, roads, accountants, transport networks and all the rest fell over, leaving burned cities and ruin where vigorous populations and brisk international trade had once flourished. Dark ages followed in which even the art of writing was lost in some places.

The late Bronze Age ‘global’ environment, via Wikimedia.

Exactly why this happened has never been fully agreed by historians. A whole raft of explanations have been offered, ranging from the impact of the so-called ‘Sea Peoples’ who began pushing into the region from the west around 1207 BCE; to climate change, natural disaster – volcano and earthquake – and social unrest. More complex variants include suggestions such as a change in the style of warfare, enabling the ‘Sea Peoples’ – who, by this argument, were mercenaries – to turn on their employers. Other proposals include a sudden decline in trade, leading to economic collapse which exacerbated issues with the poor. This, after all, was an age when debtors could be enslaved, when the poor were kept in their place by a wealthy minority, and so on.

Much is unknown because records from the period are sparse. Even when this collapse occurred is debatable: one suggestion was 1186 BCE, another 1177 BCE. What is clear is that the hub of world civilisation of the day – thriving nations with complex economies, brisk trade with each other and well-organised governments – fell over in a short space of time. The so-called Greek ‘dark ages’ followed.

I’ve been wondering about this of late for a variety of reasons. One is the way in which the debate reveals how historians operate: each primary reason offered for the collapse has been championed by its originator as ‘the’ primary cause. Whereas, as Eric Cline has pointed out, the reality probably involved multiple causes. It also encompassed multiple different cultures – not a single society such as the Romans – who were inter-connected by trade and shared technology.

If this sounds suspiciously like today’s globalised civilisation – well, absolutely. And as Cline argues, no one factor was likely decisive in the Bronze Age collapse. To me that also accords with other studies of the way other civilisations have fallen over and, indeed, with other dramatic moments such as the French Revolution – another issue over which historians never agree.

To me it’s like a game of jenga bricks. Human conceptual constructions – the relationships and systems that constitute the fabric of a civilisation – present as solid but in fact are meta-stable. Usually it holds up. But then something happens. Let’s say an economic downturn. Pull out a brick. Then something else happens – let’s say a natural disaster. Pull out another brick. Eventually the whole lot collapses, not because of the last brick that happened to be pulled, but because the loss of all the others added up, destabilising the whole with catastrophic effect.

You can see the concern. Today we have a global civilisation – economically globalised – floating on systems that are themselves meta-stable. This includes the financial system where money, itself, is a tradable commodity and fluctuates in value. It is also a system that places practical economic power in the hands of large corporations, and a system that has carried a heavy social cost: a system that funnels wealth away from the poor, and which has been doing so now for two generations.

What worries me of late is that there are an emerging raft of issues flowing from an economic philosophy that is very much hitting its ‘use by’ date. By this I don’t mean capitalism per se, merely the neo-liberal version of it introduced by Reagan and Thatcher in the early 1980s. The problem is the behavours of the entrenched elites who benefit from it, including large corporates. This has served to perpetuate both climate change and the ongoing dispossession of an increasingly angry poor. Into this mix we now have a global pandemic which is showing no signs of stopping any time soon. And this year we also have a war which, while localised of itself, carries the implicit threat of nuclear armageddon – and in any case is likely to have some severe knock-on effects into world food supplies and, by extension, the globalised economy.

I think I can figure what’s on the horizon. And it’s a worry.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2022

7 thoughts on “The late Bronze Age collapse and our future

  1. “Reagan and Thatcher in the early 1980s”

    This is all of it, really, as capitalism should work on a fundamental level. Work hard – get rewarded. But the 20+ year delay in recognising this isn’t happening causes so many problems. We’ve got a major crisis in England.

    I just did a sushi history post today (plugging me) and I had to conclude the whole thing with overfishing and, yeah, sushi won’t be here by 2050. Only the elite will be able to afford it before then. And they won’t view it as a luxury, just a right, “I deserved this, I worked harder than everyone else!”

    My response is to embrace stupidity, you see. It’s worked for a while. And this guy from Ripping Yarns will confirm the history, t’undred year from now.

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    1. I did try embracing stupidity once. I stuck a couple of pencils up my nose, put some underpants on my head, and pretended to be mad. Didn’t work. I mean, as a very wise fellow once said, ‘who’d notice another madman around here?’ (I think his next words were: ‘Good luck, everyone.’)

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  2. I love the analogy of the bricks in the wall as it’s a very visual way of talking about critical mass. Except, of course, that we won’t really know what /our/ critical mass is, until we hit it. I just hope that as we managed to survive both world wars, we’ll survive this too. :/

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