Why Civilizations Rise and Fall

An invitation to some thinktanking

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
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Why do civilizations rise and fall, and do the peculiar things they do… and what can some observations on this scale tell us about our own enterprises? Let’s see.

For background on this topic, I heartily recommend a very absorbing read, one which has shaped my own life. In England, one of the great historians, Arnold J. Toynbee, published a multi-volume and rather encyclopedic comparative anatomy and dynamics of the various high civilizations throughout our recorded history. Named A Study of History and published by Oxford University Press, the full Study might be a bit of a challenge for those among us with a shorter attention span, but it is a classic—each time one reads it, one discovers new things being said.

You might want to start in with one of the abridgements first to see if you want to go further—either the abridged one-volume condensation by Toynbee himself or the one which got me started in 1947, by D.C. Somervelle. Both of these were also published by Oxford University Press. Any of these works are a reward to read, for perspective and scope, for historic insights, an intellectual treat, because of the quality and language of Toynbee’s writing and for his rationality in a field which has gone through entire eras lacking same.

Where Toynbee’s Study connects with our focus of interest here, aside from motivating my own quest for better methods of solving problems and leading to your and my being here in this discussion, is in his description of the conditions accompanying and possibly therefore causing or helping to cause the birth and rise of civilization, the evolution of those conditions, and the conditions when entire civilizations decline and fall and literally commit suicide. These conditions can all be defined in terms of what is affecting a civilization’s ability to adapt to and solve the various difficulties and problems it faces.

Toynbee’s model made intelligible for me why entire civilizations go through this destructive cycle and plunge into wasteful and miserable Dark Ages, though the key part of this is where I depart from Toynbee’s own opinion of why this cycle occurs. I will make that plain below. It is that very point of departure which enables me to describe for you and to release here probably the true nature of that problem and of its possible solution. It happens to have bearing on how we conduct toward success some or most of our sundry enterprises today, and so may yield some practical utility for us even this side of the more global considerations.

Toynbee’s Model

The best conditions prevailing when a civilization is arising and thriving, conditions which may play a causal part in the very rise of such civilization—

Genesis and Growth

The best conditions for a culture or society to become a high civilization, thriving and growing to higher levels, appear to be thus: The society is divided into hamlets or likewise small units, too small and too separate to limit each other’s actions but close enough in communications to be able to imitate each other’s successes and avoid each other’s failures. To move the culture out of settled ways requires some sort of challenge or threat serious enough to be existential but not truly overwhelming. The society which makes it past this challenge or problem or difficulty seldom does so by solution coming down through official or central channels. Almost always the successful solution is one which emerges from outside the legitimate hierarchy, from somewhere out in the boondocks, “in the grassroots” as we Americans so often say. Once it has emerged from somewhere, the solution is widely imitated, and by that imitation becomes the culture’s successful adaptation to the challenge.

Time of Troubles/Universal State

On the heels of that success, the society grows—and grows—and, for a variety of reasons, grows, with more and more becoming more and more dependent upon long, complex and increasingly vulnerable lines of supply, thus bringing an end to those initial growth conditions. Units of the society grow robust enough to undertake empire-building at each other’s expense. As the civilization progresses through a succession of these Challenge-And-Response episodes, it amasses more and more power and wealth but surprisingly(?) at last runs into a problem or difficulty to which it fails to find successful solution. Tremendous resources may be within ready reach, but unsolved problems accumulate as the civilization enters its Time of Troubles. More and more of the problem-solving effort is pursued via official channels and the centralized, legitimate authorities; but fewer and fewer of the problems are actually getting solved.

Rout & Rally and the Fall

The “wake-up call” is a knockout blow, a sudden and shocking collapse of most of the existing order. The first order of business, which may take several generations, is to then restore the golden Empire—under increasingly harsh conditions. At the very peak of its power and wealth, the Empire or Universal State is unable to solve its current difficulties, now compounded; and the ever more stringent efforts to restore order collapse into further disorder, so that the Empire goes through a succession of ever-deepening routs and partial, harsher, recoveries until a collapse comes which is so deep that no recovery is in reach, resulting in a Dark Ages which anthropologists describe as being a “culture-break,” when little if any of the previous civilization survives to mitigate the ensuing centuries of stark misery and brutality.

Toynbee grouped the data and made descriptive sense of it in his model. What he failed to do was to look at his own model in terms of conditions affecting one’s ability to solve problems. Bearing on that today is the entire professional field and worldwide movement of Creative Problem-Solving (CPS), which did not yet exist when Dr. Toynbee was piecing together his model. But this gives us a wide-open avenue from which to answer the basic question, and perhaps to pose and solve the basic problem…

When do YOU find it easier, or when do you think it would be easier, to solve problems:

  1. When you are but one of many dabblers not directly engaged with the problem but speculating on it with some of your friends from the sidelines, out in the boonies? Or,
  2. When millions of lives are at immediate stake along with almost-unimaginable stakes of power and wealth, with power-seekers peering closely over your shoulder ready to pounce on any real or imagined mistake?

In which of those conditions, (1) or (2), can you even allow yourself to think of more options or a wider range of options, to “think outside the box”?

In other words, that which caused thirty-some high civilizations prior to our own global-western civilization, in which nearly everything we value as human beings is itself existentially at stake—and which caused nearly all of our predecessor high cultures to do themselves in—was how the decision-making of each such culture got centralized as the civilization grew. The more centralized, the more the civilization became structurally incapable of solving its problems, so even a minor problem could produce the point of breakdown and launch into a Time of Troubles spiraling into Rout-Rally and ultimate downfall.

I respectfully submit that this model and discussion contains information of some value to your own endeavors as well, not only pointing to possible ways out from the trap which caused nearly every high civilization prior to our own to commit suicide by processes resembling those we see all around us today. Your business, your business empire, your social movement, your “cause,” very likely could gain not only from an examination of this argument but from a good read of Toynbee’s extraordinarily lucid work.

Even if the stakes now in play weren’t so existential and global, here is a simpler basic model which points toward the same solution that I offer you below and invite you to help happen.

A non-Toynbeean description of how things are

  • To survive in a changing world, a society must adapt, which means that a society must innovate.
  • In any human situation, advantage passes into the hands of the very few—who then can use that advantage to gain still more advantage, and often do.
  • Typically, the advantaged are not all that terribly anxious to innovate, since innovation might change the conditions which gave and now support their advantage in the first place. (This helps explain why, in the Toynbee model, real solutions so seldom make it through the central “legitimate” authorities. The best answers, if they are allowed to happen, arise from outside the approved “channels”.)
  • Often but not always, such centralized, advantage-to-the-few structures, channels and arrangements result in asymmetric power relationships. Some, perhaps most, of these are subject to a cumulative dynamic tending from what conveniences the most powerful in that power relationship, to actual exploitation and even abuses of power. Indeed, nearly all the evils of the world can be characterized as being the outcome of many of such asymmetric power relationships.
  • When various single-cause, single-issue groups and endeavors win to power, they run the risk that their perspective is not broad enough to take in and comprehend and account for additional factors bearing even on their legitimate pursuit, to say nothing of their almost inevitable quest for power and numbers and wealth sought as means to their announced goal. When one idea or theory or goal is pursued to the exclusion of all other considerations, that is when the monstrous evils happen, on either side of the confrontation between the advantaged and those who are outside of the arrangements approved by the advantaged.

Viewed at any single moment, whether in the Toynbee model or in the asymmetric power relationship model, we see the catastrophic spiral underway when some of the resulting problems start to interact, creating a complex of difficulties way too muddled to have hope of resolving. Yet we now live in a time where we have extensive knowledge of how to solve problems and how to enable people to solve problems. This is where I extend a special invitation to you, Gentle Reader, to easily help implement what may prove to be a general—and genuine—solution to the problem as posed either by the Toynbeean model or the Asymmetric Advantage Power Model.

Possible General Solution

To advantaged and non-advantaged alike, equip as many people as possible, both inside and outside of hierarchical structures, with the techniques, methods and practices of Creative Problem-Solving. This includes empowering them with the attitude that they can and should solve the problems and difficulties they find around them. As they solve even the little problems and difficulties, they make this a better world for them—and for the rest of us—to live in. And some of the more global issues, the great problems of common concern which we all “own” because we are all affected by them and therefore have the right and even the responsibility to work toward their solution, some of those great problems also get addressed and solved. And perhaps even solve some of those more ultimate great problems of common concern, possibly including the question of how we can prevent the present world civilization from committing suicide the way its predecessors did.

How do we do this? With either model, our wish is to get these modern resources in problem-solving (and in education) to as many people as possible, as soon as possible… and as widely as possible, and across as wide as possible a range of different cultures and subcultures. How do we do that?

I have drawn up a set of suggestions how to form and conduct your own thinktank and local support group. Under today’s Internet conditions, it will be easy to follow the Toynbee model and have a swarm of a good many of these differentiated, independent thinktanks too small and too separate to limit each other’s actions or doings, but close enough in communications to imitate each other’s successes and to avoid each other’s failures.

In this perspective, relations among these independent thinktanks have to be cooperative; they are doing their own things for their own reasons even if in some instances they are drawing upon some of the same methods or addressing some or the same problems.

(Any historians among us familiar enough with the history of how each of the modern sciences began, once our natural philosophers got started on the idea that to be universally accepted, any finding should be replicable by anyone?— And thence, exchanges among “men of letters” as our European Renaissance came to flower into our modern Euro-Western civilization?)

This swarm of many differentiated, independent thinktanks should operate each autonomously, free of anyone’s control, including free of my own control. That, in itself, instead of anyone’s particular solution to one particular cause, should suffice to both reduce our overload of complexly interacting problems and difficulties and improve the chances that the larger problems also get solved.

Either way the world gets better, and the people who come up with working solutions also harvest some practical immediate advantages by doing so. At least this is the intent of the set of suggestions I have prepared and will send to anyone who sends me their physical delivery groundmail address (since I have printed these in hardcopy), and their email address in the event that we set up an Internet forum to recapitulate in this context how most of our present modern sciences got started.

I will request, in return, though not require, that in your own attempts to implement these step-by-step suggestions, you observe, record and detail to me and/or to the rest of us, your successes and failures and how they came about. This will help evolve this assemblage of suggestions into a much smoother kit so that a far larger number and far larger range of people can take advantage of this kit and create their own, among a swarm of hundreds of diverse such thinktanks and local support groups. The resulting natural dynamics of such a set-up may well in itself constitute, not only provide, a solution to the existential question now all around us all.

P.S. — To explore a little of what is developing with the application of CPS methods to education, you may freely explore the Teaching & Learning section. An additional part of our reasons for wanting these thinktanks to be autonomous, and functioning each for its own reasons, is indicated in the article, Special Word to Everyone who Seeks to Improve the Schools.

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