Is objective knowledge of civilization possible? Don’t we often use the term “civilization” already as a kind of way to express our admiration and positive valuation for certain forms of social organization? This is an old problem in the study of civilization, as we all know that that contrast between civilization and barbarism has always been freighted with valuation. I openly acknowledge the difficulty here, and indeed I have myself sought an alternative approach to civilization. For example, in my 2015 presentation — What kind of civilizations build starships? — I explicitly introduced a typology of civilization that could be used to classify forms of social organization previously rejected as barbarous.
Despite the problems, I think that it is possible to study civilizations scientifically and objectively, and that there is a value in doing so. But we aren’t there yet, as I have pointed out in my paper, A Manifesto for the Scientific Study of Civilization. We need to put the study of civilization on a scientific basis, and that means engaging with the hard problems that attend the foundation of a discipline. These hard problems include, but are not exhausted by, the problems presented by clarifying the end states of civilizations no less than the origins of civilizations. Archaeologists have many theories for the origins of civilization, but very few theories for the decline and extinction of civilization, which I assume is an observational selection effect the follows from the archaeologist’s interest in getting to the earliest origins of things (their ἀρχαί, in the Greek).
It is is the study of the end stages of civilization (which could be called civilizational eschatology) that we find ourselves using terms like “stagnation,” “decline,” “collapse,” and the like. These terms can be tricky because they are, like the use of “civilization” itself, freighted with valuations. A correspondent has recently scolded me on my use of “stagnation,” implying that I have been a bit cavalier with my use of the term, which admittedly comes with unflattering associations. Alternative terms that were suggested in place of “stagnation” were “ quiescent,” “contemplative,” and “introspective.” There certainly are times when such terms would be appropriate for civilizations that have turned away from external expansion and have instead turned inward to the inner life. In other words, civilizations that have experienced what Gilbert Murray called a failure of nerve (I wrote about this in Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?) — obviously, another unflattering epithet.
More unflattering yet than “stagnation” is “dark age.” Historians have almost entirely abandoned the use of “dark ages” even where this still remains an appropriate term for civilizations that have declined to a degree that they have lost most of what they have accomplished and no longer can recover their former eminence. Certainly in western Europe after the collapse of Roman power there were a few hundred years we can honestly call “dark ages,” though, as I said, historians have abandoned the term as hopelessly pejorative (like the term “primitive,” which some anthropologists call “the P-word”). This is understandable, as the term “dark ages” has often been sloppily extended from the truly dark times of western civilization to cover most of the middle ages, which were far from dark, and which have been celebrated by some scholars as the greatest of centuries.
In The Phenomenon of Civilization Revisited I considered the multiple dark ages that have punctuated terrestrial civilization to date, while in Epistemic Collapse I considered scenarios that could lead to dark ages, but I have not yet applied these ideas to supercivilizations, though one can easily see the parallelism. And despite the fact that “dark ages” is a term now generally frowned upon, it is nevertheless useful. To speak of “stagnation” implies only the absence of progress, and a civilization that endures but experiences little progress might still be an advanced and functioning social institution. To speak of collapse implies the catastrophic failure of institutions, but not necessarily excluding their rapid replacement. When we invoke “dark ages” it is clearly understood that a society has lost at least some of its past functionality, and that it lingers at a lower stage of functionality for an extended period of time.
Civilizations on Earth have repeatedly reached high levels of achievement, but have been unable to sustain that achievement. Following this, a dark age ensues, in which the social memory of high achievement is retained, but the ability to rebuild the society of that achievement has been lost. And, in the meantime, new social institutions, started from scratch, emerge in the social vacuum of failed institutions. These new social institutions will reflect the lived experience of a population that has experienced the catastrophic failure of advanced institutions — the loss, the sadness, the regret, the bitterness, and the resentment will all be there — making the resurrection of these institutions impossible. More sophisticated institutions must wait until they evolve from the institutions that followed upon collapse and stagnation.
If a civilization should endure for an order of magnitude longer than civilization as we know it (or for two or three orders of magnitude longer), then one would expect that periods of stagnation and retrogression would also endure for orders of magnitude longer. A million-year-old supercivilization, then, might have come through periods of ten thousand years or a hundred thousand years of stagnation — a dark age longer than the entire history of civilization on Earth has endured — while a billion-year-old supercivilization might have come through ten million or a hundred million year periods of stagnation and retrogression.
Dark ages that stretch into thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or millions of years pose certain problems. Whereas an active and advanced civilization could effectively intervene in its fate, meeting existential risks with meaningful responses, a stagnated civilization that remains stagnated over the longue durée would survive only if the cosmological and planetary conditions in which it found itself were sufficiently stable that no technological interventions would be necessary for that civilization to continue at a level of low technological expertise.
However, a much more advanced civilization than ours may “collapse” to a point that it still retains certain technologies equal to or in advance of ours, and is thus able to meet rudimentary existential threats with (limited) efficacy. If centers of civilization persisted, for example, locally effective measures against a pandemic might be implemented, but these would extend only in so far as social order extended, and in so far as the resources were available to pursue the mitigation. Similarly, a remaining center of civilization might possess a limited spacefaring capacity (think of the few remaining airplanes in H. G. Wells’ “Everytown” in Things to Come), and might expend whatever resources it possessed in order to prevent a planetary impact. It could be the plot of a tragic science fiction story to have such a remaining center of civilization overrun and defeated because it employed its remaining resources to save the planet, and could then no longer defend itself.
Nick Bostrom identified “permanent stagnation” as one of four classes of existential risks, and further defined permanent stagnation as, “Humanity survives but never reaches technological maturity.” All four of Bostrom’s classes of existential risk are defined in terms of “technological maturity,” but it is difficult to find a clear definition of technological maturity in Bostrom’s work. In my recent Centuari Dreams post, Stagnant Supercivilizations and Interstellar Travel, I identified stagnant supercivilizations as, “…civilizations that are very old, very large, very powerful, and very advanced, but which have attained a plateau of achievement and thus have ceased to develop.” The “plateau of development” that I mention could well be taken to be what Bostrom calls “technological maturity.”
Before I wrote my Centauri Dreams post on stagant supercivilizations I had asked, “What Do Stagnant Supercivilizations Do During Their Million Year Lifespans?” and it now occurs to be that one of the things that supercivilizations do during their developmental trajectory is to experience multiple catastrophic failures and collapses. If we entertain the possibility of supercivilizations, we ought also to entertain the possibility of super dark ages, or (since historians no longer use the term “dark ages”) superstagnation. That is to say, periods of stagnation and retrogression in terrestrial history have been proportional to the age and scope of terrestrial civilization, so that million-year-old or billion-year-old supercivilizations would also likely experience periods of stagnation and retrogression proportional to their longevity and their scope.
When I have written about stagnated civilizations I have tried to keep myself focused on civilizations that attain a certain level of development and retain that level but develop little more or not at all. But a subtle distinction in the use of “stagnation” can be made between the cessation of development (the sense in which I have tried to use “stagnation”) and the failure to attain a particular threshold of mature development (the sense in which Bostrom seems to use “stagnation”). And both of these ideas can be distinguished from the idea of collapse — a sudden loss of civilizational attainment — and the idea of decline — a slow loss of civilization attainment — and the idea of dark ages — a longue durée of civilization at a lower level of attainment than that previously enjoyed. Moreover, each of these ideas can be scaled to apply either to civilization as we know it, or to supercivilizations.
I know that many readers find discussions of definition to be rather tiresome, but each time I try to approach the study of civilization from a fresh perspective I find that I am thrown back on definitional questions in order to be able to distinguish exactly what we are talking about. This seems to be as true of stagnation and dark ages as it is of the origins of civilization: before we can be clear about stagnation and dark ages, we need to be able to say exactly (or even approximately) what civilization is. And this is why my recent presentation at the Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress in Monterey — The Role of Lunar Civilization in Interstellar Buildout — was largely concerned with a definition of civilization.
What is needed is a systematic taxonomy for discussing civilizations in their maturity and their decline — perhaps I even ought to say a scientific taxonomy that is able to put aside past ideas that come with moral associations and to identify the stages and phases of civilization in an objective way. Perhaps we need to use letters or numbers to indicate the different phases in the development (or lack of development, i.e., stagnation) of civilizations. However we do it, this is more difficult an exercise now than ever before. The standards of science are more rigorous than before, though their application the social sciences is (and has always been) problematic. And there does not yet exist a social science that exclusively takes civilization as its object of study. When we have constituted such a science, we will then be in a position to contribute to objective knowledge of civilization.