Culture and Civilization Matters

July 7, 2009

The Rise and Fall of Civilizations

The BBC has made available a useful tool called Civilizations that, “uses web technology to reveal the sweep of historical forces and the rise and fall of great empires and ideas over 5000 years in a way that no book could ever do.”


You can access the tool by clicking HERE. We encourage you to explore the rise and fall of key civilizations throughout history and, in so doing, try to ascertain the key events or moments in time that allowed these civilizations to emerge and, ultimately, decline.

Jared Diamond, has respectively studied the rise and fall of civilizations in his popular books, Guns Germs and Steel and Collapse.


In Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond suggests that the majority of humanity’s achievements (scientific, artistic, architectural, political etc.) have all occurred on the Eurasian Continent while the people of other continents have been largely conquered, displaced and sometimes exterminated.

Diamond further argues that Eurasian civilization is not so much a product of ingenuity, but of opportunity and necessity. That is, civilization is not created out of sheer will or intelligence, but is the result of a chain of developments, each made possible by certain preconditions.

In our earliest societies humans lived as hunter-gatherers. The first step towards civilization is the move from hunter-gatherer to agriculture with the domestication and farming of wild crops and animals. Agricultural production leads to food surpluses and this in turn supports sedentary societies, rapid population growth, and specialization of labor. Large societies tend to develop ruling classes and supporting bureaucracies, which leads in turn to the organization of empires.


Here is a brief overview of Diamond covering the key factors in the Rise of Civilizations:

Rise of Civilizations Part I (10:55)

Rise of Civilizations Part II (8:15)

Here is a brief overview of Diamond covering the key factors that contribute to the Collapse of Civilizations:

Short Version of Collapse of Civilizations (2:31)
Vodpod videos no longer available.

Longer Version on Collapse of Civilizations (9:06)

Please take the following POLL:

Is the Current Global Situation Sustainable?

The picture below shows a composite of satellite pictures at night . The differences in night illumination and electric power consumption are directly proportional to the differences in resource consumption, waste production and standard of living between societies. In Collapse, Jared Diamond wonders Will it be really possible to maintain such differences?


Below, Niall Ferguson and Peter Schwartz argue over whether or not this current state of affairs in the world today is sustainable:

Note: Click HERE to view full video on

Finally, Tom Friedman shares his insights on how we got to where we did before the financial crisis and how Mother Nature is responding:

Note: Click HERE to view full video on Charlie Rose
Some Questions to Ponder:

    Both Huntington and Diamond seem to argue that the Civilization that emerged from the continent of Europe has generally fared better than other civilizations. Do you agree with their position? Why or Why Not?

    Diamond argues that the predominance of the Western Civilization is largely due to environmental and geographic factors while Huntington argues that the differences can be explained to a large extent by religious differences of the different civilizations. Which argument do you believe has more merit?

    Do you think that Diamond would agree with Huntington’s hypothesis that the greatest conflicts of the future will be based on “Wars of Ideas”? Why or Why Not?

    Do you agree with Schwartz that the gains we have seen over the last 200 years are sustainable or with Ferguson that it is simply a historical anomaly? What is the basis for your choice?

    Which of Diamond’s five root causes of civilization collapse most threatens Western Civilization today. What is the basis for your choice?

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