SESSION 3 - Collapse

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright January 2017

Review of the National Geographic video Collapse

This National Geographic Video is pretty standard fare: it is standard in how National Geographic formats its videos, and standard in the subject matter.

Standard Format

This is not the first National Geographic video I've seen, and I find them consistently disappointing as an educational source. National Geographic fills their videos with nice talk by a narrator, some pithy quotations by well-known experts in the field, and lots of pretty video scenes of a "B-roll" sort.

All-in-all, I find these videos to be slow and boring compared to reading a text article on the same topic. In particular, the B-roll video style doesn't add anything to getting information across.

Standard Malthusian Warning

The topic of this video is a standard warning of the "Watch out, we may be heading for a disaster for our civilization." sort. This is an often discussed topic. This time by Jared Diamond, an author I highly respect for his book Guns, Germs and Steel.

An early Industrial Age author who became iconic for such warnings was Thomas Robert Malthus of the late 1700's. He was a preacher who was unhappy with the bubbly optimism of his contemporaries about the benefits that industrializing would bring, people such as William Godwin and the Marquis de Condorcet. Malthus' basic premise was that population growth, being exponential, would always outstrip food growth, which is linear. I first ran into this theme when I read a Club of Rome book The Limits to Growth in the mid-seventies.

It impressed me at the time, but I'm no longer as impressed with the theme.

This video is about a similar theme: that mankind is good at creating memorable civilizations, but poor at making them lasting. Sooner or later, they always decline into obscurity. Roger opinion: This is backwards, mankind is consistent at peaking and declining the civilized societies he creates, making them big and memorable before the peak is the exception to the rule. But the memorable part counts for a lot when teaching about and learning history.

The good news is pointed out at the end of the video: these communities are at some point replaced by some other group of people who make another civilization that is even grander and more prosperous. The contemporary version of this happening is Silicon Valley replacing the Midwest Steel Belt as a center of American prosperity. This Steel Belt-to-Silicon Valley is an important lesson: It shows that this peaking and declining is constantly happening, even within civilizations that are looking quite prosperous to the inhabitants and outsiders.


This worrying about "Peak Something" has been a common and recurring theme for millennia. But it is an overrated worry. It is overrated if you take the rise and fall of individual communities as being an acceptable part of the human condition, and feel that technological progress will keep new communities rising and make their rises more prosperous than the predecessors, and sometimes more glamorous as well.

The important lesson to learn, what we should be spending lots of time and attention on, is "how to rise" not "how to peak and fall".



--The End--