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How Will We Know If Society Is On the Verge Of Collapse?

Jeremy Gaunt
Creative Commons
Roman Forum

Are we on the verge of societal collapse? We tend to worry about the big explosive stuff like nuclear war, asteroids, and solar flares when we consider end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it scenarios. The reality is that most "fallen" civilizations gradually decline over many decades with a banality that can barely register. 

We often remember the decline of civilizations as the fault of poor leaders or natural disasters but it's more like death from a thousand cuts from conditions like inequality, corruption, and political dysfunction. That's (partly) what happened to the Roman Empire

And most civilizations don't "collapse." They adapt and transform and take their culture with them. The Maya civilization is the archetype of a “collapsed” civilization, ingrained through popular and scholarly literature. That's not really what happened and millions of Maya descendants are alive to talk about it. 

Today, we talk about societal collapse and whether we'll know if we're in it.  


  • Martin Rees is the Astronomer Royal and a member of the House of Lords.  He’s the co-founder of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge. His latest book is On the Future: Prospects for Humanity. 
  • Patrick Wyman is the host of the “Tides of History,” and the former host of “The Fall of Rome,” podcasts. His book, The Verge, will be published in 2021. 
  • Patricia McAnany is a Maya archaeologist and the Kenan eminent professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the co-editor with Norman Yoffe, of Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire

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Colin McEnroe and Cat Pastor contributed to this show. 

Betsy started as an intern at WNPR in 2011 after earning a Master's Degree in American and Museum Studies from Trinity College. She served as the Senior Producer for 'The Colin McEnroe Show' for several years before stepping down in 2021 and returning to her previous career as a registered nurse. She still produces shows with Colin and the team when her schedule allows.
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