The high level equilibrium trap was proposed by Mark Elvin to explain the absence of an industrial revolution in China. One might also invoke something like a high level equilibrium trap to explain why other mature agricultural civilizations failed to experience an industrial revolution. Here is how Elvin summarized the high level equilibrium trap as it manifested in China:
“…in late traditional China economic forces developed in such a way as to make profitable invention more and more difficult. With falling surplus in agriculture, and so falling per capita income and per capita demand, with cheapening labour but increasingly expensive resources and capital, with farming and transport technologies so good that no simple improvements could be made, rational strategy for peasant and merchant alike tended in the direction not so much of labour-saving machinery as of economizing on resources and fixed capital. Huge but nearly static markets created no bottlenecks in the production system that might have prompted creativity. When temporary shortages arose, mercantile versatility, based on cheap transport, was a faster and sure remedy than the contrivance of machines. This situation may be described as a ‘high-level equilibrium trap’. In the context of a civilization with a strong sense of economic rationality, with an appreciation of invention such that shrines were erected to historic inventors (though, it is true, no patent law), and with notable mechanical gifts, it is probably a sufficient explanation of the retardation of technological advance.” (The Pattern of the Chinese Past, Stanford, 1973, pp. 314–315)
A cruder way to explain lack of achievement on a civilizational scale is to be found in the famous quote from The Third Man (based on the novel by Graham Greene, and Greene wrote the screenplay of the film too, but the following quote does not appear in the book, only in the film):
“In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had five hundred years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
This implies a very different explanation for stagnation, even though it highlights art rather than technology. Whether we focus on a civilization’s art or its technology, civilizations are so complex, and the historical antecedents of any event in the history of a civilization are so over-determined, that explanations of developmental trajectories of civilizations are always going to involve far more questions than answers. I don’t regard this as a counsel of despair, though I myself do attempt to formulate explanations of the developmental trajectories of civilziations, but I do so fully mindful of the complexity and the multitude of factors that could enter into an adequate explanation.
We can understand long periods of stagnation in civilization — such as Elvin found in China, and the protagonist of The Third Man found in Switzerland — as the realization of an existential risk (that of permanent stagnation), or we can understand long periods of stagnation as a stable period in which historical forces that might otherwise drive change are approximately in balance — an equilibrium, in a word.
At several levels of socioeconomic development it could be argued, more or less as Elvin argues, that a given society functions so well that there is no incentive to innovate, hence stagnation (or equilibrium) sets in. However, we should not think of stagnation as an aberration that needs to be explained; on the contrary, stagnation is the perennial condition of human society, and it is innovation that demands an explanation. Also, “stagnation” implies a very different conception than if we called the same state-of-affairs “equilibrium” or “maturity.”
How many socioeconomic equilibria are there at which a civilization (or even a pre-civilized society) might be trapped? The major equilibrium thresholds are natural stages to identify in the development of society — natural types, if you will. Many of these thresholds are well familiar, as I have written about them repeatedly. The following come to mind:
- Hunter-gatherer nomadism: if the breakthrough to civilization had not been made, human beings could have continued as nomadic hunter-gatherers as long as some part of the planet was habitable for human beings. Early human beings before civilization traveled the entire planet, and they could have continued to do so. In a severe ice age, they could have moved toward the equator; in a severe hothouse, they could have moved toward the poles. Nomadic people are by definition mobile, and they would have followed the availability of game and gatherable food. This is a regime that could be continued for millions of years without essential change.
- Agricultural civilization: the high level equilibrium trap was formulated for the purpose to explaining why agricultural civilization in China did not experience an indigenous industrial revolution; the same reasoning might be applied to every civilization that did not experience an indigenous industrial revolution, because it only appeared in one civilization. The high level equilibrium trap of (relatively) efficient agriculturalism and (relative) levels of sustainable prosperity represents an opportunity for a civilization to continue in this form as long as there is arable land with sufficient rainfall and sunshine. As with hunter-gatherer nomadism, this regime could be continued in an essentially unchanged form for millions of years. (I have formulated several thought experiments about million-year-old agricultural civilizations, for example, Another Counterfactual Civilization with Science as its Central Project.)
- Stabilized technological civilization: present day technological civilization cannot be considered a stable or sustainable social formation, but once the shift to renewables has been completed (cf. The Conversion of the Terrestrial Power Grid), a reformed and sustainable technological civilization could plausibly survive at a planetary-scale equilibrium even longer than nomadic hunter-gatherers could survive, as a technological civilization is in a position to intervene in its environment in order to keep the planet habitable for longer than it would be habitable without climatological intervention. Again, this regime could endure essentially unchanged for millions or billions of years.
Beyond these obvious and familiar equilibria, they may be further equilibria — higher level equilibrium traps — that define additional natural thresholds, and would further extend a natural taxonomy of civilization.
Each of these equilibrium regimes could potentially endure for millions of years, or even billions of years at the outside. From the perspective of a paltry 10,000 years of terrestrial civilization, a social equilibrium that can endure for orders of magnitude longer than the entire history of civilization to date constitutes effective civilizational immortality.
Can we distinguish between an equilibrium of this kind and stagnation? What makes stagnation permanent stagnation, thus transforming it into an existential risk rather than a natural taxon on which civilizations are likely to converge as the mature expression of a particular method of exploiting homeworld biosphere resources?