Nick Nielsen

Nov 20, 2018

5 min read

Equilibrium Thresholds

A Natural Taxonomy of Civilizations

Did China experience a high level equilibrium trap that resulted in technological stagnation?
  • 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.