The Fifth World



The collapse of the global civilization that once controlled the world marks the end of the old world and the beginning of the Fifth World.


In the oral histories of various families, you will find a wide array of causes for the collapse cited. Ecological collapse, financial collapse, terrorism, war, new epidemics, the depletion of fossil fuels, and political turmoil and unrest appear most often. They all played their part, and yet none of them can adequately explain why civilization failed. After all, we create civilizations expressly to deal with crises like these. If a civilization fails to do so, we must ask why this particular civilization failed to meet this particular challenge.

Like all other civilizations before it, the global civilization that preceded the Fifth World collapsed, ultimately, because complexity remains subject to diminishing marginal returns. A society’s first investments in complexity often offer significant gains for relatively little input. Later on it takes more and more time, effort, and/or resources to continue increasing society’s complexity, even though it offers relatively less. The space program offered many benefits on earth, but almost nothing compared to the invention of fire, even though spacecraft required far greater investments than learning to use fire.

At some point along this curve, the members of a complex society begin to wonder if they might not enjoy all of the benefits that their current society affords at a lower cost by simply living more simply. Collapse unfolds as an economizing process, initiated precisely at the moment when most people would benefit from it (and for that reason).


Civilization did not collapse everywhere or all at once, of course. It showed itself first in growing discontent and economic hardship. Recessions became deeper, more frequent, and longer-lasting. In between, the economy would recover, but each time less fully than the last, and each time would see the gains of that recovery more and more unequally distributed, with the divide between rich and poor growing.

The basic necessities of life — food, water, and shelter — became increasingly expensive, and increasingly beyond the reach of the poor. Such desperation led to rising political tension, and eventually to violent clashes, first in the form of crime and violent political protests, but then in more pitched confrontations. As always, political power follows those who can help individual people provide for their daily needs, and as civilization failed to do a succession of smaller, more local organizations, from charities to churches to street gangs, arose to fill that void and claim the allegiance of the people. At no point did any of the old nation states declare themselves dissolved, of course. They simply became irrelevant, often sinking deeper and deeper into authoritarianism and fascism, even as their power waned to little more than city-states.

In the areas where civilization brought prosperity, like Europe and North America, many remember the collapse of civilization as a terrible ordeal with names like the Great Purification or the Apocalypse. Other parts of the world reserve names like those for the era preceding it, when those richer areas exploited them. In those parts of the world, the basic necessities had become forbiddingly expensive long before. They had, of necessity, developed means of surviving. The collapse of civilization did not leave them unaffected, but its difficulties often seemed in line with the difficulties they had already become accustomed to. For example, one country might lose its food shipments, but at the same time the meddling international bank that had required them to plant cash crops instead of food became powerless to dictate terms to them any more, such that their difficulties overall did not change dramatically — except, of course, when they finally ended.

The era of collapse gave way to a period often called the Rusting Ages.