Part III: The Collapse of Civilizations by Malcolm H. Wiener

In a new paper for the Belfer Center, “The Collapse of Civilizations”,  acclaimed Aegean prehistorian Malcolm Wiener explores five paramount causes of collapse of civilizations.

Dr. Wiener’s paper finds that major episodes of climate change have had profound impacts upon cultural continuity, and that the interactions between climate change, famines, migrations, pandemics, and major innovations in the means of transport and warfare are critical in understanding the collapse of past civilizations.

“The prime movers of collapse throughout history,” Wiener writes, “all present risks for today.”


Clear and Present Dangers Today

Our examination of the major examples of the collapse of civilizations past shows clearly that major episodes of climate change have had profound impacts upon cultural continuity, and that the interactions between climate change, famines, migrations, pandemics, and major innovations in the means of transport and warfare are critical in understanding the collapse of past civilizations.

The prime movers of collapse throughout history all present risks for today. The cumulative stock of carbon emissions over the past century has increased the risk of destructive climate change in the future. Many areas of the world remain vulnerable to famine, particularly those most exposed to climate risk and war. We are now grappling with the effects of massive forced migrations in many places, particularly from the war-torn Middle East to Europe, from persecution in Myanmar, and from famine and tribal warfare in Africa.

The risk of pandemics is ever present, as shown by the appearance in recent years of HIV, Ebola, Lassa, West Nile, Nipah, SARS, MERS, and the Zika virus, the transmission of which is fostered by the democratization of air travel. The Gates Foundation has estimated that if an influenza pandemic like that of 1918 erupted today, about 33 million people would die within the first six months. Unlike in past centuries, there is today the non-trivial risk of a deliberate bio-terror attack. One bioterrorist carrying a cocktail of deadly pathogens might cause a pandemic killing many millions. The drastic reduction in funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the current budget seems clearly ill-advised.

Major changes in methods of warfare, whose effects we noted in connection with the use of bronze weapons, cavalry, war chariots, and sailing vessels during the Bronze Age, continue today. Key developments include the prospect of weaponized pathogens as noted, whether in the hands of states, terrorist groups, or deranged individuals; electronic warfare including cyber attacks using digital weapons, which pose threats to critical power grids, information and communication networks, medical records and hospitals, financial systems, all personal records, and electronic voting; delivery of devastating cargoes of various types by drones; each menace compounded by advances in artificial intelligence. The internet provides a new conduit, with the prospect of future enhancement via 3-D printing, for making available deadly instructions, including recipes for biological pathogens. All are clear and present dangers. Finally, the ongoing struggle between human failings including the madness, incompetence, or ignorance of rulers and their supporters versus societal resilience in the face of adversity is clearly evident today, together with the potential major impact of chance events, also present throughout history.

In the words of Churchill: “Study history, study history. In history lies all the secrets of statecraft.” Continuing study of the collapse of past civilizations, as well as instances of survival under stress, aided by the recent dramatic breakthroughs in archaeological science described, will provide insights useful for the future.



Malcolm H. Wiener is an Aegean prehistorian who has written extensively on the Eastern Mediterranean world in the Bronze Age. His many published papers span the emergence, florescence, and collapse of the first complex societies of the western world in Minoan Crete and Mycenaean Greece, their relationship to the civilizations of the Near East and Egypt, the absolute chronology of the ancient world (science, texts, and interconnections via objects), warfare in the ancient world, the acquisition of copper and tin for bronze tools and weapons, and the interaction of climate change, mass migrations, pandemics, warfare, and human agency in the collapse of civilizations. His awards include the honorary doctorates of the Universities of Sheffield, Tübingen, Athens, Cincinnati, University College London, Dickinson College, and the University of Arizona, the Gold Cross of the Order of Honor (Greece), and the Ring of Honour of the German Academy in Mainz. Mr. Wiener is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Society of Antiquaries in London, a Corresponding Member of the Royal Swedish Academy, the Austrian Archaeological Institute, the Austrian Academy of Science, the Deutsches Archaologisches Institut, and the Academy of Athens, holds the rank of Chevalier in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France, and is an Honorary Director of the Greek Archaeological Society. He is the founder of the Institute for Aegean Prehistory and the Malcolm Wiener Laboratory for Archaeological Science at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and a recipient of the Archaeological Institute of America Bandelier Award for Public Service to Archaeology and the Athens Prize of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

Mr. Wiener is a Trustee Emeritus of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Chairman Emeritus of the Board of Trustees of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Malcolm Hewitt Wiener Foundation. The Center for Social Policy at Harvard Kennedy School is named in his honor. He chaired the independent task force of the Council on Foreign Relations on “Non-lethal Technologies: Military Implications and Options” and wrote its report.

Mr. Wiener was born in Tsingtao, China, is a graduate of Harvard College (1957) and the Harvard Law School (1963), served at sea as an officer in the U.S. Navy, practiced law in New York City, and was the founder and CEO of related New York City investment management firms employing algorithmic methodologies in futures markets between 1971 and 1987.