Is civilization sustainable? How long do civilizations last?

The end of civilization — societal collapse — is a scary concept. But, what is the lifestyle we call “civilization” and is it worth preserving? The answers are important for moving from our dysfunctional status quo to a future of thriving on one planet’s worth of resources — one planet thriving. Increased resilience during the transition so that we can build that future is critical. Building relationships and community are two social technologies necessary for one planet thriving. Is civilization itself a solution or part of the problem?

“The problems are not new. This culture has been killing the planet for 6000 to 10000 years…Forests precede us and deserts dog our heels.” – Derrick Jensen, “Is the World a Better Place Because You Were Born?

The culture Derrick Jensen is speaking of is civilization. In this interview,  Jensen, author of Deep Green Resistance and many other books, defines civilization as

“a culture—that is, a complex of stories, institutions, and artifacts—that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities (civilization, see civil : from civis, meaning citizen, from Latin civitatis, meaning city-state).”

His definition of cities:

“so as to distinguish them from camps, villages, and so on—as people living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life.”

Is civilization sustainable? Implicit in these definitions is the answer to the question. The answer is no.

It may sound strange to think about an alternative to civilization since we tend to associate civilization with progress, health, sophistication, and many other good things. Some argue that civilization, itself, as a way of organizing people, is unethical in addition to being unsustainable (see this article for why our current civilization is the largest, most unethical failure in human history). The following patterns emerge from civilizations:

When you think of the plains and hillsides of Iraq, is the first thing that you think of normally cedar forests so thick that sunlight never touches the ground? That’s how they were.

The first written myth of this culture is Gilgamesh going in and deforesting those hills to make cities. When you think of the Arabian peninsula, is the first thing that you think of oak savannah? That’s what it used to be. Let’s move a little bit west, and you get the cedars of Lebanon. They still have one on their flag. Greece was heavily forested. Plato commented on how deforestation was destroying the water quality in Greece. And I’m sure that those in power said, Well, we need to study it a little bit longer first, to make sure there’s a connection. Italy was heavily forested, North Africa was heavily forested. The forests of North Africa went down to make the Egyptian and Phoenician navies.

The story of any civilization is the story of the rise of city-states, which means it is the story of the funneling of resources toward these centers (in order to sustain them and cause them to grow), which means it is the story of an increasing region of unsustainability surrounded by an increasingly exploited countryside.

Because of issues like these, organizations, like Deep Green Resistance, are interested in building alternatives to civilization, capitalism, and patriarchy as a necessary condition for a just and sustainable world.

That said, the only ways of living that have ever been sustainable have been those that have been local and that have emerged from the land where they live. In other words, a social structure that might serve a people well in the deserts of what is now Arizona might not serve people well in the temperate rain forests of the Pacific Northwest. Here, life revolved around salmon. There are no salmon in the deserts of the Southwest. So what we want is for 10,000 cultures to emerge from their own landbases.

Carrying capacity of the planet and population:

notice the language: overpopulation, zero population growth. How different would our discourse be if we spoke instead of overconsumption and zero consumption growth? This shift in discourse won’t happen, of course, because zero consumption growth would destroy the capitalist economy.

Food is central to civilization, a way of life integral to cities and specialization. Civilization necessitates empire. Empire is oppressive and unsustainable. Thus, civilization is unsustainable. Put another way, civilizations end — that is the norm, not the exception.

How Long Do Civilizations Last?

This is an interesting article on how long civilizations last. This author has some inaccuracies (which have been corrected in the data below), but we owe him a debt of gratitude for assembling the data on 68 ancient civilizations that existed all over the world between 3000 BC and 0 BC. By the way, there’s a fun mathematical equation published by J. Richard Gott III that some claim can make predictions about the duration of any event (this method predicts about 760 years more for human existence). But, here we take an empirical approach and start with summary statistics.

Mean Duration 368
Median Duration 307.5
Max 1100
Min 14
SD 253


And now the data with no comments about nuance or complications here (but with corrected duration calculations):

Duration Civilization Name
552 Egypt’s Old Kingdom
400 Egypt’s Middle Kingdom
108 Egypt’s New Kingdom
400 Kerma Civilization (Sudan)
210 Kushite Kingdom, Early Kingdom (Sudan)
940 Kushite Kingdom, Late Kingdom (Sudan)
302 Ptolemaic Egypt
429 Carthage (Tunisia)
156 Numidia (Algeria/Tunisia)
1100 Aksumite Empire (Ethiopia)
187 Akkadian Empire (Sumer)
46 Third Dynasty of Ur (Sumer)
299 First Babylonian Dynasty
241 Early Assyrian Empire
313 Middle Assyrian Empire
325 Neo-Assyrian Empire
87 Chaldean Dynasty (Babylon)
250 Old Empire Hittites
70 Middle Hittites
220 New Hittites
144 Lydia
43 Phrygia
800 Harappan Civilization (Indus Valley Civilization)
1000 Vedic Civilization (India)
200 Mahanjanapadas (India)
364 Magadha Empire (India)
100 Nanda Empire (India)
137 Maurya Empire (India)
500 First Chera Empire (India)
112 Sunga Empire (India)
45 Kanva Dynasty (India)
430 Satavahana Dynasty (India)
157 Awan Dynasty – Elam Civilization (Iran)
210 Eparti Dynasty – Elam Civilization (Iran)
342 Middle Elamite Period – Elam Civilization (Iran)
203 Neo-Elamite Period – Elam Civilization (Iran)
66 Medean Empire (Iran)
220 Achaemenid Empire (Iran)
249 Seleucid Empire (Iran)
469 Parthian Empire (Iran)
500 Xia Dynasty (China)
478 Shang Dynasty (China)
351 Western Zhou period – Zhou Dynasty (China)
330 1st half of Eastern Zhou Period – Zhou Dynasty (China)
14 Last half of Eastern Zhou period – Zhou Dynasty (China)
215 Western period – Han Dynasty (China)
195 Eastern Han Dynasty (China)
500 Protopalatial Period – Minoan Civilization (Greece)
250 Neopalatial Period – Minoan Civilization (Greece)
400 Mycenae (Greece)
453 Classical Greek Civilization
177 Hellenistic Civilization (Greece)
243 Ancient Rome (Italy)
404 Etruscans (Italy)
466 Roman Republic (Italy)
520 Roman Empire (Italy)
225 Urartu (Armenia)
684 Orontid Dynasty (Armenia)
442 Kingdom of Armenia
661 Phoenicians (Middle East)
298 Kingdom of Israel and Judah
800 Scythians (Central Asia/Eastern Europe)
184 Xiongnu Empire (Mongolia) 
725 Three Kingdoms of Korea
800 Olmecs (Mexico)
735 Teotihuacans (Mexico)
827 Norte Chico Civilization (Peru)
700 Chavin Culture (Peru)






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4 thoughts on “Is civilization sustainable? How long do civilizations last?

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