Civilizational Collapse: The End of the World?

By Hayley Covington ’26

The following was written for FYS 101-33

Imagine New York City with its tall buildings cracked and crumbling, powerlines collapsed in the streets, and vines crawling up the sides of storefronts. It is empty and quiet, lacking its famous hustle and bustle. There is no traffic; there are no bright lights. There’s nothing at all, except nature quietly reclaiming the city.

This is a scenario in which 99.9% of humans are dead. Severe population decrease caused a global collapse of civilization, beginning with the failure of complex governance and society. The 0.1% of humans remaining could not continue running governments, companies, schools, factories, power grids, and infrastructure. There were simply not enough people and survivors were scattered across the globe. Most cultural, technological, and scientific advances were lost, eventually causing a reversion to primitive living. With so many people dead and those remaining suffering through the collapse of modern civilization, this scenario qualifies as a global catastrophe—but is it an existential catastrophe?

Global catastrophes are events that affect the entire world—causing immense amounts of suffering, death, and destruction—whereas an existential catastrophe is an event that prevents future generations from fulfilling humanity’s long-term potential (Ord, 2020). These events are not the end of humans as a species, but the end of humanity’s progress. Humanity only just began; there is so much left to explore, learn, discover, and achieve. Future generations could explore the cosmos, end social injustices, unlock the secrets of the human body, and more—but an existential catastrophe would end it all before it even began. Essentially, it would be the end of the world.

If survivors and their descendants could build a new civilization, one that would eventually surpass modern society’s achievements, then it would not be the end of the world—just the end of ours. However, if survivors and their descendants could not rebuild civilization and humanity’s potential was lost, then it would be an existential catastrophe. So, could survivors rebuild civilization?

While many factors influenced the development of modern civilization, two major events allowed for its formation: the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. The Agricultural Revolution occurred when humans began domesticating crops and farming. Humans transitioned from living nomadic lifestyles dependent on hunting and gathering to forming semi-permanent settlements dependent on farming. Farming produced a larger and more consistent food supply, allowing for exponential increases in population. The Industrial Revolution was the transition from an agrarian economy that produced goods by hand to an economy that manufactured goods. It allowed humanity to explode—increased agricultural yield, urbanization, exponential population growth, social mobility, mass production of goods, and increased quality of life were just a fraction of the effects. If humanity did not undergo both revolutions, then modern civilization would never have developed. Therefore, to assess the ability of humanity to rebuild a civilization at least as advanced as today’s, we must assess the ability of survivors and their descendants to farm and reindustrialize.

As a whole, survivors and their descendants would have little trouble providing food for themselves. While climate change, air pollution, soil degradation, deforestation, and the overuse of pesticides and herbicides have damaged the environment, it would be possible for survivors in most areas to create small-scale farming operations, at least ones large enough to feed themselves. They would also have a huge advantage: modern high-yield crops. Since the dawn of domestication, humans have selectively bred crops to increase yield and eliminate evolutionary defenses such as spikes and bitterness. After centuries of this, modern crops became much larger and more palatable than their ancestors. For example, maize, the ancestor of corn, was less than a tenth of the size of a modern corn cob (Briggs, 2016). Furthermore, recent genetic modifications mean that some crops are more resistant to pests and other environmental stressors, reducing the risk of a low-yield harvest. This means that survivors would have access to larger and more nutritious crops.

Additionally, a percentage of survivors would have worked in the agricultural sector and know how to grow food. According to the World Bank, 28% of the world’s population is currently employed in agriculture (Employment in Agriculture, 2019). If only 0.1% of the population survived, there would be 7.8 million people alive. Of those survivors, 28% of them, or 2,184,000, would work in agriculture. Those survivors would be able to use their knowledge to feed themselves and pass their knowledge down to their children. The other 72% would have little knowledge of how to feed themselves, so they would suffer from malnutrition and poor health. Their health would complicate having children and limit their lifespan. They would be unable to pass knowledge of farming to their children who would also suffer from poor health and malnutrition. As generations pass, descendants of non-agricultural workers would either die out or learn to farm. Overall, the advantage of already domesticated, nutritious, high-yield crops and knowledge of agriculture means that descendants of survivors would most likely be capable of quickly rebuilding a society with farms and livestock. Having said that, it does not guarantee that they would be able to rebuild and surpass modern society. The transition from a farming society to an industrial one is more complicated and lengthy.

87% of the current population can read and write in their mother tongue, so the majority of initial survivors would be literate and capable of basic arithmetic (Literacy Rate, 2020). The initial survivors would be keen to teach their children, but their children would not know as much as them, and their children’s children would know even less. This is because future generations would devote almost all hours of the day to getting clean water, hunting, farming, cooking, building shelters, and making clothes. There would not be much time left for education, nor would they prioritize it. According to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the first priority of humans is their immediate physiological needs such as food, warmth, and shelter; the second is safety; the third is love; the fourth is respect; and the fifth is self-actualization (Kenrick et al., 2022). Essentially, Maslow postulated that humans prioritize their immediate needs such as food and security over non-immediate needs such as affection, self-improvement, and education. People today, at least in developed nations, have food, shelter, and security, so they can prioritize learning and improving themselves. Future generations would be focused on meeting their immediate needs instead. It would take many generations to build a stable community that works together to provide food, shelter, and safety. Only after such a community and sense of security were established could future generations consider making an effort to learn about the past. The longer it takes for security to be established, the harder it is to access the information left behind by past generations. In addition, there are two major roadblocks to utilizing information: literacy and language. As previously established, each generation would be less literate, so the more generations that pass by, the harder it would be for the next one to read books. Additionally, language is fluid and constantly changing. If enough generations pass, especially in isolated communities with low literacy rates, the language they speak could be incredibly different from modern English. This is comparable to a modern, semi-literate person trying to read a manual on boatbuilding written in ancient English; it would be completely incomprehensible and frustrating.

Additionally, our architecture and engineering feats would begin degrading and falling into states of ruin. Future generations would have a hard time gleaning information from shattered glass and metal covered by nature. They would not have the technology to replicate, even on a small scale, what we built. Nevertheless, there would be something useful waiting for them in the ruins of our society—metal. Turning ore into usable metal is a lengthy process that future generations would most likely not know how to do, but forging preexisting metal into something new is a much quicker and more intuitive process. The rediscovery of metal would spark a new age for future generations and improve their lives greatly. It would advance their agriculture, weapons, tools, and transport, and pave the way for a new pre-industrial age. Unfortunately, that’s the easy part. After forming stable farming communities and discovering metal, the next roadblock to rebuilding would be reindustrialization.

Industrialization requires a cheap, easily accessible, and energy-dense resource—coal. England was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution because of its large supplies of attainable coal. Coal provided the immense amount of energy needed to generate electricity, power steamboats and machines, and heat furnaces and forges. However, humans used much the fossil fuels that are easy to access; there are no more puddles of oil and mines full of coal for future generations to reindustrialize with (Kurzgesagt, 2022). To provide energy for our current society, we use advanced machinery and technology to extract fossil fuels from the ocean and deep underground. Future generations with pre-industrial technology would not be able to extract the fossil fuels necessary to reindustrialize. It is unlikely that future generations would be able to read many books, especially extremely technical ones that could teach them about fossil fuels and the methods used to extract them. In short, if surviving humans cannot access fossil fuels, they cannot industrialize. If they cannot industrialize, they cannot access fossil fuels. It’s the ultimate catch-22.

There are two possible solutions to this conundrum. The first is that new coal will form for future generations to use. Unfortunately, this is a very unrealistic scenario. Coal takes several million years to form, so humans would be waiting a long time (Turgeon et al., 2022). The average lifespan of mammalian species is only one million years so humans could go extinct before new coal is available (Ord, 2020). The second possible solution is that future humans could discover an alternative energy source to reindustrialize with. With so many people around the world devoted to researching alternative energy sources to combat climate change, this seems unlikely, but consider that there is still so much that we do not know about our world. We cannot know for certain that the way we industrialized is the only way to. Historically, humans are resilient and creative. It’s possible that future humans could discover an entirely new way to industrialize—one that we cannot imagine.  

Why does it matter if humans could re-industrialize or not? The scenario is hypothetical, so why care? Firstly, while this collapse of society is hypothetical, it is not impossible. There are many threats to our civilization—such as nuclear war, pandemics, AI, climate change, asteroids, super volcanos, and bioterrorism—that without intervention may destroy us or at least contribute indirectly to our destruction. Secondly, there is so much to protect. If humanity lives only as long as the average mammalian species, then 99.7% of our life lies ahead (Ord, 2020). Everything we have accomplished—our art, technology, literature, discoveries, monuments, love stories, victories, and progress—makes up only 0.3% of our lifespan as a species. What could we accomplish in that other 99.7%? The vastness of our future and all that we can still accomplish is incomprehensible. With so much at stake, even if the risk of destroying society is infinitesimally small, it is worth addressing (Ord, 2020).

In summary, if the descendants of survivors of civilizational collapse undergo a second Agricultural Revolution and Industrial Revolution, then it is probable that they would be able to create a new civilization that could surpass ours. All the suffering caused by the collapse would not prevent humans from fulfilling their long-term potential, effectively safeguarding humanity from an existential catastrophe. The collapse of modern civilization would not be the end of humanity, just its beginning.

Works Cited

Briggs, Helen. “Ancient Corn Cob Shows How Maize Conquered the World.” BBC News, 17 Nov. 2016,

“Employment in Agriculture (% of People Ages 15 and above).” World Bank Open Data,

“Is Civilization on the Brink of Collapse” YouTube, Kurzgesagt, 2022,

Kenrick, Douglas T, et al. “Renovating the Pyramid of Needs: Contemporary Extensions Built upon Ancient Foundations.” Perspectives on Psychological Science: a Journal of the Association for Psychological Science, U.S. National Library of Medicine, May 2010,

“Literacy Rate, Adult Total (% of People Ages 15 and above).” World Bank Open Data,

Ord, Toby. The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020.

Turgeon, Andrew and Elizabeth Morse. “Coal” National Geographic Society, edited by Jeanie Evers, illustrated by Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society, 29th July 2022,

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