Too Big to Fail? The Story of a Civilisation

Ta Phrom Ruins, Cambodia

That an entire civilisation the size of modern day Liechtenstein or Guam (between 0.0005% and 0.003% of the world population) could collapse entirely in the space of a few years is almost inconceivable—but is it beyond belief?

In the late tenth century (circa AD 980, to be more specific) Norse explorers discovered a seemingly uninhabited Greenland and began to colonise the island. For centuries the new inhabitants prospered in the virgin land, farming and trading with the world.

The population of the Greenland Norse soared to between 2,000 and 10,000 people (quite a range, admittedly) before, in the early fifteenth century (between 1410 and 1435), the civilisation completely collapsed (some say ‘vanished’). It wasn’t a slow collapse, either: it fell with the speed of the Soviet Union, and the reasons for the collapse were, until recently, a mystery.

In Jared Diamond’s excellent Collapse, he proposes that the Greenland Norse society collapsed because of “climate change, environmental damage, loss of trading partners, irrational reluctance to eat fish [the country’s easily accessible and plentiful food source], hostile neighbors and most unwillingness to adapt in the face of social collapse”.

In Collapse Diamond also lists what he calls the “twelve problems of non-sustainability”; the eight that have contributed to almost every past societal collapse, these being:

  1. Deforestation and habitat destruction
  2. Soil problems (erosion, salinization, and soil fertility losses)
  3. Water management problems
  4. Overhunting
  5. Overfishing
  6. Effects of introduced species on native species
  7. Overpopulation
  8. Increased per-capita impact of people

and these four new factors that are putting our current and future societies at risk:

  1. Human-caused climate change
  2. Buildup of toxins in the environment
  3. Energy shortages
  4. Full human utilisation of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity

We now know that believing an organisation is too big to fail is to practice arrogance, but we still fail to consider wider collapses—of societies, for example, that are not only currently experiencing many of the non-sustainable problems noted above, but have also prospered for less time than the Greenland Norse (and especially that of the Maya).

Ta Phrom Ruins, Cambodia photograph by Taylor Miles.

Global Authorship: The Next Struggle

Movable Type

Literacy as Freedom was the slogan of the United Nations Literacy Decade. Literacy, key to good health and well-being said the posters advertising the UNESCO-sponsored International Literacy Day.

For as long as many of us have been alive, the fight for universal literacy has been prominent among politicians, non-profits and philanthropic international organisations—and this fight has accomplished a lot. Estimates suggest that by 2015 world illiteracy will stand at a meagre 16% of the world’s population and this is set to decline still more.

This battle against illiteracy has been a “defining characteristic of today’s modern civilisation”, says Denis Pelli (professor of psychology and neural science at New York University) and Charles Bigelow (Carey Distinguished Professor and MacArthur Foundation prize fellow), so what will define tomorrow’s? What will be the next global struggle? Authorship, suggests Pelli and Bigelow in a recent article for Seed Magazine where the two look at some of the surprising statistics to do with authorship on- and offline.

World Authorship Rates

With authorship estimated to reach 1% of world population by next year and nearly 10% the year after, the question isn’t so much Will this be the next cause célèbre? as What will this mean?

As the 90-9-1 principle (aka the 1% rule) of participation inequality begins to reverse and more people become creators rather than consumers, so the flow of information will escalate and become more transparent. As more individuals publish, tacmeds so the individual becomes influential; as does the group.

My question is, What does this mean for democracy, privacy and activism?

Movable type photograph by Xosé Castro.
Media authorship graph copyright Seed Media Group LLC.

The Beginnings of Wembley Stadium

Palace of Industry

The area of Wembley in north-west London and its world-famous stadium of visit this the same name are synonymous, if not with prodigious concerts, with that most ghastly and heinous of pastimes: football. But the not-so-humble beginnings of the stadium lie with something altogether quite different.

Opened in 1923, the British Empire Exhibition Stadium–as it was known then–was constructed at a cost of £750,000 as the destination for the British Empire Exhibition which was to be held a year later in 1924: a huge colonial exhibition designed to celebrate the past and future of the British Empire, to boost trade between the Empire’s Dominions and to secure support for the regime and the future thereof.

By the end of the exhibition the cost of the event ran to an astonishing £12 million and had made history as the largest exhibition ever staged thanks to its 27 million visitors. Appropriately, given the deteriorating power and economic strength of the Empire at that time, the exhibition made losses of over £1.5 million despite a government subsidy of £2.2 million. This led to the exhibition and stadium becoming the butt of a national joke: quite befitting, given that the new stadium suffered a very similar fate after incurring a four year delay and having its costs spiral to £340 million more than the originally agreed price (eventually the most expensive stadium ever built).

Visitors to the exhibition, after meandering to the stadium down streets renamed especially for the event by Rudyard Kipling, were presented not only with large-scale re-enactments of the Zulu Wars, but a statue of the Prince of Wales constructed entirely of Canadian butter.

We don’t host exhibitions like we used to.

Palace of Industry photograph by R P Marks (one of the last remaining buildings constructed for the British Empire Exhibition of 1924).