From the very moment humans started grouping in complex centralized societies, people became obsessed with the idea of civilization’s collapse.
In fact, the destruction, salvation, and rebirth of society are some of the central tenets of virtually every major organized religion. Likewise, thanks to the psychological principle of recency, every generation tends to believe it will be the one that has to face Armageddon.
In fairness, if history is any indication, indeed, every civilization is inevitably bound for destruction. Although both modern nations vastly differ from their ancient counterparts, China and Egypt are notable examples of societies that recovered from collapse.
In the nearly 6,000-year-old known history of civilization, even the mightiest of nations don’t tend to last that comparably long.
The prevailing belief is the Roman Empire was one of the longest-lasting civilizations of all time. However, the 1,622-year reign of power often attributed to the Romans includes the total span of the Western Roman and Byzantine Empires. The “classic” Roman Empire, based around Rome with Julius Caesar, actually fell in 476 A.D. after only 499 years.
And while there are plenty of examples of societies enduring hundreds, in some cases thousands, of years, a civilization’s collapse tends to be pretty swift. Take, for example, the Western Roman Empire. The classical Romans went from controlling an area nearly the size of the United States in 390 A.D. to ceasing to exist in a mere 86-years.
Throughout the centuries, as societies have risen and fallen, scholars have simultaneously pondered what causes a civilization to fall into ruin.
Having spent decades studying 19 past major civilizations, one of the early 20th Century’s foremost experts on international relations, British historian Arnold J. Toynbee concluded, “Great civilizations are not murdered. They commit suicide.”
Most modern historians and anthropologists believe Toynbee was partially correct, generally agreeing that civilizations collapse due to a complex and interconnected mix of internal and external factors.
These factors include climatic instability, ecological degradation, financial and political inequality, economic complexity, and menacingly uncontrollable external forces like natural disasters, plagues, or wars.
Conversely, some scholars suggest that no civilization can withstand the test of time. In this vein, Dr. Luke Kemp of the Center for the study of Existential Risk argues that civilizations are just complex systems, bound by the same theory of “normal accidents” that regularly cause failure in complex technological systems.
Research by evolutionary biologist Dr. Indre Zliobaite suggests extinction is a persistent threat whenever a species has to constantly fight for survival amongst numerous competitors and within a changing environment. Dr. Zliobaite and her colleagues call this perennial struggle for survival the “Red Queen Effect.”
So while there is no single agreed-upon theory for why civilizations collapse, The Debrief decided to examine the road to collapse for the “2021 Top 10 Most Powerful Nations,” according to U.S. News and World Report and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Each nation was judged on how well it currently ranks in ten factors generally accepted as influencing a society’s downfall. These factors were:
Susceptibility to Climate Change, based on the Global Climate Risk Index.
Each country was then given an overall raw score based on the collective scores in these individual categories.
So without further ado, here is The Debrief’s list of the most powerful nations that could be most likely headed for collapse.
Coming in as the nation least headed for collapse is the Pacific island nation of Japan.
In addition to being least likely to go extinct, Japan took the top spot in several individual categories including, political and financial equality, social freedoms, economic complexity, and political stability. Japan also earned high marks in environmental conservation, innovation, and with the fifth most powerful military in the world, national defense.
On the opposite end, according to the Global Climate Risk Index, Japan currently holds the top spot for countries affected by changes to the global climate. Likewise, according to the World Bank, Japan came in dead last regarding existing natural resources. Japan also had the second-worst economic recovery following the initial COVID-19 outbreak.
Perhaps, underscoring the volatility facing every civilization’s survival, out of a possible score of 100, Japan won the top spot with a total raw score of 66.
9. South Korea
Coming in only one point behind Japan was its fellow East Asian neighbor, South Korea.
Though only 120 miles separate South Korea and Japan, the southern half of the Korean Peninsula’s ruling power came in first on our list of global powers least likely to be impacted by climate change. South Korea also scored high in wealth equality, economic complexity, innovation, and above-average social freedoms and national defense.
Known for its hilly countrysides dotted with cherry trees and centuries-old Buddhist temples, South Korea’s ecological conservation and response to the COVID pandemic were rated average amongst the world’s ten most powerful nations.
South Korea’s only true low mark came in access to natural resources, scoring slightly ahead of Japan. Like Japan, most of South Korea’s crude petroleum requirements and most of its metallic mineral needs are currently met by imports.
Of course, having a lack of national resources inside your borders is a double-sided issue. Lacking significant natural resources causes a nation to be dependent on other civilizations to meet its needs. Yet, on the other hand, it makes a country far less of a target for military conquest by other resource-starved nations.
8. The United Kingdom (Tied)
Sharing the next spot for the civilization most likely to be around for a few more years is the United Kingdom.
Coming in 4th out of 180 sovereign nations, the U.K. took the top spot as the best caretaker of their environment on the list of the world’s 10 most powerful countries.
The birthplace of Shakespeare and The Beatles also earned high marks for expected impacts from climate change, wealth equality, social freedoms, economic complexity, response to crises, and political innovation.
The U.K.’s only real low mark came in the access to natural resources and innovation categories. In terms of the latter innovation category, it’s important to note these scores come from comparing the world’s 10 leading powers against each other. Though the U.K. scored third to last in patents filed by countries on our list, the U.K. holds 9th spot globally.
Based on its global military power ranking, the U.K. rated slightly below average for national defense. However, again, a significant factor here is who is being compared. With the 8th most powerful military in the world, the U.K. is only below average here because six out of the seven militaries ranked above Great Britain, likewise, appear on our 10 most powerful nations list.
Of course, when needing to defend your civilization from other warmongering nations, one does not necessarily have to have the most substantial military, provided it has powerful friends.
8. The United States of America (Tied)
Speaking of the U.K.’s powerful friends, to the likely dismay of many Americans who have been decrying the republic’s demise is just right around the corner, the United States tied with its oldest ally as the 3rd least likely world power facing collapse. In fact, the U.K. and U.S. scored only four points below Japan.
The most significant driving forces fending off the destruction of the United States comes from being ranked #1 in national defense, #2 innovation, and #3 in economic complexity.
With the world’s biggest economy, it perhaps comes as no surprise that out of the 10 most powerful nations, the U.S. took the most brutal economic hit at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a 31.2% dip in GDP during the second quarter of 2020.
However, the U.S. also had the most significant rebound, going +33.8% by the third quarter of 2020. On average, the U.S. has seen an average growth rate of 5.77% in real GDP since the initial pandemic shock. At least on paper, the U.S. economy appears to be more resilient to national crises than the complaints in the news and social media suggest.
The U.S. also scored slightly above average in ecological conversation, social freedoms, and access to natural resources. America was slightly below average in impacts from climate change and political stability. The latter likely coming as no surprise to anyone who has taken a passing glance at the headlines in the last five years.
The biggest negative for the U.S. happens to also be a big one that can accelerate a civilization’s collapse – Financial inequality. The U.S. scored second to last out of the 10 world powers for the most significant wealth gap.
While the final death blow for most civilizations involves being conquered by another foreign power, typically that is preceded by significant internal instability. In fact, an outside threat gives a people a collective common enemy, which can strengthen national unity. When it comes to those internal threats, plenty of scholars point to wealth inequality as the spark that can fuel political instability and violence within a civilization. Just ask Marie Antoinette.
On a possible upside, Dr. Peter Turchinis, a Professor of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Connecticut and author of War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires, argues that after a lengthy political instability, unequal societies generally switch to a more cooperative way governing after power holders tire of ongoing violence and disorder.
Conversely, sometimes civilizations turn to strongman leaders and authoritarian regimes to regain social stability. These instances almost always involve a brief period of glory before complete and utter ruin. Just ask the following country on our list.
Sliding in next on the path to ruin for the world’s global powers is Germany.
There are plenty of positives suggesting modern-day Germany will be around for a very long time. Germany came in the top 3 for ecological conservation, social freedom, economic complexity, and political stability.
Germany likewise scored slightly above average in innovation and average in economic response to the COVID pandemic. Equality of wealth and access to natural resources was just slightly below average.
The biggest negative for Germany is the expected impact of climate change. According to the Global Risk Index, Germany holds third place for countries currently at risk from climate change, behind Japan and the Philippines.
Some climate scientists warned that the massive floods which claimed the lives of 196 people in Western Germany in July 2021 are a preview of the extreme weather events to come.
With the world’s 15th most powerful military, Germany came in 3rd to last of the world powers in terms of national defense. However, provided there aren’t any massive geopolitical upheavals any time soon, the strength of Germany’s standing military is essentially a moot point.
Currently, the Bundeswehr -Germany’s equivalent to the U.S. Department of Defense – has nearly 185,000 active-duty military personnel at its ready. However, augmenting its national defense, the U.S. has over 35,000 troops permanently stationed within Germany’s borders.
In fact, America has over 320,000 active military personnel spread out at nearby bases in Belgium, Italy, Spain, Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, and the United Kingdom.
Germany’s raw score was actually two points below the next nation on our list. However, considering that Germany’s national defense is mainly synonymous with America’s European military presence, it allowed Germany to move up a rung on the ladder of longevity.
After being narrowly edged out by Germany (thanks to U.S. military bonus points), France comes in next on our list of world powers on the path to ruin.
France took the top spot in response to crisis and economic bounce back during the COVID-19 pandemic. France’s GDP bounced back +18.6% in the 3rd quarter of 2020, after an initial -13.5% dip in the spring, giving the world’s sixth most robust economy a +5.1% margin.
Out of the world powers, France also came in 2nd in ecological conservation, 3rd in wealth equality, and 4th in social freedoms.
With no true blackmarks, what brought France closer down on the list of nations facing demise was its average or slightly below-average marks in economic complexity, national defense, political stability, and innovation.
The categories France scored the lowest were in impact from climate change and availability of natural resources.
One could argue that given the midpoint stability in nearly every category, France would likely score higher in a more comprehensive analysis of national sustainability.
However, though undoubtedly a solid Western ally, France has never sought that same nearly unbreakable military bond that the U.S., U.K., Japan, South Korea, and Germany (formally West Germany) each share.
As a founding member of NATO and no military rifts on the foreseeable horizon, this is all primarily an unnecessary talking point. Yet, it’s worth mentioning when you consider the biggest threat to France’s demise in the last 100 years has come from military conquest by a powerful next-door neighbor.
Next up is the modern iteration of one of the world’s oldest civilizations, the People’s Republic of China.
With over a million new patents being filed each year, China took the top spot on our list for innovation. Now, there’s a valid argument here that a large portion of China’s innovation comes from intellectual theft (see Here and Here). However, that’s a whole other article.
China earned high marks in access to natural resources, equality of wealth, economic response to COVID, and with the world’s third mightiest military, national defense. In addition, China faces average negative impacts due to climate change and earned a slightly below-average score on the economic complexity index.
What brings the world’s most populous nation closer down the path of ruin is that China rates extremely poorly in some key areas that help ensure a stable and resilient civilization.
China came in dead last as the biggest polluter and worst steward of their environment. In fact, out of the world’s “Top 10 Polluters,” China produces more global C02 emissions into the Earth’s atmosphere than six of the nations on our list combined. Ultimately, China accounts for 30% of all emissions worldwide.
Unsurprisingly, China took the silver medal for lack of social freedoms and came in 3rd to last for political stability.
China’s increasingly draconian governorship of its people puts the survival of its ruling power in a precarious position, potentially negating the positives it has going for it. For example, if the masses turn against their leadership, having the 3rd most powerful military isn’t necessarily good. Basically, you’ve simply armed the very populous that’s going to unseat you.
Important to note, when we talk about China’s place on the path to ruin, this is entirely centered on its current single-party governance by the Chinese Communist Party and its “leader for life,” President Xi Jinping.
In a broader sense, there’s no reason to believe that the Chinese people and Chinese culture won’t be around for a very long time.
Russia earns the bronze medal for world powers most vulnerable to collapse.
Russia’s best attribute of resiliency comes from having, arguably, the world’s 2nd most powerful military. Russia’s military might, however, is debatable. Many Western defense analysts argue that the Kremlin’s defensive strength is far weaker than Russian President Vladimir Putin wants people to believe.
That said, in the past 500 years, several great military powers invaded Russia- including the French under Napoleon in 1812 and Nazi Germany in 1941- only to find themselves having to tuck tail and run after being beaten back by the Russian military and Gen. Winter.
Basically, Russia has more than enough military power to put it alongside the United States as two of the world’s most impenetrable nations while still allowing for some military adventurism on the world stage.
As the world’s largest nation by landmass, Russia also came in 2nd for access to natural resources. Additionally, Russia scored slightly above average for expected climate change impact, average in innovation, and slightly below average in social freedoms and environmental protection.
Much like China, what brings Russia down closer on the path of ruin comes from its abysmal scores in a few key categories.
Out of the world’s 10 most powerful nations, Russia scored dead last in wealth inequality, economic complexity, and political stability.
When it comes to a civilization’s collapse, as mentioned earlier, with the United State’s equally large gap in wealth, financial inequality and political instability go hand-in-hand with each other.
With increased public unrest in the last 8 months being met by waves of authoritarianism, there’s plenty of evidence suggesting Russia’s Freedom Index score will be significantly lower in 2021. By trying to retain power in the Kremlin, Putin may very well be ushering in the demise of his rule.
Now, when we talk about Russia’s likelihood of collapse, just like with China, we’re talking about the current ruling government of Vladimir Putin and not the demise of Russian society.
2. The United Arab Emirates
Next to the bottom of the list of civilizations facing ruin is the United Arab Emirates.
Likely coming as no surprise, the oil-rich UAE came in second for the availability of natural resources. Likewise, the elective monarchy formed from a federation of seven emirates scored the number two spot for political stability.
Already enjoying summers that can reach over 110 degrees Fahrenheit, UAE also takes the silver medal for least likely to be impacted by climate change. In terms of income equality, UAE came out average against the nine other global peers.
Things, unfortunately, go downhill from here.
Amongst the world’s great powers, UAE scored in the bottom 3 in ecological conversation, social freedoms, economic complexity, economic bounceback from COVID, national defense, and innovation.
On an upside, as we’ll see with our final nation, having an abundance of natural resources (in this case, oil) can help cultivate powerful friends to help fend off societal disasters.
1. Saudi Arabia
Taking the top spot as the civilization most likely to collapse is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
With the world’s second-largest proven oil reserves, Saudi Arabia tops the list regarding access to natural resources. Like its much smaller neighbor, the UAE, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to face any significant impacts from climate change.
Besides having plenty of oil and being able to withstand the heat, Saudi Arabia goes off the rails in all the remaining existential risk categories.
As the nation that murdered and mutilated dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi because he said mean things about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, no shock here, Saudi Arabia comes in dead last for social freedoms. Equally, Saudi Arabia took last place for its economic bounceback from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Equally, Saudi Arabia held second to last place in environmental conversation, national defense, political stability, and innovation. Finally, in the race to the bottom, the Arab world’s second-largest nation took home third-place finishes in wealth equality and economic complexity.
The mean average for the world’s 10 most powerful nations on The Debrief’s existential risk survey was 55 out of a possible 100 points. Saudi Arabia’s total score was 34, or 32 points below first place Japan.
On a positive note, having vast stores of precious oil and the ensuing wealth that comes with it means you’re able to court some powerful friends. Allies who are willing to look the other way and ignore all that environmental abuse and degradation of human rights. Presently, Saudi Arabia indeed enjoys this very kind of relationship with the United States.
On the other hand, as mentioned earlier, having an abundance of necessary natural resources can also make you a target for conquest. Consequently, should there ever be some dramatic shift in the geopolitical landscape, it’s unlikely that a large portion of the Saudi populace would be willing to fight or die to keep their current rulers in power.
Before the 1938 discovery of its vast oil reserves and full-scale development of oil fields by the U.S.-controlled Armco, Saudi Arabia was one of the world’s poorest nations. Presently, fossil fuels account for 84% of world energy. Should the world suddenly turn to another dominant energy source and without significant internal economic and political changes, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would face a colossal uphill battle for survival.
For all of these reasons, Saudi Arabia currently earns the top spot on The Debrief’s list of modern civilizations most likely to face collapse.