2012, Apocalypto, Mad Max – we’ve all seen disaster movies depicting the chaotic events that lead to civilizational collapse. Often the events portrayed are cataclysmic, thrilling, and unexpected, resulting in great loss of life and destruction of property. We allow our imagination to run wild with possibilities when we envision society crumbling. Even so, throughout history there are numerous examples to draw upon in addition to those that we can conjure in our minds. History is riddled with the bones and buildings of past civilizations that didn’t survive. Their skeletal ruins are a warning to those that err to follow in their now-fossilized footsteps. Therefore it’s healthy for any society to reflect upon their present circumstance and ensure that they aren’t trodding down a well-worn path towards obsolescence. In this spirit we look back through history and explore selected causes that have contributed to civilizations’ declines and remain mindful of parallels to our present society.
The first civilizations we will examine will be those of the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1250-1150 BC), namely the Egyptians, Hittites, Mycenaeans, Minoans, Babylonians, Canaanites, and Assyrians. The exact events that led to their demise is hotly debated, as attested by Eric. H. Cline’s book 1177 BC The Year Civilization Collapsed. One major aspect that contributed to the demise of the Bronze Age civilizations is that they formed highly connected international societies linked by vast trade networks, leading to dependence on foreign resources. When these resources dried up due to catastrophic events (earthquakes, famine, etc) or the disruption of trade routes, the civilizations that depended on them diminished. While simply one factor among many that contributed to the end of the Bronze Age, this dependence on foreign goods raises questions about today’s fragile global supply chain .
A Fragile Ecosystem
Much like our modern global society, the world of the Late Bronze Age Mediterranean was a highly interconnected ecosystem held together by intricate trade networks. Notable archeological evidence has attested to this interconnected society, such as the Uluburun Shipwreck, the remains of a trade vessel that sunk off the coast of Anatolia in the 14th century BC carrying copper and tin ingots among other items , and the Amarna Letters, a vast collection of clay tablets containing correspondences between Egyptian Pharaohs and other prominent leaders in the Eastern Mediterranean, often discussing gold or other resource shipments . In his book Scales of Fate, author Christopher Monroe describes the world of the Late Bronze Age as:
“An intersocietal network…exceptional in the treaties, laws, diplomacy, and exchange that created the first great international era in world history.” 
One process that was dependent on this trade network was bronze manufacturing. Bronze, the metal that gives this era its name, is composed of tin and copper, metals vital to the ancient Mediterranean world and whose importance has even been compared to crude oil today . In the Bronze Age, the primary source of tin was probably modern-day Afghanistan (though some have speculated that a potential source was even further away in Cornwall, England), while the primary source of copper was found on the island of Cyprus. Due to these vast distances, a stable network of trade between several kingdoms was necessary to mine, transport, and combine the metals in order to produce the finished product.
Trade and communication during this period were dependent on stable land and sea routes across the Eastern Mediterranean. Although the nations often warred amongst each other, these routes stayed intact for centuries. It wouldn’t be until a new people migrated into the region that the stability of the trade network would be threatened.
Bronze Age Decline
The network that allowed for the trade of bronze and other resources like gold, ivory, and glass existed for several hundred years before collapsing in the early decades of the 12th century BC, resulting in a decline of the civilizations that depended on it. Some combination of earthquakes, famine, and possibly plague contributed to an initial destabilization; next came the emergence of a foreign, sea-faring group that are commonly referred to as the “Sea Peoples,” who may have engaged in piracy and attacked cities along the coast. Their exact origin is shrouded in mystery. It is likely that their presence destabilized the region further and made trade routes unsafe for merchants, cutting off vital resources to trade partners. Cline writes:
”…when the trade routes were cut, raw materials such as copper from Cyprus and tin from Afghanistan, as well as gold from Egypt and silver from Greece, were probably harder to obtain. As a result, bronze was likely in short supply.”p. 169
For the Aegean kingdoms like Mycenae, who were particularly dependent on trade for basic goods, Cline argues that the repercussions would have been swift:
“….the cutting of the trade routes could have had a severe, and immediate, impact upon Mycenaean kingdoms such as Pylos, Tiryns, and Mycenae, which needed to import both the copper and the tin needed to produce bronze, and which seem to have imported substantial quantities of additional raw materials as well, including gold, ivory, glass, ebony wood, and the terebinth resin used in making perfume.”p. 138
In this hyper-connected world, the failure of just a few states, or even one state, could have had potentially severe consequences for the rest of the kingdoms. Much like a chain, a break in one link of the trade network destroyed the integrity of the entire system. Therefore, it appears that the initial destabilization and decline of the Greek kingdoms came first, and quickly afterward we see a domino effect throughout the Mediterranean and Near East. Cline writes:
“…in an interconnected system, such as was present at the end of the Late Bronze Age, the failure of one part can lead to failures in another part, in what is known as a “domino effect.”p.167
Thus, this domino effect would have affected any kingdom that was linked to the system, especially those who relied upon it for basic resources. Unfortunately for the peoples of this period, the massive decline would not be corrected for hundreds of years, and those that survived the initial disruption lived a substantially lower quality of life than those that lived at the peak of the Bronze Age. The next great age, the Iron Age, would rise out of the ashes in about 800 BC.
The 21st Century Global Economy
Today’s global economy bears many similarities to the interconnected trade network of the Late Bronze Age Mediterranean. Much like the kingdoms discussed above, the United States and other western nations have become heavily reliant on the globalized trade system and therefore dependent on foreign goods. In 2016 the U.S. Geological Survey published a report showing that, out of 90 mineral commodities tracked, the U.S. was completely dependent on foreign imports for 20 of them. The U.S. was also more than 50% reliant on imports for the majority of minerals tracked. Unsurprisingly, China was the largest exporter of mineral commodities to the U.S. . Mineral commodities are important because they compose many of the metals that make their way into items we use everyday. The Institute for Energy Research States:
“…the United States is totally dependent on imports for vital strategic metals that are necessary components for military weapons systems, cellphones, solar panels, lithium ion batteries, and many high-technology products.” 
This dependency came to the forefront during the Covid-19 pandemic. As nations locked down and international trade grinded to a halt, the U.S. found itself in an uncomfortable position as many of the goods we rely upon became unavailable, or the lead times were extended for these items. The issues were compounded by the prevalence of Just-In-Time (JIT) shipping – the concept that a part or product will arrive at the precise time it is needed rather than being stored in a stockpile . This method of shipping limits the need for warehouse space, however leaves no slack in the system for delays. We witnessed the downsides of JIT shipping during the disruptions brought on by the pandemic, as each delay caused a ripple effect throughout the system since many items lacked adequate stockpiles for emergencies.
A New Path
During the height of the pandemic nearly 75% of companies reported supply chain issues , underscoring our reliance on foreign goods. Although the U.S. was largely able to recover once the lockdowns were lifted, in the future we may be less fortunate. Other events could have longer lasting and more catastrophic consequences to our global trade network. One example would be a solar flare equivalent to one that happened in 1859, known as the Carrington Event. A solar flare such as this one could wipe out the electrical grid for months, and would completely disrupt GPS and telecommunication networks that guide shipping barges and cause countless other disruptions . Another possibility is simply a breakdown in diplomacy with our largest foreign suppliers, namely China. The emergence of a cold war scenario between the U.S. and China would leave the U.S. temporarily weakened and scrambling for new sources of vital supplies.
The Late Bronze Age collapse exemplifies the need to decrease dependence on foreign goods. The U.S. would become more resilient and impervious to future unforeseen events by reducing imports in favor of domestically sourced materials where possible. America would do well to heed the skeletons of the past and, instead of following in the footsteps of failed civilizations, take the path less trodden even if it means a painful readjustment period.
 1177 BC The Year Civilization Collapsed, Eric H. Cline
 Scales of Fate, Christopher Monroe
 The Merchants of Ugarit: Oligarchs of the Late Bronze Age Trade in Metals?, Carol Bell