When Societies Collapse

Contributor: Brian Anthony. Lesson ID: 11944

When you delve into history, you discover places and people who have disappeared. Will the same be said about your country 200 years from now? Are you able to prevent your society's imminent collapse?



learning style
personality style
Otter, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Nations rise and fall. It's part of the fascinating and frightening drama of history. Can you think of any civilizations or nations that no longer exist? What happened to them?

  • Have you ever heard of the Bactrians?
  • How about the Khmer Empire?
  • Maybe you know the Olmec civilization?

If you haven't heard of them, it might be because they don't exist any longer! Each of these societies has vanished, and historians are still trying to figure out the causes.

There are many such lost societies. What are some possible causes for societal collapse? What dangers might lie in our future? This is one of the great purposes of studying history, to know the mistakes of the past so we might not have to repeat them.

Many of these now-lost societies thought they were invincible when they were at the height of their power. Read a famous poem (below) about the great pride that blinds societies to the dangers before them, then answer the following questions:

  • What do you assume the statue is referring to when it says, "Look on my Works"?
  • What seems to have replaced those Works?
  • What lesson is the poem trying to teach about great empires and about our lives?

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Poems are complex and beautiful ways to package and communicate ideas. Ozymandias might be about great empires and kings, or it might be a warning to you and me! Share and discuss your answers to the questions above with your parent or teacher.

Now, not to alarm you or anything, but NASA yes, the same people responsible for sending Americans into outer space is studying this very topic of societal collapse to try to figure out how to prevent it.

  1. Read the article, NASA-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for 'irreversible collapse'?, by Nafeez Ahmed, courtesy of theguardian.com, about NASA's studies.
  1. As you read, write down the causes of societal collapse that the article mentions.
  1. Then, for each cause, write a definition or explanation of what you think each means. You can use your own Internet research to clarify each of those points if needed.
  1. Share your findings with your parent or teacher, then reflect on the following questions and discuss:
    • What resources and knowledge does it take to keep a society going?
    • If you were to place your society on a timeline somewhere between its start date and end date, where would you place it? Why?
    • What steps can a society take to prolong its life and health?

Societies have lifespans just like people do, and when their time is up, their time is up!

In the Got It? section, examine some of the real societies that reached their end-date, and uncover the reasons why.

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