So this graph (on the left) has been echoing around Twitter and Facebook for a little while now. While I won’t delve into the religious debate that this plot has been invoked in, there are certainly a number of problems with the historical portrayal that are important to mention.
To start off, it’s in no way clear exactly what metric is being plotted on the y-axis – how would you go about rating the degree of ‘advancement’ of any civilisation as a single number? And indeed, what reason is there to think that throughout the Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilisations there was a consistent and steady march of ‘progress’, and not varying rates over time with periods of relative flourishing or stagnation. The scientific developments made by Islamic culture during the middle ages in Europe, such as advances in mathematics and medicine, are ignored completely. As is the thriving Chinese civilisation that produced, for example, the compass, gunpowder and the blast furnace. The influx of both Chinese and Islamic learning back into medieval Europe was critical to the subsequent progress that eventually lead to the Industrial Revolution in Britain. And it’s not the case that European culture completely languished during the ‘dark ages’ – there were important social shifts as well as vital developments in agriculture and the application of power, such as in the development of the windmill.
But all those caveats being said, I do still think that this graph holds at its core a notion that is interesting and worth thinking about. The general sense is clear: that after the fall of the Roman Empire, medieval Europe was in a period of comparative stasis (certainly in relation to the rate of change with the Renaissance and Enlightenment). The question, then, is if our modern industrial civilisation were similarly to collapse, what steps might you be able to take to support a rapid recovery – to shrink the post-apocalyptic hole as much as possible..?