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Imagine living in the Roman Empire around 100 AD. The empire controls most of the known world! No foreign power could possibly defeat the empire! The Romans will be in charge forever!

... except we know that's not what happened—the empire declined and fell apart. The fall, however, did not happen overnight. The empire went from prosperous to not so hot to oblivion over the course of centuries.

It doesn't seem hard to imagine what it would be like to live in the midst of prosperity, or what it might be like to live when an empire is in clear decline.

The middle ground is where it gets interesting. The honest among "the powers that be" would be aware that their civilization is in trouble, while some others would be drunk with power and either not realize or not care that their actions are contributing to the destruction of their civilization.

But what about the people who are not in charge? How would an average Joe realize that things are going in the wrong direction? If he knows in advance that things are going south, then he can prepare for both himself and his family.

Some notes:

  • I just used the Roman Empire as an example of an empire that declined. Your answer should be applicable to more than just that one empire.
  • Examples from the decline of real-world empires are appreciated.
  • Our average Joe does not have special access to information about the empire, i.e no brother who is a general in the army and gives Joe specific information about how battles have been going, but he could hear rumors of a battle going poorly.
  • Our average Joe doesn't actually have to be average, but he's no Einstein.
  • The civilization is still doing rather well, but in the near future (20-100 years) it will be pretty obvious that it's in decline.
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    $\begingroup$ I'm tempted to tell you to simply look at the media and take the US / Western Europe as your examples. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Jan 5 '16 at 21:11
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    $\begingroup$ I concur. Look at how high taxes are and what percentage of those taxes are being spent on things like education or maintenance of roads, bridges, public spaces, and the like. Philadelphia has a 100 year replacement cycle for its water pipes. That means that pipes that go in the ground today are replacing pipes dating back to Word War 1 (if not earlier) and won't be replaced again until 2115. Similarly the National Forestry Service is having its budget cut year by year, unable to spend enough to prevent fires (which cheaper than fighting them) in an era where more and more fires start. $\endgroup$ – Draco18s no longer trusts SE Jan 5 '16 at 21:19
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    $\begingroup$ @AndreiROM as I was thinking about this question I was wondering how many people would say something along those lines. $\endgroup$ – Rob Watts Jan 5 '16 at 21:21
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    $\begingroup$ @RobWatts - Sad, eh? Look at the USA in the 50's (the American Dream) and today. The recent study from Oxford (I believe) which clearly stated that the 1% in America drive something like 95% of the legislation which is being passed. It's pretty cut and dry. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Jan 5 '16 at 21:24
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    $\begingroup$ @AndreiROM: Too bad we didn't have have records of the Roman Empire's Gini coefficient. $\endgroup$ – Wingman4l7 Jan 5 '16 at 23:13
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Civilizations usually decline so slowly that nobody can see it happening. Even if some people somehow realize what's happening, the time scale is much longer than the lives of their grandkids. Occasionally, a big event will cause a sudden acceleration of the decline, but even those events usually only cause sudden changes in the regime, not the civilization itself.

Some counter-examples to what I just said:

Astute observers could have predicted the collapse of the British Empire after WWI (and then even more after WWII). This collapse occurred over only decades, so it was "lightning-fast." Some colonial independence agitators successfully anticipated the collapse (e.g., Gandhi in India), and profited from it.

In the Bible, the prophet Jeremiah self-reports that God told him to buy land in Judah, just as the Babylonians were closing in to destroy Judah. Of course Jeremiah got a great deal from the owner, who didn't believe Jeremiah's prophesy that God intended to let their descendants come back 70 years later. (Obviously, in your world/story you don't need to rely on prophesy.)

In 405 or 406 A.D., the Germanic tribes finally breached the Rhine, and proceeded to ravage Gaul. It has been surmised that they were aided by an especially harsh winter that caused the Rhine to freeze solid. They were probably impelled to migrate West because of the Huns. Those are things that a far-seeing person might have anticipated and made plans against. Or even profited from!

How could an "average Joe" anticipate such turn-arounds? Some key factors from history (Roman, Persian, Chinese, etc.) include:

  • repeated military defeats/successes
  • repeated pull-backs from previously held territory (or opposite)
  • repeated fast changes in rulership (or, rise of a gifted ruler)
  • power shifting from the civil service to the military (or, vice versa)
  • instability in the money supply and/or prices
  • discovery of a new region or new technology
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It is easy if he can predict the way it will fall .... which even the rulers can’t tell.

So the real trick is civilizations are very multifaceted and "fall" in ways unique to that civilization's structure. The leaders of a country are usually working to prevent it from falling. So countries tend to only fall for reasons that the leaders couldn’t foresee in time to fix, and 20 -100 years is a lot of time to fix things.
Here are some indicators that sometimes work for each I’ll give an example were it works and one where it doesn’t work.

Current territory and rate of territory gain:

Roman sustained itself by promising solders land as payment and then using them to conquer more land and add it to the empire and give it to them as payment. This land cycle was key to the empire so the fact the borders stopped growing was a very bad sign. Conversely Venice and Athens both had very small territorial holdings that didn't grow, so for them territory growth is a bad indicator. Instead Venice fell from power when Portugal opened up new trade routes around Africa and cut them out from the valuable spice trade.

Access to Wealth or good trade routes:

Contrary to the Example of Venice, the Qing empire in China went through a period of steep decline when exposed to new trade routes from the west, though attacks by advanced European warships had a great deal to do with it. So maybe falling behind in technology is a sure sign of defeat.

Falling behind in Technology:

During the colonization of the Americas we see the Aztec and Inca civilizations fall when attacked by the more advanced Spanish. On the other hand, a few hundred years before during the dark ages European counties were far less advanced than the neighboring Muslim empires to the south and east, but instead of crumbling they mounted a comeback in the 14 and 15 hundred retaking the Iberian Peninsula and the Balkans. So even a technologically inferior group can win.

There is a second problem access to vital information, Joe needs to find out these things. First in the eras before the information era getting access to military statistics, the imperial budget, and an accurate and up to date map of the country and the like is difficult. In Rome there are good odds he is illiterate.

Second, as a government collapses it tends to try to hide or suppress bad information. The weaker you are the more important it is to present an illusion of strength.

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It is remarkably hard to predict when a large powerful social group, like a nation, will fall. The reason for that shows up in game theory and drama theory. Most social structures exist so long as enough people want them to exist. If you see that the civilization is failing, you will act to pull out your part, speeding the collapse. As long as there are people who benefit from its continuation, they will act in a way to ensure you do not leave.

This typically means they will try to figure out what you were looking for as signs of a collapse, and focus extra effort on making sure those few signs do not occur.

Case studies can be found left and right in the stock market. We are constantly making tweaks to "ensure the stock market doesn't fail like last time," which just means it fails in new ways. Never underestimate the creativity of a human.

As it turns out, there's actually mathematical limits that can prove that it is impossible to develop any mathematically sound way to prove the civilization is collapsing. This means even scientific observation cannot tell for sure. Average Joe will probably be comfortable with a "probably going to collapse," rather than a mathematical certainty that it will collapse, but I bring up the mathematics to show that there isn't even a way to do it in a perfect world.

Of course, there are other approaches Joe might take to ensure his goals are not stymmed by an untimely fall of the empire. Rather than trying to predict when the empire will fall, and act then, he might adjust his lifestyle such that the empire cannot fall without also putting him on an acceptable life path. This is very hard to do if you treat the empire or other civilization as a monolothic block, but if you realize that society is a far more diffuse distributed concept, you can often identify sub-civilizations that are tearing away as everything falls apart, and join them. The real key to this is adjusting Joe's observations and actions so that they try to support Joe's needs directly, rather than taking actions which directly hurt someone else. As long as nobody is being hurt by Joe's actions, they have no reason to use their creativity to find ways to hide information from him, or to make him stay.

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If there is a decline in standard of living, or you start seeing more hobos on the street, or jobs are getting harder to find, if you see infrastructure and other structures decaying, or lots of businesses closing, that's how you(as an average joe) that things are going bad. Dmm's response is also good, but full information about those things could be concealed, either by government intent, or by simple fog of war. Keep in mind, even the government doesn't have full information of the situation. They often get no Intel, or bad Intel.

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    $\begingroup$ Couldn't all these things simply point towards an economic depression that doesn't lead to the collapse of civilization? $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Jan 10 '16 at 15:48
  • $\begingroup$ They could, but that still means that things are going bad. Honestly, this is the only type of thing the average joe is sure to be able to see. Other indicators probably won't be as easily accessible. It's the only type of thing that the average joe would see, that definitely means that bad things are coming. $\endgroup$ – Lololololol Jan 10 '16 at 19:06

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