Collapse Was Slow

The abstract of a new 3-page Science article:

An eclectic group of scholars who met recently at the University of Cambridge argues that true social collapse is a rare phenomenon. They say that new data demonstrate that classic examples of massive collapse such as the disintegration of Egypt’s Old Kingdom, the end of the Classic Maya period, and the vanishing of pre-Columbian societies of the U.S. Southwest were neither sudden nor disastrous for all segments of their populations. Rome, for example, didn’t fall in a day; recent work underscores the fact that the sack of Rome was just one step in a long and complex spiral of decline that affected peoples of the empire differently. This emphasis on decline and transformation rather than abrupt fall represents something of a backlash against a recent spate of claims that environmental disasters, both natural and humanmade, are the true culprits behind many ancient societal collapses.

The important bottom line: yes societies have “collapsed,” but usually rather locally, taking centuries, and only moderately influenced by climate change. To avoid our future collapse, we should not be overly focused on climate or ecology, or on sudden collapse scenarios, where refuges might be useful. Let us instead look to the more basic long-run stability of our social order. Quotes:

“Collapses are perhaps more apparent than real,” … A closer look demonstrates that complex societies are remarkably insulated from single-point failures, such as a devastating drought or disease, and show a marked resilience in coping with a host of challenges. … “The rarity of collapse due to the resistance of populations to environmental changes or disease is considerable,” …

The 22nd century B.C.E. [Egyptian] shift away from a single leader lacked the disruptive effect imagined by … archaeologists … focused on a short and brutal drought. “There was no collapse,” … While the unified state disappeared and large monuments weren’t built, copper continued to be imported from abroad … “The peasants may never have noticed the change,” he adds. … Changes … “were about redistribution of power and wealth more than about collapse.” …

The close of the classic Maya period around 900 C.E. has long been a poster child of collapse. Huge cities in the northern highlands were abandoned, monumental architecture ceased, and royal inscriptions halted. Foreign invasion, epidemics, social revolt, and the collapse of trade have been identified as key factors. … But … “there’s not a blip” in the occupation of the Maya areas … along the coast, which lie about 300 kilometers from major inland centers to the north. … Coastal sites … skeletons show no increase in dietary stress, populations seem constant, terraces and check dams are maintained, and sophisticated pottery continues to be crafted. The drying of the climate doesn’t appear to trigger any societal rupture. … “the image of people dying in the streets is a caricature of what was taking place; these cities just become not very attractive places to live,” in large part because of the loss of an elite. “People voted with their feet.”

The Hohokam had lived in the [Arizona] Phoenix basin, creating a complex society from 750 C.E. to 1450 C.E. … Then the population vanished, the canals were forgotten, and even outlying areas were abandoned. … Archaeologists have long blamed a sudden onslaught of flooding that destroyed the canals and suggested that field salinization and overpopulation contributed … But … the data don’t support any of these theories. … There is no evidence for the destruction of the life-giving canals. … The data show clusters of populations gradually vanishing or migrating during the 2-century period; … So although a drying climate no doubt played a role in the dissolution of societies and the migration of peoples, McGuire believes that a complex combination of religious movements and elite interactions were also important factors. …

Holm decries what he sees as an industry of apocalypse that pervades religion, academia, and even Hollywood, with its block-busters like 2012. He argues that societies under stress have actually shown surprising resilience in overcoming crises.

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  • Willem

    Well Jared Diamonds book is called ‘Collapse’ but I do remember him writing about the poor guys surviving several generations on the island supplying feathers after their trade partners did not show up any more (Pitcairn and Henderson islands). Would that make it a collapse, or a desintegration?

    Same thing with other examples. Nope, Rome didn’t fall in a day. But don’t these authors make a Hollywood version of reality, expecting their (academic) opponents to subscribe to some Indepence Day-scenario?

    Most people in Rwanda didn’t die in the civil war, but in twenty years that country sure changed a lot. If that kind of change would happen here, even though it’s not The End of The World, I would call my world ‘collapsed’.

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  • eugine_nier

    On the other hand Zimbabwe’s recent collapse following Mugabe’s disastrous land reform program was pretty fast and had a large effect on the population.

  • JLD

    Zimbabwe is another good example of a fast-collapsing economy that has nothing to do with ecology or climate change.

    The rice terraces in Hong Kong’s New Territories were also abandoned in the last 50 years for economic, not ecological reasons. Who wants to work in knee-deep muck when the big city looms just over the horizon?

  • Jim

    Sounds like sophisticate talk to me.

  • scott

    culture can die suddenly, but the physical artifacts can remain many generations, suggesting a slow decline to historians.

    Maybe collapse is too strong of a word, but the inflection point when the culture stops growing and changes to maintainence mode is palpable. We see organizations in decline all the time, companies, NGOs, think tanks, and organizations like Nato. They survive long after the inflection point, but they are no longer relevant.

    When was rome’s inflection point?
    Japan’s was clearly 1989…
    China could grow for many decades ahead, or hit the wall next year with social unrest.
    Has the US hit the inflection point? Seem like it in 2008, but it could be my emotions.

  • Jared Diamond claims that civilizations fell by ecological collapse, though the historical evidence of these civilizations fails to provide plausible evidence of ecological change, and does provide plenty of evidence of war, tyranny, decadence, corruption, and political violence.

    So sudden fall by political collapse, yes. Sudden fall by ecological collapse, no.

  • Eric

    OK. I’m an archaeologist and have looked into this. Collapse is uneven but not uniformly “slow” or “fast”. Collapse situations sometimes happen quickly (to an archaeologist, especially in prehistoric contexts, “quickly” can be a couple of generations). But yes, the examples I know about are pretty local or on a small regional extent.

    I generally don’t see climate or environmental change as a very compelling reason for collapse, since environments can change without collapse, and collapse can happen without appreciable environmental change. Perhaps collapse is just a stochastic thing, and when it happens we invent reasons for why, even though a society could have just as easily collapsed 100 years or more earlier, or later, depending on luck.

    But it would be silly to call the collapse of the Roman Empire in some parts of the west only a “transformation” and not a collapse. In some places settlement systems collapsed pretty abruptly (over a generation or two) leaving behind only about 30% of settled area in post-Roman periods as during Roman periods. That and many types of specialized production and exchange (esp. pottery) collapses, while agriculture becomes much less specialized and probably less productive (looking at zooarchaeological evidence). So, collapse can be pretty dramatic and fast (if you think 40+/- years is fast).

    But I have no idea how this translates to risks associated with contemporary societies. Ancient societies were generally much less “tightly coupled” than now. So this would have probably limited the propagation of a collapse. Who knows, maybe we’re more vulnerable now to something more global?

    On the flip side, we’re so much wealthier now in so many ways, that a “collapse” now would look more like a major recession or depression rather than barbarians looting our villas.


  • Tainter makes an argument about economics, slow collapse, and diminishing returns of complexity:

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  • From an archeologist’s point of view, they are probably correct.

    However, from the Johnny-on-the-Spot’s point of view, it might be a lot less true. Since a lot of these collapses have a significant amount of warfare, raiding, pillaging associated with them, the collapse at a given local could be very quick.

    There was lot of specialized manufacture and agriculture in these “advanced” societies. This made for more efficiency, but relied on trade to distribute the proceeds.

    During the empires stable phase, population would rise over time, pushing the system to the margin. When the SHTF, often because of what previously would have been a minor setback in harvests, the specialized areas would “unspecialized, and overall system efficiency would collapse.

    I have been working on a (no doubt inadequate) post on 13th century BC Mediterranean, and a the collapse and near collapse of multiple empires/kingdoms in the events that led up to the Greek Dark ages.

    If you were in Egypt (which barely held on), it probably looked like slow process spanning multiple generations. If you are in the Hittite court, it might seem slow up to the point that you are abandoning your capital city. If you are in one of the many coastal cities that was sacked by pillaging marauders coming from the sea: well that would have seemed pretty quick.

  • IVV

    It makes sense that political collapse matters over ecological collapse. We’ve seen very few circumstances, worldwide, in which an ecological change proves truly insurmountable, regardless of human coordination. Pompeii comes the closest, as far as I can tell, and that’s just a village. Something like the Black Death didn’t end any countries, as far as I know.

    Then again, we’re talking about societies, as political constructs. Saying most societal collapse is political in nature seems somewhat tautological. We stop being a society when we stop thinking of ourselves as one.

    However, I think that this study is a good point as to why we won’t descend into full-on foxhole-farm collapse. We’ll leave the cities if it looks like a good idea at the time. We’ll stop running the refineries when we decide to. As long as we think it makes sense to continue, we will keep our complex structures in place.

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  • josh
  • On a somewhat related note, I’ve heard claims that Per Bak’s work on “self-organizing criticality” is mostly bogus. I invite people more informed to weigh in.

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  • d.e.y.

    Speaking as an archaeologist: I suppose this is only news to non-archaeologists. Ideas of unnuanced catastrophic collapse don’t really jive with evidence we have from nearly anywhere. Having excavated on the coastal Maya “periphery”, clearly the “post-collapse” party was on the beach…and the inland riverine settlements.

    Speaking as a *Cambridge* archaeologist: neither your article nor the Science abstract indicates who this “eclectic group of scholars who met recently at the University of Cambridge” consists of! Since this article is about a relatively unchallenged archaeological belief about past change rather than anything surprising, I am sure it is all above board…and the event in question probably happened in my department without me noticing (damn you dissertation writing), but seriously, how is the reader supposed to evaluate the general validity of a statement without any clue as to who exactly is making claims?

    Isn’t this exactly what is wrong with science reporting?

  • d.e.y.

    I should note that I see the names Holm and McGuire in there…who are they? Where are they from? Affiliations? Professions? First names?

  • Peter Carlton

    The Science article is a meeting review for a meeting called “Crisis, what Crisis? Collapses and Dark Ages in Comparative Perspective” held at The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge, 24–26 September.
    Colin Renfrew, John Hatcher, Richard Bates, Miroslav Barta, Mark Lehner, and others (all of various affiliations, some Cambridge, some not) are mentioned in the full text.

  • Abelard Lindsey

    Collapse scenarios are trotted out by ideologues of both the left and the right to promote specific political agendas. I view them as nothing more than ideological rhetoric.

  • The only surprising thing is that you find it surprising. That Rome declined gradually and didn’t collapse has been known for as long as we have written records. Even Romans of the day knew it. It was a brief fad to imagine “collapse”.

    Now I’m waiting for you to figure out that this supposed Neolithic revolution, which you keep claiming to be the single most revolutionary event in human history happened 6-10 times independently. Anyone wants to start an intrade play money market in when Robin figures out he’s wrong on that one as well? My first guess is one year from now.