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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