Sunday, February 9, 2020

Do Civilisations Collapse?

One of the reasons we stopped paying attention to Jared Diamond after Guns, Germs and Steel was his false take on what happened to the Easter Islanders in his book, Collapse!*
From Aeon:

The idea that the Maya or Easter Islanders experienced an apocalyptic end makes for good television but bad archaeology
There’s a common story of how the Maya civilisation was wiped out: they fell foul of unstoppable climate change. Several periods of extreme drought withered their crops and killed off thousands in their overpopulated cities. ‘There was nothing they could do or could have done. In the end, the food and water ran out – and they died,’ wrote Richardson Gill in 2007. The jungle reclaimed the cities with their palaces and pyramids until they were rediscovered in the 19th century by intrepid explorers.

Likewise, we all know that the Easter Islanders chopped down all the palm trees on their small, isolated island to clear farmland for their ever-growing population and to move their characteristic moai statues, not realising that they were eroding their landscape, reducing their food production, and ultimately cutting themselves off from the bounty of the sea – and the possibility of escape. The Europeans who found the island in the 18th century wondered how such primitive people could ever have had a civilisation developed enough to carve the majestic stone heads.

These stories come from frequent reports in the mass media, from luridly titled history documentaries such as the History Channel’s Who Killed the Maya? (2006) or the BBC’s Ancient Apocalypse: The Maya Collapse (2012-14), and especially from books on the environment and sustainability. Jared Diamond’s bestselling Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005) is only one of many works that recount them – ensuring that they have reached an audience of millions. There are similar stories about many other past societies, whether it is the Puebloans of the southwestern United States, the Harappans of the Indus Valley, or the ancient Mesopotamians. It has even been claimed by some that climate change has been the major driver of collapse, and by others, such as Diamond, that deforestation and environmental damage have very often been to blame.

The stories are often presented as cautionary tales to frighten us into correcting the error of our ways – lest we bring about the end of our own global civilisation. They promote an ethic of environmental responsibility that we ignore at our peril. It is no coincidence that they focus on climate change, human-caused environmental impacts and overpopulation because these three factors are the major global concerns of our times. They have a strong appeal to us because of the ubiquity and antiquity of disaster-based stories. Daily, the media shows us images of both real and fictional disasters: earthquakes, famines, plagues, tsunamis and so on, and these are recycled into yet more fact and fiction in an ongoing process of cultural production and continuity. When we think of what a collapse would look like, a ready-made set of ideas and images comes to mind.

But are these stories right? Is that really what happened to the Maya and the Easter Islanders? In the view of many archaeologists, collapse is not quite so simple – the silver-bullet theories grow less convincing the closer they are scrutinised. As the eminent archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler sagely pointed out in Civilisations of the Indus Valley and Beyond (1966): ‘The fall, like the rise of a civilisation is a highly complex operation which can only be distorted by oversimplification. It may be taken as axiomatic that there was no one cause of cultural collapse.’

Like jargon in any field, ‘collapse’ has specific meanings that can be misunderstood or taken out of context. Many archaeologists follow Colin Renfrew’s Approaches to Social Archaeology (1984) and Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988), which both see collapse as an abrupt political change and reduction in social complexity that has knock-on effects throughout society, visible to archaeologists in the material culture. If we think of complexity in terms of the ‘parts’ a particular society has, or the levels in its social hierarchy, we can visualise this kind of collapse easily.

In After Collapse (2006), Glenn Schwartz compiled a useful list of circumstances in which archaeologists might identify collapse: ‘the fragmentation of states into smaller political entities; the partial abandonment or complete desertion of urban centres, along with the loss or depletion of their centralising functions; the breakdown of regional economic systems; and the failure of civilisational ideologies’. For some non-archaeologists, such as Diamond, who approach collapse from an ecological perspective, collapse means primarily population collapse – the deaths of many people and, of course, significant cultural, political and social change. Archaeologists might also identify decreases in population, but this is not their primary characteristic of collapse.

Take the Mycenaean culture of Late Bronze Age Greece. Several states with central palaces developed by around 1400 BCE. At the heart of each palace was a distinctive building called a megaron. These throne rooms had large central hearths, surrounded by four columns, and a throne in the middle of the right-hand wall. They were usually decorated with elaborate frescos. Aegeanists link the development of kingship with the development of this architectural scheme – which is the material expression of a distinctive ideological system. We know that there were kings because some of the palaces kept selective records of goods and materials that came in and went out or were stored on clay tablets in the Linear B writing system; these mention a figure called the wanax, who could appoint people to positions, took part in ceremonies, and held the most land.

Around 1200 BCE, perhaps over a span of a few decades, the palaces were destroyed in fiery events – Mycenae, Tiryns, Pylos and others. Though there was rebuilding at some sites – most clearly visible at the major site of Tiryns, where a new palace was built over the earlier megaron’s foundations – it followed quite a different architectural form, without the hearth and four columns. Linear B fell out of use and, we surmise, the system it represented came to an end, or at least reduced in scale. The palace at Pylos, which had been the centre of a large territorial kingdom in Messenia, was abandoned. Around Greece, the number of visible sites drops considerably in this ‘Postpalatial period’ (though conspicuously not in the parts of Greece that had had no palace centres to begin with). There was no more building of impressive tholos (or beehive) tombs that the kings of Mycenae had built, of grand Mycenaean fortifications, or of public works such as bridges, harbours, and drainage. It seems clear that we can usefully term what happened in Mycenaean Greece around 1200 BCE as a collapse.....

Here's a 2011 post with some thoughts on Diamond:

"The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race" – 1987 article by Jared Diamond
Diamond, at least since Guns, Germs and Steel, has struck me as lightweight, just coasting, trying to force observations into a prejudiced worldview. I know his impressive c.v. but it had gotten to the point where any time I read something of his I thought of Churchill's comment:
A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject.
It turns out that he was like that a quarter century ago.
More spleen venting below.
Via Value Investing World:
by Jared Diamond, Prof. UCLA School of Medicine
Discover-May 1987, pp. 64-66.....
...This neo-Rousseau-ish babble makes me want to grab a mongongo nut and crack it on his head.

Painting the image of hunter-gatherer superiority he makes no mention of the agricultural peasants of the middle ages who worked between 180 and 260 days per year, the rest of the time being taken up with Sundays, feast days, holidays, fair days etc.

Denigrating the division of labor he makes no mention of the benefits that he has personally derived. I would estimate his Sasquatch-sized ecological footprint to be equivalent to 500-1000 Bushmen.

In many ways the best thing he could do, if he truly believed what he writes, is join the Voluntary Human Extiction Movement instead of jetting off to his next book-signing.

In the meantime we have 7 billion people to feed. ...
If interested see also:

"Lessons From The Last Time Civilization Collapsed"
“1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed.