Panicking about societal collapse? Plunder the bookshelves

As civilization seems to be lurching towards a cliff edge, historical case studies are giving way to big data in authors’ search for understanding. By Laura Spinney
Four Moais, the typical large monolithic human figures statues, on Easter Island

Monuments to resilience or collapse? The 800-year-old statues of Easter Island.Credit: Andia/Universal Images Group via Getty

In case you missed it, the end is nigh. Ever since Jared Diamond published his hugely popular 2005 work Collapse, books on the same theme have been arriving with the frequency of palace coups in the late Roman Empire. Clearly, their authors are responding to a universal preoccupation with climate change, as well as to growing financial and political instability and a sense that civilization is lurching towards a cliff edge. Mention is also made of how big-data tools are shedding new light on historical questions. But do these books have anything useful to share? Any actionable points besides that on my coffee mug: “Now panic and freak out”?

The newest is Before the Collapse. In it, energy specialist Ugo Bardi urges us not to resist collapse, which is how the Universe tries “to get rid of the old to make space for the new”. Similarly, Diamond’s 2019 book Upheaval suggested that a collapse is an opportunity for self-appraisal, after which a society can use its ingenuity to find solutions. Both writers seem to accept that collapse is inevitable, but they take very different approaches to analysing it. Diamond zooms in to glean lessons from historical case studies; Bardi zooms out to view societies as complex dynamic systems that behave cyclically. Numerous books published in the past few decades chart how research has shifted from Diamond’s approach to Bardi’s.

The books

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed Jared Diamond Viking (2005)

Before the Collapse: A Guide to the Other Side of Growth Ugo Bardi Springer (2020)

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis Jared Diamond Little Brown (2019)

Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire Edited by Patricia A. McAnany & Norman Yoffee Cambridge Univ. Press (2009)

The Collapse of Complex Societies Joseph Tainter Cambridge Univ. Press (1988)

Understanding Collapse: Ancient History and Modern Myths Guy D. Middleton Cambridge Univ. Press (2017)

Why the West Rules — for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future Ian Morris Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2010)

War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires Peter Turchin Pi (2006)

Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World Jack Goldstone Univ. California Press (1991)

Robust debate

Questioning Collapse, a 2009 collection of essays edited by archaeologists Patricia McAnany and Norman Yoffee, took Diamond to task for cherry-picking to spin a good yarn, for example in blaming such iconic societal failures as the population crash of Easter Island on its people’s destruction of their own environment. The story is not so simple, the authors argue. The Indigenous Rapa Nui society weathered a string of environmental crises — very few of its own making — yet thrived until the first Europeans arrived. Likewise, is it reasonable to claim that Mayan society collapsed around the ninth century, given that seven million people living in and around Central America speak Mayan languages today? These cases might be better viewed, say McAnany and Yoffee, as lessons in resilience.

Samburu men fend off a swarm of desert locusts flying over grazing land in Kenya.

East Africa is currently battling the biggest locust swarms in decades.Credit: Njeri Mwangi/Reuters

Scholars have long warned against peering down the ‘retrospectoscope’ at apparently neat examples of what not to do. In his influential 1988 The Collapse of Complex Societies, archaeologist Joseph Tainter argues that collapse — in the sense of the complete obliteration of a political system and its associated culture — is rare. Even the worst cases are usually better described as rapid loss of complexity, with remnants of the old society living on in what rises from the ashes. After the ‘fall’ of Rome in the fifth century, for example, successor states took more than 1,000 years to achieve comparable economic and technological sophistication, but were always recognizably the empire’s offspring.

Nevertheless, societies do go through rocky patches, from which some emerge transformed. It’s not surprising that scholars should want to understand why. In his thoughtful Understanding Collapse (2017), archaeologist Guy Middleton surveys more than 40 theories of collapse — including Diamond’s — and concludes that the cause is almost always identified as external to the society. Perennial favourites include climate change and barbarian invasions — or, in the Hollywood version, alien lizards. The theories say more about the theorists and their times, Middleton argues, than about the true causes of collapse.

Under strain

The pressing question, Tainter told a workshop on collapse at Princeton University in New Jersey last April, is why can a society withstand repeated external blows — until one day it cannot? For him, a society fails when it is no longer able to adapt to diminishing returns on innovation: when it can’t afford the bureaucracy required to run it, say. In Why the West Rules — For Now (2010), historian Ian Morris proposes a twist on this, namely that the key to a society’s success lies in its ability to capture energy — by extracting it from the ground, for example, or from nuclear fission once fossil fuels have run out. By contrast, Peter Turchin, author of the 2006 War and Peace and War, suggests that collapse is what happens when a society stops being able to deal with the strains caused by population growth, leading to inequality and strife.

Turchin has been compared to Hari Seldon, science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s “psycho-historian”, who studies the past to statistically predict the future. He belongs to a new breed of scientific historian taking a big-data approach, and argues — controversially — that societal spasms are cyclic. This idea itself comes and goes: the ancient Greeks took the cyclic nature of history for granted, but it has been unfashionable since the Enlightenment. Today, we tend to have a linear concept of progress, in which life generally improves for most people over the long term. Works such as Turchin’s see this trend as superimposed on an inherent cyclicity in the evolution of societies.

Reboot cycle

This raises the question of whether collapse is essential to renewal. Without winter, can you have spring? Bardi says no. Whether you think this good or bad depends partly on your point of view. The mass extinction 66 million years ago was bad for dinosaurs, but good for mammals, sociologist Miguel Centeno observed at the Princeton workshop, which he convened. But if collapse could usher in not only a renewed world, but a better one, shouldn’t we dinosaurs embrace it?

Two women in bright pink tops and skirts walking down a cobbled street.

Close to 40% of Guatemalans are Mayan, yet historians talk about the collapse of Mayan societies.Credit: J. Emilio Flores/Corbis via Getty

For Turchin and Jack Goldstone — on whose work on the demographic forces shaping history Turchin builds — this is good advice only if you understand what causes collapse. Then it might be possible to make the transition less violent or disruptive. Goldstone rigorously dissected upheaval in the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries in his 1991 book Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World. This convinced him that revolution is an inappropriate response to societal tensions, usually leading to tyranny. Solutions have come instead from deep, meaningful reform. Yet the idea that revolution removes obstacles to progress has “deluded literally billions of people”, he argues.

An interdisciplinary community of researchers is now searching for patterns that have defined collapse throughout history, to determine what might be an appropriate response. If we can’t and shouldn’t prevent a future crisis, could we at least soften it — perhaps with the help of new technologies — so that renewal happens, but less is lost and fewer people suffer? Even if the mind-boggling complexity of human societies makes this a pipe dream, as some argue, it seems a sounder approach than sparring over case studies that might not have constituted collapse at all. Speaking as a dinosaur, whose only alternative is to panic and freak out, I’ll take it.

Nature 578, 355-357 (2020)

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