Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Collapse of Civilizations and Societies: Part Two

Jared Diamond
Jared Diamond has written one of the newest books about the collapse of Civilizations in the book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”. The previous book from Diamond “Guns, Germs and Steel” has an almost reverse theme where he describes the human development the last 10.000 years. In the later book Diamond formulates a theory that builds on five factors on why societies collapse that he later tests against a number of cases where collapse have taken place. The cases range from a number of cases like the Easter Islands, the Vikings on Greenland, and The Mayans to modern examples like the Genocide in Rwanda.

Diamonds Five Factor Theory
1.) Manmade environmental destruction that affects the sustainability of a civilization.
2.) Natural climate change that affects civilizations in an negative way
3.) Hostile neighbors
4.) Decline in support from friendly allies is a major factor in combination with
5.) How the Societies respond to these problems
Its Diamonds theory that these factors in different combinations lead to the collapse of civilizations.

Diamond also views the conflict between short term and long term interest as reason for collapse when elites how makes decisions that give the short term advantages instead of think of the long term consequences. I strongly recommend the book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” for those how are interested, Diamond have also had a lecture on TED that can be seen online for free called “Why Societies Collapse”.

Joseph Tainter
Joseph Tainter has written the book “Collapse of Complex Societies” where he analyzes a large number of collapsed societies from a number of different perspectives. Tainter has also been one of the experts consulted in the TV documentary “After Armageddon” that has aired on the History Channel where a number of experts describe what could happen after a global collapse. Tainter has also appeared in the Peak Oil documentary ”Blind Spot”. Tainter has approached the phenomenon of collapse differently than Diamond. Tainter instead first presents different cases and theories concerning collapse and there after formulates he’s theory.

Tainters theory about The reason for collapse
1.) Human societies are problem solving organizations
2.) Energy is required to maintain these organizations
3.) When the complexity of a society increases so does the energy cost per inhabitant to maintain the system
4.) Investment in sociopolitical complexity as a problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns.

Both Diamond and Tainter have constructed multiple factor theories that attempts to explain the complex underlying factors that causes societies and civilizations to collapse. Neither of the scholars relies on single factors but a combination of factors. Two important elements in both theories are that civilizations have a choice to take different paths during its development. The other important factor is sustainability; a society must find a balance with the environment and resources that it depends upon.

One drastic example from Diamonds book is the Easter Islands. The Easter Island today is a wasteland with a number of big stone statues. These statues haven’t been brought to the Islands; the statues were built by the rather large civilizations of human that inhabited the Islands. The population started to build these statues and in order to build them and transport them over the Island the inhabitants had to use timber from the forest that used to cover the Island. The topsoil was removed when the forest no longer protected it from rain and there would be no more forest on the islands. Agriculture was also affected. Starvation, war and famine followed. When there was nothing left to eat the inhabitants resorted to cannibalism. Diamond draws the parallel between the island and the earth: The inhabitants couldn’t escape the Islands when it could no longer sustain their civilization and either could the human race if we would find ourselves in the same situation.

The human impact on the environment has been more and more discussed and international agreements like the Kyoto Protocol have been signed by many countries, but not by all. The last big meeting in Copenhagen did not reach the agreement that many had hoped for. Recently a number of large multinational corporations have sponsored the making of the movie “Home” where the question of sustainability and energy depends are important topics. This movie can be viewed for free online on “You tube”. So where should one look for answers? Do we look at into the past like Diamond and Tainter in order to find pieces for the puzzle? Or should one look at the closest examples that we can find like Orlov? Or should one look at the resources we depend on like Ruppert? The collapse of the society around is something that’s feared by many survivalists. Some believe that it could happen, some that it certainly will. The current situation in the world has never existed before in human history. I personally find it hard to make predictions based on historical examples. I believe that the in a long perspective we will have to find sustainable solutions for many aspects of everyday life. These factors range from environment to transport, agriculture, energy, water and many other factors.

The National Geographic Documentary
National Geographic has recently produced a documentary based on Jared Diamonds book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” that also features a number of other researchers like Joseph Tainter and psychologist Dan Gilbert. This one of the most well made documentaries about the subject and I highly recommend it for anyone how would like to learn more about the subject.

1 comment:

  1. Great resource...

    I already ordered the two books you mentioned.