Monday, 12 November 2012

Notes on Societal Collapses: Past and Present

(“Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” ~ Percy Bysshe Shelly, Ozymandias)

Jared Mason Diamond
All societies, like individuals, are susceptible to forces beyond their control. Strangely, societies when at their prime, like humans, believe that they are immortal and untouchable. They do not ever pause to imagine that they themselves are the agents of their own subsequent collective demise (accelerated or slow – ecocide!).
It may be pertinent to note that managing environmental resources sustainably has been a serious challenge all through the annals of human history. In fact, ‘ever since Homo sapiens,’ Jared Diamond professes, ‘developed modern inventiveness, efficiency, and hunting skills by around 50,000 years ago’ extinction of animal species has always been a natural corollary of  human colonisation of a land mass formerly lacking humans – be they larger marsupials in Australia or Dodos in Mauritius.

Societies, in past, that have managed to avert collapse had demonstrated conscious and successful approaches to micromanage their resources, careful regulation of population (Tikopia), and adoption of rigorous measures of environmental protection (Iceland) to retain productivity through sustainable practices.
The phenomena of Collapse may be extreme (demise of civilisations or societies) or mild. Milder types of decline are reflected in acceptable fluctuation in fortune, political or/and economic or/and social restructuring. Jared Diamond, in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, lists conquest by a neighbouring state, or society’s decline stemming from neighbour’s rise, ‘without change in the total population size or the complexity of the whole region; and the replacement or overthrow of one governing elite by another’ as some of the other milder forms of decline. (p 3)
There exists a causal nexus between ecocide and unsustainable practices undertaken by societies. The act of ecological suicide, according to Diamond, may be categorised into eight different activities which lead to environmental destabilisation and eventual societal collapse in past:
  • Deforestation
  • Effects of introduced exotic flora and fauna on endemic species
  • Growth in human population
  • Habitat destruction
  • Increase in per capita impact of people
  • Overfishing
  • Overhunting
  • Soil problems (erosion, salinization, and loss in soil fertility)
  • Water management problems
Modern societies, the author contests, have to contend with additional four problems:
  • Buildup of toxic chemicals in the environment
  • Energy shortages
  • Full human utilization of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity
  • Human-caused climate change
Societal Collapse cannot be attributed solely to environmental damage. There, according to Diamond, exists a five-point framework of possible contributing factors:
  • Climate change
  • Environmental damage
  • Friendly trade partners
  • Hostile neighbours
The above sets of factors constitute the damage that people inadvertently inflict on their environment. However, perhaps, the most significant of all –
  • Society’s response/s to its environmental problems
Do Civilizations Really Collapse?
It is difficult not to be swayed by Jared Diamond's interpretation of history and primacy of environment/ecology management (or lack of it) in societal collapse. His case studies of past societies/civilisations make a forceful argument for 'ecocide' or how power groups and ruling elite, often, refuse to accept society's role in environmental damage and climate change. In fact, Diamond's work assumes a more compelling narrative in the light of the ecological disaster looming before the world. The author has been able to yoke a number of different historical disciplines to make his case. However, there seems to be a tendency on part of Diamond to down play cultural forces to arrive at his thesis. Therefore, it may be prudent to hear out the critics of what Eric Powell calls the 'writer of popular science.'

Diamond's vision of history is celebrated in the popular press and even by many academics as a welcome synthesis of a number of different historical disciplines. The fact that his ultimate goals as a writer are to challenge the idea that the West is superior because of racial or genetic differences and to raise awareness of the environmental catastrophe facing contemporary society make his work all the more compelling.
The problem, say many scholars, is that Diamond gets the past wrong. Criticism of his work focuses on a concern that Diamond fails to appreciate the complex role that culture plays in the development of societies. Anthropologists and archaeologists whose lives are devoted to studying the complexity of culture recoil at Diamond's statement that "historical studies of human societies can be pursued as scientifically as the study of dinosaurs."” (Powell, E. A. (2008, Mar/Apr). Do Civilizations Really Collapse? Archaeology, 61(2), 18-56)

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