Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive
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If environmentalists aren’t willing to engage with big businesses, which are among the most powerful forces in the modern world, it won’t be possible to solve the world’s environmental problems.
This book employs the comparative method to understand societal collapses to which environmental problems contribute.
Globalization makes it impossible for modern societies to collapse in isolation, as did Easter Island and the Greenland Norse in the past.
For the first time in history, we face the risk of a global decline.
But we also are the first to enjoy the opportunity of learning quickly from developments in societies anywhere else in the world today, and from what has unfolded in societies at any time in the past.
That’s why I wrote this book.
Montana provides an ideal case study with which to begin this book on past and present environmental problems.
Montana’s problems are far less acute than those of crowding, traffic, smog, water quality and quantity, and toxic wastes that beset Americans in Los Angeles.
Particularly conspicuous in Montana are problems of toxic wastes, forests, soils, water (and sometimes air), climate change, biodiversity losses, and introduced pests.
In Montana there are about 20,000 abandoned mines, some of them recent but many of them a century or more old, that will be leaking acid and those toxic metals essentially forever.
Alternative responses by mining companies pose a question that will recur throughout this book, as we try to understand why any person or group in any society would knowingly do something harmful to the society as a whole.
Montana would have been better off in the long run if it had never mined copper at all but had just imported it from Chile, leaving the resulting problems to the Chileans!
American businesses exist to make money for their owners; it is the modus operandi of American capitalism.
Early miners behaved as they did because the government required almost nothing of them, and because they were businessmen.
When the mine owner can’t or won’t pay, taxpayers don’t want to step in and pay billions of dollars of cleanup costs either.
Only when the public pressures its politicians into passing laws demanding different behavior from mining companies will the companies behave differently.
A second set of environmental problems in Montana involves the logging and burning of its forests.
No one would dispute that logging is also necessary to obtain wood for timber and for making paper.
In an ideal world, the Forest Service would manage and restore the forests, thin them out, and remove the dense understory by cutting or by controlled small fires. But that would cost a total of about $100 billion. No politician or voter wants to spend that kind of money.
The next set of environmental problems in Montana involves its soils.
One specific soil problem is caused by commercial apple orchards exhausting the soil’s nitrogen. A more widespread soil problem is erosion.
The remaining soil problem in Montana, besides nitrogen exhaustion and erosion, is salinization.
In parts of Montana, salt concentrations in soil water have reached levels double those of seawater.
“Whenever you have a source of water and more than two people using it, there will be a problem. But why fight about water? Fighting won’t make more water!”
“Whenever you have a source of water and more than two people using it, there will be a problem. But why fight about water? Fighting won’t make more water!”
The most visible effect of global warming in Montana, and perhaps anywhere in the world, is in Glacier National Park. In the late 1800s, it contained over 150 glaciers; now, there are only about 35 left.
At present rates of melting, Glacier National Park will have no glaciers at all by the year 2030.
Air quality also deserves brief mention. Some areas of Montana do suffer seasonally from poor air quality, sometimes as bad as in Los Angeles.
Montana’s remaining major sets of environmental problems are the linked ones of introductions of harmful non-native species and losses of valuable native species.
Seemingly pristine Montana actually suffers from serious environmental problems involving toxic wastes, forests, soils, water, climate change, biodiversity losses, and introduced pests. All of these problems translate into economic problems.
They provide much of the explanation for why one of our richest states is now one of the poorest.
Montana’s difficulties cannot be simplistically attributed to selfish evil people knowingly and reprehensibly profiting at the expense of neighbors.
Instead, they involve clashes between people whose own particular backgrounds and values cause them to favor policies differing from those favored by people with different backgrounds and values.
It may initially have seemed absurd to select Montana as the subject of this first chapter of a book on societal collapses.
If Montana were an isolated island, its present First World economy would already have collapsed, nor could it have developed that economy in the first place.
In the remainder of this book we shall be considering environmental problems, similar to Montana’s, in various past and modern societies.
No other site that I have visited made such a ghostly impression on me as Rano Raraku, the quarry on Easter Island where its famous gigantic stone statues were carved.
The island is the most remote habitable scrap of land in the world. The nearest lands are the coast of Chile 2,300 miles to the east and Polynesia’s Pitcairn Islands 1,300 miles to the west.
It proves to be the closest approximation that we have to an ecological disaster unfolding in complete isolation.
Easter Islanders may have remained effectively completely isolated with no contact with outsiders for a thousand years.
The current best estimate of Easter’s settlement is somewhat before A.D. 900.
No Pacific island other than Easter ended up without any native land birds. Of the 25 or more formerly breeding seabirds, 24 no longer breed on Easter.
The giant palm, and all the other now-extinct trees, disappeared for half a dozen reasons that we can document or infer.
Deforestation must have begun some time after human arrival by A.D. 900, and must have been completed by 1722, when Roggeveen arrived and saw no trees over 10 feet tall.
Forest clearance began soon after human arrival, reached its peak around 1400, and was virtually complete between the early 1400s and the 1600s.
Other damages to soil that resulted from deforestation and reduced crop yields included desiccation and nutrient leaching.
The further consequences start with starvation, a population crash, and a descent into cannibalism.
Numbers of house sites in the coastal lowlands, where almost everybody lived, declined by 70%.
Easter’s formerly complexly integrated society collapsed in an epidemic of civil war.
The collapse of Easter society followed swiftly upon the society’s reaching its peak of population, monument construction, and environmental impact.
The sad story of European impacts on Easter Islanders may be quickly summarized.
After Captain Cook’s brief sojourn in 1774, a steady trickle of European visitors introduced European diseases and killed many previously unexposed islanders.
“Back-birding,” the kidnapping of islanders to become laborers, began on Easter around 1805 and climaxed in 1862–63 when two dozen Peruvian ships abducted about 1,500 people (half of the surviving population) and sold them at auction to work in Peru’s guano mines.
By 1872 there were only 111 islanders left on Easter.
Because of this history of exploitation and oppression, there has been resistance among both islanders and scholars to acknowledging the reality of self-inflicted environmental damage before Roggeveen’s arrival in 1722.
Easter ended up with no tree species standing and with about 90% of its former population gone.
They had the misfortune to be living in one of the most fragile environments, at the highest risk for deforestation, of any Pacific people.
Easter’s isolation makes it the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources.
The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious.
People see the collapse of Easter Island society as a metaphor, a worst-case scenario, for what may lie ahead of us in our own future.
The first humans to reach the Americas, living as hunter-gatherers, arrived in the U.S. Southwest by 11,000 B.C. but possibly earlier.
Agriculture did not develop indigenously in the U.S. Southwest, it arrived from Mexico - corn arriving by 2000 B.C., squash around 800 B.C., beans somewhat later.
Originally, southwestern Native Americans just incorporated some agriculture as part of their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, as did the modern Apache in the 18th and 19th centuries.
By A.D. 1, some southwestern Native Americans had already taken up residence in villages and become primarily dependent on agriculture with ditch irrigation.
Thereafter, their populations exploded in numbers and spread over the landscape until the retrenchments beginning around A.D. 1117.
The most intensively studied abandonment was of the most spectacular and largest set of sites, the Anasazi sites in Chaco Canyon of northwestern New Mexico.
Chaco Anasazi society flourished from about A.D. 600 for more than five centuries, until it disappeared some time between 1150 and 1200. It was a complexly organized society that erected the largest buildings in pre-Columbian North America.
Why would anyone have built an advanced city in that wasteland, and why, having gone to all that work of building it, did they then abandon it?
That explosion of environmental and population problems in the form of civil unrest and warfare is a frequent theme in this book, both for past societies and for modern societies.
The final blow for Chacoans was a drought that tree rings show to have begun around A.D. 1130.
A drought would make rainfall-supported dryland agriculture and irrigation agriculture impossible.
Some time between A.D. 1150 and 1200, Chaco Canyon was virtually abandoned and remained largely empty until Navajo sheepherders reoccupied it 600 years later.
How many New Yorkers would choose to remain in New York City if two-thirds of their family and friends had just starved to death there or fled, if the subway trains and taxis were no longer running, and if offices and stores had closed?
All of us moderns can get away with a lot of waste when the economy is good. We forget that conditions fluctuate, and we may not be able to anticipate when conditions will change.
Millions of modern tourists have visited ruins of the ancient Maya civilization that collapsed over a thousand years ago.
They were once the sites of the New World’s most advanced Native American civilization before European arrival.
The first Maya contact with Europeans came already in 1502, just 10 years after Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World.
In 1527 the Spanish began in earnest to conquer the Maya, but it was not until 1697 that they subdued the last principality.
Lest one be misled into thinking that crashes are a risk only for small peripheral societies in fragile areas, the Maya warn us that crashes can also befall the most advanced and creative societies.
The population of the Central Petén at the peak of the Classic Maya period is variously estimated at between 3,000,000 and 14,000,000 people, but there were only about 30,000 people there at the time that the Spanish arrived.
How did such a huge population of millions of people disappear?
In the Maya area as elsewhere, the past is a lesson for the present.
By the 1960s, the Central Petén’s population had risen back only to 25,000, still less than 1% of what it had been at the Classic Maya peak.
Thereafter, however, immigrants flooded into the Central Petén, building up its population to about 300,000 in the 1980s.
Today, half of the Petén is once again deforested and ecologically degraded. One-quarter of all the forests of Honduras were destroyed between 1964 and 1989.
We have to wonder why the kings and nobles failed to recognize and solve these seemingly obvious problems undermining their society. Their attention was evidently focused on their short-term concerns of enriching long impoverishmentthemselves.
Like most leaders throughout human history, the Maya kings and nobles did not heed long-term problems, insofar as they perceived them.
Maya kings sought to outdo each other with more and more impressive temples, reminiscent in turn of the extravagant conspicuous consumption by modern American CEOs.
Parts of the Viking story are equally romantic and more relevant to this book.
The Vikings were farmers, traders, colonizers, and the first European explorers of the North Atlantic.
Viking settlers of Continental Europe and the British Isles played a role in forming several nation-states, notably Russia, England, and France.
The Iceland colony struggled for many centuries to emerge in recent times as one of the world’s most affluent societies.
Viking societies will be presented as the most detailed example in this book.
As the strength or number of Vikings relative to locals increased, the methods progressed from peaceful trading, through extorting tribute in return for a promise not to raid, to plundering and retreating, and culminated in conquest and the establishment of overseas Viking states.
Vikings from different parts of Scandinavia went raiding in different directions.
Those from the area of modern Sweden sailed east into the Baltic Sea and founded the principality of Kiev that became the forerunner of the modern Russian state.
Vikings from modern Denmark established the Danelaw state in eastern England and the Duchy of Normandy in France.
Vikings from modern Norway sailed to Ireland and the north and west coast of Britain and set up a major trading center at Dublin.
Swedish Vikings merged into the Russian population, Danish Vikings into the English population. Vikings who settled in Normandy eventually began speaking French.
Viking ships were blown off-course into the North Atlantic Ocean discovered and settled other lands previously unknown either to Europeans or to any peoples and in A.D. 1000 an exploration zone encompassing Newfoundland, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and coastal areas of northeastern North America.
The Viking raids on Europe declined as their European targets gradually came to expect them and to defend themselves.
The year 1066, famous for the Battle of Hastings at which William the Conqueror led French-speaking descendants of former Viking raiders to conquer England, can also be taken to mark the end of the Viking raids.
Thereafter, the Scandinavian kingdoms evolved into normal states trading with other European states.
After millennia of their remaining in Scandinavia why did their expansion build up so quickly to a peak after 793, and then grind to a complete halt less than three centuries later?
Two specific events set off the Viking chain reaction: the A.D. 793 raid on Lindisfarne Monastery and the discovery of the unpopulated Faeroe Islands.
Vikings returning home with booty or with reports of islands ripe for settlement fired the imagination of more Vikings to set out in search of more booty and more empty islands.
The Viking expansion began to fizzle out when all areas readily accessible to their ships had already been raided or colonized.
The six Viking colonies on North Atlantic islands constitute six parallel experiments in establishing societies derived from the same ancestral source.
Those six experiments resulted in different outcomes: the Orkney, Shetland, and Faeroe colonies have continued to exist for more than a thousand years without their survival ever being in serious doubt; the Iceland colony also persisted but had to overcome poverty and serious political difficulties; the Greenland Norse died out after about 450 years; and the Vinland colony was abandoned within the first decade.
Those differing outcomes are clearly related to environmental differences among the colonies.
Iceland is ecologically the most heavily damaged country in Europe.
Iceland’s colonization began in earnest around the year 870 and virtually ended by the year 930, when almost all land suitable for farming had been settled or claimed.
About 80% of that original woodland was cleared within the first few decades, and 96% as of modern times, thus leaving only 1% of Iceland’s area still forested.
The highlands became stripped of soil as well as of vegetation, the former grasslands of Iceland’s interior became the man-made desert that one sees today.
Today we have to ask ourselves: why on Earth did those foolish settlers manage their land in ways that caused such obvious damage?
In short, the explanation of why Iceland became the European country with the most serious ecological damage is that they found themselves in an apparently lush but actually fragile environment.
In 1874 Iceland achieved some self-government, home rule in 1904, and full independence from Denmark in 1944.
Iceland is now the most urbanized Scandinavian country, with half its population in the capital of Reykjavík alone.
Europe’s former poorest country has become one of the world’s richest countries on a per-capita basis, a great success story to balance the stories of societal collapse.
Iceland’s government today is very concerned about Iceland’s historical curses of soil erosion and sheep overgrazing, which played such a large role in their country’s long impoverishment.
The brief existence of the most remote Viking North Atlantic colony, Vinland, is a separate story fascinating in its own right.
For our purposes in this book, the most important lessons to be drawn from the Vinland venture are the reasons for its failure.
Archaeologists located the Vikings’ Newfoundland base camp in 1961.
Today we know that North America was by far the largest and most valuable North Atlantic land discovered by the Norse. Why, then, did the Norse give up on Vinland, land of plenty?
The sagas offer a simple answer to that question: the large population of hostile Indians, with whom the Vikings failed to establish good relations.
That was enough to convince the Norse of the chronic problems that they would face.
In short, the Vinland colony failed because the Greenland colony itself was too small and poor in timber and iron to support it and that one or two shiploads of Greenlanders were no match for hordes of Nova Scotia and Gulf of St. Lawrence Indians when they were provoked.
Norse Greenland survived much longer than Norse Vinland because it was closer to Norway and because hostile natives did not make their appearance for the first few centuries.
If it had not been for Native Americans, I as a twentieth-century American might now be writing this book in an Old Norse–based language like modern Icelandic or Faeroese, rather than in English.
Vikings shared Greenland with another people, the Inuit (Eskimos).
The Vikings disappeared, but the Inuit survived, proving that human survival in Greenland was not impossible and the Vikings’ disappearance not inevitable.
Why did those medieval Scandinavians ultimately fail to master Greenland’s problems while the Inuits succeeded?
The Norse arrived around A.D. 980 and initially encountered no Native Americans, though they did find ruins left by former populations.
Unfortunately for the Norse, the warm climate was simultaneously allowing the Inuit people to expand quickly eastwards.
That climate change allowed the Inuit to enter northwestern Greenland from Canada around A.D. 1200—with big consequences for the Norse.
Around 1300, though, the climate in the North Atlantic began to get cooler.
Those cold conditions were tolerable or even beneficial for the Inuit, who could hunt ringed seals, but were bad news for the Norse, who depended on growing hay.
Why didn’t the Norse learn to cope with the cold weather by watching how the Inuit were meeting the same challenges?
The Norse could cope with one bad summer or bad winter, provided that it was followed by a series of good years.
Viking Greenland was a conservative society resistant to change and sticking to old ways.
They did not learn from the Inuit how to hunt ringed seals or whales, even though that meant starving as a result.
The Norse initially prospered in Greenland, due to a fortunate set of circumstances surrounding their arrival.
All of those initial advantages gradually turned against the Norse, in ways for which they bore some responsibility.
Greenland Vikings would have had a better chance of surviving if they had learned from or traded with the Inuit, but they didn’t.
Refusing or unable to learn from the Inuit, and lacking any military advantage over them, the Norse rather than the Inuit became the ones who eventually disappeared.
Norse society’s structure created a conflict between the short-term interests of those in power, and the long-term interests of the society as a whole.
The last right that they obtained for themselves was the privilege of being the last to starve.
China is the world’s most populous country, with about 1,300,000,000 people, or one-fifth of the world’s total.
China’s environmental problems are among the most severe of any major country, and are getting worse.
Environmental problems are causing enormous economic losses, social conflicts, and health problems within China.
China’s large population, economy, and area also guarantee that its environmental problems will not remain a domestic issue but will spill over to the rest of the world,
China’s achievement of First World standards will approximately double the entire world’s human resource use and environmental impact.
China’s problems automatically become the world’s problems.
The world cannot sustain China and other Third World countries and current First World countries all operating at First World levels.
Like the rest of the world, China is lurching between accelerating environmental damage and accelerating environmental protection.
The outcome will affect not just China, but the whole world as well.
How often did people wreak ecological damage intentionally, or at least while aware of the likely consequences?
If there are still people left alive a hundred years from now—those people of the next century will be as astonished about our blindness today
This question of why societies end up destroying themselves through disastrous decisions astonishes professional historians and archaeologists.
How did so many societies make such bad mistakes?
First of all, a group may fail to anticipate a problem before the problem actually arrives. Second, when the problem does arrive, the group may fail to perceive it. Then, after they perceive it, they may fail even to try to solve it. Finally, they may try to solve it but may not succeed.
A prime example is the mess that British colonists created for themselves when they introduced foxes and rabbits from Britain into Australia in the 1800s.
With the gift of hindsight, we now view it as incredibly stupid that colonists would intentionally release into Australia two alien mammals that have caused billions of dollars in damages and expenditures to control them.
Perhaps the commonest circumstance under which societies fail to perceive a problem is when it takes the form of a slow trend concealed by wide up-and-down fluctuations. The prime example in modern times is global warming.
Societies often fail even to attempt to solve a problem once it has been perceived.
Throughout recorded history, actions or inactions by self-absorbed kings, chiefs, and politicians have been a regular cause of societal collapses.
“Chief among the forces affecting political folly is lust for power.”
Failures to solve perceived problems are much less likely in societies where the elite cannot insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions.
Religious values tend to be especially deeply held and hence frequent causes of disastrous behavior.
Communist China’s determination not to repeat the errors of capitalism led it to scorn environmental concerns as just one more capitalist error, and thereby to saddle China with enormous environmental problems.
It is painfully difficult to decide whether to abandon some of one’s core values when they seem to be becoming incompatible with survival.
Perhaps a crux of success or failure as a society is to know which core values to hold on to, and which ones to discard and replace with new values, when times change.
Governments regularly operate on a short-term focus: bad consequences are born by the next generation, but that generation cannot vote or complain today.
Why, then, do some societies succeed and others fail?
Part of the reason, of course, involves differences among environments rather than among societies: some environments pose much more difficult problems.
But that’s only half of the story.
Businesses have changed when the public came to expect and require different behavior, to reward businesses for behavior that the public wanted, and to make things difficult for businesses practicing behaviors that the public didn’t want.
The chapters of this book have discussed why past or present societies succeed or fail at solving their environmental problems. Now, this final chapter considers the book’s practical relevance: what does it all mean to us today?
At an accelerating rate, we are destroying natural habitats or else converting them to human-made habitats.
Deforestation was a or the major factor in all the collapses of past societies described in this book.
An even larger fraction of the world’s original wetlands than of its forests has already been destroyed, damaged, or converted.
Soils of farmlands used for growing crops are being carried away by water and wind erosion at rates between 10 and 40 times the rates of soil formation, and between 500 and 10,000 times soil erosion rates on forested land.
Throughout the world, freshwater underground aquifers are being depleted at rates faster than they are being naturally replenished, so that they will eventually dwindle.
Today over a billion people lack access to reliable safe drinking water.
The chemical industry and many other industries manufacture or release into the air, soil, oceans, lakes, and rivers many toxic chemicals.
We swallow them in our food and water, breathe them in our air, and absorb them through our skin.
Deaths in the U.S. from air pollution alone are conservatively estimated at over 130,000 per year.
Human activities produce gases that escape into the atmosphere, where they either damage the protective ozone layer or else act as greenhouse gases that absorb sunlight and thereby lead to global warming.
Average global temperatures were “only” 5 degrees cooler at the height of the last Ice Age.
The rise in global sea levels as a result of snow and ice melting poses dangers of flooding and coastal erosion for densely populated low-lying coastal plains.
The world’s human population is growing. More people require more food, space, water, energy, and other resources.
On the average, each citizen of the U.S., western Europe, and Japan consumes 32 times more than do inhabitants of the Third World
The biggest problem is the increase in total human impact, as the result of rising Third World living standards, and of Third World individuals moving to the First World and adopting First World living standards.
Even if the people of China alone achieved a First World living standard that would double our human impact on the world.
The world’s environmental problems will get resolved, in one way or another, within the lifetimes of the children and young adults alive today.
The only question is whether they will become resolved in pleasant ways of our own choice, or in unpleasant ways not of our choice, such as warfare, genocide, starvation, disease epidemics, and collapses of societies.
Our totally unsustainable consumption means that the First World could not continue for long on its present course, even if the Third World didn’t exist and weren’t trying to catch up to us.
There is no other island/other planet to which we can turn for help, or to which we can export our problems. Instead, we need to learn to live within our means.
We are the cause of our environmental problems, we are the ones in control of them, and we can choose or not choose to stop causing them and start solving them.
The two types of choices seem to me to have been crucial in tipping their outcomes towards success or failure: long-term planning, and willingness to reconsider core values.
My hope in writing this book has been that enough people will choose to profit from that opportunity to make a difference.