Why Civilisations Collapse

ISIS Commentary 29/07/09

A Lesson for Climate Change

Modern society is technologically far superior to any that has gone before, we have all the means to head off the worst effects of climate change and adapt to those we cannot avoid. History tells us however that the most common reason societies collapse is not inadequate science or technology but failure to take the difficult decisions necessary for survival Prof. Peter Saunders

Surviving environmental disasters

As the world faces the challenge of climate change, it is instructive to recall that this is by no means the first time humans have had to cope with similar problems. Many societies have found themselves in serious trouble because of an unwelcome change in their environment. It may have been something over which they had no control, like the onset of the Little Ice Age in the 15th century, or they may have brought it upon themselves, all too often by clearing forests, or perhaps a combination of the two. Some societies survived, others did not.

Long before the Spanish arrived, the Mayans of Central America had already abandoned their magnificent cities because of drought. Deforestation destroyed the Easter Island society that erected the famous statues, though a very much reduced population continued to live on the island. Others, like the Norwegian settlers in Greenland, and the original inhabitants of Pitcairn Island, died out completely.

On the other hand, the Inuit who arrived in Greenland while the Norse settlements were flourishing are still there. The 18th century Tokugawa Japanese reversed the deforestation that had threatened their way of life. The inhabitants of Tikopia, a tiny island in the Pacific, have adopted a whole series of measures that allow them to survive in a difficult environment; one of the most striking 400 years ago was to kill all their pigs - high status animals in Melanesia and at one time a major source of protein on Tikopia - because they were too inefficient for feeding humans.

Societies collapse through failing to take decisive action

In his fascinating book Collapse [1] Jared Diamond describes and analyses these and other examples and looks for common features that would help explain why some civilisations survived environmental challenges and others did not.

There are many reasons why societies have failed to cope. They may not have anticipated the problem, and so neither tried to head it off, nor made sure they were ready when it came. The Mayans might have been better able to deal with the great drought of the 9th century if they had known such things could happen in their part of the world. Unfortunately, the last great drought was in the 3rd century, and had been forgotten. The Mayans did keep careful records, but only of things they considered important such as the exploits of their kings, not trivia like climate data.

A society may not even be aware of a serious problem when it is actually upon them, especially if the effect is slow. An increase in mean temperature of a degree or two per century can easily be masked by annual fluctuations or dismissed as part of some cycle.

It may also be that the problem is just too difficult. If you live an already marginal existence on an isolated island in the South Pacific and the rainfall decreases even further, there is not much you can do.

Diamond found that in the many societies he studied, the most common reason for their collapse was none of the above, but the failure to take decisive action that could have saved them. Surprisingly, even when it had become obvious that there was a serious problem, little or nothing was done to address it.

Read the rest of this article here //www.i-sis.org.uk/whyCivilisationsCollapse.php


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