Collapse and sustainability: arguments we should all hear

Anthropologists and archaeologists are slugging it out with each other about how to interpret the decline of ancient societies, such as the Polynesians of Easter Island, the Classic Maya or the Roman Empire. The rest of us could benefit from trying to follow their arguments.

One issue in debate is whether the problems these societies faced on the way down, and how they dealt with them, might tell us something about our own prospects.

That has immediate resonance. Most of us, except the most extreme optimists, have at some time or other imagined the prospect of some more deep-going social breakdown following from the crises (wars, economic failures, ruptures in our relations with nature) shaking the society we live in. We socialists invest our optimism in the idea that such breakdown can be averted by society being turned upside down, being remade free of hierarchy and alienation.

The controversy about past societies was taken out of the universities to a wider audience by Jared Diamond, a professor of geography at UCLA, one of the USA’s most prestigious academic institutions, with his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, published in 2005.

The storm of interest in this highly readable best-seller stang into action a group of archaelogists and historians who question Diamond’s approach. Their counterpunch, Questioning Collapse: human resilience, ecological vulnerability and the aftermath of empire, edited by Patricia McAnany and Norman Yoffee,[1] appeared in 2010 and is now itself provoking comment.

Other initiatives that have yet to cause big ripples outside the universities include the Integrated History and Future Of People on Earth (IHOPE) project, a huge interdisciplinary effort to map the relationship between societies and their natural environment over 100-, 1000- and 10,000-year timescales – and say something about the implications for the future.

Diamond focuses on societies’ different responses to challenges thrown up by their interaction with nature (most often through agriculture) and by other external factors (climate change, good or bad relations with other societies, etc). He surveys anthropologists’ research on societies that declined, such as those on Easter Island, the Norse communities in Greenland and the Anasazi people of the south-western USA. He concludes that these societies somehow chose paths that led to failure, and that ours is in danger of doing the same. His challengers charge that his logic is oversimplified and ignores the very social complexities that historians and anthropologists need to study. And there are a range of associated controversies.

The arguments that seem most important, summarised here, are about: (1) what actually happened in the societies that Diamond claims collapsed; (2) the definition of “societal collapse”; (3) historians’ and anthropologists’ interpretive approaches to human beings, living in societies, as actors in these dramas; and (4) what the study of these histories might tell us about the current crisis of society. 

What actually happened?

A key dispute concerns Polynesian society on Easter Island (Rapa Nui) in the Pacific ocean, which flourished between about the ninth and fifteenth centuries, but was in decline when the first European explorers arrived in 1722. The example is coloured by the European perception of a “lost civilisation” that left behind the famous stone statues (moai). These must have been built – and moved from the island’s stone quarry into position on its coasts – using a huge amount of labour and tree trunks as rollers, and a high level of astronomical and technical understanding.

The Easter Islanders thrived despite the island’s remoteness, the absence of draught animals and its relatively harsh weather and meagre biosphere. Diamond reckons that the population rose to between 15,000 and 30,000 and then declined precipitously. The main problem, he writes, was deforestation. Trees were cleared for agriculture, used as wooden fuel and as construction material, and finally as a supply of rollers for the statues. At some point between 1400 and 1600 deforestation was complete; that in turn devastated canoe construction, and therefore fishing, and damaged agriculture via soil erosion. Once the forests had gone people were reduced to living in caves; social conflicts grew harsher; starvation and cannibalism ensued. This, Diamond writes, was “ecocide”, i.e. “unintended ecological suicide”.[2]
Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, archaeologists who have studied Easter Island for most of their working lives, fault Diamond on three main counts:[3]

(i) deforestation was partly caused by a huge population of rats, for which no humans can reasonably be blamed.

(ii) claims that the population rose to 15-30,000 are “baseless” and have been “posited mainly to dramatise the putative ‘ecocide’ in which populations plummeted”. They write: “Diamond argues that the population grew and then collapsed before Europeans arrived. However, during the period of deforestation the island’s population grew even though the forest declined.”

(iii) The “first and only sign of sustained decline in the population, so vital to the ‘ecocide’ thesis, came from 1750 to 1800, after the arrival of the first European visitors.” European diseases, to which the Polynesians had only limited immunity, played a major part, to say nothing of the colonial reflexes of European settlers. 

Oxford academic Mark Lynas recently piled in, blogging here that Diamond’s “ecocide” thesis had been “demolished”. It’s worth reading the responses by Diamond  and by Hunt and Lipo.

The debate is not just about the historical facts, of course, but about the way that Diamond weaves them into a larger narrative, arguing that Easter Island provides “the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources” and therefore “a metaphor, a worst-case scenario, for what may lie ahead of us in our own future”. Every year he asks his students at UCLA, using a crude society-as-collective-subject approach: “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say as he was doing it?”[4]

The question is nonsensical, Hunt and Lipo reply. “The ecological catastrophe of Rapa Nui had a complex history that cannot be reduced to psychological speculations about the motivations of people who cut down the last tree.

“Indeed, the ‘last tree’ may simply have died, and rats may have simply eaten the last seeds. What were the rats thinking?”

The real story, Hunt and Lipo contend, “is one of human ingenuity and success that lasted more than 500 years on one of the world’s most remote human outposts”.

In Questioning Collapse, parallel questions are asked by specialists of the interpretations Diamond applies to Papua New Guinea, Mayan society, the American south-west and others, as well as modern societies including Rwanda.

Defining collapse 

Much depends, of course, on how exactly you define collapse. For Diamond, it is “a drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time.”[5] John McNeill, an environmental historian, dismantles this approach in the final chapter of Questioning Collapse. He points out that the Greenland Norse, a society judged by Diamond to have collapsed, lasted 450 years before failing – longer than any of the modern societies about which Diamond writes.

Diamond presents modern China as a “failure in the making”. But his examples refer only to events of the last 25 years, McNeill points out. “[Can] a quarter century of recent experience, divorced from the preceding 35 centuries, serve as the basis for conclusions about a society choosing to fail or succeed?”

Place matters as much as time. Diamond presents the modern day Netherlands as having successfully managed its relationship with nature: McNeill points out that its huge imports of timber, animal fodder and other commodities mean it can avoid fighting bitter battles over resource use because environmental impacts have simply been transferred overseas. [6]

Ever since the dawn of agriculture, McNeill argues, “sustainability became a potential problem”: “all farming is a struggle against the depletion of soil nutrients”. That issue dominated environmental history until the advent of fossil fuels, which produced a new sustainability in the early 20th century but are “radically unsustainable” in future.

The authors of Questioning Collapse argue that the concept of resilience (i.e. societies’ ability to meet the challenges of their relationship with nature) is a better conceptual tool than the “collapse” discourse. That view seems largely to have prevailed at a scholars’ conference in Cambridge in September 2010, a report of which (three pages from Science magazine) can be downloaded here.  

Society as subject 

Jared Diamond acknowledges both that rulers of hierarchical societies appropriated decision-making power from other citizens, and that the way those hierarchies operated (on Easter Island, for example) often exacerbated those rulers’ capacity for making bad decisions. Nevertheless he is satisfied, in my view, with very crude interpretations of how classes and social groupings interact, and how the complex of these social interactions relates to people’s relationship with nature.

Why do societies often fail to deal even with problems they know about, Diamond asks. “Many of the reasons” stem from what economists call “rational behaviour”, he writes, i.e. “some people may reason correctly that they can advance their own interests by behaviour harmful to other people.” Within a page he gives, as an example of such clashes of interest,  the “tragedy of the commons”, i.e. the idea, popularised in the 1960s by the biologist Garrett Hardin, that people faced with limits on natural resources will inevitably and selfishly compete, that “freedom in a commons brings ruin to all”.[7] This view has been debunked long ago, perhaps most comprehensively by Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel-prize-winning political economist who has researched the way that agriculturalists and fishing communities work collectively to manage natural resources sustainably.[8] That a scholar as widely-read as Diamond does not refer to this body of research, which has demolished Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” as a meaningful notion, undermines the credibility of his own argument.

Diamond’s idea “that societies make choices, metaphorically or literally, concerning their own survival” is criticised as “grossly reductionist” by Jonathan Friedman, a Marxist anthropologist, whose own research on social crises focuses on those societies’ internal contradictions. Phenomena such as social crisis and contraction “although related to ecological conditions, are better accounted for in terms of the internal incompatibilities of social systems themselves”, Friedman writes. Environmental limits are “the outermost but not necessarily the determinant cause of decline”.[9]

Friedman pinpoints as Diamond’s fatal flaw the idea that a whole society can be taken as a historical subject. “There is no evidence that societies, small or large, are like subjects. On the contrary, one finds that there are dominant actors, who are themselves caught in the webs of reproductive logics that escape their own intentionality and which, in fact, are rarely correctly cognised.” 

Friedman asks how future archaeologists might look back at the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2006, which reduced its population by between a third and a half. At first sight it might appear to be attributed to a general phenomenon such as climate change; but closer examination would show “a global hegemony [of American capitalism] under stress”. Friedman lists “social factors that led to what looked like a natural disaster”, including the lack of maintenance of flood levees, lack of troops available due to the Iraq conflict, lack of coordination among agencies, etc.

Friedman concludes: “It is clear that the expansion of accumulative systems leads to increased stress on environmental systems. Global warming would seem to be a generally accepted result of human activity although it might be difficult to establish the actual causality involved. However, the accumulation process also creates strains on the social system which weaken its capacity to respond to the human-induced natural catastrophes that might have been under other circumstances adequately addressed.”

Past societies and current crises

There appears to be something of a consensus among anthropologists, archaeologists and historians, first, that a thoroughgoing analysis of social relations – avoiding such oversimplifications as “societies decide” – is needed to explain social crises, including crises involving the unsustainable use of natural resources. Second, most researchers agree that events that may retrospectively look like social “collapses” may have been very different from each other, played out over very different timescales – and that simple comparison of similarities can only be misleading when seeking lessons for today.

Some researchers go further, and raise doubt about the very idea of societies collapsing. For example Patricia McAnany and Norman Yoffee, the editors of Questioning Collapse, write that change may be “difficult, painful or even castastrophic”, but that “‘collapse’ – in the sense of the end of a social order and its people – is a rare occurrence”. The conclusion they draw – which is problematic, to my mind – is that study should be directed not at social crises as such, but at measures taken to avert them. McAnany and Yoffee write that they start from the assumption not that “rulers of the past – alleged to have been shortsighted – ruined their environments and failed”, but from the knowledge that “past societies (and their leaders as well as the opponents of leaders) experienced a variety of crises and responded to circumstances as best they could.”[10] Friedman, by contrast, sees the study of social crises and collapses as a key to understanding societies, but counterposes to Diamond’s crude picture of shortsighted leaders an analysis of social systems’ “internal incompatibilities.”

A final, important point about drawing lessons for the current crisis of capitalism from past social crises – and specifically, crises in managing the available natural resources –is one of scale. Over the last sixty years or so, the capitalist economy has expanded to the point where it is able to disrupt the natural environment globally, rather than just locally. Global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels dwarfs all previous man-made changes to the natural environment.

In his concluding essay in Questioning Collapse, John McNeill writes that fossil fuels are “an enormous subsidy” to current society from the “distant time” when coal and oil deposits were formed. “They make it possible for 6.5 billion people to eat. Fossil fuels are the fertiliser of modern agriculture. They pump up groundwater and power tractors. […] They sustain us. But they also make us unsustainable” – not only because they are finite, but because of the potential damage from global warming (higher temperatures, raised sea levels, etc). Any comparisons with problems of sustainability faced by past society need to be drawn with this gigantic qualitative difference in mind.

The debates between researchers about history and anthropology are clearly relevant to the discussions among activists in social movements about the ways in which we endeavour to change society. They should be as accessible as possible, and not only within the university system. GL.

[1] There is information about the book at

[2] Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive (Penguin, 2005), pp. 6 and 79-119.

[3] Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, “Ecological Catastrophe, Collapse and the Myth of ‘Ecocide’”, in McAnany and Yoffee (eds.), Questioning Collapse: human resilience, ecological vulnerability and the aftermath of empire (Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 21-44

[4] Diamond, Collapse, pp. 118-119 and 426

[5] Diamond, Collapse, p. 3

[6] John McNeill, “Sustainable Survival”, in McAnany and Yoffee (eds.), Questioning Collapse, pp. 355-366

[7] Diamond, Collapse, pp. 427-440. I have quoted Hardin’s (in)famous article “The Tragedy of the Commons”, Science, 13 December 1968, which is downloadable here. Hardin’s so-called “bio-ethics” led him to the most extreme Malthusian conclusions. He ranted against famine relief in articles such as this one on “lifeboat ethics”. The web site of the Garrett Hardin society provides many examples of his advocacy of population control and migration control by rich countries.

[8] You can get an idea of Ostrom’s research from the site of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University, where she is director. Her work on the commons is published e.g. in Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: the evolution of institutions for collective action (Cambridge University Press, 1990) and Elinor Ostrom et al. (eds.), The Drama of the Commons (National Academy Press, 2001).

[9] Jonathan Friedman, “Towards a Comparative Study of Hegemonic Decline in Global Systems”, in Robert Costanza, Lisa Graumlich and Will Steffen (eds.), Sustainability or Collapse? an integrated history and future of people on earth (Massachusetts Institute of Technology press, 2007), pp. 95-114. Jonathan Friedman and Kajsa Ekholm Friedman have published two books setting out the main conclusions of their research: Historical transformations: the anthropology of global systems (Altamira Press, 2007) and Modernities, class, and the contradictions of globalization: the anthropology of global systems (Altamira Press, 2008). Diamond’s failure to analyse “the relationship between the haves and the have-nots” is also the focus of an article by Frederick Errington and Deborah Gewertz in Questioning Collapse.

[10] Patricia McAnany and Norman Yoffee, “Why We Question Collapse”, in Questioning Collapse, pp. 1-17


One Response to Collapse and sustainability: arguments we should all hear

  1. […] for example the one about Collapse, the popular book on environmental history by Jared Diamond. (See report here.) He argued that in all the cases of societies that in his view collapsed – and that idea of […]

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