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Coming Soon to a Civilization Near You!


Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking, 2005.

McNeill, J. R. Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2000.

Tainter, Joseph. The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.


Will our current environmental crisis lead to the economic or social collapse of civilization? In the face of patently unsustainable consumption of natural resources, and the almost complete lack of political awareness of our leaders and most of the public, is this not inevitable? Global warming is now in progress, food production per capita has been declining for decades, oil production may peak in the next five years or so, soil erosion and deforestation are rampant, water tables are falling almost everywhere that it matters.

Alas, there is no single book which really comprehensively examines these questions. But there are three books which I highly recommend to anyone who wants to study the issue, the full references for which are above: Collapse by Jared Diamond, The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter, and Something New Under the Sun by J. R. McNeill.

The latest, greatest, and most readable book is Jared Diamondís Collapse. Just published early this year (2005), it is already on the best seller lists. Diamond is best known as the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. In Collapse he focuses on environmental crises faced by past civilizations. Our own culture is not examined systematically, although he does discuss the case of modern Montana. For people who want to know more about what happened on Easter Island, to the Norse settlements in Greenland, or to the Mayas, this is just your book.

At the top of the list of historical examples is the story of Easter Island ó probably the classic case of environmental collapse. Easter Island had a large population and a thriving economy complete with forested areas that could have provided trees for boats and supported a much higher standard of living. But through overpopulation and thoughtless destruction of the environment, the trees were all cut down, the population collapsed, and the statues left standing where they were at the time of the collapse ó long before the Europeans arrived. Easter Island is only one of scenarios that Diamond considers ó he also discusses civilizations from the Maya to modern Haiti.  The failed Norse settlements in Greenland actually get the most space compared to any other society.

I appreciated Diamondís analysis and I am grateful for the compelling descriptions he has of the complexity of the situations which these various ancient (and modern) societies had. There are so many books being published these days, and a lot of it is just trash ó it is a waste of the paper it is written on. Here is an author who has achieved some fame with a Pulitzer prize, and probably could publish his letters to his dog if he wanted to, but instead spends his literary capital to draw attention to a problem that is clearly of the greatest significance for the future of humanity.

Some reviewers, such as Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times, have criticized Diamond for arbitrary selection of past case histories. "Why Easter Island and not ancient Rome?" Kakutani asks in her perceptive review. In the case of Easter Island, there was manifest environmental damage done by the humans; but in ancient Rome, environmental influences appear to be minimal, non-existent, or even negative, as population actually decreased in many parts of the empire toward the end. 

I think this is a valid point, but misses the thrust of the book, which is to look at a special kind of collapse, the collapse due to environmental pressure, and Diamond has done a pretty good job of that. Collapse due solely to economic and political complications (ancient Rome in a nutshell) is outside the scope of the book.

Into the Twentieth Century

Diamondís historical approach to past environmental crises leaves us with two further questions.

The first question is, what about todayís society? The failure of the Norse settlements, which at maximum only consisted of several thousand inhabitants, hardly constitutes a model for global collapse, does it? Are these "local" disasters of the past really comparable to the present?

This where Something New Under the Sun comes in. Itís not quite as popularly written as Diamondís book, but if you want to know what happened to the environment during the twentieth century, this is an excellent history. The book conveys the overall impression, as the title implies, that so far as human alteration of the environment is concerned, something fundamentally different happened in the twentieth century, orders of magnitude greater, which makes todayís situation very different from anything we have faced in the past (and much worse). He looks at the earthís soil, urban air pollution, global air pollution, water pollution, water diversions and mining, land use, forests and fish, urbanization, energy, and ideas. The only real improvement during the twentieth century has been with respect to urban pollution, at least in the richer countries. When this book is set against Diamondís, we see that the same kinds of forces at work on Easter Island are at work in the world, are global rather than local, and are intensifying.

To maintain our current standard of living, we are spending down irreplaceable natural capital, and when that is gone ó when the land is degraded, the groundwater pumped, and oil production declining ó then we will seemingly have no choice but to fall back into barbarism, a Dark Age from which humanity may never emerge. The smart money, I am afraid, says that civilization (as we know it) will not survive. But of course, thereís no point in making such a bet since if you win, the economic system in which you might collect such a bet wonít exist.

Why Do Societies Collapse?

So we might as well try to figure out what is happening, and why, and try to do something about it. And so we would like a bit more analysis of why these ancient societies collapsed. Diamond at the end does briefly try to answer this question, but only gives general answers such as "failure to perceive the problem" or "failure to act on the problem once it was visible." Obviously so; but we'd want a little more detail at this point, so we could apply meaningful lessons to our present situation.  

If you are looking for analysis, you could hardly do better than look at Joseph Tainterís book The Collapse of Complex Societies. Tainterís book, published 17 years ago, is also well-written. But is the hardest of the three books to get through, first of all because he is writing for intelligent and literate readers (some would say "academic"), and secondly the subject itself is just complex. Despite this, I would urge anyone who is seriously interested in the question of whether our society will collapse to take a look at this important book.

Tainterís subject is broader than Diamondís: Tainter wants to explain the more general subject of societal collapse, regardless of whether the collapse was caused by environmental pressure or not. He devotes some considerable attention to the fall of Rome ó in some ways the "paradigm" of the collapse of an ancient society ó which had virtually nothing to do with the environment. Tainter has reviewed all the literature on economic collapse in a very helpful way ó he is unstinting in his criticism of what he calls the "mystical" theories of collapse put forward by Spengler and Toynbee.

Tainter says that environmental destruction does not explain collapse.  I think he's shortchanged the environmental causes of social collapse, but he has a valid point: sometimes ancient societies collapse without environmental destruction (e. g., Rome) and sometimes environmental destruction occurs but does not result in the collapse of society (e. g, the U. S., at least so far). 

What's the critical factor here? Itís great to have more "ammunition" in the form of another conclusive study showing beyond doubt that global warming is real or that soil erosion is unsustainable, but what we really want to know is, is there anything in history that would help us understand how we can get society to do something about it?

Tainterís explanation of collapse is that it is caused by (deep breath): declining marginal returns with regard to investment in organizational solutions to socioeconomic problems.

Most of us are going to have to reread this statement several times before we have a clue what he is talking about. The idea of "declining marginal returns" may be familiar to economists. If someone produced something for sale ó say, Cabbage Patch dolls ó then at first there may have been a significant demand for them, and those producing Cabbage Patch dolls made money hand over fist. But eventually, the public tired of Cabbage Patch dolls, so that additional money invested in manufacturing and advertising such dolls just didnít pay off. The "marginal returns" on the manufacture of Cabbage Patch dolls ó the payoff for the next dollar invested ó had declined to the point where it just wasnít worth it any more, even though the average returns over the whole history of the fad was great and these people made lots of money.

Tainter's idea is essentially this: when additional inputs into government (or into whatever organization or cultural structure, public or private, that we are looking to for solutions) stops producing additional results, or in fact produces negative results, you face a collapse situation -- the society is in danger of collapse. It may make more sense, economically, for the society to collapse back to a simpler level than to maintain itself.

Another key point Tainter makes is that "collapse" in social terms may not necessarily mean chaos and deprivation. In the case of the fall of the Roman Empire, such a social collapse may actually result in an increase in economic well-being: the average peasant experienced the collapse as relief from taxation, with life otherwise remaining pretty much the same. For Joe Peasant, maintaining the Empire was more trouble than it was worth ó bring on the barbarians.

So much for my review of these three books, which investigate (among other questions) the relationship between environmental destruction and social collapse.  We don't have a definitive answer from these authors, but even if environmental destruction doesn't absolutely cause collapse, it surely helps the process along.

But what causes environmental destruction?  There are two related questions, which all of these authors allude to but never deal with systematically:

1. Does our food system cause environmental destruction?

2. Does our economic system cause environmental destruction?

What's Food Got to Do With It?

Vegetarians, and anyone advocating "eating low on the food chain," are going to wonder what food production issues have to do with the examples of social collapse cited by these authors.  So far, I have  dealt mostly with the question of whether environmental destruction causes social collapse, but ignored the question of what causes environmental destruction.  

It's likely that all of these phenomena are linked today.   Food shortages play a critical role in most of the cases of collapse which Diamond cites -- the Norse settlements in Greenland, the Maya, and the Anasazi, for example.  Indeed, food shortages were precisely the way the environmental destruction translated into social instability.

It's not obvious, however, that meat production per se was the cause of environmental destruction or the food shortages in the scenarios Diamond analyzes. The Mayan Empire was so overpopulated that it is likely the entire civilization would have collapsed even if everyone had been vegetarian; the Norse would have probably survived had they abandoned their cows and taken to fishing instead.

However, the fact that meat production was not the key engine in environmental destruction in these past societies does not mean that we can conclude it isn't an issue today. The causes of environmental destruction are various. The lesson of Easter Island is not "don't transport huge statues across your island using logs," but "don't destroy the environment."  

We may not be chopping down our forests to transport huge statues, like the natives of Easter Island. But we are experiencing tremendous deforestation, soil erosion, and groundwater depletion, in large part due to our food system.  It's not because we're hauling huge statues around: it's because we're eating high on the food chain.  And there is something we can do about this -- eat lower on the food chain, plant foods instead of animal foods.

The modern world consumes meat in a way scarcely imaginable even a few centuries ago.  Environmental degradation in the U. S. in the past two hundred years rivals or exceeds that in several millennia of European history.  The U. S. has not collapsed ó yet ó largely because America was so rich environmentally to begin with and environmental destruction is so historically recent. 

But we are on a collision course with reality: meat production is going up worldwide, as well as the clearly unsustainable soil erosion, groundwater depletion, and deforestation that go along with it. Food, of course, is not the only issue which we face; but food is a critical issue, and vegetarians should be in the forefront of our struggle for a sustainable lifestyle.

Jobs or the Environment?

The other question is whether our economic system itself may be promoting environmental destruction.

Tainterís analysis of social collapse as "declining marginal returns on investment" is reminiscent in a way of Marx. Marx makes a similar analysis of capitalism. For Marx, the reason that capitalism must collapse is because of the declining rate of profit. Capitalism goes along fine when capitalists invest money and make a profit. But as capitalism progresses, the capitalist invests more, and makes less. (Marxís reasoning is a bit complex, but basically it has to do with the labor theory of value and the idea that as capitalism progresses, the relative investment in labor, on which profit depends, decreases while the relative investment in capital increases.)

What's the effect of all this economic activity on the environment?  Marx is not very helpful here -- natural resources are briefly mentioned in volume 3 of Capital.  While Marx didn't say it, it has often been pointed out that the economy can do fine while the environment deteriorates, and vice versa. 

Some, of course, vigorously dispute this idea that we must choose between the economy and the environment.   We can have both lots of jobs and preserve the environment, too. We do not have to hurt the economy to preserve the environment! 

Unfortunately, I donít think this thesis can be sustained. To preserve the environment, we will hurt the economy. Rather than argue this point in detail, I will simply throw out the following example: letís suppose that, tomorrow, three times the oil thought to be in Saudi Arabia is found in Texas. What would happen to the stock market? It would go up. Profits would abound. All that cheap gasoline would do wonders for the economy. (Well, thereís global warming which would eventually have an impact, but letís ignore that for the moment.) 

Marx would say, in a way strongly reminiscent of Tainter, that this is because of increasing return for a given investment.  The cost of capital investments (of which gasoline is a part) would go down, thus the ratio of labor to capital increases and the rate of profit increases. In fact, the history of the stock market supports this idea: recessions usually center around a spike in energy prices. In fact, cheap energy and other cheap resources go quite a way towards explaining why America has not experienced a declining economy in accord with Marxist expectations.

But what will happen if the opposite happens and oil production peaks and begins to decline ó as we expect it will, perhaps within a decade, perhaps within a year? Profits will go down because capital costs will go up and the rate of profit will go down. If oil production peaks and then declines, never to rise again ó despite increasing demand ó it may push the economic system into a permanent recession or depression. Regardless of what we think about the other parts of Marxís theory, if the cost of energy goes up permanently, it will tend to bring about exactly the kind of classic "Marxist" collapse of the economic system.  This would happen regardless of whether we are forced to do so because we have run out of cheap oil, or whether we do so as a voluntary measure (say, by gasoline taxes) to combat global warming.  Isn't the net effect the same?

I have stated this in terms of oil, but it also applies to every other natural resource we are "mining," especially land, water, and forests. As soil erosion progresses, food will become more expensive. As groundwater depletion progresses, everything that depends on freshwater supplies in arid or semi-arid climates will become more expensive. On the other hand, simply "conserving" resources ó by voluntarily using less energy, less soil, less water, less of everything else ó we would produce similar economic effects, at worst an economic collapse. There may be unpleasant shocks ahead for us, no matter what we do: and that is the upshot of the need for examining the question of the collapse of our society.

Metaphors and Scenarios of the Apocalypse

What will happen? Obviously, I canít settle that question in a few paragraphs. There are several different scenarios which we would need to look at, which might happen separately or in combination. There might be an economic collapse, e. g., a worldwide and more-or-less permanent economic depression. There might in the more extreme case be a social collapse in which the United States and most other nation-states cease to exist, and we might be back at a level of social organization prevalent from 100 to 500 years ago. Most seriously, we might have an environmental collapse in which it became physically impossible to maintain the minimal aspects of the civilization to which we had become accustomed, thus circumventing the future not only for ourselves but for our descendants and for any future intelligent species which might evolve on our planet.

Of course, all of these scenarios are a bit vague, and need further thought. An environmental collapse might be as serious as the extinction of all life on earth, or it might mean just that we could only support a much smaller human population (say, half a billion or so) in some degree of comfort and scientific progress. An economic collapse, on the other hand, would not necessarily mean a social collapse in which the functions of government would cease ó the kind of collapse such as happened on Easter Island, among the Maya, and other cases that Diamond and Tainter discuss. Thus, itís not impossible that an economic collapse might be a good thing; it might forestall an even more serious social or environmental collapse.

A system based on violence towards the earth, towards the animals, and towards each other must be ended, or it will be ended for us. It may be that it is time to rethink our ideas about politics, society, and the economy. It may be that the whole economic system of valuing natural resources is wrong from the beginning. It may be that the collapse of our present social, political, and economic systems -- far from being an evil to be  avoided at all costs -- might be the best thing that happened to us. A thorough rethinking of these systems is now in order.

-- Keith Akers
(revised Feb. 15, 2005)

Related articles on "The Collapse of Civilization":

Part 1: Collapse -- Coming Soon to a Civilization Near You!
A review of books by Jared Diamond, J. R. McNeill, and Joseph Tainter, on the collapse of civilizations and the current state of our own.

Part 2: Reviews of Better Off and The Long Emergency
Reviews of two books by James Kunstler and Eric Brende which offer alternative visions of possible futures.

Part 3: Is Peak Oil Here?, reviews of books by Ken Deffeys and Matt Simmons on peak oil.

Part 4: Five More Good Books on the Collapse of Civilization!  Reviews of books by Jeremy Legget, Lindsey Grant, Ronald Wright, John Howe, and Julian Darley. 

Part 5: Decline and Fall, a review of Are We Rome?

Part 6: Peak Oil at the Movies, a review of A Crude Awakening, Crude Impact, and What a Way to Go.