May 25, 2012
In order to thoroughly understand societal collapse, it is important to explore the idea that, often times, the “nail in the coffin” for many societies is a bad decision, or collection of bad decisions, that the society itself makes. Joseph Tainter, an archaeologist, argues in his book The Collapse of Complex Societies, that believing any society willingly depletes its own natural resources requires the assumption that “these societies sit by and watch the encroaching weakness without taking corrective actions.” He goes on to point out that the inherent purpose of a governmental institution is to counter societal fluctuations that negatively impact productivity, and that it is “curious that they would collapse when faced with precisely those conditions they are equipped to circumvent.” It does not intuitively make sense that any society would intentionally sabotage its own success or well-being, perhaps because the pathways to poor decision-making are often convoluted and unclear. Naturally, no two societal collapses would mirror one another, both for cultural and geographical differences; there is no single answer as to why societies make decisions that undermine their own achievement and stability. In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond attempts to lay a general roadmap of the different circumstances that lead civilizations to disrupt previous prosperity.
The first group of disastrous decisions falls under the broad category of groups failing to anticipate a problem before it arrives. For instance, some societies may not be adequately prepared for extended drought or natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods. Several different causes are responsible for the failure to foresee an obstacle. First, and most simply, a society may not expect a problem because they have never dealt with the problem before. A society just developing its own agricultural systems has no clear understanding of sustainable farming practices, and conversely their own ability to cause, at least in the short-term, irreversible damage to agricultural land. Diamond notes that decisions under this category are particularly unfortunate because the actions are carried out intentionally (421), with the society completely ignorant of the consequences. Past experience with a problem, however, is not necessarily enough to prevent a society from committing devastating decisions: often times, the last occurrence of such a dilemma is so far in the past as to be forgotten. This is particularly troubling for non-literate societies with no written record of the cause and effect of a particular decision.
Even literate societies may make the same violations. Diamond references the United States’ forgotten recognition of gas guzzling vehicles in the 70’s (422), as we today utilize many fuel-inefficient vehicles (although rising gas prices are beginning to encourage a positive transition). Converse to Tainter’s theory, inability to see a problem coming is one of the primary causes of poor decision making; it is also possible that once the consequences of an action do become apparent, the society may be unaware of how to combat it, especially having never done so before.
Next, Diamond identifies a form of decision-making governed by failure to perceive a problem that has actually arrived. One basic cause of bad decision-making, in this case, is that some problems have completely imperceptible origins or consequences. An example of this idea is soil erosion: often times, there are no visible indicators that soils are becoming nutrient-depleted, so people are not alerted to let the soil fallow in order to recover. Another less obvious example would be modern day global warming; although we have the technology to record minute changes in temperature, society as a whole seems minimally encouraged to lessen the actions responsible for anthropogenic climate change because small temperature changes, though significant to the environment, are nearly undetectable by humans. Another cause of failure to perceive an existent problem is when it is a very slowly changing trend, hidden by fluctuations believed to be naturally occurring, as with temperature change. This phenomenon is known as “creeping normalcy,” because the “baseline standard for what constitutes ‘normalcy’ shifts gradually and imperceptibly” (425). Similarly, another form of creeping normalcy is known as “landscape amnesia.” Landscape amnesia occurs when the appearance of the landscape changes dramatically over a considerable time period, usually multiple decades, and the past landscape is forgotten. This could have been especially problematic in the past when life spans were much shorter, because newer generations would have no record of past landscapes, and thus no understanding that past actions caused the landscapes to change.
Lastly, even once a problem has been perceived, some societies may make no attempt to solve it, for a multitude of possible reasons. Often times, these reasons come in the form of conflicting interests, or in the form of societies rationalizing their inaction in the face of a clear problem. One example, known as “the tragedy of the commons,” is a combination of both factors. The “tragedy of the commons” occurs when multiple parties share a common resource without any regulation about how much of the resource each party can exploit. This leads the individual parties to the mindset that whatever portion of the resource they do not harvest, another of the parties will, so there is no use in employing moderation; effectively, the “tragedy of the commons” is a rationalization for not exercising restraint. Another example of failure to resolve a present problem, an example especially relevant to the Maya, is when “interests of the decision-making elite in power clash with the interests of the rest of society” (430). The Maya kings were typically preoccupied with regional wars and erecting monuments to better their own reputations, leading to inaction about the woes of the commoners. Because of their high status, Maya rulers had little difficulty isolating themselves from the problems, thereby making them dismissible. Often times, religious or moral values are directly inhibitive to a society’s willingness to solve a problem. Diamond refers to the complete deforestation of Easter Island. Although an extremely disastrous decision, the people of Easter Island were religiously motivated to cut down the island’s trees “to obtain logs to transport and erect the giant stone statues,” (432) for which the past society is famous. Finally, failure to address serious problems can result from public opinion that previous warnings were false alarms, or from public dislike for the identifier of the problem.
Diamond makes it abundantly clear that there are endless numbers of pathways that allow or encourage societies to make choices that ultimately contribute to their own demise, whether or not they are aware of the potential consequences. No one reason can be assigned to all societal collapses, because the set of circumstances for each society are often completely unique. One thing important to recognize is that not all societies fail because of their decisions; some societies anticipate, perceive, and attempt to solve their problems, but fail for other reasons, including not having the capacity to solve the problem, not having the financial resources to solve the problem, or not having become aware of the problem soon enough to fix it. Additionally, not all disastrous decisions lead to failure, and not all societies collapse. The most important question to ask of societal collapse is if, and how, it is manifesting today. Are modern day people making some of the disastrous decisions laid out by Diamond that could eventually leave us obsolete? Only time may tell.
Sydney MacEwen, an LA native, is an upcoming Junior pursuing a BS in Environmental Studies and a minor in Geological Hazards. This is her first trip to Belize. She’s particularly interested in climate change and related policy. She hopes to pursue a Master of Arts in Environmental Studies following her undergraduate education.