Why Civilizations Decline


Dr. Montague is Executive Director of the Environmental Research Foundation.

Some civilizations reach their peak of power and then suddenly collapse and remain in decline or even disappear. Others thrive for thousands of years. What accounts for the difference, and what does it matter to the U.S.?

The year 2005 began with an interesting choice by the editors of the New York Times -- the first op-ed of the year was a long essay by Jared Diamond called "The ends of the world as we know them." Diamond won the Pulitzer prize for his non-fiction book, "Guns, Germs, and Steel" and later in 2005 he published "Collapse; How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed."

Diamond's op-ed offers an analysis of why civilizations collapse. It is an essay obviously intended to make us ask, "Does our civilization have what it takes to survive?" In the opening paragraph he says, "In this fresh year, with the United States seemingly at the height of its power and at the start of a new presidential term, Americans are increasingly concerned and divided about where we are going. How long can America remain ascendant? Where will we stand 10 years from now, or even next year?"

Diamond goes on: "Such questions seem especially appropriate this year. History warns us that when once-powerful societies collapse, they tend to do so quickly and unexpectedly. That shouldn't come as much of a surprise: peak power usually means peak population, peak needs, and hence peak vulnerability. What can be learned from history that could help us avoid joining the ranks of those who declined swiftly?"

Diamond tells the stories of a few past civilizations that collapsed and rapidly disappeared -- the Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico; the Polynesian societies on Henderson and Pitcairn islands in the tropical Pacific Ocean; the Anasazi in the American southwest; the ancient societies of the Fertile Crescent; the Khmer at Angkor Wat; and the Moche society of Peru, among others.

Diamond then offers a long list of other societies that followed a different trajectory and survived for very long periods in Japan, Tonga, Tikopia, the New Guinea Highlands, and Central and Northwest Europe, among others. So collapse is not inevitable. Collapse is the result of choices.

Diamond asserts that collapse results from 5 inter-woven factors:

  • The damage that people have inflicted on their environment;
  • Climate change;
  • Enemies;
  • Changes in friendly trading partners;
  • Society's political, economic, and social responses to those shifts.
  • After telling the stories of particular societies that collapsed or prospered, Diamond asks pointedly, "What lessons can we draw from history?"

    Take environmental problems seriously

    He answers bluntly: "The most straightforward [lesson from history]: take environmental problems seriously. They destroyed societies in the past, and they are even more likely to do so now. If 6,000 Polynesians with stone tools were able to destroy Mangareva Island, consider what six billion people with metal tools and bulldozers are doing today. Moreover, while the Maya collapse affected just a few neighboring societies in Central America, globalization now means that any society's problems have the potential to affect anyone else. Just think how crises in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq have shaped the United States today."

    The second reasons for collapse is "failure of group decision-making." Diamond then offers three kinds of failure of decision-making:

    Decision-making failure #1: "One reason involves conflicts of interest, whereby one group within a society (for instance, the pig farmers who caused the worst erosion in medieval Greenland and Iceland) can profit by engaging in practices that damage the rest of society," Diamond writes.

    Examples of this in contemporary society might include

  • The petrochemical industry that reaps mountainous profits by selling products that are heating up the planet, contaminating our bodies with biologically-active industrial poisons, and leaving tens of thousands of chemically-contaminated waste sites for taxpayers to try to deal with.
  • Another example might be the tobacco industry that is now hawking its cancer-causing wares to unsuspecting children world-wide.
  • This list could be readily extended because the U.S. pays only lip service to the important principle that "the polluter shall pay." More often than not, in the U.S. the polluter is subsidized by the federal government to evade paying.
  • Decision-making failure #2: "... [T]he pursuit of short-term gains at the expense of long-term survival, as when fishermen overfish the stocks on which their livelihoods ultimately depend."

  • We might include in this category: unsustainable logging practices; industrialized agriculture, which depletes topsoil and contaminates water with fertilizer and pesticides; and waste-treatment plants that discharge wastes into waters that must then be cleaned for drinking and other essential purposes.
  • Decision failure #3: "History also teaches us two deeper lessons about what separates successful societies from those heading toward failure."

    Deep lesson #1: "A society contains a built-in blueprint for failure if the elite insulates itself from the consequences of its actions."

  • With 10% of the U.S. population owning 71% of all private wealth, we do not have to look far to see this principle at work in the U.S.
  • The Walmartization of the economy is one example -- getting rid of good, family-sustaining jobs and substituting low-wage jobs with no benefits and no job security. This does not hurt the 10%, but ultimately it weakens the social fabric that sustains the other 90% of us.
  • The privatization of public services is another example -- depleting the ranks of the civil service that provides continuity and expertise to government from one administration to the next. The firms that run the private prisons, the privatized public schools, the private water-supplies, the private highways, the privatized environmental services -- those firms can make out like bandits but the rest of us stand by helplessly as the capacity of our governmental institutions withers and our common wealth disappears.
  • The refusal to provide pensions for workers would be a third example -- when a Reagan-appointed judge allows United Airlines to walk away from its pension obligations, it's good for the company's bottom line, and other firms quickly follow suit. Renouncing pension responsibilities is now epidemic. Meanwhile, government -- dominated as it is by the 10% -- is working mightily to cut back Medicare and Medicaid. The 10% do not have to ask who will care for them in their old age, but the other 90% of us do and for many the answer is nothing but an empty question mark.
  • Deep lesson #2: "The other deep lesson involves a willingness to re-examine long-held core values, when conditions change and those values no longer make sense."

    Here, Jared Diamond provides his own examples of the U.S. clinging to dangerously outmoded ideas:

    In this New Year, we Americans have our own painful reappraisals to face. Historically, we viewed the United States as a land of unlimited plenty, and so we practiced unrestrained consumerism, but that's no longer viable in a world of finite resources. We can't continue to deplete our own resources as well as those of much of the rest of the world.

    But how long can we keep this up? Though we are the richest nation on earth, there's simply no way we can afford (or muster the troops) to intervene in the dozens of countries where emerging threats lurk -- particularly when each intervention these days can cost more than $100 billion and require more than 100,000 troops. [The Iraq war has cost the U.S. $244 billion so far, with no end in sight.--PM]

    A genuine reappraisal would require us to recognize that it will be far less expensive and far more effective to address the underlying problems of public health, population and environment that ultimately cause threats to us to emerge in poor countries. In the past, we have regarded foreign aid as either charity or as buying support; now, it's an act of self-interest to preserve our own economy and protect American lives.

    To me the most important point in Jared Diamond's essay is this one:

    "A society contains a built-in blueprint for failure if the elite insulates itself from the consequences of its actions." This is surely the case in the United States today.

    The remedy for this problem is more democratic decision-making. Decisions should be made with real participation by the people who will be affected. (For information about how this is working now in some places, see here and here).

    If this simple principle were practised to a greater extent that it is today, most of the problems that threaten our civilization could be reversed or considerably diminished. On the other hand, if we continue to allow a tiny elite to manage the economy and run the government for their own narrow, selfish purposes, the outlook for long-term success is dim.

    Related Links

  • Jared Diamond: How Civilizations End (How We Can Escape the Fate of those that Died)
  • Wikipedia: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

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    More Comments:

    Benn Sampare - 4/16/2009

    Interesting but the glaring ommission is the fact that God judges nations, individuals, groups and trying to make up your own morals outside of God's clear word is dangerous.

    God does not have a slide rule mentality when it come to sin.

    Ed Night - 4/13/2008

    There is only one truth for all things biologic evolution it is self evident all else is interpretative belief. Scientific proof by experimentation dictates that when you repeat failure you must change your methods. The human mind is a terrible thing to waste on people who distort the truth to be accepted as normal but are unacceptably abnormal. The decline of any civilization is marked by certain conditions & events; poverty, illiteracy, (divorce-over population-inbreeding) and criminal behavior leading to the perversion of a cultured society (i.e. self distructive behavior) and finally the denial of science as if it were foolishness. History has repeated itself enough that social scientists can predict and dictate how communities perform (i.e. over population & mental instablity) so much so that governments can use chaotic behavior to control political and economic trends to the point of being weapons of war. To be an intelligent adult you must be allowed to pre-judge and discriminate right from wrong, to be an effective individual you must be able to impose correctness upon those who require correction. Maturity requires the correction of the juvenile. Undeserved forgiveness is necessary to preserve the mental health of one's self then that ablity can be taught to others creating social stability & continuity. Intolerance of the moral majority by any minority is a slow death for any country. The final analysis is simple, If you agree with some or all of these statements pertaining to thier connectivity, and you have engaged your mind to discern the many interconnected problems in these United States of America? We as a people must respond & abolish corruption in politics and in corporate america for our country to survive..

    omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

    Mr. tlb
    Do not pay much attention to what he has to say for he is, simply, Kobashaving!
    It is his one and only forte!

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    Motor mouth non-historian kneejerk cranks Heuisler and Kovachev are not worth your time, Patrick. They have not read Diamond, whose works -while certainly not above reproach- haven't got jacks--- to do with "Cultural Materialism" or Marxism. These crypto fascists do not have clue what Diamond is about.

    Patrick M. Ebbitt - 9/24/2006

    Guns, Germs and Steel Mr. Heuisler (as I have, all 471 pages) explain the story of the almond?

    t l b,

    Post #91438 was the best ever by our resident tough guy however, pay no mind or attention to and have absolutely no fear of the loudmouth/ bully Heuisler.

    He only attacks those that he perceives, within the narrow broken pane window of his distorted world view, to be weak and servile. His agitation at those who are his intellectual superior is again, as it is quite often here at HNN, clearly evident.

    Kick him square in his atrophied nuts just once and he'll cower, whimper and slither away like the sissy la-la he truly is.

    Patrick M. Ebbitt - 9/24/2006


    Let's be friends... NOT !!!

    You really are a 'crackpot' as one poster called you two weeks ago. Even more unbalanced than I would ever imagine and that assessment is from someone who knows, first hand, from a career in HR. So let's begin...

    You summarize, "He has degrees in geography and disciplines other than anthropology or history, but declaims authoritatively on them."

    Explain what this has to do in evaluating the works of Diamond who spent decades in the field with first person observation/ documentation?

    Then you go on to write quoting Diamond, "it merely proves to reflect the ubiquitous role of geography in the transmission of human culture and technology." (pg. 317)

    If Diamond is incorrect explain your theory of the following;

    Where did New Guinea peoples originate? How/when did they arrive?

    If New Guinea was not isolated/separated by geography/distance from the rest of the planet to prevent the transmission of it's culture how then did only shell fishhooks, unique to this culture, spread only into Australia well in advance of Portuguese discovery (1526-27 de Meneses) Yet, other advances such as agriculture, hogs and basic bow/arrow are not adopted. Why? Explain your version of the path to the Austronesian expansion?

    If Egypt were not located along the Mediterranean/ direct east-wast trade routes corridor of Eurasia/ how would it differ from the Bantu region of Africa?

    Diamond is absolutely correct in that geography (location/topography/climate) dictates just how rapidly civilizations adapt/develop/progress as being essential in food production that in time grows population to create and feed non-producers/ specialists like armies and that further allow/promote the spread of domestic plants/animals. The affect/size of population then dictates/ creates differing societal pressures/ innovations or encroachment on neighboring societies.

    Europe and Asia share an east/west axis allowing ease of diversity/diffusion while Africa and North America with north/south axis and more isolated were slower to develop/migrate. What affect did geography have and why is Diamond wrong, in your opinion, as to how these areas developed so uniquely/differently/in pacing?

    The geographic isolation of select areas limited migration/ diffusion. Explain why this is untrue?

    As for the your post above you can keep on with the cut/paste job until doomsday for all I care. You're only eating bandwidth and proving yourself to be an even smaller man than you already are. In fact you should print a copy of my diatribe to keep in your pocket as a reminder that I am here to defend free speech for all and to stamp out fascist cockroaches like you when they infringe on others right to that speech.

    Patrick M. Ebbitt - 9/24/2006


    Dr. Marohasy's article is quite interesting coming from a climate change skeptic / proponent of corporate agriculture and massive use of man made fertilizers but, please don't get angry for, I have seen how you can get, if I comment that she is quite attractive. Maybe, even someone who would shoot you down for making small talk/a pass at her while dicussing the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire at the local tap room.

    However, after reading Diamond's book, many sections two and three times as not being an expert nor particularly bright, I cannot seem to figure out how the current state of 'Australia's Environment Undergoing Renewal, Not Collapse' in anyway refutes the thesis/ premise presented by 'Guns, Germs and Steel'. Not having yet struggled to muddle through Diamond's book 'Collapse' and seeing as that my post within this thread was based solely on the former work and not the latter your long winded diatribe was wasted albeit, not in full, on this here particular dunderhead.

    For a brilliant scholar of your magnitude... a nod's as good as a wink to a blind bat... to ignore geography (location, topography, climate, proximity) as easily the most important factor in the development of this little blue marble unless, of course you live in Atlantis, then discount food (production, development, diversity); population (growth, migration, inter-breeding, conquest); technology (language, agriculture, industry, art, warfare) as thoroughly outlined by Diamond then you are in no position to answer my questions.

    Feel free to attack Diamond as you please. For the uneducated/ uninitiated such as I, found the work fascinating and worthy of the Pulitzer Prize. Pity you weren't able to beat Diamond to Norton's door with your own history of the world. Maybe, next time but, keep your jealous hostility for him alive as a motivating tool as you prepare your own prize winning/ bestselling novel.

    Further, I am the sure the idiotic likes of Edward Gibbon, Thomas Malthus, Arnold Toynbee, David Ricardo, Theodor Mommsen, John Powell or Joseph Conrad all would be very interested in your point that the study of the birth/ development/ zenith/ decline of civilizations only began in earnest with Karl Marx. How well do you believe that any of these lesser scholars would fair in a debate against Marx with the topic 'Civilization; what is it good for other than creating oppression and exploitation' ?

    Peter Kovachev - 6/25/2006


    I don't know how to respond to this wall-to-wall explosion of word-diarrhea other than to repeat the same points with even fewer words.

    1) I have no issue with Diamond's analyses of ancient cultures; only with his unsubstantiated and politicised "remedies" to our current situations, at least as described by Montague. Otherwise, enjoy his books; I'd rather spend my time and money on more original, less derivative and more empirically-based works.

    2) I don't think Gibbon, Malthus, Toynbee and the other Greats were all idiots ... well ok, maybe Toynbee was, but that's another matter. And of course they too and others before and after Marx studied civilizations. Perhaps one day you'll surprise me by telling me something I don't already know. All I said was that Marx was the first prominent thinker to postulate that material conditions and means of production determine culture, rather than the other way around. Unfortunately, Marx was a political crank who veered off disciplined research into a modern version of prophetic seizures and messianic dreams. It was the school of Cultural Materialism which further developed this way of understanding cultures, but which unlike Marx, tried to apply scientific methodolgy and avoided making grand predictions or having political raptures.

    I hope all this makes sense, but hope's cheap. You don't need to struggle through Diamond's works to get any of this, only grade 9 education will do, and besides, that portion of my post was not addressed to you. If the light still doesn't come on, take Peter Clarke's advice below and dismiss me as a motor-mouth knee-jerk crank and stop wasting my time.

    Peter Kovachev - 6/25/2006

    Being temporarily away from my references (and high-speed internet), I'll have to stick my neck out here as I go from faulty memory.

    Warfare seems to first appear in areas where, as you suggest, there was not enough land to go around. The melting of the ice caps and the warming of Fertile Crescent and Mediterranean Basin left the hunter-gatherers without the large and numerous game they were used to and forced them to coalesce into larger groups (stratified tribes) and to depend more on gathering of high-protein crops in localized areas (e.g., acorns and walnuts) and eventually raising of crops such as emer wheat. Such foods may be inferior to good old juicy steak, but organized garthering and even primitive agriculture can produce a significant surplus of calories ... and most importantly one which can be stored. It's no surprise that subterranean stone-built and lime-covered storage pits represent the first examples of permanent architecture.

    Seasonal agrarians and herders tend to clash (your stupid cow ate my lentils) and I think the first documented examples of fortified dwellings and villages, indicating frequent clashes, appear on the Anatolian Plateau, where wild grasses and the pulses were developed into the versions we know today.

    The Indo-European Celts, Latins and Mycaeneans you mention were already "late" and advanced herding and agriculture-experienced cultures with stratified warrior societies and comparatively advanced technologies like the plow and the wheel. The proto-Indo-European words for these still echo in the European languages (e.g., plugh, kwekulo, vagun). Whoever the Indo-Europeans took Eurasia from didn't stand a chance before these disciplined horse-mounted, bow-and-arrow equipped peoples.

    Trouble with poor Oetzi is that he is one small and probably unrepresentative piece of evidence. True, he could have represented a major historical shift towards intensive warfare, or he could have been a victim of a hunting accident or a brawl over a woman, a scenario not unusual even among largely peaceful hunter/gatherers.

    Then again, eventhough European conditions at the time Oetzi may not have "naturally" steered its inhabitants towards warfare, the groups who slowly populated the peninsula may have come from more "advanced," i.e., warfare-experienced areas. In pristine and socially egalitarian hunter-gatherer band-level societies, inter-personal conflict is a rarity as the culture suppresses violent behaviour. But then, you get weird anomalies, as with the Yanomamo of South America who are/were hunter-gatherers, but retained a warrior culture, being "regressed" descendants of a more "advanced" society.

    All fun and games and speculations, and I shiver at the thought that a professional archeologist or anthropologist will chance at my musings here.

    Frederick Thomas - 6/22/2006

    I like the emphasis on prehistory very much. (But were these "empires?"
    Ahh... Who cares?)

    It appears that until the advent of the Celts/Latins/Mycenaeans in Europe, there appeared to be enough land to go around with the technology of the day, without fighting for it. Afterward, everything appeared to be a contest.

    The tipping point came around the time of Oetzi, about 5000 years ago, towards the end of the second Kirgin migration. Oetzi, the only fully preserved corpse of a human being of that antiquity, died of an arrow shot, blood loss and hypothermia.

    Now that was a big turning point in European history-the invention of more or less constant war.

    Peter Kovachev - 6/22/2006

    My link to Marohasy's paper (http://www.ipa.org.au/files/EE%2016-3+4_Marohasy.pdf) didn't activate properly. Best to copy & paste it into the address bar.

    Peter Kovachev - 6/22/2006

    Your attempt to sound-off as an expert (albeit with an alcoholism or anger management issues) is quite amusing, Mr. Ebbitt. As you "casually" drop questions about Austronesian expansion or East-West corridors of expansion or such, someone who doesn't know you too well might be forgiven for assuming that you know of what you speak. I hope it works for you on the chicks at your local watering hole as you struggle through the fricatives, spittle flying and beer dribbling, hollering about non-producers and specialists, affect/size of populations and whatever else your pickled synapses might fire at you. All this to Zappa's noise as a backdrop. Bill Heuisler needn’t reply to your “questions” simply because if you yourself don’t understand them, answers would be wasted on you. So much for you.

    Now, for anyone else who might be reading this. It may be fascinating news to Mr. Ebbitt, but the influence of geography and environment on human history has been out of the bag for a while now. As in ever since there were humans around. Still, the first attempts to systematically study the relationship between human actions and their environment began in the nineteenth century, with Marx being the most prominent proponent. But it was really in the 1960s, starting with Marvin Harris and his strategy of Cultural Materialism that systematic empirical inquiry and scientific methodology were attempted in lieu of ideological considerations. Diamond, who appears to be consciously fashioning himself after the Cultural Materialists and especially Harris, is not an honest Cultural Materialist. Offhand, I'd say he is closer to Marx, who started off on the right track, but ruined the science by his dogma. Diamond's work is mostly derivative and directed at the layman and his research is blatantly twisted and hammered to further his ideological aims. Some who have bothered to examine his claims (see http://www.ipa.org.au/files/EE%2016-3+4_Marohasy.pdf) find a profusion of bad data and sloppy reasoning. That few have bothered to examine Diamond and to rebutt him is not a sign of his soundness, just an indication that real researchers don't have time to fruitlessly deconstruct every ideologue who comes along. Diamond is not a Cultural Materialist; Cultural Materialism depends on objective, empirical data and the scientific method of knowing. The act of collecting questionable data to support a political agenda, as is the case with Diamond, is not Cultural Materialism or science; it’s simply propaganda based on pseudoscience.

    It's tempting to attack Diamond’s attempt at Cultural Materialism because of his unconnected and unsubstantiated political conclusions. It’s important to remember, though, that the study of how environment, economics and geography correlate with human culture and history is barely half a century old and that true Cultural Materialists rarely make sweeping assumptions about our present predicaments from data on Mesoamerican civilizations, the Norse, Egypt and so on. Nor do they align themselves with political movements as a matter of policy or strategy. To attack their discipline and their "struggle for a science of culture," to borrow a description from Harris, would be like attacking the science of archeology because of cranks like Eric von Daniken of the infamous "chariots of the gods" idiocies.

    Bill Heuisler - 6/21/2006

    Mr. Anonymous,
    I've figured it out. You're actually Theda Bara, whose name really means arab death. Brilliant! From now on I'll address you as Ms. Bara.

    But, before you avoid debate on GGS you should be aware of the quality of your recent support -
    Aside from eschewing any substantive debate about the article he's a foul-mouthed abuser of women who worships Frank Zappa. Below is a sample. (Note verbiage, intellect and level of insight before taking comfort in support from a class-challenged Lefty bragging about owning a book)

    "Miss Kitty....
    Yes, I am saying that this site and the owner censor comments and that it is totally wrong.
    If you offer an open forum then it should be open. This isn't the WAPO or Free Republic.
    And don't hit me with any counter logic bullshit. I have read allot of your posts critical/ mocking the comments from others. Care to explain why you take it upon yourself to stifle free speech of other posters... say like ck the other day.
    You want a free forum but only if the ideas correspond with your narrow, simpleminded world view.
    Blow it out your ass."
    Frank Zappa | 02.18.06 - 9:27 pm | #

    "Here you are, attempting to censor me. Saying I shouldn't post what I do. Telling me to 'Blow it out my ass' and claiming a moniker like 'Frank Zappa.' Poseur. You are no where near that smart or insightful..."
    "And out of the two of us, I'm not the one who needs to blow anything out of any orafice."
    miss_kitty | 02.18.06 - 10:08 pm | #

    Miss Kitty,
    I am not censoring you or anyone else and don't give a rat's ass what they or you post.
    You write, "That to moderate his own site is fascism."
    Well, yes it is FASCISM... What do you call it... What are you some sort of thought police for this site?
    Hitler/Stalin/Mao/Minh/Kim/Castro... the list goes on of those who killed/imprisoned/exiled those who disagreed with each of their peculiar pogroms. Who's moniker do you badge?
    If the siteowner pulls a post that is his right but, I say that it is CENSORSHIP.
    I give you my name as I am very proud of who I am although, not Frank Zappa nor as intelligent, so you believe, I am still light years ahead of a pinhead such as you.
    Lastly, I am mostly polite but, totally intolerant toward anyone who challenges me in any way, shape or form. So if you don't like it to bad, take a powder.
    Patrick M. Ebbitt aka FZ | 02.18.06 - 10:33 pm | #

    That out of the way, Ms Bara, would you explain your objection to Mr. Kovachev's post using substantive excerpts from Mr. Diamond's book?
    Bill Heuisler

    Bill Heuisler - 6/20/2006

    Mr Anonymous,
    Want to debate Diamond? He has degrees in geography and disciplines other than anthropology or history, but declaims authoritatively on them.

    It shows. On pages 317 and 401 his thesis is repeated, "...it merely proves to reflect the ubiquitous role of geography in the transmission of human culture and technology. (GGS, 1999, pp. 316, 317)

    First, he blames Africa's geographic situation for backwardness and yet seldom mentions Egyptian agriculture and innovations. He ignores Egypt's obvious advances in math, writing and animal husbandry because they don't fit his argument.

    Second, arguments against his rather simplistic insistance how geography, luck or isolation have affected the progress of various races and ethnic groups are all called racist in GGS.

    Third, Diamond makes various claims about specific historic progressions with absolutely no references. There are no footnotes in his book. The GGS Pulitzer prize should've been awarded for fiction.

    Mr. Anonymous homeroom monitor, I've not scratched the surface on GGS. Care to debate? Or do you simply enjoy pretending?
    Bill Heuisler

    Bill Heuisler - 6/20/2006

    Peter Kovachev - 6/20/2006

    That's deep, Omar. I'm sure that'll endear you to tlb, as he's been calling for a more scholarly approach.

    What's next in your jihad psy-ops manual against perfidious infidels; knock-knock and poo-poo jokes?

    John Chapman - 6/20/2006

    I see nothing trendy or especially political in Diamond’s thesis but perfectly right on. Only a rewording from established observations. Surely there is more than war and ethnic disunity as causes for decline.

    I would combine "climate change" and "the damage that people have inflicted on their environment" into the category of "injuries that time and nature" have caused, that have brought down civilizations/empires. Accelerated by hurricanes, earthquakes, Antioch, Lisbon, Lima, sites that took ages to build, crumbled in moments.

    The fire in Nero’s Rome, even though it was rebuilt, lost fourteen regions of irreparable irretrievable artifacts , arts of Greece, trophies of victories, cultures of its past gone forever, multiply that in the injurious passages of time and it becomes significant during the full life of an empire/civilization.

    After centuries, there are the decay of the cities, also crucial to the decline of a civilization. Even the physical accumulation of rubbish and earth that covers the original level of a city elevates it, changes it and the perceptions of the inhabitants over time.

    Then there are the "enemies", the hostile attacks. In the case of Rome it was the barbarians and the Christians, the Goths and Vandals, the shepards of Scythia and Germany who learned the discipline of the Romans’ armies and their weaknesses. War as a reason which you mentioned. But also the change of religion by the decrees of an emperor that created dissension and twisted the fabric of society.

    Then, "Society's political, economic, and social responses to those shifts" this is the most potent cause of any destruction.

    Domestic quarrels, hostilities of a people among themselves fighting over religion, ideology where each argument is decided by cruder methods, by loss of civil liberties, laws that regiment a people in the name of some noble cause, weaken a country. A climate of fear and hatred. This was one reason Rome fell.

    All the reasons above or that Diamond mentions are the reasons why the whole disintegrates. No empire falls for only one reason - they fall for all the worst reasons. Your explanation, war and ethnic disunity I agree with but are not enough, although they are certainly part of the whole in the process of destruction. They do not alone cause the stupendous destruction and decay of a society like Iraq - Saddam had already started its destruction before we every got there - it was perpetuated by its own citizens first and gave the US the reason to go there.

    Louis Nelson Proyect - 6/20/2006

    Go to:


    and look for 4 part series on Jared Diamond's "Collapse"

    Peter Kovachev - 6/20/2006

    Mr. Thomas,

    Unfortunately, Diamond's pamphlet does disservice to the well-developed theory of how environment and economics can cause a civilization to decline. That theory does not, as Diamond and Montague hope to imply, come attached to a critique of our current modes of production or claim that it is the sole cause.

    There is a deep blue sea between me and my library, so I can't be more specific, but an interesting source to look up on this topic is the anthropologist Marvin Harris, whom I've mentioned. From what I recall on his analysis of Meso-American civilizations is that he took pains to gather measurable data on the ecology and the economics of the regions he covered and to corelate them to the health of their civilizations.

    I don't have in-depth knowledge about the histories of the civilizations/empires you mention, but a close look at their environment and economies might be interesting. At the moment I can think of the warming of the Mediterranean Basin, the collapse of grain agriculture in the Italian peninsula and the need for Rome to expand and consequently fragment in search for ways of feeding its people. You mention specific military defeats as a cause of decline, but warfare is often corelated to economic stresses. In any case, my point is that one needn't throw out the baby with the bathwater, Diamond's polemics being the bathwater, of course.

    What I find hilarious is that what Diamond missed is the elephant in the room. Not that I'm surprised. The elephant in the room is that civilization itself is a product of the greates global climatic and ecological disaster to affect humans in their history. For 99% of our collective past we lived fairly good lives as hunter-gatherers. The party ended with the retreat of the glaciers and the migration or disappearance of big game. This warming trend pushed us, quite unwillingly as the archeological record and recent examples show, into a radical mode of production: agriculture. It and the consequent rise in population led to the emergence of tribes, cities, kingdoms and .... civilizations.

    Peter Kovachev - 6/20/2006

    First, how come you get to use initials, tlb, and why are you trying to sound like a moderator?

    Then, there is nothing to add to what I already said. A sound theory on the workings of civilizations, one developed by scholars, was casually appropriated, without credit being given, and used to add credibility and the illusion of scholarship to an article which is essentially a political pamphlet.

    At least I've shown my bias in a sentence or two, rather than in 3 pages of turgid Green Party agit-prop. Silly, simplistic and empty, to use your "unbiased" wording, should have been applied to the article before being plonked into HNN's editorial trash-bin. If HNN is serious about its scholarly posture, it needs to screen out transparent advocacy and policy papers which have little to do with scholarship. Since the author and the reviewers have done nothing to substantiate a connection between the civilizational decline theory and their own political posture, no further comment is necessary.

    I don't mid self-appointed moderators, tlb, but it would help if they were capable of actually assessing what it is they are reading.

    t l b - 6/20/2006

    Unlike Frederick Thomas's comments, your comments add nothing to this article. Why not explain why you disagree with Diamond, instead of using simplistic labels and empty sayings "who are not even fit to carry Harris' briefcase". All you have shown is your own bias and nothing more. This may work on other less scholarly sites, but your comments look simply silly here.

    Peter Kovachev - 6/19/2006

    This farce of an essay doesn't even deserve a joke, much less a weapon.

    Diamond probably "borrowed" his civilization decline theory from the anthropologist, Marvin Harris ...or most likely from one of the many hacks who have apropriated it. Harris is a sound and original thinker in the scientific tradition and is careful about conclusions or remedies. Diamond and Montague, on the other hand, who are not even fit to carry Harris' briefcase, grafted their mix of stale socialism and PC-catechism onto the model, expecting us to miss the obvious difference between Harris' elegant theory and their own cheap propaganda turd plonked on top of it.

    Frederick Thomas - 6/19/2006

    Mr. Kovachev, you do a fine job of resolving "vales of tears" with humor, a weapon too little used in history.

    Peter Kovachev - 6/19/2006

    How strikingly original! The answer to saving civilization is international socialism and abject surrender and tribute payments to anyone who can rattle anything at us!

    Not enough. I say let's give it all up now and let others, perhaps panda bears, seals or whales, have a go at this vale of tears.

    Frederick Thomas - 6/19/2006

    Mr. Diamond posits the following reasons for failure of empires:

    1. The damage that people have inflicted on their environment;
    2. Climate change;
    3. Enemies;
    4. Changes in friendly trading partners;
    5. Society's political, economic, and social responses to those shifts

    The realities are that it all comes down to two: war and ethnic disunity.

    Surely the Romans fell to armies which they themselves had trained, armies of Celts, Germans, Huns and Slavs. They fostered their own demise by a too diverse empire. "Civus Romanus Sum" failed in the end.

    Austria-Hungary fell to a far too diverse Balkan region, leading to the shooting of Archduke Ferdinand by a Serb, and to WW I.

    The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation fell to war.

    The Mongol Ming fell to the Manchu Qing because of a long war.

    Napoleon's empire fell to warring, as France denuded itself of young men in a string of initial victories leading to two crushing final defeats.

    The Persions fell to the Mongols because of disunity.

    Yes, climate change is a factor. After the Himalayas sprouted a few tens of millions of years ago, they have progressively dessicated the Mideast and North Africa, which had been heavily forested when the dinosaurs roamed there. But there is no empire which was clearly brought down in a process of climate change, and in this example, it was completed before the first civilization existed.

    And yes, Athenian hegemony was influenced by the rebellion of many of its trading clients, but did not fall for that. It fell because of war with Sparta, which had similarly rebellious trading partners.

    In terms of "society's responses," it appears that bad policies and customs affected both the Mongols and the Islamic Caliphates from Spain to India, but both fell to war and (quite literally) balkanization.

    Then of course we have the Evil Empire, the Soviets, which fell after it lost the heart under Gaobachev to murderously dictate to its clients.

    In terms of damage to the environment, I can think of no instance in which an empire was brought down by it, so I think this assertion is entirely bogus. God knows that China alternatively despoiled its environment and rebuilt it, but that did not bring it down. And all communist countries universally trashed their environments, but were not brought down by that.

    So why are environment, climate change, societal policies and trading partners even mentioned? Perhaps the circulation-minded Dr. Diamond wanted a trendier feel for his thesis, and these hypotheses will certainly be accepted as valid by normally liberal publishers on ideological grounds.

    Whatever, it does not do Dr. Diamond much credit to have used them.