Resilience, or Failure?

It is said that our early experiences create connections in our brains that last throughout our lives. In one particular case I know this to be true: visiting Tikal and Copan as a child filled me with a lifelong awe and interest in the Mayans. So in my current studies it is an easy leap from that simple interest to a more scholarly one.

For hundreds of years human civilizations have looked back on previous societies and wondered why they made certain decisions, how they coped with diverse problems, and what caused them to change. In his popular book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Pulitzer-winning author Jared Diamond examines societies that he claims had unsustainable relationships with their ecosystems, and describes how their actions largely led to their demise. He also refers to some current communities, such as those of modern-day Rwanda, but for my purposes I will only address the past societies (the most academically pertinent and personally interesting to me being the Mayans, because their disappearance from their grandiose cities–Tikal and Copán, for example–has historically been mysterious, and may be closely related to environmental stresses).

 Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire, edited by Patricia A. McAnany and Norman Yoffee, seeks to counter many of Diamond’s assertions by arguing that societies very rarely “collapse,” but instead adapt to their conditions and continue to survive in an altered state. McAnany and Yoffee’s goal is to clarify what they see as misconceptions or dramatized versions of history spread by bestselling authors such as Diamond; their evidence is in fact slightly limited to countering the claims of Diamond’s Collapse, and structured accordingly.

Jared Diamond is a professor of geology at UCLA with little or no professional training in archaeology or anthropology, yet his arguments rely greatly on both these fields. This does not make him an untrustworthy source. He has dutifully recorded all his evidence in the form of notes and his Further Readings section, and the scientists he cites are often among the best in their areas of expertise. I find his data reliable, but of course one must beware of taking his assumptions or extrapolations as fact.

Patricia McAnany and Norman Yoffee are both experts in their archaeological areas, and I trust their data too, but I find that their attempts to discredit Diamond simply fall short. The editors’ rhetorical argumentation is generally lacking; despite the credentials and evidence from their “team of internationally recognized scholars,” they put too much emphasis on denotations that fail to correspond with Diamond’s.

For example, Diamond is careful to define “collapse” very precisely as “a drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time.” It seems curious that in their first chapter McAnany and Yoffee present one of their central claims about collapse, but offer a different definition: “Shmuel Eisenstadt wrote that societal collapse seldom occurs if collapse is taken to mean ‘the complete end of those political systems and their accompanying civilizational framework.’” The disparity between these two interpretations of “collapse” may seem slight, but it is clear that McAnany and Yoffee’s definition is more absolute and less broad, using the phrase “complete end,” whereas Diamond’s collapse is more specific, with boundaries and qualifiers (e.g., “drastic decrease,” “complexity,” “extended time”). Thus, when the editors of Questioning Collapse argue that Diamond is incorrect in his titular assertion, their reasoning is partly flawed: With a more particular definition of collapse, McAnany and Yoffee are committed to challenging Diamond whenever he claims collapse or failure occurred.

Keeping these contrasts in mind, let us turn to the content of Diamond’s book. He organizes the factors affecting societal collapse in a five-point framework, listing hostile neighbors, climate change, environmental damage, and friendly trade partners as potentially significant factors, and the society’s responses to environmental problems as always significant. After presenting these threads in his prologue, Diamond weaves the tale of each ancient civilization and its respective factors, using the comparative method as the loom for his cohesive and convincing tapestry of collapse in the Easter, Pitcairn, and Henderson Islands, the Anasazi, the Greenland Norse, and the Classic Mayans.

From the beginning of his chapter on the Mayans, Diamond makes it clear that descendants of the culture are still alive today in their ancestral homeland, and that this contemporary society has helped understand the previous one. Diamond leads his readers on a “crash-course in Maya history” and goes on to explicitly define the Classic Maya collapse as a “decline of Maya population, architecture, and the Long Count calendar.” The reasons he gives for said decline are many, but the tipping points seemed to be deforestation for fuel and plaster, which caused erosion and increased soil acidity; repeated and increasingly severe droughts, which may have been anthropogenic; and warfare, which was a culturally embedded practice from competing kings and nobles, but may have ended up being a fight for fewer resources.

Diamond’s data on these collapse factors comes respectively from studies on the chemical composition of the soil in different areas, signs of malnutrition in hundreds of skeletons and radiocarbon-dating of lake sediments, and excavations of fortifications and decipherment of murals, writing, and carvings increasingly depicting warfare. One of Diamond’s greatest skills is effectively synthesizing dozens of scientific and scholarly sources and presenting what he feels are the key points or trends (some may accuse him of choosing only those that support his theories). As he interprets these findings, Diamond acknowledges that archaeologists “still disagree vigorously among themselves,” thereby partly defending himself from potential criticism but also reminding his readers that all claims have caveats.

Despite all the care Diamond took to cover himself from scholastic reproach, McAnany and Tomás Gallaretta Negrón find several grounds for contention in their chapter on the Mayans, “Bellicose Rulers and Climatological Peril?” For example, comparing Diamond’s analysis to Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, they write that to Diamond, “the root causes behind the alleged eighth-to-ninth-century Maya ‘collapse’ can be found with rulers—divine kings—who subjected their constituents to ceaseless cycles of warfare while ignoring signs of societal distress and climatological trends.”

There are several problems with this assertion: First, as I outlined earlier, Diamond’s theory does not revolve solely around Mayan rulers, but on society’s actions as a whole; second, they call the eighth-to-ninth-century collapse an “alleged” one, when if any point in Mayan history can be labeled a collapse it would be these years. McAnany and Negrón weaken their own argument by positing that Mayan society thrived during Postclassic times, and claiming that radical political, economic, and social changes cannot be characterized as collapse due to the society’s resilience. I cannot help but agree when I read Diamond’s (admittedly scornful and defensive) review of the book:

It makes no sense to me to redefine as heart-warmingly resilient a society in which everyone ends up dead, or in which most of the population vanishes, or that loses writing, state government and great art for centuries. As Questioning Collapse shows, that naively optimistic redefinition inevitably forces one to distort history and to avoid trying to explain what really happened. Even when many people do survive and eventually reestablish a populous complex society, the initial decline is sufficiently important to warrant being honestly called a collapse and studied further.

(Diamond, “Two views of collapse,” Nature. Books & Arts, Vol. 463, Feb. 2010)

McAnany and Negrón do have some legitimate counter-points to Diamond’s theory on the Mayans, however. One of their more valid points against Diamond is what they refer to as his “scalar sleight of hand,” where he tends to apply individual-istic decisions (e.g., deforestation or warfare) to whole societies. They state that the increase in Mayan accounts of warfare was not necessarily a sign of more frequent wars, but instead a result of “more extensive and more completely deciphered” texts, which are not limited solely to martial affairs but also “every category of royal activity.” They also refute Diamond’s claim that drought had a crushing effect on the Mayans with evidence that several large Mayan political capitals with permanent access to water (including Cópan) were among the earliest to stop architectural development. The two archaeologists see this discontinued construction as a sign of weakened monarchic power, and point out that lowland cities like Tikal, which has no nearby rivers and short supply of water, survived longer than the highland Cópan.

But Diamond mentions the kings’ downfall as well, stating that their promises to their people “of rain and prosperity” were not being met, probably because of overpopulation leading to deforestation leading to drought. He also explains that cities were constantly going through “power cycling,” gaining and losing strength (for example, Tikal did decline at the same time as a drought around 600A.D.), “rising and falling on different trajectories.”

The most fundamental difference between Diamond and the editors of Questioning Collapse is their outlook on past societies. Diamond could be labeled as realistic (some might say simplistic), placing much (too much?) stock in environmental relationships, McAnany and Yoffee as optimistic (some might say naïve), trusting (over-trusting?) in socio-political buoyancy. The inconsistency between McAnany and Yoffee and Diamond in their analyses of the same societies is common while reading the two books—after all, it is the key element of Questioning Collapse’s purpose to challenge most of Diamond’s assertions. In situations like these it is interesting to wonder how our perceptions affect our opinions: I read Diamond’s Collapse first, and as an environmentalist I found myself agreeing with his claims, taking point of his warnings, and enjoying his writing. Going through Questioning Collapse afterwards, reading arguments a team of scientists I had never heard of (whereas most people know Guns, Germs, and Steel) had against Diamond, I may have been naturally inclined to dislike their stance, and look for more weaknesses than strengths.

When I realized that this prejudice might be quite real, I stopped and flipped through both books again, looking more carefully for parts of Questioning Collapse that might redeem it to biased eyes. However, as the case study of Mayan collapse shows, the editors and contributors of Questioning Collapse continually attempt to debunk Diamond’s theories with fallacious rhetoric and misrepresented evidence, and we are left asking ourselves why McAnany and Yoffee chose to fail.

One thought on “Resilience, or Failure?

  1. Pingback: Climate & Civilization « Raxa Collective

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