Collapse - the book

 | 2 min

I wrote earlier about the talk by Jared Diamond on the subject of societies collapsing. I have some further thoughts about the book that I wrote months ago but never got around to actually publishing on here.

The basic situation goes like this:

Firstly, take a relatively fragile or marginal environment: Greenland, Iceland, Easter island, Pitcairn, the American southwest, Australia, and central America are the main examples he uses.

Start off by having some nice weather for a while, a few decades or preferably even a few centuries would be good. Favourable conditions lead to higher populations. To sustain those populations, the society does two things - it starts utilising areas that are really marginal for agriculture, and it starts depleting resources at a rate faster than they regenerate.

Now, the straw that breaks the camel's back can come in many forms. Maybe there's a wet spell, and the newly deforested land is washed away, leaving a reduced area for agriculture. Maybe there's a dry spell, and the now deforested land dries out and is blown away. Maybe some allies have their own resource problems, and trade for necessary resources is no longer possible. Maybe some enemies move into the area and compete for the already scarce resources. Or maybe none of those, and the resources (wood, fish, animals, or soil fertility) are just depleted too far.

However it happens, the society ends up with more people than it can feed by its agricultural output. It's a famine; people start starving, and then they start fighting over the even scarcer resources left. Rulers are overthrown, factions battle each other, sometimes leading to genocide and cannibalism. It is brutal.

What is scary is how quickly this happens after the society is at its peak. The people in the society probably thought everything was sweet, their empire was larger, more productive and more powerful than it had ever been before - it often coincides with the peak of monument building. And then there is a very rapid descent into society breakdown, starvation and brutality.

In some ways globalisation protects against this - local reverses can be compensated for by importing resources from other areas. But in other cases, the collapse of one nation can be the straw that breaks the back of an already marginal neighbour. After all, the people in one nation are not going to sit there and starve to death when just over the border their next door neighbour has surplus food. It's no good telling them that the food isn't anywhere enough to feed both nations - that sort of logic doesn't work when you are starving to death.

You end up with a chain reaction of collapses that can bring down much stronger nations.