Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Collapse or Longevity? Failure or Success?

When many people think of the ancient Maya, the term "collapse" often comes to mind. The Mayas were a group that were around for a while, but then collapsed. Archaeologists have spent a lot of time (and a lot of fieldwork and publications) trying to figure out how or why (or sometimes, whether) the Maya collapsed. If they collapsed, there must have been something wrong with Maya society, right? But the Maya cities lasted for some seven centuries before they were abandoned. Think about it. Seven hundred years. Were the Maya a failure (they collapsed), or were they a spectacular success (they lasted 700 years).

The idea that something must have been wrong with ancient cities or civilizations to make them collapse is a popular notion. And while it is a valid question to ask how or why a society like the Classic Maya collapsed, any such question should be paired with a consideration of just how long they managed to thrive. This collapse bias surfaced again today in a paper just posted in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:  "Human domination of the biosphere: Rapid discharge of the earth-space battery foretells the future of himanking" by Rohn R. Schramski, David K. Gattie and James H. Brown. This is a fine paper, about the global chemical energy supply on earth, and how it is being depleted at an incredibly fast rate right now. But they had to throw in a dig at ancient societies:

At local and regional scales, many multiple past civilizations (e.g., Greece, Rome, Angkor Wat, Teotihuacan) failed to adapt to changing social and ecological conditions and crashed catastrophically
Let's take a different look at those four ancient societies in comparison to contemporary nation-states:

So, which of these societies seem successful, and which ones seem too young to judge? I am dating the start of the European nation-states to 1648, the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia which created the modern system of nation-states. If European nations manage to survive another half century or so, they will have matched the longevity of ancient Greece (I am using the Classical and Hellenistic periods here). And if they last another 350 years they will match those failed collapsers, the ancient Maya.

I am the last one to deny the significance of the Classic Maya collapse. I think the revisionists who claim that they didn't really collapse are just plain wrong (see some of my posts on Publishing Archaeology about this, such as this one about Jared Diamond and his critics). But if the Maya managed to thrive in the jungle for seven centuries, maybe that fact should outweigh their eventual collapse. They spent centuries doing many things right, and then they got trapped for a few crucial decades and collapsed.

I will just chalk up the collapse quote above to the fact that scholars outside of history and archaeology tend to be clueless about ancient societies. I think the authors of the new paper are correct when they claim that ancient collapses "are of questionable relevance to the current situation." Much as I'd like to believe that the sustainability (or lack thereof) of ancient societies might have lessons for us today, in fact the technological, energetic, and demographic situation today is radically different from that of ancient societies like the Maya. I do think that ancient cities and societies have lessons for us today, and that is a major theme of this blog. But the nature of overall societal sustainability may not be one of those lessons.

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