[FoRK] The Decline of Empires..

Ian Andrew Bell (FoRK) fork at ianbell.com
Mon Jan 3 10:09:41 PST 2005

As I alluded to in an earlier message, tracking the decline of 
civilizations throughout history is a particularly interesting, and 
timely, exploration.  Diamond seems to have a handle on this concept 
and I'm sure his upcoming book will be a good read.

The demise of Easter Island is a particularly good metaphor for the 
direction in which Bushites are currently taking the US.



The Ends of the World as We Know Them

Los Angeles — NEW Year's weekend traditionally is a time for us to 
reflect, and to make resolutions based on our reflections. 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 

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? We must expect 
the answers to be complex, because historical reality is complex: while 
some societies did indeed collapse spectacularly, others have managed 
to thrive for thousands of years without major reversal.

  When it comes to historical collapses, five groups of interacting 
factors have been especially important: the damage that people have 
inflicted on their environment; climate change; enemies; changes in 
friendly trading partners; and the society's political, economic and 
social responses to these shifts. That's not to say that all five 
causes play a role in every case. Instead, think of this as a useful 
checklist of factors that should be examined, but whose relative 
importance varies from case to case.

For instance, in the collapse of the Polynesian society on Easter 
Island three centuries ago, environmental problems were dominant, and 
climate change, enemies and trade were insignificant; however, the 
latter three factors played big roles in the disappearance of the 
medieval Norse colonies on Greenland. Let's consider two examples of 
declines stemming from different mixes of causes: the falls of classic 
Maya civilization and of Polynesian settlements on the Pitcairn 

  Maya Native Americans of the Yucatan Peninsula and adjacent parts of 
Central America developed the New World's most advanced civilization 
before Columbus. They were innovators in writing, astronomy, 
architecture and art. From local origins around 2,500 years ago, Maya 
societies rose especially after the year A.D. 250, reaching peaks of 
population and sophistication in the late 8th century.

  Thereafter, societies in the most densely populated areas of the 
southern Yucatan underwent a steep political and cultural collapse: 
between 760 and 910, kings were overthrown, large areas were abandoned, 
and at least 90 percent of the population disappeared, leaving cities 
to become overgrown by jungle. The last known date recorded on a Maya 
monument by their so-called Long Count calendar corresponds to the year 
909. What happened?

A major factor was environmental degradation by people: deforestation, 
soil erosion and water management problems, all of which resulted in 
less food. Those problems were exacerbated by droughts, which may have 
been partly caused by humans themselves through deforestation. Chronic 
warfare made matters worse, as more and more people fought over less 
and less land and resources.

  Why weren't these problems obvious to the Maya kings, who could surely 
see their forests vanishing and their hills becoming eroded? Part of 
the reason was that the kings were able to insulate themselves from 
problems afflicting the rest of society. By extracting wealth from 
commoners, they could remain well fed while everyone else was slowly 

  What's more, the kings were preoccupied with their own power 
struggles. They had to concentrate on fighting one another and keeping 
up their images through ostentatious displays of wealth. By insulating 
themselves in the short run from the problems of society, the elite 
merely bought themselves the privilege of being among the last to 

Whereas Maya societies were undone by problems of their own making, 
Polynesian societies on Pitcairn and Henderson Islands in the tropical 
Pacific Ocean were undone largely by other people's mistakes. Pitcairn, 
the uninhabited island settled in 1790 by the H.M.S. Bounty mutineers, 
had actually been populated by Polynesians 800 years earlier. That 
society, which left behind temple platforms, stone and shell tools and 
huge garbage piles of fish and bird and turtle bones as evidence of its 
existence, survived for several centuries and then vanished. Why?

  In many respects, Pitcairn and Henderson are tropical paradises, rich 
in some food sources and essential raw materials. Pitcairn is home to 
Southeast Polynesia's largest quarry of stone suited for making adzes, 
while Henderson has the region's largest breeding seabird colony and 
its only nesting beach for sea turtles. Yet the islanders depended on 
imports from Mangareva Island, hundreds of miles away, for canoes, 
crops, livestock and oyster shells for making tools.

  Unfortunately for the inhabitants of Pitcairn and Henderson, their 
Mangarevan trading partner collapsed for reasons similar to those 
underlying the Maya decline: deforestation, erosion and warfare. 
Deprived of essential imports in a Polynesian equivalent of the 1973 
oil crisis, the Pitcairn and Henderson societies declined until 
everybody had died or fled.

The Maya and the Henderson and Pitcairn Islanders are not alone, of 
course. Over the centuries, many other societies have declined, 
collapsed or died out. Famous victims include the Anasazi in the 
American Southwest, who abandoned their cities in the 12th century 
because of environmental problems and climate change, and the Greenland 
Norse, who disappeared in the 15th century because of all five 
interacting factors on the checklist. There were also the ancient 
Fertile Crescent societies, the Khmer at Angkor Wat, the Moche society 
of Peru - the list goes on.

  But before we let ourselves get depressed, we should also remember 
that there is another long list of cultures that have managed to 
prosper for lengthy periods of time. Societies in Japan, Tonga, 
Tikopia, the New Guinea Highlands and Central and Northwest Europe, for 
example, have all found ways to sustain themselves. What separates the 
lost cultures from those that survived? Why did the Maya fail and the 
shogun succeed?

Half of the answer involves environmental differences: geography deals 
worse cards to some societies than to others. Many of the societies 
that collapsed had the misfortune to occupy dry, cold or otherwise 
fragile environments, while many of the long-term survivors enjoyed 
more robust and fertile surroundings. But it's not the case that a 
congenial environment guarantees success: some societies (like the 
Maya) managed to ruin lush environments, while other societies - like 
the Incas, the Inuit, Icelanders and desert Australian Aborigines - 
have managed to carry on in some of the earth's most daunting 

The other half of the answer involves differences in a society's 
responses to problems. Ninth-century New Guinea Highland villagers, 
16th-century German landowners, and the Tokugawa shoguns of 
17th-century Japan all recognized the deforestation spreading around 
them and solved the problem, either by developing scientific 
reforestation (Japan and Germany) or by transplanting tree seedlings 
(New Guinea). Conversely, the Maya, Mangarevans and Easter Islanders 
failed to address their forestry problems and so collapsed.

  Consider Japan. In the 1600's, the country faced its own crisis of 
deforestation, paradoxically brought on by the peace and prosperity 
following the Tokugawa shoguns' military triumph that ended 150 years 
of civil war. The subsequent explosion of Japan's population and 
economy set off rampant logging for construction of palaces and cities, 
and for fuel and fertilizer.

The shoguns responded with both negative and positive measures. They 
reduced wood consumption by turning to light-timbered construction, to 
fuel-efficient stoves and heaters, and to coal as a source of energy. 
At the same time, they increased wood production by developing and 
carefully managing plantation forests. Both the shoguns and the 
Japanese peasants took a long-term view: the former expected to pass on 
their power to their children, and the latter expected to pass on their 
land. In addition, Japan's isolation at the time made it obvious that 
the country would have to depend on its own resources and couldn't meet 
its needs by pillaging other countries. Today, despite having the 
highest human population density of any large developed country, Japan 
is more than 70 percent forested.

  There is a similar story from Iceland. When the island was first 
settled by the Norse around 870, its light volcanic soils presented 
colonists with unfamiliar challenges. They proceeded to cut down trees 
and stock sheep as if they were still in Norway, with its robust soils. 
Significant erosion ensued, carrying half of Iceland's topsoil into the 
ocean within a century or two. Icelanders became the poorest people in 
Europe. But they gradually learned from their mistakes, over time 
instituting stocking limits on sheep and other strict controls, and 
establishing an entire government department charged with landscape 
management. Today, Iceland boasts the sixth-highest per-capita income 
in the world.

  What lessons can we draw from history? The most straightforward: 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.

  Other lessons involve failures of group decision-making. There are 
many reasons why past societies made bad decisions, and thereby failed 
to solve or even to perceive the problems that would eventually destroy 
them. 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. Another is the pursuit of 
short-term gains at the expense of long-term survival, as when 
fishermen overfish the stocks on which their livelihoods ultimately 

  History also teaches us two deeper lessons about what separates 
successful societies from those heading toward failure. A society 
contains a built-in blueprint for failure if the elite insulates itself 
from the consequences of its actions. That's why Maya kings, Norse 
Greenlanders and Easter Island chiefs made choices that eventually 
undermined their societies. They themselves did not begin to feel 
deprived until they had irreversibly destroyed their landscape.

Could this happen in the United States? It's a thought that often 
occurs to me here in Los Angeles, when I drive by gated communities, 
guarded by private security patrols, and filled with people who drink 
bottled water, depend on private pensions, and send their children to 
private schools. By doing these things, they lose the motivation to 
support the police force, the municipal water supply, Social Security 
and public schools. If conditions deteriorate too much for poorer 
people, gates will not keep the rioters out. Rioters eventually burned 
the palaces of Maya kings and tore down the statues of Easter Island 
chiefs; they have also already threatened wealthy districts in Los 
Angeles twice in recent decades.

In contrast, the elite in 17th-century Japan, as in modern Scandinavia 
and the Netherlands, could not ignore or insulate themselves from broad 
societal problems. For instance, the Dutch upper class for hundreds of 
years has been unable to insulate itself from the Netherlands' water 
management problems for a simple reason: the rich live in the same 
drained lands below sea level as the poor. If the dikes and pumps 
keeping out the sea fail, the well-off Dutch know that they will drown 
along with everybody else, which is precisely what happened during the 
floods of 1953.

The other deep lesson involves a willingness to re-examine long-held 
core values, when conditions change and those values no longer make 
sense. The medieval Greenland Norse lacked such a willingness: they 
continued to view themselves as transplanted Norwegian pastoralists, 
and to despise the Inuit as pagan hunters, even after Norway stopped 
sending trading ships and the climate had grown too cold for a pastoral 
existence. They died off as a result, leaving Greenland to the Inuit. 
On the other hand, the British in the 1950's faced up to the need for a 
painful reappraisal of their former status as rulers of a world empire 
set apart from Europe. They are now finding a different avenue to 
wealth and power, as part of a united Europe.

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 

  Historically, oceans protected us from external threats; we stepped 
back from our isolationism only temporarily during the crises of two 
world wars. Now, technology and global interconnectedness have robbed 
us of our protection. In recent years, we have responded to foreign 
threats largely by seeking short-term military solutions at the last 

  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.

  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.

Do we have cause for hope? Many of my friends are pessimistic when they 
contemplate the world's growing population and human demands colliding 
with shrinking resources. But I draw hope from the knowledge that 
humanity's biggest problems today are ones entirely of our own making. 
Asteroids hurtling at us beyond our control don't figure high on our 
list of imminent dangers. To save ourselves, we don't need new 
technology: we just need the political will to face up to our problems 
of population and the environment.

I also draw hope from a unique advantage that we enjoy. Unlike any 
previous society in history, our global society today is the first with 
the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of societies remote from us 
in space and in time. When the Maya and Mangarevans were cutting down 
their trees, there were no historians or archaeologists, no newspapers 
or television, to warn them of the consequences of their actions. We, 
on the other hand, have a detailed chronicle of human successes and 
failures at our disposal. Will we choose to use it?

  Jared Diamond, who won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction 
for "Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies," is the 
author of the forthcoming "Collapse: How Societies Choose or Fail to 

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