Overshoot and/or Collapse

Posted by: teofilo  :  Category: Archaeology, Jared Diamond, carrying capacity, collapse

I said I would talk about the “collapse” concept while I’m here, so here’s a start.  This topic has gotten a lot of play in the public discourse in the past few years, as the prospect of severe impacts from climate change has led to an increase in apocalyptic doomsaying among certain environmentalists and others as well as a renewed interest in studying past episodes of societal collapse to understand their dynamics and whatever lessons they may hold for us today.  Jared Diamond’s 2005 book Collapse is probably the best-known and most prominent examples of this type of thinking.  I haven’t read it, so I can’t comment on the specifics of it, but it’s gotten quite a bit of criticism from various quarters that I think is important to acknowledge regardless of the merits of Diamond’s argument overall.

First, though, we need to understand what exactly we mean by “collapse.”  What does it mean for a society to collapse?  Intuitively it seems obvious, but there are actually a variety of processes that have been interpreted as “collapses” in both the scholarly and popular literature, and the term is often left undefined.  One place to start is with a 2006 review article by Joseph Tainter, an archaeologist now at Utah State University who, unlike many people who have been talking loudly about collapse in the past few years, is an actual expert on the subject who has been studying it for decades.  In the article Tainter discusses Diamond’s book at length, along with a variety of other primarily scholarly studies explaining various events in the archaeological record in terms of societal collapse.  More specifically, the works Tainter talks about here deal with one type of collapse, that attributed to “overshoot,” i.e., the overexploitation of natural resources through either population growth or increased per capita consumption.  This is the type of collapse that gets the most attention in a modern context, since the idea behind most predictions of doom for our own society is that we are on an unsustainable trajectory due to expanding population or overconsumption.  The overpopulation argument goes back to Thomas Malthus, of course, and its current form owes a lot to Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb.  More recently this concept of overpopulation has been variously supplemented or replaced by the idea that it is per capita consumption, especially in wealthy nations like the US, that is on an unsustainable course that will lead to exhaustion of natural resources and, perhaps, societal collapse.  There are other ways societies can collapse, but this is the one people tend to be worried about today, and finding examples of it in the archaeological record has been a high priority for many people.

Tainter’s article goes through a variety of collapses that have been linked to overshoot, and finds most of them severely wanting in evidence.  He is particularly scathing about Diamond’s work, calling his discussion of the Anasazi “a confused muddle” and rejecting many of the case studies in the book as not even really being examples of collapse at all, but rather unsuccessful attempts to colonize areas unsuitable for the subsistence practices of the colonizers, who eventually died or left.  Tainter’s criteria for collapse rely heavily on a loss of complexity, with a “simpler” society succeeding a more “complex” one, and this notion is echoed in Diamond’s stated criteria for collapse as well, although Tainter argues that Diamond doesn’t actually apply these criteria rigorously and consistently.  Instead,

Diamond’s approach was seemingly to find cases where (a) bad things happened, and (b) he could construct a plausible environmental reason. The outcomes, however diverse their nature, are lumped into the category “collapse.”

The one case that Tainter does give some credence to is Easter Island, although even here he notes substantial criticism of the overshoot model of deforestation leading to the collapse of the complex society that developed there.  The cases he finds most convincing as examples of overshoot leading to collapse are the Third Dynasty of Ur and the Abbasid Caliphate, both in southern Mesopotamia though separated by thousands of years.  Even here, though, Tainter sees the collapse as being less a result of “pure” environmental degradation and more a matter of inadequate decision-making by elites in response to problems caused by overexploitation of natural resources, in these cases salinization caused by intensive irrigation agriculture.  In most of the other cases of collapse, the major problem seems to have been climatic or other uncontrollable changes that disrupted systems that had worked fine otherwise, in many cases probably combined with the same problems of poor decision-making.

Now, climate change and poor decision-making are obviously factors that are very relevant to modern-day problems, so in a sense Tainter’s dismissal of overshoot-based collapse theories in archaeology doesn’t matter too much for the relevance of case studies like Diamond’s to the present day.  Indeed, it seems like the overall negative tone of the review article is a function largely of its narrow focus on overshoot specifically rather than collapse in general.  Still, Tainter’s conclusion, surprising even to him, that there are very few documented cases of environmental degradation due to human exploitation leading to societal collapse is an important cautionary note in showing how important it is to carefully analyze the archaeological record before trying to apply its lessons to contemporary problems.

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5 Responses to “Overshoot and/or Collapse”

  1. Collide-a-scape » Blog Archive » Collide-a-scape >> What Does It Mean to Collapse? Says:

    [...] Keith Kloor on LootingKeith Kloor on The BrushbackKeith Kloor on The Brushbackpax on The ChasmCollide-a-scape » Blog Archive » Collide-a-scape >> Overshoot and/or Collapse on Hello Worldwillard on The BrushbackBarry Woods on The Brushbackwillard on The BrushbackTom [...]

  2. Collide-a-scape » Blog Archive » Collide-a-scape >> Did Chaco Collapse? Says:

    [...] often tied to climatic change and sometimes to ecological overshoot (although that part’s pretty dubious).  Both Jared Diamond and Joseph Tainter use it as an example of societal collapse in their [...]

  3. Pascvaks Says:

    I get the feeling you like to talk and write. This looked like it could have generated some  interesting discussion.  I guess everyone’s just reading.

  4. Bart Verheggen Says:

    The extent that bad government/poor decisionmaking by those in power played a role in past societal collapse makes it all the more relevant to today:

    Societal response to environmental/climatic stresses can make a world of difference.

  5. AMac Says:

    The attraction of offering a historical analogy — of a society that suffered collapse, descended into Nazism (Godwin’s Law!), or anything else — is that the person picking doing the picking already has The Lesson in mind.
    Of course, given that there are a plethora of potentially-relevant examples to choose from, this can be a disadvantage, as well.  Especially given our bias towards the interesting:  the parable of the society that crumbled due to exploitation of natural resources is a lot more compelling than the story of the other society that lumbered along for quite a while longer.
    Gregory Clark’s 2007 book “A Farewell to Alms” is a study of the Industrial Revolution, and what distinguishes industrial societies from those that hadn’t, didn’t, or haven’t (yet) made that transition.  It’s heavy going (at least for me).  NYT’s Nicholas Wade reviews it here; GNXP’s Razib Khan interviews Clark here.
    It strikes me that to be deeply useful on a topic like “societal collapse”, most historical parallels are going to have to grapple with the sorts of questions that Clark raises.

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