When Civilizations Collapse

By James Schellenberg

Jared Diamond made quite a name for himself with Guns, Germs, and Steel. The book was a bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize. Just this year, it has become a series on PBS. The book looks at reasons why nations in Europe might have gained an advantage over societies elsewhere.

When I found out that Diamond was writing a new book on the topic of the collapse of civilizations, I was quite curious. Would he only cover ancient peoples? Would he apply any lessons to current human behavior? And it seems like a juicy topic for story ideas—would there be inspiration for some fiction?


Collapsing Around Their Ears

The book is simply called Collapse, but Diamond's subtitle is telling: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. With some Mayan ruins on the front cover, the reader might expect analysis of civilizations like the Maya or the Inca and why they died out. But Diamond is speaking broadly in this book, and there's a surprising amount of modern material.

This is the Way the World Ends

A few crises that could cause trouble for our global civilization:

1. Climate Change

Widespread alteration in the stability of weather systems. Global warming is the specific case. Will humans change Earth's climate? Or change it faster than we can cope?

On the web: RealClimate has up-to-date science articles

In fiction: Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain

2. Peak Oil

After half of the world's oil reserves are exhausted, prices will always be going up. Can we cope?

On the web: The Oil Drum - excellent blog, with links to other resources on energy sustainability and related topics

In fiction: not much

3. Nuclear War

This is lower on the list now, 60 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki (although some people argue that the less stable post-Cold War situation is worse).

On the web: The famous Doomsday Clock, now at 7 minutes to midnight (the best was 17 minutes in 1991 and the worst was 2 minutes in 1953); Wikipedia's article on nuclear proliferation

In fiction: Walter M. Miller Jr.'s A Canticle for Liebowitz

4. Bird Flu

H5N1 is a virulent new strain of the flu, crossed over from birds to humans; there are reports this week that it has spread from Vietnam and China to Kazakhstan and Russia.

On the web: Avian Flu blog for updated news and Wikipedia for some background

In fiction: Stephen King's The Stand

Diamond's writing can be a bit simplistic and he tends to repeat his points. But he also manages to convey a lot of hardcore historical information in a way that keeps the reader's interest. Best of all, he's interested in the issues rather than just facts and dates, and he's sensitive to what historical claims might mean to us now. For example, the notion that non-European peoples might have damaged the environment around them to the point of ecological collapse is a controversial one in some circles.

Diamond addresses this head on by saying that some geographical niches, such as tiny Pacific islands, present almost insurmountable problems of sustainability: "The societies that ended up collapsing were (like the Maya) among the most creative and (for a time) advanced and successful of their times, rather than stupid and primitive."

Let's get into the nitty-gritty. From the introduction, here is Diamond's list of the 5 things that can cause a society to collapse:

  1. Environmental damage caused by humans
  2. Climate change
  3. The presence of hostile neighbors
  4. The absence of trading partners
  5. The nature of a society's response to points 1-4

Easter Island (also known as Rapa Nui) is the clearest example of Reason #1. As Diamond points out in his book, the trees were all cut down a few hundred years before the arrival of Europeans. After the trees were gone, the inhabitants couldn't even build boats to fish in deep waters, and the soil began to erode and agriculture became tougher. Society warped under tremendous deprivation, resulting in cannibalism and a military cult. Life didn't get easier after European contact either: Diamond describes the familiar results such as smallpox and the slave trade.

Reason #2 is easiest to explain by way of the Viking settlements on Greenland. The Little Ice Age, a period of colder temperatures from 1400 to 1800 AD, put stress on the Greenlanders' typical methods of agriculture. Nearby Inuit continued on as before, as they were already adapted to a colder climate—also a good example of how Reason #5 works itself out in a real situation. Two peoples in the same geographic area, with very different survival rates due to their cultural response.

Reasons #3 and #4 are present in all of the examples in the book (with the exception of Easter Island in its extreme isolation), and Diamond points out that neighboring tribes or nations often switch back and forth between hostile and friendly.

Diamond begins the book with a look at Montana, where the previous big three industries of mining, logging, and agriculture have all basically collapsed (for various reasons), and the big moneymaker left is tourism. But what happens to that last source of revenue if the environment is in bad shape? And Montana is part of a rich country.

For those interested, Diamond also covers Pitcairn and Henderson Islands, the Anasazi, the Maya, and the Vikings (in the Orkneys, Shetlands, and Faeroes, as well as on Iceland and Greenland) in the section on ancient societies that collapsed. He covers three examples in a brief chapter on successful societies of the past: New Guinea Highlands, Tikopia (a tiny Pacific island), and Japan in the Tokugawa era.

Next he looks at modern societies that have collapsed. His examples are the genocide in Rwanda, Haiti (with a comparison to the Dominican Republic, which shares the same island), and two societies with significant challenges but not yet in full collapse, China and Australia.

Diamond devotes the final 100 pages of Collapse to "Practical Lessons." First up is a question his students always asked him: why might a society not see collapse coming? Why didn't these ancient societies do anything about something as obvious as the disintegration of an entire geographical area and social order? He goes through four basic reasons: the people didn't see a problem coming, they didn't perceive it once it was there, they made no attempt to solve it, or their attempt to solve the problem failed.

I think there's an element of hindsight here (which also comes up in the section below on fictional collapses): trouble-causing notions in the past are obvious, while our own have yet to be clarified by historical outcomes. And when people try to do this kind of doom-saying for the present, the claims can seem quaint in an awful hurry, like all those worries about overpopulation from the 1970s. See the sidebar for a few guesses I've seen recently.

David Brin makes the claim that Diamond doesn't do enough to show us how to avoid a catastrophic breakdown in our society, but I think Brin might be a bit unfair to Diamond. As Diamond points out many times in the book, these problems facing different societies are incredibly complex. If Diamond were able to miraculously figure out how to solve these dilemmas, he probably wouldn't be writing history books. He'd be out there making money hand over fist while making the world a better place.

How about inspiration or ideas for fiction? There's some rich material here, including a chapter on the role of big business in creating and/or solving environmental crises. Can the multinational be a force for good? Another interesting issue the book covers: is it possible to change the consensus in a certain culture? For example, could the Viking Greenlanders have adopted Inuit survival tactics? Or was there no way to break away from their accepted way of doing things? If cultural notions mean the difference between the life and death of a society, that means we can work to avoid a tragic fate for ourselves. And it also means that fiction is an important hotspot, both in the writing and reading.


Stories of Collapse

There are plenty of examples to look at. I would have to include Isaac Asimov's famous Foundation trilogy, about a galactic civilization that comes to an end and the people who want to make the period of barbarity before the next civilization arises as short as possible. Cutting a little closer to home would be John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up, which presents a series of catastrophic events that cascade out of control in our modern society. On the broad topic of civilizations facing difficulties, there are quite a few other examples in the genre. For example, there's quite a long list at SciFan , a grand total of 1,530 books!

Probably the most common example of the end of our global civilization in science fiction is the post-nuclear war story. This has been covered a wide range of approaches from the feminist (Sheri Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country) to the survival of a small town (Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon) to the black farce (Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove). This kind of story isn't much of a fad anymore, although SciFan lists 700 in total (with some overlap with the theme above).

I can think of a few counter-examples, with the most famous being L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall. An American gets thrown backwards through time to Rome of the 580s. He's desperate for creature comforts so he sets about averting the Dark Ages. He has hindsight, since he's from the future, but will this knowledge be enough? It's a neat test of the some of the ideas we see in Diamond's book.

Are there any SF/fantasy books directly related to the collapse of ancient civilizations? Any books with insight into the minds of people during that collapse?

The book that comes to my mind is Eileen Kernaghan's Winter on the Plain of Ghosts. The civilization that collapses in this book, the Harappan Indus Valley, is not one that's covered in Diamond's book, and it's generally not as well known as other collapsed civilizations like the Maya or other ancient nations like Egypt. I asked Kernaghan to supply some background, and she explains:

The Indus civilization was one of the world's three most ancient civilizations—the others being Mesopotamia and Egypt. Its two largest cities were Mohenjo-daro (in my novel, "The City of the Tiger") which stood beside the river Indus in Sind Province, Pakistan; and Harappa (my "City of the Elephant") four hundred miles to the north-east in Punjab. They were built about four to five thousand years ago, and survived until approximately 1700 BC.

The Indus Valley ruins were discovered by Sir John Marshall in 1921. Marshall directed large scale excavations of Mohenjo-daro over the next six years. E.K. MacKay did further work from 1927 to 1931, and Sir Mortimer Wheeler carried out some small excavations in 1950. What they discovered at the Mohenjo-daro site (the name means "mound of the dead") was a settlement of around 5000 people, with streets and brick buildings laid out in an orderly grid pattern. Above the lower town was a citadel on which they identified a giant granary, an elaborate tank or bath with drains, a large residential structure, assembly halls, and fortifications.

Probably the best-known of the Indus valley artefacts are the distinctive steatite seals, engraved in intaglio with images of animals—elephant, rhinoceros, tiger, bull, etc—and also with pictographic inscriptions, as yet undeciphered.

What are the reasons why a civilization would collapse? Kernaghan gives her take on it:

The central question of the book, of course, is what caused the Indus Valley civilization to collapse. The first archaeologists, working from a nineteenth and early twentieth century perspective, attributed it to invasion by the Aryan (Vedic) tribespeople from the north. Later theorists took the view that the Aryans simply moved into an already deteriorating situation. They postulated a variety of causes, among them climatic changes, malarial mosquitoes, overgrazing and deforestation, tectonic uplift and mud volcanoes, changes in the course of the Indus River, and/or recurrent floods that soured the land. Mortimer Wheeler says, "... the factors instrumental in the decline and fall of historic civilizations have rarely or never been of a simple and uncomplicated kind. It may be taken as axiomatic that there is no one cause of cultural collapse." He adds, "One thing is clear about the end of Mohenjo-daro; the city was already slowly dying before its ultimate end." So I've taken my cue from Wheeler, and in Winter on the Plain of Ghosts, tried to describe some of the processes that might have brought about its downfall. I found that a lot more interesting, and more challenging, than writing about a civilization destroyed by a single, easily identifiable cause.

In the book, a boy named Rujik and a girl named Bima go through various adventures. Rujik ends up in the big city, where he finds that the theocratic system in charge is incredibly inflexible and fatalistic. Environmental changes are happening as well, including a disastrous flood that threatens poor areas of the city, but the priests don't do anything about it. Rujik becomes part of a revolution against the failing system, but Kernaghan is careful not to present this as a heroic thing; violent chaos doesn't help anything at this point.

Speaking as a reader of the book, the thing that struck me most intensely was the attitude of the people in charge. Why didn't they just open their eyes? Novel writing, of course, has the same benefit as hindsight: it makes sense out of what is often a confusing present, and the people in that present don't have the benefit of knowing which actions will lead to which consequence. But that's not a reason to throw up our hands and say it's all useless; in fact the opposite. In that sense, we can look at non-fiction like Collapse and fiction like Winter on the Plain of Ghosts as revving up our brains for a difficult task.

Kernaghan was recently profiled on Strange Horizons. See my review of Winter on the Plain of Ghosts elsewhere; I've also posted the full text of Kernaghan's comments on my website.


James Schellenberg lives and writes in Canada. To read more of his columns, check our archives.