As 2012 draws to a close, many people are asking if there will be a year 2013, or even a December 22nd, 2012. Thanks to the proliferation of modern media, most of America, if not the world, has been made aware of the Mayan calendar coming to an end on December 21st of this year. There are numerous projections for what might happen when the calendar reaches its end, from a world-wide collapse of societies, to an apocalypse brought on by epic natural disasters. The idea of societal collapse and end of days is a fairly popular topic beyond just the Maya. Post-apocalyptic movies like 2012 and a variety of TV shows with similar themes, like Revolution or Doomsday Preppers, are now dominating our screens.
Screenshot from the movie, 2012. All Rights Reserved by Sony Pictures. Source: Sony Pictures, 2012 Official Movie Site.
Is all of this concern stemming from the end of an ancient calendar, or is there something more motivating this fear and preparation for a post-apocalyptic world? If you look carefully at the issues often brought up in TV and movies, they are tied to real world problems. Though the idea of the whole planet being swept away in one massive flood is a bit over-dramatic, to say the least, Hollywood is tapping into real-world concerns dealing with rising sea level and climate change. These issues have been around for quite awhile, but public awareness and concern appears to have gained momentum in the past decade, with increased research into climate change and a great deal of media coverage in general.
Figure 1. The final section of Tortuguero Monument 6. See Figure 4 for a general overview of the text's original form. (Drawing by D. Stuart). Source: Maya Decipherment.
This media isn’t restricted to TV and movies; a proliferate number of magazine articles and books dealing with climate change and consequences are being written every day. A particularly popular book in this category is Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Pulitzer Prize-winning* author, Jared Diamond. He is a physiologist by training, but has since become skilled in several other fields of study, including anthropology, biology, geography, and history among others. The book was published in 2005 and stems from several earlier talks he gave on college campuses around the country.
Diamond’s theory evolved from these early talks where the five main areas of a collapse framework consist of human impact on the environment, climate change, friendly trade partners, interactions with enemies, and a society’s response to environmental changes. This final element is considered the most critical aspect to discovering why a society fails or succeeds and can be broken into twelve key factors: destruction of natural habitats, reduction of wild foods, loss of biodiversity, soil erosion, depletion of natural resources, pollution of freshwater, maximizing natural photosynthetic resources, introduction of toxins and alien species, artificially induced climate change, and overpopulation. Diamond supports his thesis by including twelve case studies of past and present societies that he claims decided either to fail or succeed in large part because of environmental stresses and changes.
The issues surrounding climate change and what could potentially happen to societies are very popular topics. While not all scholars agree with Diamond’s analysis of the factors that contribute to societal collapse, many do appreciate how he has brought the issue to a wider audience. One such group of individuals was originally brought together to serve as a panel of experts (each specialized in one of the societies that Diamond discusses) at an American Anthropological Association symposium. The panel discussions grew into an edited, thirteen chapter volume, Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire. These authors, and many others with specialties in particular cultures, ecology, or history have taken large portions of Diamond’s argument and found substantial evidence countering his theory about environmental determinism and that groups choose to fail or succeed.
I have been reading up on the issue of societal collapse over the past couple of months in order to make use of the information when working with the computational agent-based models that are part of the Mason- Smithsonian NSF Grant. One of the main goals of the grant is to provide a fuller understanding of climate- society dynamics and the best way to build this knowledge is to start with past data about societies that have dealt with complicated socio-climate situations.
Past societies or cultures like the Maya, Easter Islanders, or Greenland Norse are often described in literature, like Diamond’s, as having “collapsed” due to the stress placed on them by climate changes. While Diamond raises some critical issues, many authors dealing with the same material have suggested that instead of calling the myriad of situations he identifies as “collapses,” a different theoretical label needs to be applied. None of these societies just fell apart as the word collapse suggests. They did suffer significant losses in the general population at particular times in their past, often due, in part, to environmental stressors.
The scholars that wrote the critique of Diamond’s book “Collapse,” proposed that instead of labeling these situations as societal collapses or chosen failures, they should be considered in terms of resilience. It would be more accurate to describe these past societies as people who faced drastic changes in the environment, and found ways to adapt quickly. This would be referred to as resilience, or the ability of a particular ecosystem to absorb disturbances and continue to function in the same general form as before. Many of the factors that Diamond points out are real issues in terms of changing climate, but the result of these changes isn’t an all-out collapse. Instead, the societies that faced these problems developed extreme adaptations in order to stay resilient, and where that failed, they moved on to better environments that could support the structure they had developed.
~ Maggie Mariani, Research Contractor
Diamond, Jared M. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking Press, 2005.
McAnany, Patricia and Norman Yoffee, eds. Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Sony Pictures Digital, Inc.. "Backgrounds Home 1." Photograph. Webshots. 2012 Official Movie Site. Sony Pictures Digital, Inc., 2009. Web. Nov. 2012.
Stuart, David. 2011. More on Tortuguero’s Monument 6 and the Prophecy That Wasn’t. Wordpress Blog. Maya Decipherment: A Weblog on the Ancient Maya Script. October 4.