Plunder the bookshelves

Friday, February 28th, 2020

Laura Spinney reviews a number of books about societal collapse for Nature:

The newest is Before the Collapse. In it, energy specialist Ugo Bardi urges us not to resist collapse, which is how the Universe tries “to get rid of the old to make space for the new”.

Similarly, Diamond’s 2019 book Upheaval suggested that a collapse is an opportunity for self-appraisal, after which a society can use its ingenuity to find solutions.


Questioning Collapse, a 2009 collection of essays edited by archaeologists Patricia McAnany and Norman Yoffee, took Diamond to task for cherry-picking to spin a good yarn, for example in blaming such iconic societal failures as the population crash of Easter Island on its people’s destruction of their own environment.


In his influential 1988 The Collapse of Complex Societies, archaeologist Joseph Tainter argues that collapse — in the sense of the complete obliteration of a political system and its associated culture — is rare. Even the worst cases are usually better described as rapid loss of complexity, with remnants of the old society living on in what rises from the ashes. After the ‘fall’ of Rome in the fifth century, for example, successor states took more than 1,000 years to achieve comparable economic and technological sophistication, but were always recognizably the empire’s offspring.


In his thoughtful Understanding Collapse (2017), archaeologist Guy Middleton surveys more than 40 theories of collapse — including Diamond’s — and concludes that the cause is almost always identified as external to the society. Perennial favourites include climate change and barbarian invasions — or, in the Hollywood version, alien lizards. The theories say more about the theorists and their times, Middleton argues, than about the true causes of collapse.

The pressing question, Tainter told a workshop on collapse at Princeton University in New Jersey last April, is why can a society withstand repeated external blows — until one day it cannot? For him, a society fails when it is no longer able to adapt to diminishing returns on innovation: when it can’t afford the bureaucracy required to run it, say. In Why the West Rules — For Now (2010), historian Ian Morris proposes a twist on this, namely that the key to a society’s success lies in its ability to capture energy — by extracting it from the ground, for example, or from nuclear fission once fossil fuels have run out. By contrast, Peter Turchin, author of the 2006 War and Peace and War, suggests that collapse is what happens when a society stops being able to deal with the strains caused by population growth, leading to inequality and strife.


Goldstone rigorously dissected upheaval in the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries in his 1991 book Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World. This convinced him that revolution is an inappropriate response to societal tensions, usually leading to tyranny. Solutions have come instead from deep, meaningful reform. Yet the idea that revolution removes obstacles to progress has “deluded literally billions of people”, he argues.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    My personal experience is that no breakthrough occurs unless something dies. It doesn’t have to be everything that dies. It has to be the part that is in the way and dragging the rest down.

    To escape a trap, an animal chews its own leg off. To escape himself, a sinner repents. (By the way, repentance only works if it’s specific. You can’t repent from sin in the abstract.) To salvage a bad family, a bad family member must be thrown under the bus.

    And sometimes you just have to let an entire system go to pieces in order to save yourself. A system that can only survive at your expense is not worth your loyalty.

  2. Graham says:

    I’m going to assume that summary of Goldstone is reductionist, for magazine purposes.

    It begs many, many questions about the meaning of appropriate versus inappropriate, inappropriate for whom and for whose and what ends, and not only what constitutes tyranny but who gained and lost from it and why?

    And also whether or not these phases were necessary to remove obstacles to deep meaningful reform. There’s continuity between what Napoleon did and some things the Bourbons had done, but not at all clear modern France would have emerged in a similar form without the revolution and Bonaparte.

    Similarly, not convinced England of 1700 was possible without 1688, or that 1688 was possible without the 1640s.

  3. Graham says:

    I do enjoy that pithy summation of Diamond, though. Aside from the question of whose ox got gored or city burned in the collapse.

    i can just imagine some Greek surveying burning Mycenae and thinking, well best start appraising ourselves and using our ingenuity to start all over as illiterate goatherds for a few centuries.

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