Collapse!

September 26, 2019

Our civilization is going to collapse! What can we learn from history and archaeology about it?


The image of impending collapse pervades the intersection of environmentalism and popular history & archaeology. This is further promulgated by popular books such as Jared Diamond’s “Collapse.” The language of collapse is now implicit in more academic research, illustrated, for instance, by the self-description of the CRASSH research center at the University of Cambridge, including reference to “catastrophic pitfalls” and “civilizational collapse.” We face “Existential Risk.” But as one entomologist put it to me – it’s not going to be the end of life on Earth, it’s going to be the end of human life on Earth – and they didn’t seem to think it was the worst thing that could happen to Planet Earth.

What does collapse mean? As an anthropologist, I know that concepts of ‘collapse’ are shaped by our own cultural blinders. Take, for instance, the French colonial fascination with the ‘lost’ empire of Angkor Wat and their attempts to both reconstruct those monuments and to revive their conception of ‘pure’ ancient Khmer culture. As Edwards so carefully shows, this was a reflection of France’s colonial civilizing mission, including discourse of the end of French power and grandeur (2008).[1]  Is ‘collapse’ the end of a culture and its people? Clearly not. The Mayan civilization collapsed, and Mayans are still here. The influence of the Roman Empire lives on in our language and political institutions. Angkor Wat was still an active ritual center when the French “discovered” it.

What I sought, then, was to disrupt the concept of collapse by thinking of ‘collapse’ as transformations in social institutions and turning our attention to what comes after. In short, let’s look at ‘collapse’ as a process.  For this, I was inspired in part by Christian Lundt’s concept of ‘rupture.’ We read Lund (2016), “Rule and rupture: State formation through the production of property and citizenship,” (for an overview of Lund’s current work, see “Rule and Rupture”).  Lundt’s work on “rule and rupture” is not directly related to the question of future transformations but opens up intriguing ways of thinking about the mediation of human/environmental relations through specific institutions, particularly political institutions and claim of ownership of natural resources such as land.  We also read portions of Sing Chew’s comparative historical work on periods of collapse and rebuilding, “Ecological Futures: What History Can Teach Us,” specifically the Preface, the Introduction, and the Conclusion (the section on “Hope in a hopeless world,” Chew 2008, pp. 139-142).

Perhaps the ‘end of civilization’ is in fact a transformation of what we see as legitimate means of governance, interpreted as ‘Mad Max’ chaos and disorder.

Dark Ages as Times of Transformation

What are ‘Dark Ages’?[2] An environmental historian (imagine, history as if nature matters!), Dr. Sing Chew came to an analytical comparison of ‘Dark Ages’ in different regions and periods of history.  In Over decades of study of environmental history, Dr. Chew turned to comparison of ‘Dark Ages’ in different periods of history. He highlights three recurrences of ‘Dark Ages,’ “when the world system plunged into chaos and devolution” (Chew, p. 1). The core precipitate of these periods were ecological degradation, along with disease, natural disasters, and periods of regional climate change, and resulted in the demise of existing political structures.  What followed with the end of specific political and economic institutions was, he notes, undoubtedly a time of disruption, death, and chaos – but it is not permanent (Chew, pp. 3-4).


While Chew uses the term ‘devolution,’ which I find problematic due to its implication of the normalcy of supposed progress throughout human history, he in fact defines the term narrowly in terms of reorganization and reconfiguration of socioeconomic structures in response to “scarce ecological and natural resources…” (Chew, pp. 1-2). This, he carefully documents in his trilogy on World Ecological Degradation. There is no doubt, according to Chew, that these Dark Ages are times of disruption, disease, death, and even chaos. But it is not permanent. Civilizational glories have been based on particular uses of resources,[3] leading to over-use of specific resources on which society has come to depend. Periods of collapse bring about periods of reduced human use of resources, ‘giving Nature a rest’ (p. 3). This ‘rest’ comes from reduced usage and population, but also more sustainable use of what has been made scarce and innovation in use of new types of resources or use of resources in new ways. ‘Dark Ages’ are not collapse so much as periods of disruption of reproduction of the system, periods of transition rather than of equilibrium (with concomitant shorter periods of oscillation). 


Chew therefore sees ‘Dark Ages’ as hopeful eras of innovation, potentially ecologically progressive.  These are periods of structural shifts. In this view, “collapse is not a condition that we should dread” (p. 139, Chew’s emphasis).  There will be conflict over natural resources. However, the decrease in surplus production will result in a flattening of existing social hierarchies, which is key to facilitating innovation. Decentralization of power will lead to localization of economies and polities, turning consumption toward local resources rather than expensive transport of goods all over the world (all controlled by an economic elite, to the long-term detriment of the majority of the population as elites pursue their own particular interests to the neglect of sustainability). Chew also assumes that ‘local’ will be more sustainable, as local resource management will be based in specific local knowledge. Localization will also bring about an emphasis on community rather than ‘invisible market’ management of resources. This can give rise to alternative forms of exchange. All of these new institutions will follow on ‘collapse,’ as people experiment, innovate, and transform existing political and economic institutions (pp. 140-1). 

Nevertheless, Chew sees a massive decrease in global population due to disease, lack of access to resources on which we (in the West, at least) have come to depend. There will be a period of wars over control of resources.  He takes a long-history view of ‘human evolution’ (or, I would say, development of social, economic, and political structures), in which “Nature” (his capitalization) is given a rest and humans reinvent themselves. There will be war, there will be death, there will be loss of treasured joys (the internet?). This is hardly encouraging to college students.[4] But it begins to give us new language for the idea of transition and transformation.


[1] Edwards, Penny. 2008. Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation, 1860-1945. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

[2] My current favorite on Twitter is Dr. Eleanor Janga, @GoingMedieval, “I assure you, medieval people bathed,” 2 August 2019; and I must mention my colleague Dr. Dana Oswald as well! 

[3] Think of the concept of carrying capacity. For humans, this can only be calculated in terms of technology and cultural practices.  

[4] Our university focuses on non-traditional students and has for 50 years. Our students come from lower middle, working, and poor classes. Many are minorities – we’re one of the most diverse campuses in our state system – and many are adult students who previously ‘stopped out’ for a range of reasons. We have a high number of veterans. Others come to college after losing their jobs because the industry in which they worked has left the region. Almost all of our students work their way through college; some work nearly full-time jobs while also taking classes full-time. These are not the stereotyped entitled millennials that social media depicts.

Published by anthrotheorylearning

An Anthropologist in the Wilds of Wisconsin.

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