Notes From All Over 27/02/2010 (Civilizational Collapse Edition)

A Collection of essays, reports, and blog posts of merit. 
Due to the particularities of my schedule, I will be unable to post much this next week. Perhaps the week after that as well.  We shall see. To make up for this lack of material, I offer you a few interesting readings loosely connected in their subject matter: the decline, over-extension, or collapse of societies and civilizations.
Joseph Tainter. Ecological Complexity. 13 February 2006.
A discussion over at the Committee of Public Safety prompted me to go back and reread various essays and articles by archeologist Joseph Tainter. Tainter has developed a theory of civilizational collapse that I find intriguing. I plan on reading his book later this year, but for now this article suffices – it is a good 13 page distillation of his core ideas. (And do not let the ‘sustainability’ in the article’s title dissuade the security nerds here from reading it! Tainter uses the term in a very different sense than its modern day ecospeak equivalent.)
Speaking of ecospeak, I have come across two spectacular articles on the subject of ecological collapse:
Benny Peiser. Energy and Environment. 2005.
Pekka Hamalainen. Journal of American History. December 2003.
NOTE: I apologize for being unable to locate a copy of this article outside of JSTOR. If any of my readers find one, I will be glad to post it. Those without access to JSTOR may e-mail me asking for a copy and I will be happy to send it to them.
The first article (coming via Fabius Maximus– he collected a great many more papers on a similar theme) tells the story of the island of Rapa Nui’s collapse. Rapa Nui (commonly known as Easter Island) has become a sort of poster boy for proponents of ecological collapse theory. According to these men, Easter Islanders brought about their own demise by destroying Rapa Nui’s ecological balance. As their lifestyles became more extravagant and their numbers grew, the people of Rapa Nui began to destroy the island’s forest, degrade the its topsoil, and drive Rapa Nui’s animal life to extinction. As a result of this environmental devastation, the people of Rapa Nui had no resource base to fall back upon, and their society collapsed.
While it is a great morality tale, this story has a problem: it never happened. The real story of Rapa Nui is much more mundane, if not less tragic. Imperialism, not the overuse of natural resources, was the evil that crashed Easter Island’s fledgling civilization.
In sharp contrast to Diamond’s exaggerated description of ecological collapse is the more balanced account found in Pekka Hamalainen’s discussion of the North American Plains Indian tribes. Hamalainen’s thesis rejects the one paradigm that has defined historical discussions of Native Americans since Americans began writing history books  – mainly, that the central event in the history of the American Indian was the white man’s Westward expansion. Hamalainen contends that this is false. If you wish to tell the tale of the Great Plains tribes, you should not be “facing East from Indian Country“, but facing South from buffalo country. The most important event for the Comanche, Shoshone, Kiowa, or Sioux tribes was not the arrival of American pioneers from the West, but the arrival of horses from the Spanish lands in the South.
Hamalainen description of the horse’s effect on the plains tribes is fascinating. The horse allowed tribes like the Comanche to transform from autonomous bands of hunter-gatherers tagging behind buffalo herds into a unified “empire” of pastoral nomads with the power to terrorize European powers and sedentary tribes for the better part of two centuries. Yet the new plains powers could not last indefinitely – their empires were built upon a contradiction that ultimately proved their downfall. The source of the plains tribes’ wealth and power were their horses, which depended on large open grasslands to survive. This put the great Indian horse herds in direct competition with the one resource plains Indians depended on for subsistence: the buffalo. By the late 18th century the system could no longer sustain itself, and buffalo populations begin to crash. By the time the Americans came to the scene the tribes were but a shadow of their former glory, horrifically reduced by disease and famine. It was a simple matter for the U.S. Army to sweep in an remove the last vestiges of the Plains Indians’ old way of life.
Like Tainter, Hamalainen has written a book quite near the top of my reading list: Comanche Empire.
Moving on to the theme of modern day collapse:
H. Charles J. Godfray et. all. Science. 12 February 2010
Don Peck. Atlantic Magazine. March 2010.
Here are two causes for alarm with solutions in sight. Undoubtedly one of the greatest challenges of the next fifty years will be meeting the subsistence needs of the additional three billion people we expect to add to our numbers. Drastically increasing global food production is one of the largest hurdles to doing so without disaster. Dr. Godfray and co. provide a valuable road map to avoid such a disaster.
Don Peck’s essay for Atlantic decries calls of economic apocalypse. His view cannot be called optimistic, however. In place of full economic collapse Peck predicts a prolonged recession. Such a recession will leave a generational mark upon the American Republic. Peck’s speculations on that matter are both fascinating and thought provoking.
Dylan Grice. Societe Generale Research. 11 February 2011.
Unlike the last two collapse-scenarios mentioned, I see little being done to stymie this crisis in waiting. To quote from the report:

Last weekend, the G7 ‘committed’ itself to the path of further stimulus. As politicians are wont to do, they presented it as though it was somehow a difficult decision: “the position for most countries is to support the economies now, and get the budget deficit down as the economy recovers.” said the UK’s Chancellor, Alistair Darling, nodding earnestly. Am I the only one who heard a heroin addict steadfastly committing to his next fix?!

Maintaining a stable debt to GDP ratio requires governments to run a primary balance proportionate to the difference between interest rates and GDP growth.

One might think governments ‘only’ need a 3% underlying contraction of fiscal policy in order to right the ship. Wouldn’t doing that over a number of years be plausible? Perhaps, but I can’t find any examples of it having happened before. And while that doesn’t make it impossible it does illustrate both the political difficulty of following such a path, and the behavioural biases present in politicians’ confidence that they will – if it is difficult to summon the political courage today, why will it be easier tomorrow?

Niall Ferguson. Foreign Affairs. 26 February 2010.
This piece serves as a fine ending note for this collection of letters. Ferguson has (in the words of blog friend Joseph Fouche)  “thrown a historical bomb shell at theorists of social decline.”  While the counterpoint is welcome, my personal feeling is that the good historian protests too much. It hardly needs to be said that most civilizational collapses are unexpected ‘black swan‘ events – if they were anything else, the great majority would have been averted. However, the unpredictability of an empire’s final throes does not render theories of collapse and social decline useless. The metaphor of the camel’s back serves us well here. Few can predict the exact manner in which a stray straw floating in the air might fall onto a camel’s back. More difficult still is to predict the precise straw that will break the poor creature. But the wise herdsman can know when the camel has been overburdened to the point where a straw might break the back.
As are the camels of metaphor, so are the civilizations of reality. The proper concern of civlizational theorists should not be the prediction of the exact moment or cause of a collapse. Rather, theorists should concentrate their efforts on developing models that predict when societies become most vulnerable to these ‘black swan’ events. Plagues, barbarians, terrorist, famines, recessions – such ills befall all complex human societies. Some of the societies find the power within themselves to overcome these challanges; others fall prey to them. The difference between the two is rarely found within challenge itself. A people are brought to its knees by what came before the last straw. Societies, states, empires, and civilizations do not fall simply because they are confronted with unexpected challenges. It is when they lack the capacity to respond to these unexpected challenges that collapse ensues.

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