There’s a common story of how the Maya civilisation was wiped out: they fell foul of unstoppable climate change. Several periods of extreme drought withered their crops and killed off thousands in their overpopulated cities. ‘There was nothing they could do or could have done. In the end, the food and water ran out – and they died,’ wroteRichardson Gill in 2007. The jungle reclaimed the cities with their palaces and pyramids until they were rediscovered in the 19th century by intrepid explorers.
Likewise, we all know that the Easter Islanders chopped down all the palm trees on their small, isolated island to clear farmland for their ever-growing population and to move their characteristic moai statues, not realising that they were eroding their landscape, reducing their food production, and ultimately cutting themselves off from the bounty of the sea – and the possibility of escape. The Europeans who found the island in the 18th century wondered how such primitive people could ever have had a civilisation developed enough to carve the majestic stone heads.
These stories come from frequent reports in the mass media, from luridly titled history documentaries such as the History Channel’s Who Killed the Maya? (2006) or the BBC’s Ancient Apocalypse: The Maya Collapse (2012-14), and especially from books on the environment and sustainability. Jared Diamond’s bestselling Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005) is only one of many works that recount them – ensuring that they have reached an audience of millions. There are similar stories about many other past societies, whether it is the Puebloans of the southwestern United States, the Harappans of the Indus Valley, or the ancient Mesopotamians. It has even been claimed by some that climate change has been the major driver of collapse, and by others, such as Diamond, that deforestation and environmental damage have very often been to blame.
The stories are often presented as cautionary tales to frighten us into correcting the error of our ways – lest we bring about the end of our own global civilisation. They promote an ethic of environmental responsibility that we ignore at our peril. It is no coincidence that they focus on climate change, human-caused environmental impacts and overpopulation because these three factors are the major global concerns of our times. They have a strong appeal to us because of the ubiquity and antiquity of disaster-based stories. Daily, the media shows us images of both real and fictional disasters: earthquakes, famines, plagues, tsunamis and so on, and these are recycled into yet more fact and fiction in an ongoing process of cultural production and continuity. When we think of what a collapse would look like, a ready-made set of ideas and images comes to mind.
But are these stories right? Is that really what happened to the Maya and the Easter Islanders? In the view of many archaeologists, collapse is not quite so simple – the silver-bullet theories grow less convincing the closer they are scrutinised. As the eminent archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler sagely pointed out in Civilisations of the Indus Valley and Beyond (1966): ‘The fall, like the rise of a civilisation is a highly complex operation which can only be distorted by oversimplification. It may be taken as axiomatic that there was no one cause of cultural collapse.’