Thursday, May 3, 2012

Collapse Versus Catastrophe

There have been a lot of great coments on "What If A Collape Happened and Nobody Noticed." I'll respond in more length later, but I just wanted to pass along one article that might be apropos to some of the comments:

400 Chernobyls: Solar Flares, EMP, and Nuclear Armageddon (When Technology Fails).

I heard an interview with Mattew Stein on the latest Radio Ecoshock show. I find it interesting that for the price of one stealth bomber (or a microspcopic fraction of the bank bailouts), we could prevent this disaster scenario from happening. I'm sure we won't do it, however. Gerald Posner also wrote a book worth reading: Catastrophe, Risk and Response. It's been a while since I read it, but as I recall, financial catastrophe was one of the scenarios presented, and this was in 2005 (Posner, considered to be a 'conservative' judge, later wrote A Failure of Capitalism about the crisis). I can't recall whether it dealt with a Solar Carrington event or not. Maybe it's time for a reread.

There is also an interview with Matthew Stein here: Extraenvironmentalist #21 - When Technology Fails

I think it might help to distinguish collapse from catastrophe. Of course the two are often intertwined. The Western Roman Empire had elements of both - I've just started reading Justinian's Flea about the effects plague had on the weakened Roman Empire. A collapse is something like the years of stagnation, depopulation and deflation that have stalked Japan over the past twenty years or the slow decay of Detroit. It's a slow, drawn-out process. A catastrophe would be something like the Fukushima disaster or the September 11 attacks. Another great example is the Soviet Union, which had been declining for a while when Chernobyl hit. Gorbechev has recently said that the Chernobyl incident caused the breakup of the U.S.S.R. (and he would be in a position to know).

It seems that catastrophes, when they occur in decaying civilizations, are often sufficient to bring about collapse. They are often a final blow to an already weakened civilization. One of the reasons many historians started moving away from the theory that barbarian invasions caused Rome's collapse was due to the question "If Rome was able to successfully repel invaders for so long, and even conquer new lands, why do the barbarians ravage the empire when they do? This led to a more nuanced view looking at the internal mechanics of Roman society itself, such as the division of wealth, the economy, political changes, etc, as well as looking at environmental degradation, complexity, etc.

The other point is that because catastrophes are a specific point in time, we use them as reference points for collapse. The sack of Rome by Alaric on August 24th 410 is often used as a reference point for Rome's fall. But the event itself was a catstrophe - an event with a specific date that capped a period of decline. Something like the Crisis of the Third Century, as the name implies, unfolded over a much longer period of time. I think this is more analagous to what we are going through. Previously I compared our political civil was to Roman civil wars. Just like the Roman civil wars, the average citizens are being stripmined in order to pay for wars waged among the elites for power, except those was are political, not military. Catastrophes serve as useful reference points along a road to collapse. But they are not necessary.

In the past, collapses of civilizations tended to occur due to climate changes. Because of stored resilience, these changes took place over time. Often times the invasions look like the proximate cause of a civilizational collapse, but they are really more symptomatic.

Another example is the Khmer empire in what is today Cambodia. At it's height, greater Angkor covered almost 400 square miles, roughly the size of the five boroughs of New York City, with as many as 750,000 inhabitants, and with fabulous wealth and architecture. What allowed this was some of the most advanced hydraulic engineering in the ancient world that allowed the inhabitants to divert and impound water from the the monsoon rains and use it to grow rice to feed a large population, which kept the empire secure. An inscription at one complex, Ta Prohm, notes that 12,640 people serviced that temple alone. Giant reservoirs called barays stored the rainwater for the use in times of drought or flood for some 300,000 farmers who worked a giant jigsaw of irrigated fields surrounding the temple complexes. The inscription at Ta Prohm also records that more than 66,000 farmers produced nearly 3,000 tons of rice a year.

Warriors from the neighboring kingdom of Ayutthaya "took" Angkor in 1431, according to their the annals of the state. Much like the barbarian invasions, it was long thought that this invasion caused the fall of Angkor and the Khmer empire. But Ayutthaya and another neighboring kingdom of Champa had been previously kept at bay for centuries. According to recent dendrochronology, it was the disruption of the monsoon rains that cause the civilization to weaken and fail:
To a tottering kingdom, extreme weather could have been the coup de grace. Decades earlier, Angkor's waterworks were already ailing, to judge from the idles West Baray. "We don't know why the water system was operating below capacity--it's a conundrum," says Penny. "But what it means is that Angkor really had no fat to burn. The city was more exposed to the threat of drought than at any other time in its history." Prolonged and sever droughts, punctuated by torrential downpours, "would have ruined the water system," says Fletcher.

If inhabitants of northern Angkor were starving while other parts of the city were hoarding rice, the stage would have been set for severe unrest. "When populations in tropical countries exceed the carrying capacity of the land, real trouble begins," says Yale University anthropologist Michael Coe. "This inevitably leads to cultural collapse." A malnourished army, preoccupied with internal strife, would have exposed the city to attack. Indeed, Ayutthaya's invasion and the Khmer king's ouster happened near the end of the second megadrought.

Add climate chaos to the shifting political and religious winds already buffering the kingdom, and Angkor's fate was sealed, says Fletcher. "The world around Angkor was changing. Society was moving on. It would have been a surprise if Angkor persisted."
Angkor: Why an Ancient Civilization Collapsed. National Geographic Magazine, July 2009

A similar combination of drought leading to social instability has been posited for the collapse of Lowland Classic Maya. And climate change had additional effects all over the world:
When empires rise and fall and plagues sweep over the land, people have traditionally cursed the stars. But perhaps they should blame the weather. A new analysis of European tree-ring samples suggests that mild summers may have been the key to the rise of the Roman Empire—and that prolonged droughts, cold snaps, and other climate changes might have played a part in historical upheavals, from the barbarian invasions that brought about Rome's collapse to the Black Death that wiped out much of medieval Europe.

"Looking back on 2500 years, there are examples where climate change impacted human history," says the study's lead author, Ulf Büntgen, a paleoclimatologist at the Swiss Federal Research Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape in Zurich. "This kind of information is not only relevant for ancient agrarian societies, it might also impact modern societies."

The study, published online today in Science, examined nearly 9000 pieces of wood, mostly collected over the past 30 years by archaeologists who use tree rings to establish the age of ancient sites or structures, a technique known as dendrochronology. With tree rings taken from living trees as a baseline, dendrochronologists work their way back in time, comparing overlapping samples to edge ever further into the past.
When Büntgen showed the data to historians and archaeologists, they pointed out remarkable consistencies with what we know of past societies. At times of social stability and prosperity, like the rise of the Roman Empire between 300 B.C.E. and 200 C.E., Europe experienced warm, wet summers ideal for agriculture. Similar conditions accompanied the peak years of medieval Europe between 1000 C.E. and 1200 C.E.

The study also showed that climate and catastrophe often line up. In the 3rd century C.E., for example, extended droughts matched the timing of barbarian invasions and political turmoil. Around 1300 C.E., on the other hand, a cold snap combined with wetter summers coincides with widespread famines and plague that wiped out nearly half of Europe's population by 1347.

"It's a phenomenal data set with some eye-opening conclusions," says University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, geoscientist David Stahle, who was not involved with the study. "The provocative outcome is that harsh climate conditions happen to be associated with upheavals in society, like the Black Death."

By counting wood samples, the analysis also created a rough measure of human activity. In eras of prosperity, more trees were cut down for building and fuel, yielding more samples in the archaeological record. At other times, like the years after the Black Death and the so-called Migration Period between 300 C.E. and 600 C.E. when the Roman Empire was overwhelmed by tribes pushing in from the east, the number of wood samples dwindles to nearly nothing. "It's an interesting proxy of demographic trends and really the most provocative part of the study," says Stahle.
Fall of Rome Recorded in Trees (science Magazine)

And some speculate that the climate changes in c. 1350-1450 were caused by the earlier Mongol invasions:
Genghis Khan's Mongol invasion in the 13th and 14th centuries was so vast that it may have been the first instance in history of a single culture causing man-made climate change, according to new research out of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology, reports

Unlike modern day climate change, however, the Mongol invasion cooled the planet, effectively scrubbing around 700 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere.

So how did Genghis Khan, one of history's cruelest conquerors, earn such a glowing environmental report card? The reality may be a bit difficult for today's environmentalists to stomach, but Khan did it the same way he built his empire — with a high body count.

Over the course of the century and a half run of the Mongol Empire, about 22 percent of the world's total land area had been conquered and an estimated 40 million people were slaughtered by the horse-driven, bow-wielding hordes. Depopulation over such a large swathe of land meant that countless numbers of cultivated fields eventually returned to forests.

In other words, one effect of Genghis Khan's unrelenting invasion was widespread reforestation, and the re-growth of those forests meant that more carbon could be absorbed from the atmosphere.
Was Genghis Khan history's greenest conqueror? (Mother Nature News)

And while climate change seems more and more to be the driver of the collapse of agricultural civilizations, there is of course no precedent for our high-tech, brittle, non-redundant, division-of labor based fossil-fuel powered monoculture societies of today. It won't be the end of humanity, or course. There are hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of humans, from Inuit hunters to African tribesmen to Mongolian nomad herders who do not even use electricity. Will they be mankind's only survivors?

I once speculated that future historians will use September 11th, 2001 as the end date for the American Century, the date when we were at the height of our power yet rotten on the inside with all the seeds of our collapse being sewn. And the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics would be seen as the opening of the Chinese century, with the Bush presidency as the transition period and culmination of long-term trends (two disastrous wars, spiraling debt, shifting of the tax burden, banking crises, corruption, incompetence, radicalization, financialization, gridlock, overall disinvestment in society in favor of looting by elites, etc.). But, of course, only the future will see if I'm right on that.

Ta Prohm today:

Bonus link: How To Learn From The Past (Energy Bulletin)


  1. Incidentally, another case of collapse hits home - on my way home I saw a fellow standing on a street island in my neighborhood with a sign saying "Need work, anything will help." And as I write this there is a police car with its lights on outside and a white car pulled over, for what I don't know. Both of these are rare/unique in my neighborhood. I'd better turn on the news quick and see how the recovery is coming along.

  2. Did you read this? Seems right up your alley.


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