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ENVS504: Society, Economy, and the Environment

Unit 2: Societal Collapse   In 1988, the anthropologist Dr. Joseph Tainter published his book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, which described de-evolution of ancient societies, such as the Maya, Chaco, and Roman empires, in the presence of climate change and resource depletion.  Dr. Tainter realized that the response of these societies to these environmental challenges was to increase societal complexity, establishing a positive feedback between complexity and resource consumption that ultimately led to the society’s demise.  In 2004, Dr. Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail, furthered this line of inquiry, identifying historical and modern-day cases in which societal responses to environmental pressures either increased their resilience by adapting the society to operate within new environmental limits, or decreased their resilience by further degrading the environment and resource base.  These two works spawned a large field of research into societal resilience and collapse, for which complex systems theory has been a very helpful framework.  State failure (the collapse of governments in modern nation-states) is the current-day counterpart to the societal collapse literature.  While studies of past societal collapses can give us insight into the large-scale drivers of collapse, case studies of currently failed states provide much richer detail as to how central governments lose control over their territory, and how difficult it can be to pull a society out of a failed state.  From this small-scale perspective, state collapse is often the consequence of a collection of poorly made decisions by leaders; this observation was also made by both Tainter and Diamond working at a larger scale as a society’s response to stresses.  For some scholars, a failed state is the last step before a society completely collapses.

This unit will familiarize you with the terminology and concepts in the societal collapse research area.  This unit will demonstrate how this work helps to inform current decision-makers at local, regional, and global scales about ways to increase the resilience of their societies.

Unit 2 Time Advisory
This unit should take approximately 6 hours to complete.

☐    Subunit 2.1: 2.5 hours

☐    Subunit 2.2: 3.5 hours

Unit2 Learning Outcomes
Upon successful completion of this unit, the student will be able to: - Define and discuss terms and concepts of the societal collapse literature, including: adaptation and mitigation, collapse, failed state, reorganization, and stress. - Classify societal responses to environmental issues as likely to increase or decrease resilience. - Explain how small-scale dynamics or choices can aggregate into large-scale problems. - Analyze examples of past societies that have collapsed, the main drivers of these collapses, and the behaviors of the societies that conspired to accelerate the collapse (e.g., non-adaptive behaviors). - Identify current societies that may be at risk of collapse, and identify the main stresses placing these societies at risk and societal behaviors that are either increasing or decreasing this risk.

2.1 Societal Collapse and State Failure   2.1.1 Past Societal Collapses   - Lecture: TED Talks: Professor Jared Diamond’s “Why Societies Collapse” Link: TED Talks: Professor Jared Diamond’s “Why Societies Collapse” (Flash)

 Instructions: Please click on the above link and watch Jared
Diamond’s TED Talk.  In this lecture, he describes the five main
factors of collapse of human societies and provides examples from
past societies and how these societies were unable to avoid
collapse.  

 Watching this lecture and taking notes should take approximately 30
minutes.  

 Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use
displayed on the webpage above.

2.1.2 Modern-Day Collapsed States   - Reading: The Wilson Center: Robert Rotberg’s “Failed States, Collapsed States, and Weak States: Causes and Indicators” The Saylor Foundation does not yet have materials for this portion of the course. If you are interested in contributing your content to fill this gap or aware of a resource that could be used here, please submit it here.

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  • Reading: Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich: International Relations and Security Network Staff: “Moving towards Weak and Failed States” Link: Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich: International Relations and Security Network Staff: “Moving towards Weak and Failed States” (HTML)

    Instructions: Please click on the link above and read this short news article about causes of state failure in countries in Africa.  In particular, the “resource curse” is a risk factor for state failure that is cited in many studies.  You should note that the types of resources that increase risk are those that cannot be easily used by local communities (such as water or forests), but rather those that can fetch a high price from rich countries (e.g., diamonds and other minerals) and provide cash to purchase weapons.

    Reading this article and taking notes should take approximately 15 minutes.

    Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use displayed on the webpage above.

2.1.3 Controversy with Identifying Failed States and Collapsed Societies   - Web Media: Al Jazeera: Interview with JJ Messner, Elliot Ross, and Syed Mohammad Ali: “Grading State Failure” Link: Al Jazeera: Interview with JJ Messner, Elliot Ross, and Syed Mohammad Ali: “Grading State Failure” (HTML and YouTube)

 Instructions: Please click on the above link and read the material
below the video box before watching the interviews.  The charts
describe the results of the yearly Failed States Index study
conducted by the Fund for Peace.  The methodology that the
organization uses has been accused of having a Western bias, as
Western and developed countries are consistently ranked more highly
than other nations.  Then, click on the play button for the video,
and watch the interviews with JJ Messner, Elliot Ross, and Syed
Mohammad Ali.  The interviewees provide different opinions on the
utility of failed states discussions in general and the Fund for
Peace’s index in particular.  

 Reading this material and watching the interview should take
approximately 45 minutes.  

 Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use
displayed on the webpage above.

2.2 Case Studies   2.2.1 Collapse: Roman Empire   - Lecture: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Paul Freedman’s “Transformation of the Roman Empire” Link: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Paul Freedman’s “Transformation of the Roman Empire” (YouTube)

 Instructions: Please click on the above link and watch this
lecture.  Professor Freedman uses the more neutral term of
“transformation” than collapse or failure to describe the end of the
Roman Empire.  He pursues different explanations for the
transformation and whether it was sudden enough to put the Roman
Empire in the same category of other catastrophic societal
failures.  

 Watching this lecture and taking notes should take approximately 1
hour.  

 Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use
displayed on the webpage above.

2.2.2 Collapse: Mayan Empire   - Reading: Pennsylvania State University: David Webster’s “The Uses and Abuses of the Ancient Maya” Link: Pennsylvania State University: David Webster’s “The Uses and Abuses of the Ancient Maya” (PDF)

 Instructions: Please click on the above link and scroll down to
“Recent Publications.”  Then click on the link for the “The Uses and
Abuses of Ancient Maya” article to download the PDF.  Please read
the entire article, which describes what is known about the history
of the Mayan Empire, including its populations, governance, resource
base and technology.  The article also examines several different
explanations for why the Mayan Empire collapsed, including external
stresses such as regional drought and internal factors such as a
lack of adaptive capacity.  

 Reading this article and taking notes should take approximately 1
hour and 30 minutes.  

 Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use
displayed on the webpage above.

2.2.3 Collapse: Easter Island   - Reading: American Scientist: Terry Hunt’s “Rethinking the Fall of Easter Island” Link: American Scientist: Terry Hunt’s “Rethinking the Fall of Easter Island” (HTML)

 Instructions: Please click on the above link and read the entire
article.  On Easter Island (“Rapa Nui,” as it is known by its
inhabitants), the causes of the disappearance of the people
responsible for the striking stone statues (or “moai”) scattered
around the island has always been shrouded in mystery.  Hunt (an
anthropologist) argues that most of the popular beliefs surrounding
what happened to the society are likely mostly or totally incorrect.
 Instead, he suggests that an explosion of invasive rats may have
led to the rapid devegetation of the island and loss of this
critical resource for the human population.  

 Reading this article and taking notes should take approximately 30
minutes.  

 Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use
displayed on the webpage above.

2.2.4 Modern Failed States   - Web Media: Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich: John Bruni’s “South Sudan: A Newly Minted Failed State?” Link: Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich: John Bruni’s “South Sudan: A Newly Minted Failed State?” (MP4)

 Instructions: Please click on the above link and listen to the
podcast.  John Bruni discusses the uphill battle that South Sudan
faces as it emerges as an independent nation.  

 Listening to this podcast and taking notes should take
approximately 15 minutes.  

 Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use
displayed on the webpage above.
  • Reading: Der Spiegel: Clemens Höges’ “Inside the World’s Worst Hellhole: Somalia, the Perfect Failed State” Link: Der Spiegel: Clemens Höges’ “Inside the World’s Worst Hellhole: Somalia, the Perfect Failed State” (HTML)

    Instructions: Please click on the above link and read this article, which describes what life is like for people living in a failed state.

    Reading this article and taking notes should take approximately 15 minutes.

    Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use displayed on the webpage above.