Rise and Fall of Civilizations Dec 8, 2014 13:54:15 GMT
Post by Admin on Dec 8, 2014 13:54:15 GMT
There has been inordinate fascination with societal collapse, an issue outlined in the introduction to this Special Feature (1). The concept has intuitive appeal but ambiguous meaning, and has been applied to states, nations, or complex societies, in the sense that such entities rise and flourish, but eventually disintegrate and fail. Sociopolitical organization, economic weakness, and environmental or demographic trends have received emphasis. Change takes a long-term cyclic rhythm, at first organizing, then expanding and integrating, before sinking in disorder. Systemic failure in one synergistic network may destabilize adjacent structures. Other open questions concern the scale of collapse, the time frames involved, the key elements that fail, and whether the outcome is cataclysmic or eventually allows restructuring. Not all breakdowns are alike.
This challenging concept and its attendant issues were first articulated by the Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun [after 1377 common era (CE)] (2), who identified the periodic rise and fall of dynasties as macrostructures in the history of sedentary civilizations. Beginning with the Roman Empire and continuing with its Islamic counterparts, he attributed demise to rural rebellions or outside invaders confronting a ruling hierarchy that had forfeited the solidarity of its supporters. Rather than a global history, Khaldun's work was an implicit critique of Islamic society that went beyond theological arguments. He faulted the greed and selfishness that came with power, at the expense of the common good.
Khaldun's writings were poorly disseminated, and Western interest in collapse was initially stimulated by Edward Gibbon (3), who, with laborious detail, attributed the decline and fall of the Roman Empire to moral decay and barbarian invasions, much like his predecessor had. Gibbon observed that Roman collapse had changed the sociopolitical map of Europe and the Mediterranean world, a transformation that continues to generate a secondary literature. Although Gibbon held to an ethical dimension, he recognized that Roman collapse could not be separated from historical processes that shaped the dynamic context of its time, and he was uneasy about the potential future failure of even more enlightened and powerful states.
When the archaeological discoveries of the 19th century revealed a periodic failure of kingdoms and empires across the Near East, the collapse model became a durable theme of social and historical discourse. However, the message shifted: whereas ephemeral Eastern civilizations regularly dissolved in chaos, the comparative durability of ancient Rome improved the prospect that Western Europe might endure indefinitely.
With the proliferation of biological analogues in the mid-1800s, ontogenetic or evolutionary qualities such as growth, maturity, and decline were used to interpret historical macrostructures. For social Darwinists, material culture became an index for the increasing achievements of civilization, in an era when the Industrial Revolution exuded the driving force of “progress.” The West was seen as a new empire, wherein technology would assure unlimited economic growth. Problems could and would be fixed by technological innovation.
Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918–1922) (4) was written in the wake of a world war and before the Nazi ascendance. He redefined ontogeny in humanistic terms that included premonitions of the authoritarian state. His “winter” would coincide with a demise of abstract thought, accompanied by empowerment of the rich, and the rise of caesarian, demagogic leaders. Spengler saw a society in deep crisis, and his prescient but pessimistic ideas anticipated the horrors of fascism and Stalinism. His insights remain pertinent for modeling alternative pathways of political resilience in the wake of collapse.
By contrast, the French authors of the Annales School chose a nonlinear track to capture the rich detail of regional histories, and to develop an interdisciplinary method in which millennial demographic waves served as a bellwether of key interactive processes (5⇓–7). Disjunctures were attributed to competing economic systems, long-distance networking, warfare, or pandemics (8), ideas that gave impetus to world-system history (9⇓–11). The annalistes eventually turned to more humanistic studies that introduced environmental variability as an integral part of historical process (12, 13).
Notable is the increasing diversity of perspectives about collapse, ranging initially from ethical and social, to ideological or ethnocentric, and eventually to interdisciplinary and systemic. The underlying ideas continue to echo. The salient concern today is the interface between environment and society, to require greater attention to social science and humanities perspectives. There has indeed been rapid growth of theoretical sophistication in regard to complexity and network theory, agent-based models, resilience theory, or tipping points. However, the challenge for a scientific study of historical collapse remains to develop comprehensive, integrated or coupled models, drawing upon the implications of qualitative narratives that go well beyond routine social science categories, to better incorporate the complexity of human societies (1).
Current research in historical collapse suggests a primary fascination with climatic change and environmental degradation as primary agents of change, but at the cost of less attention to the necessary cross-disciplinary integration. Indeed, the recent return to environmentalism is not about a fresh interest in the environment–society interface, but a continuing failure to appreciate the complexity of such interrelationships. At issue is not whether climatic change is relevant for sociohistorical change, but how we can deal more objectively with coupled systems that include a great tapestry of variables, among which climatically triggered environmental change is undeniably important. The SI Text reviews the problematic revival of environmental determinism in regard to the Akkadian collapse, as well as the purported societal passivity about anthropogenic degradation and potential future collapse. The Old World case studies range from early historical times to the threshold of globalization, with additional examples outlined in the SI Text, or presented in the various research articles of this Special Feature of PNAS. Examined at different levels of detail, these cases help single out more important, interactive variables, to estimate time scales for transformation, and explore the roles of preconditioning, triggering and reconstituting processes. The ultimate goal would be to design complex simulation models that incorporate sophisticated societal components and that can be validated (1).
This presentation attempts to transcend simple assumptions or truisms and monocausal explanations, by dissecting historical examples so as to illustrate the full palette of social-ecological variables and why they are so important for resilience within coupled systems. Some current models for change pay careful attention to biophysical variables that may affect feedbacks, but then go on to simply fit a group of societal factors into a few preconceived categories, supported by tertiary digests of no better than mixed value, to “explain” a particular outcome by assumed, axiomatic processes. Instead, our five case studies (later and in the SI Text) identify important, qualitative variables and track their roles and interplay in systemic outcomes. Although difficult to simulate, societal inputs and feedbacks are more common than environmental variables. The case studies also offer temporal parameters for transformation.