Why civilizations fall

Ruins of Mycenae--a victim of prolonged drought? Photo: David Monniaux, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Ruins of Mycenae–a victim of prolonged drought? Photo: David Monniaux, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

A walk through history easily shows that cultures can’t count on remaining stable forever.

Edward Gibbon wrote a classic on that subject: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. (It’s on my bucket list of famous-books-I-have-yet-to-actually-read.) You can have a whack at it on line at a marvelous site called Project Gutenberg, along with lots of other free e-books.

What makes cultures or nations strong – and what brings them down – is fertile ground for discussion and complaint. Those keen on this subject often have their own favorite cautionary take: the danger of moral decay, the tendency of empires to collapse due to over-reach, or the risk of environmental factors gone awry.

Writing in the New York Times this past week, Isabel Kershner detailed a pollen study that may explain why successful Mediterranean area bronze-age cultures suffered a notable decline. (I am unable to find a direct link but the over-all study in question was published in Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University.)

Over 3200 years ago – paraphrasing Kershner – the region boasted “the mighty Hittite empire”, a thriving Egypt, the copper emporium of Cyprus, Greece and the Mycenaean culture, the bustling port of Ugarit on the Syrian coast, while Canaan supported city states like Hazor and Megiddo. From the NYT article:

Vibrant trade along the coast of the eastern Mediterranean connected it all.

Yet within 150 years, according to experts, the old world lay in ruins.

Experts have long pondered the cause of the crisis that led to the collapse of civilization in the Late Bronze Age, and now believe that by studying grains of fossilized pollen they have uncovered the cause.

In a study published Monday in Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, researchers say it was drought that led to the collapse in the ancient southern Levant.

As reported in National Geographic, researchers studied pollen contained in sediment core samples taken from the bottom of the Sea of Galilee:

The scientists noticed a sharp decline around 1250 BCE in oaks, pines, and carob trees—the traditional flora of the Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age—and an increase in the types of plants usually found in semiarid desert regions. There was also a big drop in the number of olive trees, an indication that horticulture was on the wane. All are signs, say the researchers, that the region was in the grip of regular and sustained droughts.

The Biblical sound of those places and names is no coincidence. Here’s how Bible History Daily/Bible Archeology Society summarized the significance of this region and what happened there:

The new pollen data is critical for understanding the Bronze Age collapse. While a single source for the centuries-long upheaval seems unlikely, an extended period of drought may have led to economic failures and population migration, sparking broader military and other conflicts that broke down the extended imperial network of the Late Bronze Age. While Egypt, Hatti, Mycenae and others would never rise to their pre-collapse levels of prosperity again, the so-called Dark Ages saw the birth of some of history’s most prodigious cultures, including the Biblical Israelites.

The last sentence is insightful. To date, planetary human declines have been rare. When certain cultures – or regions – fall into decline, others come into their own, or go on to evolve toward subsequent successes.

Of course the example of dinosaurs would suggest that really big changes can happen too. (Life in general may go on, but your life form might run into a dead end.)

Are questions of why civilizations come and go ones you find intriguing? What are you concerned about right now, if anything?

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42 Comments on “Why civilizations fall”

  1. Clearly empires traditionally collapse because of gay marriage.

    (Sorry couldn’t resist =)

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  2. Tony Goodwin says:

    For anyone interested in this topic, I would recommend Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” which details the fate of societies and cultures that couldn’t adapt to changing circumstances compared to those that survived. One example is the difference between the end of the Norse settlements in Greenland as the climate cooled in the 14th Century and the survival of the Norse settlements in Iceland during the same period.

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  3. In all seriousness, there is no magic bullet as to why empires collapse because each one has its own individual circumstances. And most collapse for more than one reason. The American Empire is clearly undermined by imperial overreach. That goes without saying. But I think it’s also being harmed by the inability of people within the core of the empire to simply get along. The whole concept of there being certain commonalities that we all share, regardless of party or ideology, commonalities that define a society… that’s being undermined. In a society that’s becoming increasingly diverse, not having any common reference points is very dangerous to stability.

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  4. DanP says:

    The peer-reviewed article may be found at: http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/maney/tav/2013/00000040/00000002/art00002

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  5. The Original Larry says:

    There’s a big difference between collapse and evolution. Certainly, collapse due to rapid, uncontrolled environmental change has been well noted in history and it is something that we face now.

    But please, spare me this American Empire – imperial overreach stuff. It does not go without saying. Aside from the Spanish – American War, we have been free from imperial conquest since the mid 19th century. Whatever other misadventures (and there have been several) we have been recently involved in have been largely the result of being the only viable counter-weight to the imperial ambitions of others.

    The “inability…to simply get along” comment defies response.

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  6. “There’s a big difference between collapse and evolution.”

    Absolutely agree. But tell that to folks who want our values to remain what they were in the 1950s now and forever.

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  7. The Original Larry says:

    I think you are referring to the often repeated liberal mantra that conservatives want to remain in a 1950′s mind-set, with all the negatives that implies. Not true, and repeating it ad nauseam does not make it so. Liberals seem incapable of assimilating new thoughts, given how much they enjoy repeating the same cliches.

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  8. Peter Hahn says:

    many smaller civilizations expired because the ran out of room to dump their garbage or built housing for the nobility on the best farmland.

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  9. Lucy Martin says:

    Thanks for that link, Dan!

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  10. Jim Bullard says:

    “While Egypt, Hatti, Mycenae and others would never rise to their pre-collapse levels of prosperity again, the so-called Dark Ages saw the birth of some of history’s most prodigious cultures, including the Biblical Israelites.”

    “The last sentence is insightful.”

    Indeed it is. Those who actually read the Bible will note that the birth of Biblical Isreal was the result of them slaughtering every living thing, not just the inhabitants of the ‘Promised Land’ but all their livestock as well. If there isn’t enough land, pastures, food, etc. to go around, wipe out the competition and keep it all for yourselves. I sincerely hope we have learned better since then.

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  11. dave says:

    “I think you are referring to the often repeated liberal mantra that conservatives want to remain in a 1950′s mind-set, with all the negatives that implies. Not true”

    I was under the impression that conservatives held some amount of pride in this fact, yet you seem to reject it.

    How come?

    After all, your political ideology, at least as expressed here, does seem more in line with that of someone from several decades ago. Certainly when it comes to social issues. You have express disagreement with the direction society is heading and have expressed support for values and policies of previous days… so why would you deny that when someone points it out?

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  12. The Original Larry says:

    When liberals castigate conservatives for having a “1950s mind-set” it’s usually code for an anti-women, anti-gay, anti-minority, etc., philosophy. That, I reject without reservation, and so do more conservatives than you would like to admit. Traditional values like patriotism, self-reliance, small government, etc., are another matter. Who cares if these are the values “of previous days”? Not me. You want me to accept the definition of conservative YOU decided on? Not happening!

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  13. dave says:

    Who cares if these are the values “of previous days”? Not me.”

    You acknowledge that these values are from previous days, and then turn around and get upset when someone associates those values with a mindset from previous days. It just seems like a contradiction.

    “You want me to accept the definition of conservative YOU decided on? Not happening!”

    I am not making up any definition. For example, opposition to equality for individuals who are gay is baked right into the official platform of the largest conservative political party in this country. It is also an opinion that you have expressed right here on this blog.

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  14. The Original Larry says:

    “It is also an opinion that you have expressed right here on this blog.”

    You are either mistaken or a liar. Prove it.

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  15. Peter Hahn says:

    In order to have a civilization you have to have enough extra production of food etc to support a federal government. In ancient times that meant feeding the priests, warriors, and artisans that build the federal government structures. With extended droughts, there wasnt enough extra food, there were tax-revolts, and civilization collapsed.

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  16. Mervel says:

    I would think a much lower murder rate in 1950 as compared to today would indicate at least in some cases a healthier culture than today. There are numerous social statistics about the 1950′s that would indicate positive things in that particular decade. Not all though, it does not have to be an all or nothing proposition, it seems we could and should evolve keeping the good things of the past and jettisoning the bad, isn’t that what social evolution is all about? I don’t think we have kept many of the good things about the 1950′s, we have started to really get rid of many of the problems however which is a good thing.

    But anyway from a cultural standpoint we don’t have enough data, one or two decades would hardly register, we are still a very young country.

    I think our problem is going to be our lack of cultural identity, I don’t think you can have a 1000 or 2000 year old civilization without a true cultural identity.

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  17. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I don’t know if there is any civilization with a 1000 or 2000 year history and a culture that didn’t go through radical changes. Maybe the earliest times in Egypt or China. But we certainly are a very young country and if we are to remain as powerful as we are there needs to be radical change.

    Our first few centuries (counting colonial times) were spent in massive consumption of basically untouched natural resources. With the rapid growth of technology since the Industrial Revolution and massive population growth we have come to a point where radical cultural change has become necessary. Some people don’t like the idea of change. But it is happening and will continue to happen. Like it or not.

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  18. Ken Hall says:

    Lucy, Your last few sentences in your blog induce me to take you to the verbal woodshed:

    “planetary human declines have been rare” How about the incredible human decline in North and South America subsequent to the arrival of the Europeans late in the 15th century? Although the exact numbers of Native Americans (descendants of Siberian populations who crossed the frozen Bering Sea during the last Ice Age some 10,000 years ago) are in dispute because there is great disparity in the estimates of the total numbers of Native Americans (North and South) from low ball estimates of less than 2 million to high estimates of 100 million the current thinking is close to 20 million in North America and perhaps 30 million in South America. The US Government provides a pretty definitive count of 237,000 Native Americans in the US in 1900 with perhaps as few as 10 to 20 thousand in Canada at that time. So from say 20 million down to 250,000 Native Americans in North America in about 400 years that appears to be a significant decline all brought about by the newest arrivals. I did not find that Central and South American Natives fared quite as poorly but they were not enjoying themselves at a picnic with 50% to 90% declines or more in various population centers.

    “When certain cultures – or regions – fall into decline, others come into their own” So the genocide perpetrated by the Europeans against all Native Americans was simply “a fall into decline”. My concept of the “fall into decline” was more akin to a “shove” over a vertical 1000 foot high cliff. Ah but of course it was all for a good cause to enable the “others, Europeans, to come into their own”. Who could possibly find fault with such noble cause as that?

    “the example of dinosaurs would suggest that really big changes can happen too” Yup. Same same as that which is in the process of occurring spaceship Earth wide as we sit. It is fairly well accepted in the inner sanctums of the “Ivory Towers” that the non events, in the eyes of the true non believers, of global warming and massive pollution, caused by wayyyy too many humans, have moved the Earth into the early phases of the 6th great die off event in the past 450, give or take, million years.

    “What are you concerned about right now, if anything?” I am concerned that there are over 7 Billion humans tearing at spaceship Earth so as to gather up every last valuable resource before some other non deserving form of fauna or another human beats them to it. I know humans are a form of fauna it is just that they are so damned avaristic that I have a problem associating them with the rest of the Earth’s fauna. I am concerned that the IPCC reports are deliberately low balled by various government inputs so as to preclude the criticality of the global warming situation being widley disseminated amongst thinking humans, both of them. I am concerned that humans are so feeble minded as to believe economists who in effect contend that the Earth is an infinite source of all resources and that when enough money is thrown at ferreting out such resources plenty many will be discovered. I reckon that is why so many Americans seriously believe that the 1 million barrels of oil pumped out of North Dakota per day (second only to Texas at 1.1 million) will enable the US to surpass Saudi Arabia’s roughly 10-12 million barrels per day which is about three to five million barrels per day greater than the total production, about 7 million, of every US oil well. If you are sitting in a malt shop with your boy/girl friend sipping a single frappe with two straws and a couple of your friends sit down with you and put their straws in your frappe to partake with the two of you, will the frappe last longer with four straws draining it or two? The oil barons are punching holes in the North Dakota landscape as fast as they can so as I mentioned previously “to gather up every last valuable resource before some other non deserving form of fauna or another human beats them to it”. My list although obviously not infinite would/could go on sufficiently to cause serious irritation with the good readers of this blog so I will simply state that I am concerned that humans are hell bent on igniting the 6th great die off event’s after-burners with virtually no thought to the consequences of their actions. In the least damaging of the die-off’s of the past it is estimated that all of the larger size fauna disappeared leaving only rodent size and smaller critters surviving. In the most damaging it was down to small insect size and less; last time I checked most humans are larger than mice.

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  19. dave says:

    “You are either mistaken or a liar. Prove it.”

    Was that not you? Are you not opposed to marriage equality? Did I confuse you with another conservative commenter? Possible, I suppose. If so, please accept my apology.

    Point remains, either way, that opposition to equality for people who are gay is not some definition of conservatism I created… it is actually part of the republican political platform.

    So when people question if conservatives wish our values would remain in the 1950s, that is just one example why.

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  20. The Original Larry says:

    Apology accepted; comment about lying withdrawn. My position on marrige equality is the same as it is on many other issues, very conservative. The Constitution, and laws in general, speaks about people and makes no distinction on the basis of sex, gender, race, religion, etc. In fact, making those distinctions is expressly forbidden. Consequently, I believe all people should have the same rights and privileges under the law, without qualification. The Constitution says what it says, period. If a state law does not provide all people equal rights and protection under the law, I think it is unconstitutional and should be struck down. Period. Not everyone will agree with that approach but it is my belief that many conservatives do.

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  21. oa says:

    Mervel,
    The homicide rate is actually about the same these days as it was in 1950–and lower than several years in the decade of the 1950s.
    http://www.breitbart.com/Big-Government/2012/12/20/US-Homicide-Rates-are-at-a-50-Year-Low

    http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2011-12-25/news/ct-oped-1225-chapman-20111225_1_golden-age-crime-and-property-crime-homicide-rate

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  22. dan says:

    Men of good fortune
    Often cause empires to fall.

    RIP Lou Reed

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  23. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Ol, actually the Constitution did make distinctions based on race, remember the 3/5 Compromise? There were also many distinctions written or unwritten based on ideas of who could or could not be citizens which precluded many people who were not white, land-owning males from participating in the political process. Genius of the Founders to provide means to amend the Constitution to make it better and change with the times.

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  24. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Everybody has seen that we are approaching 10,000 gun deaths since Sandy Hook? Maybe that is the new way for civilizations to fall.

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  25. bob cratchit says:

    Rome (empire) fell due to complacency. They allowed too much unchecked immigration (barbarians) to do the simple hard work they felt above doing. Once the barbarians realized they had gained a foot hold, they began to easily dispose of the indolent Romans all over.

    Another problem is the diminishing birth rates of the developed world. Japan, Germany and other northern European nations are seeing a growing elderly population but a shrinking young populations to sustain neither them or the future generation. Where there has been growth reported it is usually among the immigrant and religious groups (like Muslims) among the population.

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  26. Pete Klein says:

    I would offer that civilizations don’t fall so much as they transition.
    “Fall” is mostly hype to see books.

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  27. Pete Klein says:

    “see” should be “sell”

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  28. Lucy Martin says:

    (Reply to Ken Hall) I think I understand your point. However, that sentence (“planetary human declines have been rare”) hangs on two qualifying words: planetary and rare.

    No doubt, nasty things have happened that devastated entire groups/cultures. While European-sourced expansion has notably excelled at cultural extermination, I’d argue no single race, country or region holds the patent on war/cruelty/aggression.

    I was sort of expecting someone to mention Neanderthals as a type of human that dead-ended on a planetary scale, because that has happened. (Hence my use of “rare”.)

    Naturally, I have my own list of what I worry about, which may or may not align with anyone else’s. Those pet peeves are supposed to stay behind the curtain, though some surely peek out from time to time.

    Readers, on the other hand, can have at it.

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  29. Mervel says:

    What counts as a civilization?

    OA yeah I had seen that. Which is a good thing right? I mean the 50′s were not all bad and our decade is not all bad, its like we all try to paint these narratives onto what is happening and they are usually wrong they are usually our projections of our own prejudices and beliefs. So we see some who paint these periods of the past as horrible and we are on a march toward progress always getting better, we see others paint the past with a very rosy view of a golden age and we are now on a march toward total destruction, neither are totally true.

    I think our new long term challenge could be social isolation and a rejection of our own human identity, I think the belief that human achievement can be measured materially is basically flawed.

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  30. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    What if the idea that civilizations fall is a poor analogy?

    Neanderthals didn’t completely die off, apparently their was some merger and many of us today are partly Neanderthal – and I’m not picking on anyone in particular – some people have 2-3% Neanderthal DNA.
    Isn’t it the same thing with Rome? First there was a small group of Romans. They grew more powerful and built a Republic then marched out to build an empire, along the way other groups merged or were separated with the empire. The empire expanded and contracted, was shaped by contact with other peoples and shaped those it came in contact with. The strength of the Roman Empire was not it its homogeneity but in its fluidity and ability to absorb the good it found in other cultures.

    okay, get ready because this is where I browbeat you with the moral of the story: the strength of the American system is in its ability to absorb people from other cultures and fluidly incorporate them merging their DNA with ours.

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  31. The Original Larry says:

    “I think the belief that human achievement can be measured materially is basically flawed.”

    How else would you measure it?

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  32. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Oops! There, not their. And I forgot to attache the link:
    http://discovermagazine.com/2013/march/14-interbreeding-neanderthals#.Um_aVeBkkQI

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  33. Paul says:

    History shows that we live in perhaps the most peaceful time in human history.

    “But I think it’s also being harmed by the inability of people within the core of the empire to simply get along.”

    History also tells us that we are getting along better now than maybe ever here in the US. We love to dramatize things that are about US.

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  34. oa says:

    Mervel–I’m not weighing in on “1950 vs. 2013: Which is better?”
    Just wanted to correct data on murder rates. Many people think murder is historically high now. It isn’t.

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  35. Walker says:

    “How else would you measure it?”

    Larry, suppose you had a rigid dictatorship that had a high GDP whose chief products were vast mansions for the wealth, versus a free society with a lower GDP who produced a wide array of useful products and contributed broadly to the arts and sciences. Which would you pick?

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  36. Walker says:

    It interests me that no one has mentioned inequality and corruption as reasons civilizations fall.

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  37. The Original Larry says:

    C’mon Walker, can we please stop waving the Red Flag? It’s not always about the revolution.

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  38. Walker says:

    So how about that comparison, Larry? Don’t just trot out the “Red” label– answer the question.

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  39. The Original Larry says:

    The question was whether or not human achievement can be measured materially. I say it can. A simple question and one that doesn’t require political comment, which you can never resist making.

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  40. Paul says:

    “Larry, suppose you had a rigid dictatorship that had a high GDP whose chief products were vast mansions for the wealth, versus a free society with a lower GDP who produced a wide array of useful products and contributed broadly to the arts and sciences. Which would you pick?”

    I assume the products being produced in the first are being produced by slaves?

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  41. Walker says:

    Well, that, or by people working for such low wages that they qualify for food stamps, paid for by taxes on the vanishing middle class.

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  42. Mervel says:

    As Walker points out there are many ways to look at a society and the health of that society or civilization. By focusing only on one narrow aspect; how much crap you can make and consume, you really lose the breadth of what makes up a culture.

    What kind of art, architecture is produced, what kind of poetry, literature is produced. How are the most vulnerable members treated, are people happy, how are the communities, how is the crime, is despair or hope the status quo, you could look at things like suicide rates, etc. There are many many ways to look at our civilization that has nothing to do with GDP. The ability to produce wealth IS part of the mix I agree, but only one part.

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