Review of Collapse Literature

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* Article: : Guy D. Middleton (2017) The show must go on: Collapse, resilience, and transformation in 21st-century archaeology, Reviews in Anthropology, 46:2-3, 78-105, DOI: 10.1080/00938157.2017.1343025



"Collapse is a theme addressed by specialists from many disciplines, from environmental and sustainability studies to popular culture and the hard sciences, as well as by archaeologists and historians. This review focuses on three recent books about past collapses and sets them in the context of collapse studies. The new contributions build on the growing body of collapse theory and increasing data on individual case studies, but each takes a new direction, adding to the ongoing debates about collapse, resilience, and transformation. While taking us forward, it is apparent that issues of definition and terminology are still an issue in collapse studies. The review also demonstrates that collapse is an area of lively research that can be regarded as a recognizable subfield of archaeological and historical research that also crosses over into other disciplines. KEYWORDS Archaeology; collapse; environmental issues; resilience; social change; sustainability; transformation Collapse is a popular topic in both academic and popular discourse. It receives serious scholarly attention from archaeologists and others and is a major theme in television documentaries, feature films, and novels (Middleton 2018).

Almost three decades after the publication of the two seminal works on past collapses,

  1. Joseph Tainter’s (1988) The Collapse of Complex Societies and
  2. Norman Yoffee and George Cowgill’s (1988) The Collapse of Ancient States and Civilizations,

2016 and 2017 have been good years for collapse studies. Three monographs and two edited volumes have appeared; these are

  • Scott Johnson’s Why Did Ancient Civilizations Fail? (2017),
  • Rebecca and Glenn Storey’s Rome and the Classic Maya: Comparing the Slow Collapse of Civilizations (2017), and my
  • Understanding Collapse: Ancient History and Modern Myths (Middleton 2017a);

the edited volumes are

  • Ronald Faulseit’s Beyond Collapse: Archaeological Perspectives on Resilience, Revitalization, and Transformation in Complex Societies (2016), and
  • Tim Cunningham and Jan Driessen’s Crisis to Collapse: The Archaeology of Social Breakdown (2017);
  • Alison Vogelaar, Brack Hale, and Alexandra Peat’s The Discourses of Environmental Collapse is now due out in 2018.

In this review, I take a critical look at the works of Faulseit, Johnson, and Storey and Storey. To understand their contribution to and significance in collapse studies, and by wider implication anthropology and archaeology and the study of social change, they must be set in the context of the developing field of “collapsology,” so this review begins by outlining the progress in research on collapse. By extension, this review suggests that collapse studies has become, and should be recognized as, a respectable and valid area and focus of research within archaeology and history in its own right, in the same way that topics such as colonialism, gender, and state formation are."



Guy D. Middleton:

"Two books, Tainter (1988) and Yoffee and Cowgill (1988), represent the foundations of modern studies of past collapse and remain valuable contributions (with more than a nod to Renfrew 1984). They are quite different in format, purpose, and scope. Tainter’s volume provides an overview of many examples of collapse; centrally, it drives an argument that collapse is a political process in which a society “displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity” and that it is best explained from an economic perspective—declining marginal returns on increasing or maintaining an achieved degree of complexity (Tainter 1988:4–5). He applied his theory to three case studies of collapse: the Western Roman Empire, the Classic Maya, and the Ancestral Puebloans, though it could also be pointed out that, on his own dates, none of these fit his own definition of “rapid” (a few decades) collapse (see also reviews by Bowersock 1991 and Myers 1989). This point will be returned to further below, since the speed of collapse is a theme taken up by both Johnson and Storey and Storey. Yoffee and Cowgill’s volume is quite different. An edited volume with a range of theoretical essays and area case studies of ancient China, Teotihuacan, and the Classic Maya collapse, it presents no unified view on collapse or explanation of it. The essays are all still fresh, relevant, and thought-provoking. Some of the most helpful chapters offer discussions of terminology and definitions of collapse and what the term applies to, recognizing the importance of definition and precision. For example, both Cowgill and Yoffee, in their essays, stated that we need to “clearly differentiate between state, society and civilization, and use the last term in a specifically cultural sense”—thus, civilizations transform but do not collapse, but states within civilizations can and do collapse (Yoffee and Cowgill 1988:15, 256). In his chapter, Bronson also 80 G. D. MIDDLETON focused on the political collapse of states rather than civilizations, which he considers “too incorporeal” a unit; he pointed out, too, that “Great Traditions” often continue (Yoffee and Cowgill 1988:196). Along with Tainter’s definition, these are valuable guides, although, as we shall see, they have not always been followed by subsequent writers on collapse.

The environmental turn

"No review touching on collapse can omit some discussion of Jared Diamond’s book Collapse (2005) and the responses it has provoked. It may be taken to represent the public face of collapse that developed through the 1990s and 2000s, in which collapse was seen as primarily an environmentally driven phenomenon (Middleton 2012). Diamond, not an archaeologist or an anthropologist, developed his ideas on ecocidal collapse over some years (Diamond 1992, 1994, 1995), following in the footsteps of others such as Thomas (1956), Ehrlich (1968), Meadows et al. (1972), Ponting (1991), and quite explicitly Redman (1999). Despite the caveat that he knows of no “case in which a society’s collapse can be attributed solely to environmental damage” he claimed that “deforestation was a or the major factor” in the Rapa Nui, Ancient Puebloan, Classic Maya, and Greenland Norse collapses (his italics; Diamond 2005:11, 487). His arguments emphasize “overshoot,” in which population is high and a trigger renders the existing human-environmental system unable to sustain it—collapse, imagined primarily as a kind of neo-Malthusian population collapse, follows. In addition to the “ecocide” discourse, there was also a focus on climate change, which in Diamond’s (2005:173–177) account of the Maya collapse was a “trigger” for collapse. Weiss and Bradley (2001), in a well-known paper in Science, claimed it as a major driver of past collapse, while Brian Fagan’s numerous books popularized the idea of a close causal link between climate and history (Fagan 2000, 2004, 2008, 2009). Richardson Gill (2000; Gill et al. 2007) promoted the idea of a Classic Maya collapse caused by massive droughts that killed huge numbers of people, against which the Maya were powerless. These views were taken up by the wider media and have since become well known. More recently, in New Scientist, Marshall (2012) again pushed Weiss and Bradley’s theory, suggesting that the Tiwanaku, Moche, and the Maya in the Americas, the Mycenaeans and the Western Roman Empire in Europe, the Egyptian New Kingdom, the Hittite and Akkadian Empire in the Near East, the Indus Valley civilization in South Asia, the Tang dynasty in China, and the Khmer Empire in Southeast Asia all collapsed due to climate change. His article was based in part on a paper by Drake (2012) on the Mycenaean collapse, in which he identified a gradual and long (one-thousand-year) climate change in Greece, which caused collapse by overshoot."