Understanding Collapse

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* Book: Understanding Collapse: Ancient History and Modern Myths, by Guy D. Middleton (2017)


"Middleton concludes that sudden, dramatic collapses of civilizations and regions into utter chaos and mass death do not occur. Change is slow, depopulation is never as great as sensationalist accounts claim, and cultural continuity almost al-ways occurs. Decline and urban abandonment are frequent in the archaeological record, but when causes can be ascertained, all such events turn out to be complex, with no one variable adequate to explain the change. He brings us no closer to understanding collapse, but he does demolish simplistic claims, basing his conclusions on a worldwide sample that captures most of the more striking archaeological instances of decline." [1]

Contextual Quote

"It would be valuable to differentiate collapse of a regime (the Old Kingdom, or the Chinese dynasties) from the collapse of a region, and this in turn from the collapse of a civilization with all its knowledge and technology. The former two are common, even routine, in history. The last literally never happens, sofar as we know, though Minoan Crete and the Indus Valley Civilization came close."

- Eugene N. Anderson [2]


1. Eugene N. Anderson:

"This book might better have been titled NOT Understanding Collapse. This is nothing against it; the purpose of the book is to demolish simplistic popular explanations of the decline or collapse of past societies. As the author puts it in the conclusion: “I set out to explain the place of collapse in our cultural heritage and how certain ways of thinking about historical endings are embedded in our popular modern culture ... Throughout the book I have tried to emphasize the complexity of collapse and the problem with trying to explain collapse through single or simple explanations—especially environmental ones” (pp. 339–40). Related to this is an intent to counter the widespread stereotypes of vanished civilizations: “Through-out this book, I have taken an anti-apocalyptic view of collapse, seeing it as part of normal transformations of history, often constructed in hindsight affected by the nature of our traditions ...” (p. 359). This might make the reader surmise that a major target of the book is Jared Diamond. Such is indeed the case. The author is an archaeologist, and thus picks societies known only or primarily from archaeology, with the exception of the decline and fall of Rome—no one can resist that decline, surely. In the other cases, lack of textual materials conveniently eliminates any hope of resolving differences of opinion about the role of human decisions and conflicts. Stones and bones may record fires, earthquakes, and storms, but they are mute on the subject of the countless arguments, planning meetings, foolish policy decisions, and secret betrayals that characterize history. The archaeologist’s mantra, “more digging is required,” was already a rather rueful joke in my student days. The very definition of collapse is problematic. In a rare look at modern declines, Middleton assesses the degree to which we can say Detroit has collapsed (pp. 355–59). Its population has declined to just over a quarter of its former glory. The central city looks like a bombed-out war zone. Yet, obviously, it continues, and its suburbs remain modestly affluent. It is not yet ready for Indiana Jones. Middleton shows that many or most of the collapses of the past were rather like this: life went on, culture continued. Even when a whole civilization was destroyed and disappeared, as in the case of Minoan Crete, the successors (Mycenean Greeks and allies) restored the cities and continued much of the former way of life."


2. Joseph A. Tainter:

Understanding Collapse is a survey and a rich description of cases of social, political, or cultural transformation that have been characterized as collapses in various genres of literature. The arenas of literature covered include archaeology and history, as would be expected, and also the increasing volume of physical science literature addressing past environmental changes. The volume’s strength is its detailed description of a substantial number of collapse cases.


Middleton surveys 16 cases that have been termed collapses and describes the explanations that have been offered for these events. The cases are Old Kingdom Egypt, Akkad, the Third Dynasty of Ur, the Harappans, Minoan Crete, Mycenaean Greece, the Hittites, the Western Roman Empire, Monte Albán, Teotihuacan, the Classic Maya, the Moche, Tiwanaku, Wari, Angkor, and Rapa Nui (Easter Island). This sample is well dispersed across time, space, and cultural contexts. Yet, since Middleton does not attempt to define collapse (relying instead on cases that have been termed “collapse” in the literature), it is not clear how the cases were chosen. Two, the Moche and Angkor, seem not to have been collapses, as Middleton acknowledges. There is no evidence of a prehistoric collapse on Easter Island. Collapse here apparently occurred in the historic period, a result of European contact and European diseases. (This fact undercuts the claim of “ecocide” on Easter Island: cf. J. Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed [New York 2005].) There is a decided bias toward state-organized societies, Easter Island being the sole exception. There are good archaeological examples of collapses in prehistory (e.g., Chacoan society in the American Southwest, and Cahokia in the American Midwest), but Middleton does not discuss these. Although the book surveys complex societies, there is no discussion of complexity, and the term is not in the index.


Middleton’s compilation can be used to gain insight into how scholars of collapse think. In his chapters, there are eight recurrent themes in the explanation of collapse. These themes, and the cases in which they are advanced, are (1) climate change (Egyptian First Intermediate period, Akkad, the Indus, the Mycenaeans, the Hittites, the Western Roman Empire, Teotihuacan, the Moche, Tiwanaku, Angkor, the Maya); (2) invaders or other external conflict (Akkad, the Indus, Minoan Crete, the Mycenaeans, the Hittites, the Western Roman Empire, Teotihuacan, the Moche, Angkor, Easter Island [caused by Europeans], Akkad); (3) revolt or rebellion (Egypt, Monte Albán, the Mycenaeans, the Moche, Teotihuacan, the Maya); (4) intrasocietal conflict (Egypt, Minoan Crete, Teotihuacan, the Western Roman Empire, the Mycenaeans); (5) environmental deterioration ([sometimes self-induced] the Indus, the Moche, Easter Island, the Third Dynasty of Ur); (6) catastrophes ([e.g., epidemics, plagues, earthquakes, volcanoes] Minoans, Mycenaeans); (7) change in trade patterns (Mycenaeans, Hittites), and (8) mystical ([e.g., religious or ideological change] Teotihuacan, Wari). Barbarian invaders are an old and favored theme (11 cases). In a current age fearful of climate change, many scholars are convinced that it caused past collapses (11 cases). In all, Middleton describes 43 proposed explanations. Of these, 25 (58%) are what can be termed deus ex machina explanations (climate change, invaders, catastrophes). That is, most scholars explain collapse as resulting suddenly and surprisingly from outside a society, a “bolt from the blue,” rather than searching for systematic explanations or cross-cultural regularities. Collapse, in this mode of thinking, is just bad luck. Societies do not bring it on themselves. Given that most students of the past concentrate on a particular culture or period, a focus on case-specific explanations is not surprising. However, there may be more to this way of thinking. As noted above, there is a progressivist view in much historical study. If cultural evolution leads to continual improvement in societies, from Hobbesian foragers to great civilizations, then collapse must have an external cause. Moreover, if progress results from individual or societal initiative, as Western ideology emphasizes, then collapse must come from some factor not under a society’s control. If societies undermine themselves, the progressivist narrative would be challenged."



Eugene N. Anderson:

"The two most famous and perhaps most spectacular collapses in history are the fall of Rome (the Western Roman Empire) and the disintegration of the central Maya lowlands political system in 800–1000 CE, but in both cases the civilizations, the languages, and the cultures went right on flourishing, so Middleton is hesitant to call even these rather extreme cases “collapses.” Middleton considers a large range of societies, in chronological order, beginning with the ancient Near East. The Old Kingdom of Egypt collapsed in an inter-dynastic mess, but Egyptian civilization went on with little change and the country reunited in time. Akkad fell, but Mesopotamian civilization continued to flourish. The Indus Valley Civilization is a more serious case, since it represented a genuine fall and abandonment of a huge tract of highly urbanized and well-managed land, but again humanity went on and the area recovered—though surely with different languages and clearly with new cultures. The Bronze Age civilizations of the east-ern Mediterranean hit a rough spot around 1200 BCE, leading to something of a “dark age,” but the degree of darkness is highly debated. Most of the cultures endured, though the Hittites and some other Anatolian groups slowly disappeared. Then came the fall of the Western Roman Empire: “Historian Andre Demandt has compiled a list of some 210 suggested reasons for the fall of the Western Roman Empire” (p. 182). Middleton discusses a thick sampling of these."



Robert Conan Ryan:

"I agree with Middleton more so than the critics.

First of all, the claims that Detroit collapsed are not true.

Detroit's suburbs are among the largest and richest in the nation. Over four million people live within 25 miles of Detroit city limits and are thriving. Detroit industry continues to be a top 4 industry cluster. Detroit culture continues to have an outsized influence on America with its entertainment industry about #4 in the country.

So what is this all about ? Collapse Bias.

Collapse bias is the assumption that we have all the necessary variables to analyze the system dynamics.

Stopping at the city limits of Detroit is not what a qualified person would do. It is what you do of you want to tell a biased political story. The critic is totally confused as to what a collapse is.

In fact, people continue to move to the greater Detroit area in search of jobs and opportunities.

What " collapsed" was not the city of Detroit but the manufacturing neighborhoods on the black side of town (about one third of Detroit proper but less than ten percent of the greater Detroit area ) , and the counterforce was the rise of Asian car manufacturers abroad with great jobs. It was a Displacement more than a collapse. As one system falls another rises elsewhere.

What happened, white flight, was not a Collapse but a temporary cultural race war. The city of Detroit is already in recovery. It never disappeared and it's population never declined or faced economic decline but grew dramatically outside of city limits.

Similarly; most so called collapses are better termed recessions, where cities or civilizations receded temporarily to recover from shock events.

It's really that Simple: Collapse is a loaded term and it doesn't really reflect history accurately. Recessions are usually displacement events ---- common... true collapses are rare (crises with no recession recovery and with no displacement effects)."