Footprints

For Cultural Hybrids Seeking Home

WHY SOCIETIES FAIL

8 August 2020

I was watching a TED talk given by the Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond on his book COLLAPSE: HOW SOCIETIES CHOOSE TO FAIL OR SUCCEED./1/ In this short talk, he discusses why societies fail.  (He has previously argued why some cultures attain higher forms of civilisation and others do not)./2/

I am reminded of the short article I had uploaded in this Blog—THE STORY OF CIVILISATION. So I went back to my previous entries and scrolled down until I reached the publication date of 10 February 2020. There, I wrote about the rise and fall of past civilisations, and how their decline were due to external elements including climate change; and to internal elements including income inequality, faulty leadership, and an over-concentration on the myopic present at the cost of planning for the future. I know these reasons are easy to see in hindsight. Unfortunately, when directly in front of us, we often don’t recognise them; and our elite leaders forget that when a society fails, even the elites of that society are not immune.

Diamond expounds on these ideas. He talks about the confluence of factors that led to the collapse of Norse Greenland during the 15th Century, a classic case of events gone wrong. In 985AD, the Viking Eric the Red sailed from Iceland, which was running out of cultivable land, in order to look for virgin territories across the seas. He founded Greenland, a harsh, forbidding island where the Norsemen would nonetheless thrive for the next 500 years. From the surviving accounts, we learn how Greenland grew rich from the trade of walrus and narwhal tusks, items of great value in medieval Europe until they were replaced by African elephant tusks./3/

These Greenland Vikings retained close connection to their mother land Norway, which continued to send them foodstuffs, iron tools, woolen clothing, and other provisions. At its height, the island’s population could have been anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 inhabitants. However, by the mid-15th Century, the two settlements in the island were found totally deserted—their wooden farmhouses, five churches, and other structures in ruins. Nobody seemed to know what had happened to them. Were they killed by the native Inuits? Or victims of internal armed conflicts? Did they leave an increasingly uninhabitable land, perhaps sailing back to Iceland, or even to Vinland (now Newfoundland, Canada)?/4/  Whatever might have been the case, no large migration anywhere has been recorded.

Diamond has his theory behind this civilisation’s collapse. The baseline, he says, is climate change. It is known that at the time of Eric the Red’s founding of Greenland, the climate across Europe was relatively mild. However, the Little Ice Age started in the 13th Century and lasted for the next 200 years, and these hardy people possibly eventually could no longer adapt. They had chopped down all their trees for use as fuel, and to build their wooden homes and churches--this caused deforestration and soil erosion. Persistent farming had depleted the valuable nutrients in the soil.  And constant hunting of walruses had led to their extinction. In due course the Norsemen had completely degraded their environment.

The native Inuits, on the other hand, led a nomadic hunting and foraging existence. They did not rely on wood but instead used seal blubber for fuel and flintstones to ignite their fire. They had their igloos for shelter, and wore warmer animal skin instead of imported wool.

Yet, the Norsemen refused to learn from these neighbours. Instead of making friends, there are records of violent confrontations between them. Moreover, even as their natural environment changed, they maintained the same European lifestyles until the increasing cold caused the seas to become more unnavigable. Then, both Norway and Iceland were visited by the bubonic plague, decimating their own populations, so that Greenland’s mother country could no longer send regular provisions necessary for these Greenlanders’ long term survival.

In summary, Diamond outlined the factors that caused the decline and eventual fall of Norse Greenland, namely, climate change, environmental damage, hostile Inuit neighbours, withdrawal of support from Norway, and the Norsemen's own cultural response to their problems due to their dysfunctional but strongly-held value systems.

The story of Greenland is not an isolated case. The period of the Late Bronze Age, the so-called Dark Ages of the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean civilisations, can probably be attributed to similar factors, although nobody knows for certain what exactly occurred. Around 1200BC, there was a sudden collapse of big empires that flourished during the preceding centuries: from the Minoans and Mycenaeans in Greece, to the Hittites, Babylonians, Assyrians, Canaanites, Cypriots, and Egyptians in nearby regions. A few hundred years later, only a weakened Egypt was left standing. For the rest, life as they knew it had come to an end.

Eric Cline in his book 1177BC: THE YEAR CIVILIZATION COLLAPSED thinks that this fall was due to a “perfect storm” ushered in by the long periods of severe draught in the whole region, again brought about by climate change./5/  The draught caused desertification, which devastated agriculture, leading to famine, social unrest, and rebellions. As the major civilisations weakened, they became vulnerable to attacks from smaller tribes, including the mysterious Sea People, perhaps refugees themselves.  At around the same time, the volcanic eruption in Thera (now Santorini, a Greek island) wiped out the Minoan Civilisation. And a series of earthquakes rocked the region as some cities such as Mycenaea were built directly above faultlines./6/

Why did a major event in one civilisation so affect the rest? Cline insists that this cluster of empires were inter-connected through trading relationships. “Globalisation” exerted a domino-effect, causing them to fall one after the other. In Greece, by the time the clouds cleared around 800BC, the Bronze Age was gone. In its place was the Iron Age, which brought new modes of tool-making, warfare, and smaller states with their new ways of social organisation.

We can apply these historical lessons to our current situation. We also are now faced with a period of global warming. We should expect rising sea waters to cause more frequent floods, heat waves, and tropical storms.  Exacerbated by human-induced gas emissions, temperatures will continue to rise until well over the next century.  We have to learn to adapt, both individually and as members of our communities.  Yet, many of us are seemingly unaware of the magnitude of the environmental challenges just ahead of us. 

Further, we are being visited by a new plague, COVID 19, with its ripple effect of massive unemployment and other economic problems as we too are interconnected with the rest of the world through globalisation. This pandemic will exert a long-term impact—from changes in our interpersonal relationships to changes in our public architecture, technology, and modes of working.

What then are we and our leaders doing as we plan for the future?  It is sad that in the ranking of countries according to the Fragile States Index (FSI) published by the think tank Fund for Peace, the Philippines is listed under the HIGH WARNING category, second only to Myanmar among all the countries in southeast Asia./7/  Fragile states are those whose governments become so ineffective that they can no longer provide basic public services, including security for their people. Attendant ills include high income inequality, arbitrary application of law, and an economy riddled with corruption--pressures that may exceed a state’s capacity to manage.

Fragile states risk societal collapse. In his talk, Diamond warns about the potential conflicts of interest between the decision-making elites against the long-term needs of their society.

People can only change if they acknowledge their own crises, so if countries were like people, our first recourse is to come to a consensus that we have problems, then to identify, isolate, and define each problem clearly, and to insist that we can do something about them, and not just be their victims. This requires not only enlightened leadership but also grassroots activism.

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NOTES: /1/See Jared Diamond, COLLAPSE: HOW SOCIETIES CHOOSE TO FAIL OR SUCCEED. Viking Press, 2011;   /2/Jared Diamond, GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL. Vintage Books, London 2005;   /3/Narwhal tusks marketed as horns of the unicorn were considered potent medicine for all sorts of earthly maladies and fetched astronomical prices in Medieval Europe;   /4/In 999AD, Eric’s son Leif Erikson landed in Vinland--present day Newfoundland, Canada, 500 years before Columbus set foot in America. From recent archeological records, the Vikings seemed to have intermittently occupied Vinland, using it as a way station where they overwintered--to repair their boats and obtain timber and animal skins to be brought back to Greenland;   /5/Eric Cline, 1177BC: THE YEAR CIVILIZATION COLLAPSED, Princeton University Press, 2014;   /6/The volcanic eruption in Thera might have been the basis behind Plato’s DIALOGUE where he described the “Lost” City of Atlantis, written 360BC;   /7/ The Fragile States Index (FSI) produced by the Fund for Peace (FFP) measures the vulnerability of states to collapse.