Societal Collapses Caused by Misuse of Environmental Resources Research Paper

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Societal Collapses

Environmental determinism has long been out of favor among historians and social scientists, although well into the 19th Century even the majority of Westerners were highly dependent on the climate and environment for their survival. Since the entire world economy was based on agriculture, a shortfall in harvests meant famines, epidemics and death for those who were at or below subsistence level. Such famines were a primary cause for the overthrow of the monarchy in France in 1789, for example, and they led to rebellions, riots and instability wherever they occurred. As late as the 1840s in Ireland, the great potato blight led to the death or immigration of half the population, and the near-destruction of Irish society. In the case of Easter Island, Norse Greenland and the Classic Maya civilization, climate change combined with deforestation and agricultural practices that destroyed the environment led to the total collapse of these societies. These examples should serve as object lessons for the depletion of natural resources and environmental destruction taking place today, when human technology is far more advanced than anyone in the past could even have imagined and its impact on the global climate and environment infinitely greater.

Historically speaking, the present industrial civilization is a phenomenon situated in a relatively warm period between ice ages. In the last ice age, atmospheric carbon was at a low of 180 parts per million in the atmosphere, which had risen to 260 million by its end.[footnoteRef:1] All the early agricultural civilizations in the Nile valley, China, India and Mesopotamia came into existence after the ice retreated 12,000 years ago, and all depended on irrigation for their existence. Some periods of this interglacial age have been warmer than others, such as the Medieval Warm Period of 900-1200, or the present period of global warming caused by deforestation and burning of fossil fuels. In contrast, during the Little Ice Age of 1300-1850 the glaciers moved south again further than at time in the last 12,000 years, and only began to retreat in the 19th and 20th Centuries. This climate shift destroyed the Norse colony in Greenland, while "colder and wetter weather and malnutrition from low crop yields made humans more susceptible to diseases from flu to malaria."[footnoteRef:2] Unlike the Norse, however, most European adapted to this colder climate by building stronger vessels that could sail far out into the Atlantic during storms, and developed new, more intensive agricultural techniques in Britain and the Low Countries that "offered effective protection against the famines of earlier times."[footnoteRef:3] As European farming methods spread throughout the world over the last 200 years, deforestation contributed to global warming and the increase of carbon in the atmosphere, the effects of which were unknown when modern industry and agriculture were first developed. As Easter Island, the Greenland Norse and (perhaps) the Classical Maya also demonstrate, human activities have always affected the climate and environment at least as much as solar activity, volcanoes and other natural phenomena, and civilizations that fail to understand and adapt to their environments are doomed to extinction. [1: Jim Snook. Ice Age Extinction: Cause and Human Consequences. Algora Publishing, 2008, p. 111.] [2: Snook, p. 121.] [3: Brian M. Fagan. The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History. Basic Books, 2000, p. xviii.]

Easter Island is a microcosm of environmental degradation and misuse of natural resources that can destroy a society. Deforestation and clearing the soil for agriculture led to soil erosion in the years 1200-1650, and "Easter Island's society failed soon after its topsoil disappeared."[footnoteRef:4] Storms gradually stripped the island of its topsoil, while bird species became extinct and agriculture disappeared by 1500. After almost all the bird species ceased to exist, the guano that had once fertilized the soil vanished as well. All these factors combined led to devastating population loss, a collapse of central government and chaotic warfare between clans that left Easter Island in anarchy. At one time, its population may have been 7,000 or even as much as 25,000 but this had fallen to about 2,000 when the first European contact occurred in 1722. At that time, they found "not a single tree or bush over ten feet tall" on Easter Island, and could not comprehend how the islanders had constructed the great stone Moais, some of which weighed 100-200 tons.[footnoteRef:5] In earlier times, from 900-1300, the islanders were able to fish offshore and at least one-third of their diet came from porpoises. Their diet was supplemented by the 25 bird species that once lived on the island, including petrels, terns, parrots, owls and albatrosses, but by 1500 the trees and the birds were all gone.[footnoteRef:6] Since no more wood remained, the islanders lost the capacity to construct oceangoing boats and had to use grass and turf for fuel, which further increased erosion. Since boats could no longer be built, the Easter Islanders were unable to supplement their diet with fish. In short, the total collapse of their society into warfare and chaos, with widespread poverty and hunger, bears more than a passing resemblance to much of the present-day world. If social, economic and environmental policies do not change, the fate of the entire planet will be very similar to that of Easter Island. [4: David R. Montgomery. Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization. University of California Press, 2007, p. 220.] [5: Jared Diamond. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin Books, 2006, p. 81.] [6: John Lovet. "A Cultural Icon: Scientific Exploration into the World's Environmental Problems in Microcosm" in John Loret and John Tancredi (eds). Easter Island: Scientific Exploration into the World's Environmental Problems in Microcosm. Kluwer/Plenum, 2003, p. 21.]

In Greenland, the Norse arrived during the Medieval Warm Period of 900-1200 when the sea lanes were free of ice much of the year, and established the kind of agriculture, cattle and sheep-raising with which they were familiar in Europe. During the Little Ice Age that followed, "Norse voyages to the west were rerouted into the open Atlantic, then ended altogether."[footnoteRef:7] When the climate turned colder and wetter during the Little Ice Age, however, they were unable to adapt to the changed conditions and their society collapsed and disappeared. As with the Easter Islanders, "their impact on the landscape was a factor entirely of their own making:, since they also deforested the island and let cattle and sheep eat away the vegetation, causing erosion of the topsoil.[footnoteRef:8] When they ran out of wood, they had to import it from Norway and Labrador, and also constructed their buildings out of sod, which caused further erosion. Even today in Greenland, soil erosion remains a major problem, and the Greenland Vikings "would have had a better chance of surviving if they had learned from or traded with the Inuit, but they did not."[footnoteRef:9] After all, the Inuit had learned to build igloos out of ice, use whale blubber for food and fuel, and construct kayaks out of sealskins, but the Norse learned none of this. They called the Inuit and Indians "Skraelings," which was an insult, and rarely mentioned them at all in their writings except to describe violent clashes and conflicts -- almost always initiated by the Vikings.[footnoteRef:10] [7: Fagan, p. xv.] [8: Diamond, p. 248.] [9: Diamond, p. 255.] [10: Diamond, p. 261.]

Their settlements completely disappeared in the 1400s, and archeological evidence indicates that they were reduced to eating dogs and wild rabbits, and that they had run out of fuel in winter. As the climate turned colder, all trade with Europe ceased and the Norse were left to fend for themselves. No ship arrived in Greenland after 1410, and the colonists "starved in the presence of abundant unutilized food resources."[footnoteRef:11] Their culture values, farming and grazing methods, were simply not appropriate for this climate, especially in the Little Ice Age. Europeans who wished to survive in the Artic, where margins for life and death are very thin, either learned from the Inuit or they died. In addition, the ruling elites of Greenland, the chiefs and clergy, profited most from the export of wool and ivory, while they imported mostly high-priced luxury goods, but much of what they valued "proved eventually harmful to society."[footnoteRef:12] This is a very old story with humans and their relationship to the environment, and today of course the wealthy and corporate interests that profit most from exploitation of the environment and depletion of natural resources seem mostly oblivious to the long-term impact of their decisions of the effect these have on the lower levels of human society. [11: Diamond, p. 274.] [12: Diamond, p. 276.]

Classic Lowland Maya civilization collapsed in the 9th and 10th Centuries due of a period of drought and cold that reduced the available surface water and led to widespread famine, warfare and social collapse. This was yet another civilization like Norse Greenland that was well-adapted to certain environmental and climatic conditions but unable to adjust when these changed radically. Because of drought and desertification, "the flow of food…[continue]

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