- Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire
The immense popularity of Jared Diamond’s books, Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) and Collapse (2005), have been a mixed blessing for scholars of world history, anthropology, and archaeology.1 On the one hand, Diamond’s work has sparked new interest in broad explanations for shifting global patterns of settlement and differences among cultures, and on the other, such synthesis has provided an unsatisfactory, over-general, and even coarse picture of past societies. In the Pulitzer Prize–winning first tome, Diamond examined the buildup of societies throughout time and posited that rather than biological differences among peoples, geographic factors or “differences among people’s environments,” accounted for and explained uneven development and technological achievement.2 In his newer work, Diamond shifted from a fatalistic explanation of the growth of civilizations to one that examines their disintegration as a collective choice. Collapse claims that societies choose to fail or succeed based on a matrix of factors including environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, friendly [End Page 355] trade partners, and, most significantly in Diamond’s mind, responses to environmental problems.3
A welcome scholarly response to these popular contentions is now available in a collection of essays edited by the anthropologists Patricia A. McAnany and Norman Yoffee. The volume engages Collapse and Diamond’s works more generally to offer a more nuanced reading of the past, one that embraces multiple strands of explanation for the ebb and flow of cultures drawing largely on Diamond’s same case studies. The sharpest critiques come of Diamond’s position that societies “choose” to succeed or fail and demonstrate that such a vision, while appealing to popular presses and history hobbyists, misrepresents both the dynamism and the vibrancy of post-collapse cultures. Collectively, the articles shift the debate back toward issues of colonialism and emphasize the wealth of evidence that favors histories of resilience, not collapse.
Among the best arguments are the resounding examples of indigenous peoples’ persistence in and contributions to cultures well beyond the so-called collapse period (especially in the United States Southwest, the Maya of Mesoamerica, and Aboriginal peoples of Australia). The evidence proffered includes work done by indigenous scholars, which is highlighted in vignettes throughout the volume. Also strong is the critique of Diamond’s conception of “the long run,” especially for the case of China, and the attention to his chronological inconsistencies. Collectively, the essays critique the infiltration of rational-choice theory into accounts of the past, and in doing so insist that fate, apocalypse, and collapse might pull at our imaginations, but they hardly begin to explain the complex and conflicting agendas and motivations within societies. This view allows a greater discussion of a larger historical context that evaluates imperialism and gives space for accountability over inevitability.
After explaining the origins of the collection (in an American Anthropological Association conference panel and later in an advanced seminar involving the contributors), McAnany and Yoffee care fully pull the idea of collapse into a deeper context that includes the disruptions caused by imperialism. They offer a persuasive, provocative introduction that insists academic scholarship more directly engage the public. It is unlikely this volume will approach Diamond in popularity, if only because the cacophony of voices and viewpoints makes it less gravitational. However, for those readers unsatisfied by Diamond’s [End Page 356] arguments and grasping for sound challenges to his interpretation, this will become the go-to volume for satisfying curious students, constructing lectures, and responding systematically to the growing crowd of Diamond’s subscribers.
The collection is organized into three sections according to each chapter’s analytical contributions. The first section contains three works that examine Diamond’s ancient collapse examples, including Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Norse Greenland, and China, which scholars reposition as parables of resilience and vulnerability. Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo question Diamond’s chronology and reposition “ecocide” as possible genocide. Reflecting on the archaeology and history of the Norse...