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For years climate alarmists have terrorized the public with frightening tales of impending disaster, a coming climate apocalypse. Because of global warming fertile croplands will become arid and barren while desert areas will experience torrential rain and uncontrollable flooding. Tropical rainforests will wither in the heat and polar ice will melt. Coastal areas and islands will disappear beneath the ocean and the world’s great cities will huddle behind great seawalls to avoid the flood. Nature’s furry will drive millions of refugees to migrate to less blighted lands, followed by plague, pestilence and war. Because of human hubris our civilization will collapse, as has happened so many times in the past. Or maybe not. A quiet revolution among anthropologists and archaeologists has overturned the scientific dogma surrounding failed ancient civilizations, with some lessons for those who currently preach climate catastrophe.

The tales of failed ancient civilizations have been a favorite subject for scientists and Hollywood filmmakers alike. Nothing is more tragic than the story of a great civilization that, through ignorance or pride, abused the natural world around them until environmental disaster brings them low. The list is a long one: Egypt’s Old Kingdom, Mesopotamia’s Akkadian Empire, the Maya, the Anasazi, Angkor Wat, and the fabled Atlantis. Movie epics and many academic careers have been based on romanticizing the rise and inevitable fall of ancient civilizations. Rome has fallen and Atlantis sunk beneath the waves scores of times in disaster movies, as has our modern civilization—blockbusters like 2012Outbreak andChildren of Men reap big profits from mass destruction.

The ruins of Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Poul Holm, a historian at Trinity College Dublin, describes this obsession with failed civilizations that pervades religion, academia, and Hollywood, as the industry of apocalypse. In an interesting news focus article in the November 12 issue of Science, Andrew Lawler describes the work of Holm and other scholars who have come to reject the apocalypse industry, at least in the realm of science. The article, “Collapse? What Collapse? Societal Change Revisited,” begins its discussion of societal collapse with a meeting of archaeologists in the UK:

An eclectic group of scholars who met recently at the University of Cambridge argues that true social collapse is actually rare. They say that new data demonstrate that classic examples of massive collapse such as the disintegration of Egypt’s Old Kingdom, the end of the Classic Maya period, and the vanishing of pre-Columbian societies of the U.S. Southwest were neither sudden nor disastrous for all segments of their populations.

Archaeologists are placing a new emphasis on decline and transformation rather than abrupt failure and collapse. According to Lawler, this represents something of a backlash against a recent spate of claims that environmental disasters, both natural and humanmade, are the true culprits behind many ancient societal collapses. Yale University archaeologist Harvey Weiss, for example, fingered a regional drought as the reason behind the collapse of Mesopotamia’s Akkadian empire in a 1993 Science paper. UCLA geographer Jared Diamond—who has made a career of cronicaling the failure of ancient societies—cites several examples of poor decision making in fragile ecosystems that led to disaster in his 2005 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

Diamond has turned out a long string of books covering different time periods and different peoples. While his scholarship is not in doubt, and his books are quite enlightening, there are those who take issue with his constant theme of ecological misuse leading to collapse. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, perhaps his best known popular work, Diamond argues against traditional historical explanations for the failure of past societies, and instead focuses on ecological factors. Among the societies he examined were the Norse settlement of Greenland, the Maya, the Anasazi, the indigenous people of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Japan, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and modern Montana. Diamond’s description of the demise of Easter Island’s inhabitants is particularly haunting.

Among vanished civilizations, one of the most mysterious is that of the former Polynesian society on Easter Island. Easter Island is the world’s most isolated scrap of habitable land. With an area of only 64 square miles, it lies in the Pacific Ocean more than 2,000 miles west of South America and 1,400 miles from the nearest habitable island (Pitcairn). It possesses a mild sub-tropical climate and rich volcanic soil—a miniature paradise, isolated from the problems of the world beyond.

Far ranging Polynesian explorers settled the island around 400 AD and flourished there, peaking around 1200 AD. But soon after that the Easter Island society entered a downward spiral from which is would not recover. Over the course of a few centuries, the people of Easter Island wiped out their forest, drove their plants and animals to extinction, and saw their complex society descend into chaos and cannibalism. They left behind gigantic stone statues, enigmatically scattered about the desolated landscape of their once thriving island paradise.

But Easter Island may well be an exception: a small isolated speck of land with limited resources and no escape in times of hardship. In fact many of the cautionary examples held up as warnings against ecological excess are like this. The Vikings of Greenland and North America were certainly isolated and beyond any help from their homeland. Others, such as the Maya and Hohokom, not being trapped in geographically isolated settlements, may have simple moved to greener pastures. “Collapses are perhaps more apparent than real,” argues Cambridge archaeologist Colin Renfrew.

The end of the classic Maya period around 900 AD has long been a poster child of collapse. “Huge cities in the northern highlands were abandoned, monumental architecture ceased, and royal inscriptions halted,” writes Lawler. “Foreign invasion, epidemics, social revolt, and the collapse of trade have been identified as key factors.”

Mayan ruins overrun by jungle.

But archaeologist Elizabeth Graham, from University College London, disagrees with the traditional explanations for the Maya’s decline. Graham, who works in the lowlands of Belize, says “there’s not a blip” in the occupation of the Maya areas she has dug along the coast. Moreover, She is convinced that additional settled areas existed during and after the end of the Classic period. At the sites she has dug there are no signs of crisis at the end of the Classic period. Again, as reported by Lawler:

Skeletons show no increase in dietary stress, populations seem constant, terraces and check dams are maintained, and sophisticated pottery continues to be crafted. The drying of the climate doesn’t appear to trigger any societal rupture. Such new conclusions are “staggeringly important,” says Norman Yoffee, an archaeologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and co-editor of a 2010 book called Questioning Collapse that challenged many of Diamond’s ideas.

The Maya are not the only people who’s demise is being reevaluated. The Hohokam peoples occupied a wide area of south-central Arizona from roughly Flagstaff south to the Mexican border. They are thought to have originally migrated north out of Mexico around 300 BC to become skillful irrigation farmers. They constructed vast irrigation systems with extensive canals and villages with ball courts, plazas, and platform mounds. It was a complex society that lasted until around 1450 AD. Then the population vanished, the canals were forgotten, and even outlying areas were abandoned. The abandonment appeared total.

The Hohokam build complex canals and villages.

The traditional explanation for the Hohokam’s collapse is a sudden onslaught of flooding that destroyed the canals with an assist from cropland salinization and overpopulation. Others see European diseases, arriving after 1500 AD, as the ultimate culprit. But archaeologist Randall McGuire of Binghamton University in New York argues that the data do not support any of these theories. As reported in the Science article:

He [McGuire] says that the lack of remains after 1450 C.E. make the disease idea untenable and that there is no evidence for the destruction of the life-giving canals. Drawing on data from the Center for Desert Archaeology in Tucson, Arizona, he instead links the Hohokam’s disappearance with broader changes across the Southwest between 1250 C.E. and 1450 C.E., when the population shrank by as much as 75%. “This is not a catastrophic event but a slow process over 150 years or more,” he says. “Were [the Hohokam] even aware that this was a ‘collapse’?”

Before continuing, it seems fitting to make a comment about the use of BCE and CE dates. These are used by politically hyper-correct academicians as replacements for the more common BC and AD, respectively. This is because AD is an abbreviation for “Anno Domini” in Latin, usually translated as “the year of our Lord” in English. Similarly BC stands for “Before Christ,” which also has obvious religious overtones. Gutless western scholars, fearful that the use of traditional BC/AD date notation amounts to cultural imperialism, have decided that a new, less Eurocentric notation is needed. The “CE” in BCE and CE stands for the presumably less Western/Christian “Common Era.”

It should be noted that other dating systems exist and are still in use: the Chinese, Hebrew and Islamic calendars to name three. When I lived in Saudi Arabia the dates in everyday use were AH, “After Hijira,” in honor of the Prophet’s journey from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD. The Arabs were unapologetic about using the Islamic calendar and I expected nothing else. Similarly, for scholars in the western tradition to give up or abandon their cultural heritage makes no sense. Western scholars have used BC/AD for more than 1,000 years and that notation can be found in much of the world’s historical writings.

It is my contention that any historian who has so little respect for the provenance of BC/AD dates—who’s concerns over non-Europeans taking offense preclude using such dates—is not much of a scholar at all. Indeed, if dates can be relabeled to avoid hypothetical offense what other things are these “scholars” changing to avoid giving imagined insult? Are historical facts being rewritten if they portray religious or cultural icons in a less than respectful or complimentary way? The use of the BCE/CE date notation represents nothing less than “cultural sensitivity” run amok. Rather than showing cultural sensitivity, BCE and CE are symbols of intellectual dishonesty and deep moral cowardice. Simply put, trust no one who uses this notation, for they can no longer discern the truth—they are untruthful even to themselves.

Now back to the topic at hand.

Europe managed to survive famine, plague and war without collapse.

The Science article lists a number of other examples of disputed collapses. “The rarity of collapse due to the resistance of populations to environmental changes or disease is considerable,” says Cambridge historian John Hatcher, who studies the Black Death. Both medieval Europe and Asia were ravaged by that plague. Countries lost as much as 1/3 of their population and yet existing social orders were not overturned. John Baines of the University of Oxford says more gradual transition is “more or less a consensus these days.” There are several lessons to be learned from this evolving interpretation of the past.

First, humans are much more resilient than often thought. In fact, adaptability is arguably H. sapiens single most important survival skill. Humans have spread to all corners of the globe by being adaptable. Our species has suffered from plague, famine, war, natural disaster and yes, changing climate. Yet we are still here and in ever increasing numbers.

Second, climate does not change so rapidly that we cannot adapt to the new conditions. Seas will not rise so rapidly that we cannot build dikes or move farther inland. Rainfall and land use may change across regions, but not so fast that other areas cannot be turned into croplands. However fast the climate may change, we can adapt faster—that or we should cede our place in the world to our evolutionary successors.

Finally, notice that consensus in the field of archaeology has changed. It changed because better information became available, the science improved and the old answers were found to be inaccurate. In fact, because science is constantly seeking new theories and refining old ones, the consensus view at any particular time is guarantied to be proven wrong. Remember this when some journalist or pedantic scientist tries to use the “consensus” argument to say all the horror stories regarding anthropogenic global warming are true and the science is settled.

Science is never settled and consensus is an argument for fools made by the intellectually impaired. Claims of an impending climate apocalypse have no basis in science or history. They exists only to frighten the uninformed into compliance, into political subjugation under those who would remake the world in accordance with their own selfish desires. It is time to put the climate apocalypse industry out of business once and for all.

Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.

The Resilient Earth, 4 December 2010