Natural climate changes may make conditions either better or worse for any particular human society, and may benefit one society while hurting another society. (For example, we shall see that the Little Ice Age was bad for the Greenland Norse but good for the Greenland Inuit.) In many historical cases, a society that was depleting its environmental resources could absorb the losses as long as the climate was benign, but was then driven over the brink of collapse when the climate became drier, colder, hotter, wetter, or more variable. Should one then say that the collapse was caused by human environmental impact, or by climate change? Neither of those simple alternatives is correct. Instead, if the society hadn't already partly depleted its environmental resources, it might have survived the resource depletion caused by climate change. Conversely, it was able to survive its self-inflicted resource depletion until climate change produced further resource depletion. It was neither factor taken alone, but the combination of environmental impact and climate change, that proved fatal.
A third consideration is hostile neighbors. All but a few historical societies have been geographically close enough to some other societies to have had at least some contact with them. Relations with neighboring societies may be intermittently or chronically hostile. A society may be able to hold off its enemies as long as it is strong, only to succumb when it becomes weakened for any reason, including environmental damage. The proximate cause of the collapse will then be military conquest, but the ultimate causethe factor whose change led to the collapsewill have been the factor that caused the weakening. Hence collapses for ecological or other reasons often masquerade as military defeats.
The most familiar debate about such possible masquerading involves the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Rome became increasingly beset by barbarian invasions, with the conventional date for the Empire's fall being taken somewhat arbitrarily as a.d. 476, the year in which the last emperor of the West was deposed. However, even before the rise of the Roman Empire, there had been "barbarian" tribes who lived in northern Europe and Central Asia beyond the borders of "civilized" Mediterranean Europe, and who periodically attacked civilized Europe (as well as civilized China and India). For over a thousand years, Rome successfully held off the barbarians, for instance slaughtering a large invading force of Cimbri and Teutones bent on conquering northern Italy at the Battle of Campi Raudii in 101 b.c.
Eventually, it was the barbarians rather than Romans who won the battles: what was the fundamental reason for that shift in fortune? Was it because of changes in the barbarians themselves, such that they became more numerous or better organized, acquired better weapons or more horses, or profited from climate change in the Central Asian steppes? In that case, we would say that barbarians really could be identified as the fundamental cause of Rome's fall. Or was it instead that the same old unchanged barbarians were always waiting on the Roman Empire's frontiers, and that they couldn't prevail until Rome became weakened by some combination of economic, political, environmental, and other problems? In that case we would blame Rome's fall on its own problems, with the barbarians just providing the coup de grâce. This question continues to be debated. Essentially the same question has been debated for the fall of the Khmer Empire centered on Angkor Wat in relation to invasions by Thai neighbors, for the decline in Harappan Indus Valley civilization in relation to Aryan invasions, and for the fall of Mycenean Greece and other Bronze Age Mediterranean societies in relation to invasions by Sea Peoples.
The fourth set of factors is the converse of the third set: decreased support by friendly neighbors, as opposed to increased attacks by hostile neighbors. All but a few historical societies have had friendly trade partners as well as neighboring enemies. Often, the partner and the enemy are one and the same neighbor, whose behavior shifts back and forth between friendly and hostile. Most societies depend to some extent on friendly neighbors, either for imports of essential trade goods (like U.S. imports of oil, and Japanese imports of oil, wood, and seafood, today), or else for cultural ties that lend cohesion to the society (such as Australia's cultural identity imported from Britain until recently). Hence the risk arises that, if your trade partner becomes weakened for any reason (including environmental damage) and can no longer supply the essential import or the cultural tie, your own society may become weakened as a result. This is a familiar problem today because of the First World's dependence on oil from ecologically fragile and politically troubled Third World countries that imposed an oil embargo in 1973. Similar problems arose in the past for the Greenland Norse, Pitcairn Islanders, and other societies.
From Collapse by Jared Diamond. Copyright Jared Diamond 2005. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
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