The Environment and Collapse of Civilizations


Machu Picchu by Simon Tong

Evan Fraser co-author of Empires of Food gives some valuable historical perspective on the importance of natural resources and the patterns of growth.  Though, environmental conditions are easy to ignore and can be quite subtle, they are extremely important to recognize.  Fraser points out that empires have largely existed happily and come to prosper in good weather conditions for crops.  He points out the Minoan Warm Period, the Roman warm period and the Medieval warm period, as well as the current warm period we are being graced with during the 20th and 21st century thus far.  He also pointed out the lack of droughts or above average rain fall that existed during the success of all of these empires.  Though perhaps not always the obvious factor, the root cause of many Empire collapses can be linked to environmental and social conditions.

All of the above mentioned empires took the route of creating highly efficient short term farming techniques which involved deforestation, and monocropping, being susceptible to drought, erosion and pests.  When climate conditions were no longer favorable, food prices changed, the poor became susceptible to disease, armies could no longer be sufficiently fed and Empires collapsed. In the Medieval age, unexpectedly disease left nearly half of Europe dead, 100 years following the heights of prosperity.

Fraser names three traps that rising civilizations frequently fall into.  These include 1. ‘the vulnerable landscape trap. (deforestation, monocrop, high short term yields, susceptible to pests, drought and erosion.) 2.  The existence of a permanent underclass. living in utter deprivation, weak and susceptible to disease. 3. The good weather trap; expanding agriculture and depending on warmth and rain, until conditions are not as favorable. As i write we are facing the worst drought in many years.

The chief of the IMF recently stated that we are under a triple threat, of environment, economic and social strain.

John Bettington is concerned about food water and energy shortages for the future.

Fraser points out that while these factors frequently have unhinged societies in the last 100 years, we have also seen enormous adaptive capacity.

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