Click here to see in full screen.
Historians have obsessed over the fate of lost cities and civilizations at least since the late 18th century, when Edward Gibbon wrote his genre-defining survey The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Now, to the traditional litany of theories about societal failure (moral rot, barbarian invasion, failed economy, rampant disease), the emerging discipline of environmental archaeology is adding another: mismanagement of natural resources.
Jared Diamond’s 2005 bestseller, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, offers case studies of environmental calamities that have taken down whole civilizations, such as deforestation (the Anasazi), soil erosion (the Maya), and poor water stewardship (the Khmer). In some cases, the causes are hotly debated. In others, an environmental crisis didn’t finish the job, but it made the society vulnerable to some other fatal blow. But in almost every case, societies that failed to avoid an environmental disaster lacked either social perspective or scientific understanding of the problem.
Thanks to modern scientific disciplines such as climatology and seismology, our powers of prediction have become remarkably sophisticated. We cannot fail to act on this knowledge. The collapse of a civilization due to ecological mismanagement is a tragedy. Now the stakes are even higher: The entire planet is at risk.