Nothing is more certain than change, and over the past 2,000 years, civilizations that once dominated their regions have all but disappeared. But how much did climate change have to do with some of those collapses, as with Mayan civilization in Central America, or the Polynesians of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the South Pacific?
Stories of collapse are often told as parables of what happens when humans wreck things (think Noah’s Ark). The public’s interest in environment-driven collapse picked up in 2005 with the publication of Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Some took issue with the interpretations in the book. Take Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, the South Pacific island settled by Polynesians known for its monoliths of heads (actually, the rest of their bodies are underground). The book popularized the idea that the population crashed because the islanders slashed and burned all the trees — a cautionary tale on the perils of destroying the environment. Recent research suggests that indigenous groups have been particularly good at adapting to climate changes, Degroot said, “either because they were able to migrate or because they were able to alter the distribution of resources that they relied upon.”
A report recently published in the journal Nature argues that an obsession with catastrophe has driven much of the research into how societies responded to a shifting climate throughout history. That has resulted in a skewed view of the past that feeds a pessimistic view about our ability to respond to the crisis we face today.
“It would be rare that a society as a whole just kind of collapsed in the face of climate change,” said Dagomar Degroot, an environmental historian at Georgetown University and the lead author of the paper. The typical stories of environmentally-driven collapse that you might have heard about Easter Island or the Mayan civilization? “All those stories need to be retold, absolutely,” he said.