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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Mar 6;109(10):3632-9. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1114845109. Epub 2012 Feb 27.

Collapse, environment, and society.

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  • 1Department of Geography and the Environment, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX 78712, USA.


Historical collapse of ancient states poses intriguing social-ecological questions, as well as potential applications to global change and contemporary strategies for sustainability. Five Old World case studies are developed to identify interactive inputs, triggers, and feedbacks in devolution. Collapse is multicausal and rarely abrupt. Political simplification undermines traditional structures of authority to favor militarization, whereas disintegration is preconditioned or triggered by acute stress (insecurity, environmental or economic crises, famine), with breakdown accompanied or followed by demographic decline. Undue attention to stressors risks underestimating the intricate interplay of environmental, political, and sociocultural resilience in limiting the damages of collapse or in facilitating reconstruction. The conceptual model emphasizes resilience, as well as the historical roles of leaders, elites, and ideology. However, a historical model cannot simply be applied to contemporary problems of sustainability without adjustment for cumulative information and increasing possibilities for popular participation. Between the 14th and 18th centuries, Western Europe responded to environmental crises by innovation and intensification; such modernization was decentralized, protracted, flexible, and broadly based. Much of the current alarmist literature that claims to draw from historical experience is poorly focused, simplistic, and unhelpful. It fails to appreciate that resilience and readaptation depend on identified options, improved understanding, cultural solidarity, enlightened leadership, and opportunities for participation and fresh ideas.

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