That an entire civilisation the size of modern day Liechtenstein or Guam (between 0.0005% and 0.003% of the world population) could collapse entirely in the space of a few years is almost inconceivable—but is it beyond belief?
In the late tenth century (circa AD 980, to be more specific) Norse explorers discovered a seemingly uninhabited Greenland and began to colonise the island. For centuries the new inhabitants prospered in the virgin land, farming and trading with the world.
The population of the Greenland Norse soared to between 2,000 and 10,000 people (quite a range, admittedly) before, in the early fifteenth century (between 1410 and 1435), the civilisation completely collapsed (some say ‘vanished’). It wasn’t a slow collapse, either: it fell with the speed of the Soviet Union, and the reasons for the collapse were, until recently, a mystery.
In Jared Diamond’s excellent Collapse, he proposes that the Greenland Norse society collapsed because of “climate change, environmental damage, loss of trading partners, irrational reluctance to eat fish [the country’s easily accessible and plentiful food source], hostile neighbors and most unwillingness to adapt in the face of social collapse”.
In Collapse Diamond also lists what he calls the “twelve problems of non-sustainability”; the eight that have contributed to almost every past societal collapse, these being:
- Deforestation and habitat destruction
- Soil problems (erosion, salinization, and soil fertility losses)
- Water management problems
- Effects of introduced species on native species
- Increased per-capita impact of people
and these four new factors that are putting our current and future societies at risk:
- Human-caused climate change
- Buildup of toxins in the environment
- Energy shortages
- Full human utilisation of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity
We now know that believing an organisation is too big to fail is to practice arrogance, but we still fail to consider wider collapses—of societies, for example, that are not only currently experiencing many of the non-sustainable problems noted above, but have also prospered for less time than the Greenland Norse (and especially that of the Maya).
Ta Phrom Ruins, Cambodia photograph by Taylor Miles.