(12c) Collapse. When nature destroys civilisations.

The title of this article is taken from the front page of New Scientist (4 August 2012) that referred to the cover story about the influence of climate changes on the decline of societies. Studies suggest this influence is much larger than previously thought while some scientists still doubt its effects because they say some civilisations continued even after long periods of changes in the climate. Here I will discuss why I think that indeed climate changes were responsible for the destruction of many civilisations while some civilisations did survive.

Why and how I think societies collapsed due to climate change.

First of all, I find it obvious that changes in the climate can have dramatic effects and can lead to the collapse of civilisations. The best known and accepted example of the decline and collapse of a civilisation due to climate change was the Mayan Empire. After hundreds of years of growth, resulting in impressive buildings and even scripture (until now it was the only American civilisation that had a written language), the decline started with a prolonged draught and after about 100 years the civilisation collapsed around 900 AD. In our times we know countries such as Ethiopia that are very poor country because there is little water and thus people have to waste their lives trying to survive.
Some historical American art, although I am not sure from which period or cultures (Aztek, Mayan, Inca or indians)
One can imagine what happened: changes in climate let to a reduction in the amount of food and water and probably the disruption of the financial system as food had to be bought elsewhere while industries went down. The results were increased food prices, hunger, thirst and impoverishment. Then protest and violence erupted with wars within and between cities and between countries while people started to leave the area (immigration). People started to blame others and take the opportunity to deal with opponents including the higher society for not making the correct decisions while the rulers blamed advisers for giving wrong information (while the rulers may not have followed the given advice) and they blamed ordinary citizens for being too lazy and producing too little, therefore implementing harsher working conditions that might have caused even more destruction of the environment. When people were religious, they started to think gods were unhappy with certain people and certain rulers and thus they thought sacrifices were needed, probably sacrificing the best people and animals (gods only want the best), further weakening the society. But then the anger turned towards the religious leaders and their supporters because they were corrupt and/or sacrificed too many people (thus destroying corruption and religion). Finally, societies could become so weak they collapsed and people abandoned cities; they became ruins. However, sometimes a few clever people were not killed and could stop the decline or another civilisation took control, to help people rebuilt their society or installing their society.

Also the decline and/or collapse of other civilisations (e.g. Western Roman Empire, Khmer Empire, the end of the French monarchy around 1789, ...) seem to be the result of climate changes, either in a direction of too much or too little rain or too variable weather but with a food crisis and hunger as a result while the gap between those who had lots, including food, and those who had little and thus were hungry, became too big.

Some scientists deny the evidence of the collapse of civilisations due to climate change, claiming some societies continued even after long periods of food shortages and thus more studies are needed to understand the real reasons why societies collapsed. I do agree that we have to discover why some societies survived climate changes while others didn't to learn how to prevent the collapse of our own societies.

I think a main reason why one civilisations collapsed while another didn't depended upon whether societies had good rulers with good relationships with their citizens and other societies that could help during crises or whether societies had bad rulers who were hated by the citizens and other societies. During crises the people would not listen to their leaders while the situation was even worsened by trying to solve major problems by themselves, denying help from others (if others still wanted to help when they too had problems) because they considered that beneath their dignity. Greedy and arrogant leaderships result in collapses.

If leaders only thought about money and continued to destroy their environment, collapse will follow. If societies lost interest in sciences and maintenance and improvement of their social system because they considered that as a waste of money, then societies will collapse. Why do we see irrigation systems in many societies? Because there were probably water shortages before and people learned to manage them. Of course, disaster or severe water shortages could destroy these systems. Then societies had to be flexible and find new methods to irrigate or import new vegetation that was adapted to the new climate or move to another area, abandoning the past wealth.

Good neighbourhood was also essential to receive help and food to survive. Also, population growth should have been controlled (although many leaders consider population growth as a sign that society is well governed) because otherwise societies became too numerous and too complex to maintain. This doesn't mean large cities were bad but then societies should also keep up with improving drainage and supplying sufficient amounts of food to feed everyone. Mostly, as long as leaders think about the wellbeing of the citizens and don't allow small groups to only think about their own profits, societies can continue.

Of course, extreme changes in the climate that take too long or earthquakes that destroy most of the infrastructure are out of the control of any person. But good leaders would have good relationships with good neighbours and thus they would have received help while bad leaders quarrelled with everyone and might not have helped neighbours when they needed help. Bad leaders tried to solve their own problems to show they were in control or because neighbour refused to help because they hoped the society would collapse.

Finally, when disaster struck, good societies could have bad luck when they were surrounded by bad societies that tried to use the situation to conquer the weakened society. But good leaders probably received help from other countries who tried to prevent the rise of the other power they considered hostile while no-one would have mind the collapse of a bad society and its leader.

Our time.

In Europe and elsewhere, many people are loosing their work during this financial crisis and thus receive benefits but governments are reducing the amount of benefits or limit them in time because the markets (money, own profits) demand so.
Even relatively recent buildings can become ruins, even in the middle of cities due to fire or no longer needed.
At the same time there is evidence that worldwide the weather is misbehaving, either it is too wet or too dry or storms destroy good yields, resulting in increased food prices. These increases are accelerated because it is more profitable (speculation, own profits) to limit production or grow plants for other purposes such as to burn them as fuel (biofuel, I think making climate change worse) and thus farmlands are less used for food production (although governments start to notice the problem and recently the EU decided it will no longer promote increased production of biofuel). Also the UN warns about further increases in food prices over the next years, partly due to speculation and partly because of climate change.

Recently, people from a small Spanish town called Marinaleda took food from supermarkets and distributed it amongst the hungry (kind of Robin Hood) while explaining their action wanted to demonstrate people are desperate. The reaction of the government: they arrested all people involved and promised a crackdown on all those who repeat this type of actions.

In many countries, social unrest increases while it becomes less tolerated because investors would stay away while many smaller businesses also complain about the austerity measures of governments and the problems getting money to invest. But to please the big markets (and thus investors), benefits are further reduced at a time when it is predicted unemployment will continue to rise, and thus more people will find it harder to survive. One would expected governments and bankers meet more ordinary people to listen and understand their needs, although that is probably regarded as being weak and bowing to violence. But, when people become very poor and have the choice between starvation or risk their lives during (food) protests, people may as well decide to protest in the hope they will be changes for the better because those in power start to understand the people are desperate. Indeed, in many countries one can see protests are becoming much more violent. The EU tries to help countries (e.g. I read they distribute food in Spain) while it demands actions from the countries to reduce their debts (I explained before I think the help should go to stimulate the local economy so people notice the help and not to pay the debts of countries), but because people notice only the demands as they are getting poorer they protest against those who try to help.

Although governments are warned their actions will lead to more social unrest, they claim they have to keep investors happy. E.g. I read recently that the UK agreed to the demands of bankers to allow again higher bonuses in return for more investments into the economy. Of course, investments are needed because otherwise there are no jobs but should only the demands of the rich be met? Also governments need money to help the growing numbers of unemployed people or stimulate the economy although some governments follow the advice of large companies: fire people. Governments can get this money when everyone pays their taxes, including the rich. This doesn't mean taxes need to increase but everyone should pay them while tax reductions should only be for people who are less well-off because reductions (or tax avoidance) for few rich people or companies necessitates high taxes for everyone else (although one can't break agreements of the past but apply them on future agreements. I admit, there is a problem because the wealthy flee their responsibilities and move to countries that welcome them and their money. This angers poorer countries who accuse the other countries a lack of solidarity. Therefore, countries within Europe and the UN should work together so everyone, no matter where they are, can't escape paying taxes by moving from one country to another unless they escape to the moon. Taxes raised by the EU and UN can then be used to help countries while countries can pay a much smaller (no?) contribution to the EU and UN (although with reduction of influence as they are then independent).

Not only is there the need to distribute money more fairly, also work should be better distributed. At this moment, companies fire employees while those remaining need to work harder, making them tired and thus more vulnerable to making mistakes and more aggressive. Therefore, I think high-earners should earn less so colleagues can be paid and as more people work, societies remain calm. It would also mean more people can continue consuming and thus stimulate the economy, although without over-consuming. Income from taxes on people's wages will then be higher and could be used to reduce the countries debts but also to try to stimulate the economy while pay benefits of the unemployed so they too can continue to buy essential goods and live in a house. Tax money should also be used to keep schools running, thereby employing teachers but also reducing stress from parents who are concerned whether their children still receive good education (although children may now discover how lucky they were being able to go to school while often they didn't show respect for their teachers). Also the running of health services is important, certainly with an ageing population (good governments would have prepared themselves for the rapid increase in pensioners as this was predicted decades ago).

Regarding essential products such as food, in general food prices should not be kept artificially too low as then farmers suffer although also poor people should be able to buy. Therefore, either market prices are kept low and governments pay the difference to farmers (although in the past this system let to abuses by some farmers). Maybe better is that people pay the real food price (and thus don't take food for granted) but governments help those who earn too little (although that would mean the minimum income is too low and should rise). This will keep social unrest related to food prices low (remember, an important reason why revolutions started in the Middle-East was because high unemployment and increased food prices and thus more people couldn't buy enough food and became hungry). As the UN warns governments food prices may continue to increase because crop failures or farmland is used for biofuels, good governments would prepare for this and demand farmland is used only for food production while industrial grounds can be used to produce biofuel (this may even reduce ground pollution). Further, good governments will invest in storing food after reading the UN's warnings and not only at one place (e.g. tin food can be stored for many years).

The near future: climate change?

Can we still avoid climate change and its effects? I don't think so. E.g. the ice on the North Pole is melting at an increased speed (oil companies are happy as they expect to find oil and thus increase profits). This will have consequences on the temperature of the oceans worldwide as this cold water mixes with warm water elsewhere. The article in the New Scientist describes how the cooling of the north Atlantic Ocean results in less rainfall between the Tigris and Euphrates (Middle East, revolutions due to increased food prices) and some believe this might have led around 2200BC of the collapse of the Akkadion Empire. But we now have this knowledge, therefore ...

... governments should prepare for the effects of climate change (listen to experts) while they should try to reduce its impact by changing quicker towards green energy and better insulation of houses. Governments should clearly explain why some measures are needed such as unsubsidised fuel to have higher prices and thus reduced (indeed, governments still promoting fossil fuels are irresponsible).

Governments should explain continuous growth is not always needed because we know the effects on our environment. We should recycle more so we can use less resources while we can live a more moderate life.We should use oil for other purposes than for burning it because then it is gone while the side effect is climate change (although maybe one day we can use the CO2 to make oil or other products). We should redistribute work and wealth so more people work while less of our resources are used as the same work is done by more people and thus people will be less stressed and thus healthier what will result in healthier people and thus reduced healthcare costs.

Of course, major rainfall and storms can't be prevented (the past days the USA and other countries were hit by "Frankenstorm") but most people were prepared and everything was done to reduce possible damage. Mr Romney, the presidential opponent of President Obama, even congratulated the President for the preparations he made before the storm hit the US so there are relatively few victims (to notice the differences, compare with New Orleans) while New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he would vote for the President because he was one of few politicians who warned and tried to take action against climate change (although many blocked him in doing more). On the other hand, Mr Romney's comments angered some of his supporters because they are power hungry as they showed during the previous years when they tried to block all legislation to show the President is weak to increase their chances to gain power (and it worked as now many people question President Obama's determination while a massive support would show the President's opponents they have to change and not only during elections). This shows my reasoning in an earlier article that parties will disappear when they no longer act with reason but only want power to force their ideas on others while it is impossible for one man to continue fighting them unless he/she gets support from people. Nevertheless, it can still go wrong as people, two day after the storm, are already fighting over petrol or blaming the government for not having electricity (at least the Marathon is cancelled because people would view it as a celebration of a disaster, although it should have been cancelled immediately because now people are angry they spend so much money travelling to New York).

The above shows we in the West are so spoilt to receive everything immediately even after an external major disaster although I understand it is cold in New York but people could help each other. In comparison: two years after the terrible earthquake Haitians are still waiting for the rebuilding of their country because the promised money doesn't reach them while they had to endure already a few storms and cholera epidemic killed in the past.

Drought are much slower and thus should be easier for governments to take actions (e.g. reduce use of water and provide food while built an irrigation system (oil can be transported worldwide, so why can't water?)). When disaster happens unexpectedly (e.g. during earthquakes), then the aftermath has to be dealt with while regions that are vulnerable to earthquake, good governments force the building of earthquake-resistant buildings, even when these are more expensive. Scientists should also explain they can't predict earthquakes although when there are tremors they should not state it can't be followed by an earthquake as they did in Italy a few years ago. Nevertheless, scientists should learn from their mistakes to improve their knowledge and thus predictions.

To deal with the possible immediate effects of climate change, governments could prepare for food shortages and price increases as the UN warns them. Governments can store food at a number of places so that when things go wrong in one place (e.g. New York after the storm), food can be supplied from other regions. And tin can withstand some shocks and water. And when the predictions are wrong, the food can still be consumed, or given to the poor or regions where there are shortages.

Bad governments think about making profits and not about the wellbeing of the people although they think that making profits is good for the wellbeing while they think that those without work are lazy and don't want to work. These governments will only listen to the advice of big business leaders. As a result, bad governments or parliaments will follow the advice that less government control and more austerity measures are needed. As a result less people are able to start a business while more (smaller) companies go bankrupt and thus unemployment increases as well as more social unrest, resulting in further increases in inequality whereby the greedy take it all while the majority suffers. During past elections, business leaders voted for leftwing parties as they noticed the failure of only rightwing ideas while many employees voted rightwing (the world upside down?).

I agree and don't agree with one statement in the article in the New Scientist, i.e. that a globalised society can transmit shocks. I agree when governments are bad and don't want to share because of greed but a globalised society should be an advantage. If a drought damages food production in one place, food prices should not rise worldwide: because there is too much production, each year food is destroyed to keep prices artificially high and thus governments should prevent the destruction of food. I believe large communities can withstand much easier crises while distribute food to poor countries so they too can develop. Of course, during changes that affect every corner of the earth not all communities can be reached but then one would expect good communities help each other until help reaches them while in bad communities people will make each others life miserable.

E.g. when earthquakes happen, worldwide countries are willing to help the victims. Countries send food, water, tents and health workers. Of course, when the government of the country refuses help, then this should be accepted because as long as the people accept their government, they accept its decision to refuse help. After tensions in the country rise because help was refused and people die, the government has to accept help or face its downfall from within. Probably, some governments, supported by their citizens, behaved so badly that countries didn't want to help, and thus people got their punishment for their behaviour. I think that were circumstances when societies collapsed. Worse of all is when an evil neighbouring society takes advantage of troubles in the other society. But then, other countries will help the good country because they fear the other country while they wouldn't mind the collapse of a bad government in the hope something better will rise (e.g. Kuwait was defended when Iraq invaded it).

And religions? Religious people are becoming more aggressive towards non-believers and other religions but also towards other sections of their own religion. And natural and financial disasters can help their case as they will claim God is making it all happen.

In conclusion, in the past, not many societies survived major changes although some did such as the Eastern Roman Empire because it accepted a reduction in its wealth to survive and paid its attackers (the Huns) to stop their attacks. In doing so, they were able to gain time and fortify their capital and thus withstand future attacks. Sometimes moderation in wealth is better while moderation in progress and science is stupidity. For me, progress doesn't mean destruction of the environment, on the contrary, it means finding better ways to deal with problems such as investments in green energy will give work to many while it reduces pollution and danger (e.g. nuclear energy pollutes (where do we leave the waste?) and if things go wrong it can have consequences for decades, therefore it can no longer be defended as something positive because now better things exist). I believe in more locally generated energy while companies provide energy for public functions such as public lightning or transport. Progress sometimes means changing the political system because sometimes the system is the reason problems exist although many people will question why leaders waste energy changing the system while they think there are more urgent problems during a financial crisis and thus may prevent the essential changes happen (e.g. the EU needs to change to survive this crisis while people ask why politicians are debating these changes (indeed, they should have done this much earlier, and they did to some extend), thus politicians should explain very well why they debate the changes).

And when the rich don't want to take their responsibilities by sharing, then it may not be such a bad thing that things go wrong worldwide because then they can't escape and thus they too will understand what it means to suffer from their own behaviour. Indeed, climate change will be felt by everyone and all of us will understand profits should not be put in front of everything if it leads to disaster (e.g. the storm in the US and elsewhere probably caused billions of dollars of damage, to be repaid by insurance companies (and governments) that no longer can use the money to finance pension funds and thus this is money lost for the economy and will anger people). Indeed, the chaos theory tells us that the movement of the wings of the butterfly in Mexico can have consequences in other places. Everything is interwoven, even what happens far away in space can have consequence here on earth, thus certainly the misbehaviour of a few too many can have consequences for everyone, including them. The film Avatar showed us the interconnectivity of everything on this planet.


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