Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Making Sense of Collapse

• August 03, 2010 • 2:25 PM

The various data points collected so far in the Kiri’s voyage demonstrate how environmental decisions affect the resilience of human habitats and ultimately their cultures.

Location: In the northern part of the state of Guerrero, camped next to a mangrove. Two river mouths form a broad delta in this area. In a palapa near the beach, women prepare tamales over a wood-burning oven.

Conditions: The lovely mangroves unfortunately spawn lots of mosquitoes, which force a decision: whether to use chemical repellent DEET, hide under long-sleeve clothes in the sweaty heat or be bitten and risk the possible dengue fever advertised in warning posters around local towns? Perhaps I should seek higher ground.

Discussion: Perceptive readers have probably wondered about the strange mix of topics we’ve covered — ranging from floods and fisheries to tourism development and drug production. What is the relationship between these issues and their significance to this voyage’s theme of “exploring the effects of climate on Mexico’s coastline?” This might be a good opportunity for a bird’s-eye view, using island examples and past societies for perspective.

The original inspiration for this trip came from low-lying atolls, such as Kiribati.  In those atolls, climatic pressures including sea-level rise and reduced rainfall are turning decades of poor resource management (e.g. freshwater extraction and waste disposal) into a full-blown crisis. Many small island states such as Kiribati, Vanuatu and the Maldives are talking about evacuations of their populations as “climate refugees” in the next 50 years. Are they simply victims of the First World’s thirst for fossil fuels, or do they bear responsibility for putting themselves in a precarious condition?

Most likely, both factors are true. Due to their low-altitude coral structure and limited resources, they are vulnerable to begin with. Excessive pollution and short-sighted development, meant to boost standards of living, leave a narrow margin for error. For example, there is less surplus of freshwater to buffer periods of drought. As climatic pressures shrink those narrow margins — via saltwater intrusion, rainfall scarcity or storms — crises can quickly evolve.

El Tecuan

The abandoned resort of El Tecuan. (Kristian Beadle)

Effects are not uniform across the board. Contradicting the widespread fear that all islands are sinking (i.e. being swallowed by sea-level rise), a recent report suggested that some islands might actually be growing due to increased wave action, as coral is deposited on land after storms. Politicians eager to bail out their countries might exaggerate global warming claims to get support for needed changes. Nevertheless, the reality remains that these places are vulnerable, weakened by pollution and climatically tipping over the edge.

In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, University of California, Los Angeles, polymath Jared Diamond uses examples of both ancient and modern civilizations to illustrate how a society can spiral downward.

At Easter Island, the site of mysterious stone statues erected between the 12th and 16th centuries, archeology and pollen analysis have shown that the 15,000-plus inhabitants completely deforested their island, which is now a barren landscape of shrubs and small trees. Major forests on the island included the extinct giant palm tree, the world’s largest, which was used for canoe building and transport of the stone monuments. Deforestation led to reduced crop yields due to erosion and lack of protection from sun and wind, as well as a lack of timber for construction and canoes. Once wild food sources plummeted, civil wars ripped the island’s social fabric, which, along with starvation, led to a population crash (although other interpretations of the collapse do exist).

Another less-known decline of a Polynesian society was in the Pitcairn Islands, made famous by the mutineers of the H.M.S. Bounty who resided on the otherwise uninhabited island for years. The case showed an example where collapse was “triggered by the breakdown of an environmentally damaged trade partner” — the island of Mangareva. It fell for similar reasons as Easter Island (a fragile environment that was deforested and eroded to the point of civil wars and starvation) and failed to support the two smaller outpost islands of Henderson and Pitcairn whose populations slowly died.

In the 11th century, in what is now southwest Colorado, the Anasazi people built the continent’s tallest buildings until Chicago’s steel skyscrapers surpassed them in the 1880s. The Anasazi’s collapse is attributed to droughts and other climatic changes that tipped the already abused, fragile and overpopulated landscape over the edge.

In the 10th century, the Mayan civilization, which supposedly declined for similar reasons, despite having millions of people, the social infrastructure to build massive stone temples and the New World’s only known writing system. These cases revealed common trends leading to decline: the over-exploitation of resources, overpopulation, a society’s inability to adapt and climatic tipping points that put the proverbial nail in the coffin.

Click here for more posts from the Voyage of Kiri.

Meanwhile, success stories from societies that adapted to and overcame their mounting environmental problems showed that peoples’ choices do matter, for example, as they did in Iceland, the New Guinea highlands, the miniscule island of Tikopia and 18th-century Japan.

The role that climate pressures have on coral atolls like Kiribati, and had on past societies around the world, are useful cases because of their relative simplicity. Although Mexico is a much more complex and robust country than small island nations (and continental Anasazi and Maya), the same set of principles is evident: somewhat vulnerable environments weakened by human modification, operating on an increasingly narrow margin of resources, which could be further undermined by climatic pressures.

Whereas the potential of collapse is low, the likelihood of serious downturns is higher, which could affect its neighbors through trade, mass immigration and other spillovers. Not that environmental degradation directly causes declines, though it might be one of the original causes. The proximate factors are more often war and immigration. In Mexico, poverty associated with environmental degradation has amplified, if anything, social problems like the drug war and illegal immigration.

Therefore, the different topics covered along this voyage have been about how the environment in Mexico is becoming stronger or weaker, which in turn makes it more or less resilient to economic and atmospheric changes. Resilience is the key concept that ensured the well-being of past societies faced with radical changes. It will also be important for our modern world, faced with “climate weirding,” exploding affluent (and poor) populations, biodiversity crashes and petro-dictatorships, as Thomas Friedman puts it in his book Hot, Flat, and Crowded. Because of these factors, Friedman argues that greening the economy is now a matter of national security and economic survival.

Many energy and water policies based on old growth models are reducing our resilience. Are there development models that can strengthen ecosystems and communities? Coming fresh off a half-century expressly devoted to GDP growth, we are now having to re-learn how to do things better, not just bigger, as I discovered in my next stop in southern Mexico.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Kristian Beadle
Kristian Beadle works with coastal conservation and eco-entrepreneurship. He is embarking on a 3,000-mile climate education and research tour, called the Voyage of Kiri, starting April 2010 from California to Oaxaca in southern Mexico. The program will focus on "how climate will affect our coastal water resources" and discovering sustainable business solutions. He is a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar and recent graduate of the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara. For more information, see www.voyageofkiri.com .

More From Kristian Beadle

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 1 • 2:00 PM

Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It. Why Is This Widely Denied?

The idea that addiction is typically a chronic, progressive disease that requires treatment is false, the evidence shows. Yet the “aging out” experience of the majority is ignored by treatment providers and journalists.


October 1 • 1:00 PM

Midlife Neuroticism Linked to Alzheimer’s Disease in Old Age

New research from Sweden suggests that the personality dimension is connected to who ultimately suffers from late-in-life dementia.



October 1 • 11:11 AM

The Creative Class Boondoggle in Downtown Las Vegas

On Tony Hsieh and the pseudoscience of “collisions.”


October 1 • 9:14 AM

Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.


October 1 • 6:00 AM

Would You Like a Subscription with Your Coffee?

A new app hopes to unite local coffee shops while helping you find a cheap cup of good coffee.


October 1 • 4:00 AM

How to Plant a Library

Somewhere outside of Oslo, there are 1,000 newly-planted spruce trees. One hundred years from now, if everything goes to plan, they’ll be published together as 100 pieces of art.



September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


Follow us


Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.