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On 2/3/18 3:26 PM, John Reimann via Marxism wrote:

Jared Diamond's "Collapse" gives an interesting account of the collapse of
the Mayan civilization. As far as I can understand it, their civilization
was based partly slavery and partly feudal relations. Diamond writes: The
Kings' "attention was evidently focused on their short-term concerns of
enriching themselves, waging wars, erecting monuments, competing with each
other, and extracting enough food from the peasants to support all those
activities.... Maya kings sought to outdo each other with more and more
impressive temples, covered with thicker and thicker plaster -- reminiscent
in turn of the extravagant conspicuous consumption by moern American CEO.
The passivity of Easter (Island) chiefs and Maya kings in the face of the
real big [environmental] threats to their societies completes our list of
disquieting parallels."

In his book, Diamond recounts the collapse of various other societies, from
the Norse society in Greenland to Anasazi society in America's Chaco Canyon
to Easter Island society. He also recounts how a few societies successfully
dealt with similar environmental challenges as those that collapsed. What
he doesn't point out is that all those societies that survived were
non-class societies and all those which collapsed were class societies. In
every case of a collapse, what comes clear is that the ruling class had to
maintain its methods of extracting wealth from nature because the culture -
and hence the justification for their rule - was based on that.

John Reimann

To begin with in replying to Diamond, it should be understood that Mayan collapse has to be put into some kind of historical context. Even those who agree with Diamond’s skewed analysis have to concede that the collapse was preceded by ten centuries of economic and social viability, marked as it was by feudal oppression. As Mayan scholar Robert Sharer wrote me a couple of weeks ago, every society might strive for such longevity regardless of the ultimate outcome. By contrast, the USA has been existence for less than 250 years but it is already threatening to destroy itself and the rest of the planet.

To start with, the Mayan territory was inimical to agriculture. It is a testimony to their ingenuity that they made it so productive for one thousand years. While Sharer believes that it was based on slash-and-burn (swidden) cultivation, scholars adduced by Diamond claim that Mayan population density could have only been allowed through more advanced–and more risky–technology including irrigation and hill slope terracing. Of course, it is highly speculative to estimate population density from over one thousand years ago, but taking Diamond at face value, there is still no question that the underlying soil fertility was poor at best.

Although Mayan society had endured drought over its thousand year history, there is evidence that the most severe drought coincides with the collapse. Although Diamond acknowledges that such droughts occurred, he thinks that they were only critical insofar as they coincided with “too many people” in a confined space.

What is missing from Diamond’s analysis, however, is the *cause* of drought. One would think that an environmentalist would want to address this question. To discover the answer, you have to turn elsewhere. In particular, the work of anthropologist Brian Fagan is most instructive. In a series of books on ancient societies, he focuses on the role of El Niño-Southern California (ENSO) events in their collapse.

In his latest, titled “The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization,” Fagan points to the research done by climatologist David Hodell. By examining titanium traces in the waters off of Venezuela (a very precise way to measure droughts), Hodell concluded that a major ENSO event coincided with Mayan collapse. Archaeologist Dick Gill studied Swedish tree rings and came to similar conclusions.

Studying the evidence of Mayan ruins from this period, archaeologist Peter Harrison discovered evidence of cannibalism–a sure sign of a society driven to desperation. Another group of indigenous peoples, the Anasazi, whose social structures were similar to the Mayans, have also been connected to cannibalism. In their case, the findings have taken on a sensational aspect, especially when they are divorced from the climatological and economic circumstances that may explain them. In other words, cannibalism is not seen in the same terms as what happened to the Donner party, but rather as an expression of what Diamond termed “The Golden Age That Never Was.”

The scholar most identified with this topic is Christy Turner II whose study “Man Corn” tries to explain Anasazi cannibalism as an early form of totalitarian control:

“Terrorizing, mutilating, and murdering might be evolutionarily useful behaviors when directed against unrelated competitors. And what better way to amplify opponents’ fear than to reduce victims to the subhuman level of cooked meat, especially when they include infants and children from whom no power or prestige could be derived but whose consumption would surely further terrorize, demean, and insult their helpless parents or community? … The benefits would be threefold: community control, control of reproductive behavior (that is, dominating access to women), and food. From the standpoint of sociobiology, then, cannibalism could well represent useful behavior done by well-adjusted, normal adults acting out their ultimate, evolutionarily channelled behavior. On the other hand, one can easily look upon violence and cannibalism as socially pathological.”

Once again we find sociobiology trumping more useful forms of analysis based on objective economic factors. If you reduce humanity to being a “Third Chimpanzee” or “Naked Ape,” naturally you will look for genetic dispositions to violence and subjugation instead of extreme distress brought on by climate or other socio-economic factors.

At least Diamond does not resort to such essentialist nonsense when trying to understand Anasazi collapse. Once again the main culprit is deforestation and unwise farming practices, but exacerbated by a drought that just seems to come and go with the seasons.

Once again you have to turn to Brian Fagan for a more satisfactory explanation of why such a devastating drought occurred. He states that the same ENSO events that struck the Yucatan peninsula also struck the American southwest. When crops failed and water disappeared, cannibalism did occur–although the exact extent is difficult to establish.

For the environmentalist, El Niño is obviously an important factor, especially with the rise of global warming. Although it is impossible to quantify exactly the effect of global warming on the frequency and intensity of El Niños, it seems fairly clear that they are becoming stronger and more common. The January 20, 1996 New Scientist reports:

“El Niño, ‘the little boy’, has just thrown his longest recorded tantrum, and is probably gearing up to throw even longer ones, according to two American climatologists. They have also produced the strongest indication yet that human interference in the global climate is to blame.

“El Nino events, characterised by a warming in the eastern tropical Pacific, are driven by a combination of waning trade winds and a reversal of surface ocean currents. They produce violent storms in the eastern Pacific, and can even cause severe drought in East Africa.

“The latest El Nino, which ended in June 1995, lasted for five years, making it the longest over the past century. Kevin Trenberth and Timothy Hoar of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, suggest that it is the longest in about 2000 years.”

Since modern science has conclusively demonstrated a link between greenhouse gases and global warming, one might think that Jared Diamond would be particularly vigilant about energy companies, the number one malefactor. However, in an interview with Salon Magazine (http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2005/01/08/jared_diamond/index1.html), Diamond practically falls over himself praising Chevron for its environmental sensitivity. This is earned by their supposed commitment to avoiding spills, etc. What Diamond does not seem to grasp is how the problem of global warming is tied up intrinsically with the nature of industrial capitalism. In this sense, he is in much more of a state of denial than any high priest of the Mayan period. If one is grounded in modern science and can understand that severe climate change might be a function of CO2 emissions rather than the wrath of the gods, then one has an obligation to take a clear stand against the capitalist system. That is something that Diamond is unwilling to do and the political reasons for this will become clearer as my critique of “Collapse” progresses.

full: https://louisproyect.org/2005/03/22/jared-diamonds-collapse-part-two/
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