Why have climate catastrophes toppled some civilizations but not others?

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This story originally appeared in Grinding and is part of Climatic desk collaboration.

The Roman Empire fell more than 1,500 years ago, but its hold on the popular imagination is still strong, as evidenced by a recent trend on TikTok. Women began filming the men in their lives to document their responses to a simple question: How often do you think about the Roman Empire?

“I guess, technically, I eat every day.” a boyfriend said, while his girlfriend let out an astonished “What?” He wasn’t the only one, as an avalanche of Twitter posts, Instagram Reels, and news articles made clear. While driving on a highwaySome men couldn’t help but think of the extensive network of roads that the Romans built, some of which are still in use today. They he reflected the aqueduct system, built with concrete that could harden underwater.

There are many reasons why people are fascinated by the rise and fall of ancient empires, gender dynamics aside. Part of what drives that interest is the question: How could something so big and so advanced fail? And, more pressing: Could something similar happen to us? Amid devastating forest fires, a increase in political violenceand the public Trust in government at historic lowsIt doesn’t seem so far-fetched that the United States could vanish.

Theories about collapse caused by climate change have proliferated in recent years, encouraged by books such as Jared Diamond’s 2005 one. Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. The Roman Empire, for example, crumbled during a spasm of volcanic explosions, causing a cooling period that precipitated the first bubonic plague pandemic. The decline of the ancient Mayans in Central America has been linked to a great drought. The fall of Angkor Wat, in what is now Cambodia, is attributed to a period of wild swings between drought and monsoon floods. So if minor forms of climate change caused the collapse of these large societies, how are we supposed to survive the much more radical changes of today?

Focusing too much on the catastrophe can lead to a skewed view of the past: it overlooks societies that went through an environmental disaster and emerged unscathed. TO literature review in 2021 found that 77 percent of studies analyzing the interaction between climate change and societies emphasized catastrophe, while only 10 percent focused on resilience. Historians, anthropologists and archaeologists Recently we have tried to fill that gap. The last entry is a study that analyzes 150 crises from different periods and regions, and that they are triggered a complete data set covering more than 5,000 years of human history, dating back to the Neolithic period. The study found that environmental forces often play a critical role in the downfall of societies, but they cannot do it alone.

Researchers at the Complexity Science Hub, an organization based in Vienna, Austria, that uses mathematical models to understand the dynamics of complex systems, found many examples of societies surviving famines, cold snaps, and other forms of environmental stress. Several Mesoamerican cities, including the Zapotec settlements of Mitla and Yagul in modern-day Oaxaca, “not only survived but thrived under the same drought conditions” that contributed to the fall of the Mayan civilization in the 8th century. And the Mayans, before that point, had resisted five previous droughts and continued to grow.

He new research, published last month in a peer-reviewed life sciences journal from The Royal Society, suggests that resilience is a capacity that societies can gain and lose over time. Researchers found that a stable society can withstand even a dramatic climate crisis, while a small crisis can cause chaos in a vulnerable society.



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