When learning about history and the fall of civilizations, I never really considered the role of their environmental policies in their downfall. With the Mayans, I had always assumed it was because of the meeting between their culture and the Europeans, and never really considered the fact that where they were positioned and how they farmed had an impact on their civilization. I knew about the Anasazi, but did not think, really think, how much the environment played a role.

With Easter Island, however, I always knew it was from overharvesting, deforestation, and lack of planning and utilization of their scarce resources. The fact that people kept debating over what caused them to collapse baffled me, because I always knew it was due to the environmental factors and their response to them. For me, it was easy to see how an isolated island civilization could collapse due to their interactions with their environment and with each other. Put on a larger scale, however, as with the Mayans, it never really occurred to me, because, in my mind, they had room to move away, and had a larger amount of resources available to them.

Thinking about other civilizations in history in environmental terms, and not just socio-political ones, it makes complete sense to me to see how much effect their environments had on them. The Romans, to me, are a perfect example. While they had an infrastructure in place, particularly in the places nearest their center of power, the distances and varied cultures, environments, and resources had a major effect on how they could run their empire. At their peak, the Roman empire stretched all the way around the Mediterranean Sea, into eastern Europe, parts of Germany, and England.

Roman Empire at its peak

They were so extensive that their infrastructure could not cover the entire expanse of the empire; in a way, this is what happened to the people of Easter Island. Not only did they expand across their entire (albeit small) island, but the infrastructure and customs that were in place between the tribes on the island could not support the massive boom in population that occurred over time, leading to the eventual collapse.

I think that keeping in mind the environmental aspect as part of the downfall or salvation of any civilization is going to be important, not only for later in this class, but for when we leave it and enter the world at large. For me, the biggest challenge in saving the environment is not what we have to do in order to fix or combat what is wrong (although this is a massive challenge with many parts to it), but rather changing the way people view the world, their surroundings, and making the environment an important part of everyday life.



6 Responses to “”

  1. Dr. Szulczewski says:

    Thanks for offering up more historical case studies about collapse- or at least major and lasting environmental damage. Maybe some day textbooks will mention environmental issues with every history chapter! Super post- but don’t forget your initials since your name is not part of your title/username.

  2. daynabeckham says:

    Good comparison! The Romans were a great example of everything we’ve been discussing in class, putting emphasis on the fact that societal structure does play an important part on the success or ultimate failure of ones civilization. These comparisons just go to show that no matter how strong an empire, and how bright it’s future appears, within every society are detrimental factors that play a role in their downfall.

  3. cchase says:

    I really agree with your last paragraph where you say that the biggest challenge in saving the environment is changing how other people see the world. That could not be more true! I think that it is easy for people to not believe in environmental degradation, especially global warming today, because it seems like an insult to the accepted way of life. It is important to make people care about the environment, make them want to make a difference, and not for the sake of being “green”, but because they can recognize the positive effect that it will have in the long run.

  4. ensignredshirt says:

    @kgirard– I never thought about the tobacco and settler equation, either. I think, though, that we would’ve expanded in any case, as we seemed to have an entitlement complex when we settled here. That being said, if we weren’t pressed for land, it might have been a more peaceful expansion.

    @Katie– I’m not sure if the pollution was severe enough for the collapse, but their sewage and water systems were integral to their society. I wouldn’t be surprised. With their massive reach over the continent, they probably didn’t have enough resources/money to pay for the fixing of their pipes or aqueducts, and when the empire began to implode, whatever money they did have probably didn’t go far enough out. That’s an interesting question; I wonder where you’d look to find that answer?

  5. kgirard says:

    I’m far off from being a history buff, but it really does make you wonder how much of our own history has been determined by what our ancestors did to our environment. Learning about those of Easter Island, the Anasazi, and the Mayans whose civilizations collapsed because of their lack of understand of the environment made me think more critically about that which I do know about history (not much). But the one thing I did remember and was sparked by your post was the colonists’ dependence on tobacco and what an exhausting crop it was for the soil. If we had not needed so much land, would we still have overtaken so much land of the natives? Would our relations have been better with them? What about our dependence on England? There is an endless possibility of things that could be drastically different had we never drained the soil of vital nutrients with tobacco.

  6. kdiemer54 says:

    I’m a bit of a history dork, so I think this post is awesome. Overpopulation was definitely the biggest problem. I looked up more info on Rome on , and it seems that the Roman Empire was severely deforested near its collapse. Wonder if that led to a decline in trade like Easter Island? There’s also a mention of pollution and health problems from mining and the lead pipes underground. Does anyone know if pollution got severe enough to cause a collapse?

    – Katie Diemer,