For more than 50 years Karl Butzer, a renowned environmental archaeologist at The University of Texas at Austin, has trekked across continents, sifted through countless excavations and pored over collections in some of the world's greatest libraries and museums in a quest to better understand humanity's age-old relationship to the natural environment.
He has seen evidence in the geologic record of serious challenges to our survival, but he has also seen abundant proof of our resilience, of our ability to adapt, persist and even thrive in a changing world. Unfortunately, Butzer finds our current debate about the environment to be less about crisis response and adaptation and more about alarmism.
"We have serious problems, yet many writers do nothing but sell us on apocalyptic scenarios, of societies at the mercy of environmental forces beyond their control," says Butzer, Raymond Dickson Centennial Professor of Liberal Arts in the Department of Geography and the Environment.
Focusing solely on environmental factors such as climate change results in "finger-pointing and fear-mongering," he says, when our energy would be better spent in finding new ways to adapt to a changing world. Indeed, the historical record offers many more examples of societies that have survived and adapted than those that collapsed.
"Pundits continue to pontificate while ordinary people go about their lives adapting and adjusting," Butzer says. "Many who consider themselves experts claim to have the definitive answer, even a revelation, but what we really need is a rational approach. We need to invite people to discuss, and think, and overcome this ideological dissonance."
To this end, Butzer and Georgina Endfield, professor in environmental history at the University of Nottingham, organized an international collection of critical papers for a special feature on sustainability in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (March 6, 2012, vol. 109).
These papers are an attempt to refute what Butzer calls "simplistic environmental determinism," in which authors argue that environmental crises such as severe droughts were responsible for coincident social changes. Yale University anthropologist Harvey Weiss used such an approach when he suggested in 2001 that contrary to "common beliefs," societal collapses of the past were largely caused by sudden climate change. In the realm of popular culture, environmental determinism was also a strong element in Jared Diamond's 2005 best-seller "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed."
"The idea that people choose to go extinct is implausible," says Butzer, a fellow of the National Academy of Sciences since 1996. "Many feedbacks need to be evaluated in a social science approach that requires explicit attention to societal and human issues. You can't just use some theory to assume or predict human behavior. Ideally, understanding should be grounded in direct, insider information drawn from internal narratives in order to elucidate the role of leadership, elites and ideology in civilizational breakdown or reconstitution."
Butzer's scholarship and fieldwork in Egypt, which began in the late 1950s, showed that although environmental factors, such as drought or floods, could be triggers to dynastic collapse, they are part of a much larger and complex picture.
"There are cultural and psychological factors to consider that are grounded in human perceptions, values and solidarity, factors that cannot be measured through examination of physical evidence alone," says Butzer, who notes that wars, foreign trade, internal power struggles, even personality quirks of certain leaders are all major factors in the success or failure of a society. He adds that the belief in a "cosmic order" which gives power and legitimacy to a ruling elite is a critical factor that is often overlooked in empirical, data-driven research.
For example, Butzer describes the immense complexity of collapse in Egypt after the long but unsteady reign of Pepi II (2278 to 2184 BCE) that was marked by internal power struggles and loss of foreign markets both part of an intricate, downward spiral of cascading feedbacks. A semblance of order was eventually restored by the high priesthood, legitimized by their connection to the gods or the "cosmic order."
"Belief systems provide resonance and give people a capacity to deal with crises they adapt by going back to a divine order," Butzer says.
In addition to his research in Egypt, Butzer and his colleagues examined a dozen case studies of societies from different ages and parts of the world ranging from Norse settlement in Greenland to Spanish settlement in Mexico.
The common thread linking these case studies was less about climate change and more about institutional failure incompetence, corruption, dynastic crises, invasion and loss of economic networks. Environmental degradation seldom had a significant role. Furthermore, collapse played out over a century or two rather than decades, so it was neither abrupt nor inevitable.
"Societies that managed to avoid breakdown are therefore of special interest," Butzer says. "There is much we can learn from how people adapted in the last 800 years."
He says centuries ago governments had limited information to address changes in the environment. "No one was distributing pamphlets telling people how to farm better or prepare for deteriorating conditions such as the Little Ice Age. Yet people figured out how to support themselves even when many summers were too cool to raise sufficient crops. They drew on traditional knowledge and the localized evaluation of new information that led to experimentation and innovation. Sometimes this required drastic transformation, but people came out better than you would think."
Even recent examples, such as Hurricane Katrina, demonstrate the prominence of institutional failure as a key factor in collapse. Butzer notes that although the storm was a trigger, much of the disaster that followed in the New Orleans area was the result of factors such as municipal incompetence and the poor placement or quality of the dikes.
"It was the intervention of people that affected the threshold, both positive and negative," he says. "The particular placement of dikes by the Corps of Engineers put people in some quarters in harm's way."
It comes as no surprise to Butzer that much of the news in Katrina's aftermath focused on who was blame rather than seeking solutions to avoid a future catastrophe.
"Assigning blame is not science. We are not even asking the right questions," he says. "The real question is: How can people be educated on what matters? How can we prepare for global change that will happen irrespective of our political opinions?"
So what does Butzer say to those who continue to warn of a looming apocalypse?
"Collapse becomes possible when people cannot collaborate to find solutions, and that is rare. In most situations, disasters are avoided because people succeed in pulling together to confront crises. The interesting question is not that a society may have failed, but that it avoided failure. That is the lesson."