There are a lot of reasons why people are fascinated by the rise and fall of ancient empires, gender dynamics aside. Part of what’s driving that interest is the question: How could something so big and so advanced fail? And, more pressingly: Could something similar happen to us? Between rampaging wildfires, a rise in political violence, and the public’s trust in government at record lows, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched that America could go up in smoke.
Theories of breakdown driven by climate change have proliferated in recent years, encouraged by the likes of Jared Diamond’s 2005 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. The Roman Empire, for example, unravelled during a spasm of volcanic explosions, which led to a period of cooling that precipitated the first pandemic of bubonic plague. The decline of the ancient Maya in Central America has been linked with a major drought. Angkor Wat’s downfall, in modern-day Cambodia, has been pinned on a period of wild swings between drought and monsoon floods. So if minor forms of climate change spelled the collapse of these great societies, how are we supposed to survive the much more radical shifts of today?