In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond discusses an interesting theory about the collapse of the great Maya civilization in Mesoamerica. Since the Maya were...

In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond discusses an interesting theory about the collapse of the great Maya civilization in Mesoamerica. Since the Maya were already in decline when the Spanish arrived in the Americas, to what does Diamond attribute their failure? Mention at least three factors.

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond attempts to isolate the factors that caused many major civilizations around the world to collapse. He carefully demarcates his concept of collapse, which is sudden and drastic, from gradual decline. 

What makes this work distinctive and interesting is that Diamond focuses on environmental factors and the way that environmental degradation builds up gradually until it reaches a point of no return. In his story of the collapse of the Maya and other similar civilizations (such as the Anasazi and related peoples of the southwestern United States), Diamond sees a warning for modern societies living beyond their environmental means.

The major factors that contributed to the collapse of the Mayan civilization according to Diamond are as follows.

Deforestation was the key factor in the collapse of the Mayan civilization. The Mayans chopped down forests to use the wood for construction and cooking, and cleared land for agricultural purposes. This started a vicious cycle by enabling their population to expand and civilization to become more complex, causing them to require increasing amounts of forests to be cleared for more wood.

Drought was the second contributing factor. Major droughts occurred during the summer growing seasons, reducing the amount of crops grown below what was needed to sustain the populations of major urban centers. Despite sophisticated efforts at irrigation, the droughts led to an agricultural collapse. One reason for this is that deforestation actually reduces rainfall because of the importance of trees in the hydrologic cycle.

Overpopulation occurs when a society expands beyond the natural carrying capacity of its farmland. In the Mayan case, the density of population centers was such that they could not sustain themselves without importing food from an increasingly wide area, meaning that drought or trade disruption would have a catastrophic effect.

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