How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse


Richard Moore

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How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse

By John Michael Greer
© John Michael Greer 2005


The collapse of complex human societies remains poorly understood and current 
theories fail to model important features of historical examples of collapse. 
Relationships among resources, capital, waste, and production form the basis for
an ecological model of collapse in which production fails to meet maintenance 
requirements for existing capital. Societies facing such crises after having 
depleted essential resources risk catabolic collapse, a self-reinforcing cycle 
of contraction converting most capital to waste. This model allows key features 
of historical examples of collapse to be accounted for, and suggests parallels 
between successional processes in nonhuman ecosystems and collapse phenomena in 
human societies.

About the author

John Michael Greer has been studying issues of resource depletion and the 
collapse of civilizations since the energy crises of the 1970s, and is active in
the contemporary nature spirituality movement. He lives in Ashland, Oregon.


The collapse of complex human societies, while a subject of perennial scholarly 
and popular fascination, remains poorly understood. Tainter (1988), surveying 
previous attempts to account for the demise of civilizations, noted that most 
proposed explanations of collapse failed to adequately describe causative 
mechanisms, and relied either on ad-hoc hypotheses based on details of specific 
cases or, by contrast, essentially mystical claims (e.g., that civilizations 
have lifespans like those of individual biological organisms). In another recent
survey of collapses in history (Yoffee and Cowgill 1988), contributors proposed 
widely divergent explanatory models to account for broadly similar processes of 
decline and breakdown.

Tainter (1988) proposed a general theory of collapse, in which complex societies
break down when increasing complexity results in negative marginal returns, so 
that a decrease in sociopolitical complexity yields net benefits to people in 
the society. This theory has important strengths, and models many features of 
the breakdown of civilizations, but it fails to account for other factors, 
especially the temporal dimensions of the process. Tainter defines collapse as a
process of marked sociopolitical simplification unfolding on a timescale of "no 
more than a few decades" (Tainter, 1988, p. 4), replacing an unsustainably high 
level of complexity with a lower, more sustainable level. Many of the examples 
he cites, however, fail to fit this description, but occurred over a period of 
centuries rather than decades (see Table 1) and involved an extended process of 
progressive disintegration rather than a rapid shift from an unsustainable state
to a sustainable one.

Table 1: Timescales of collapse for selected civilizations (all dates from 
Tainter 1988)

Civilization               Onset of collapse   Time to collapse
Minoan Crete                 c. 1500 BCE      c. 300 years
Mycenean Greece            c.1200 BCE      c. 150 years
Hittite Empire               c. 120 BCE       c. 100 years
Western Chou empire       934 BCE           163 years
Western Roman Empire   166 CE               310 years
Medieval Mesopotamia    c.650 CE          c. 550 years
Lowland Classic Maya     c.750 CE          c. 150 years

The best documented examples of collapse, such as the fall of the western Roman 
empire, show a distinctive temporal pattern even more difficult to square with 
Tainter's theory. Thus, during the collapse of Roman power, each of a series of 
crises led to loss of social complexity and the establishment of temporary 
stability at a less complex level. Each such level then proved to be 
unsustainable in turn, and was followed by a further crisis and loss of 
complexity (Gibbon 1776-88; Tainter, 1988; Grant, 1990). In many regions, 
furthermore, the sociopolitical complexity remaining after the empire's final 
disintegration was far below the level that had existed in the same area prior 
to its inclusion in the Imperial system. Thus Britain in the late pre-Roman Iron
Age, for example, had achieved a stable and flourishing agricultural society 
with nascent urban centers and international trade connections, while the same 
area remained depopulated, impoverished, and politically chaotic for centuries 
following the collapse of imperial authority (Snyder 2003).

An alternative model based on perspectives from human ecology offers a more 
effective way to understand the collapse process. This conceptual model, the 
theory of catabolic collapse, explains the breakdown of complex societies as the
result of a self-reinforcing cycle of decline driven by interactions among 
resources, capital, production, and waste. Previous work on the human ecology of
past civilizations (e.g., Hughes, 1975; Sanders et al., 1979; Ponting, 1992; 
Elvin, 1993; Webster, 2002) and attempts to project the impact of ecological 
factors on present societies (e.g., Catton, 1980; Gever et al., 1986; Meadows et
al., 1992; Duncan, 1993; Heinberg, 2002) have yielded data and analytical tools 
from which a general theory of the collapse of complex societies may be 
developed. This will be attempted here.

The Human Ecology of Collapse

At the highest level of abstraction, any human society includes four core 
elements. Resources (R) are naturally occurring factors in the environment which
can be exploited by a particular society, but have not yet been extracted and 
incorporated into the society's flows of energy and material. Resources include 
material resources such as iron ore not yet mined and naturally occurring soil 
fertility that has not yet been exhausted by the society's agricultural methods,
human resources such as people not yet included in the workforce, and 
information resources such as scientific discoveries which can be made by the 
society's methods of research but have not yet been made. While the resources 
available to any society, even the simplest, are numerous, complex, and 
changing, this conceptual model treats resources as a single variable. This 
radical oversimplification is acceptable solely because it allow certain 
large-scale patterns to be seen clearly, and permits one model to be applied to 
the widest possible range of societies.

Capital (C) consists of all factors from whatever source that have been 
incorporated into the society's flows of energy and material but are capable of 
further use. Capital includes physical capital such as food, fields, tools, and 
buildings; human capital such as laborers and scientists; social capital such as
social hierarchies and economic systems; and information capital such as 
technical knowledge. While a market system is a form of social capital, and 
currency and coinage are forms of physical capital, it should be noted that 
money as such is a mechanism for allocating and controlling capital rather than 
a form of capital in its own right. While the capital stocks of every society 
are diverse, complex, and changing, again, for the sake of exposition, this 
model treats all capital as a single variable.

Waste (W) consists of all factors that have been incorporated into the society's
flows of energy and material, and exploited to the point that they are incapable
of further use. Materials used or converted into pollutants, tools and laborers 
at the end of their useful lives, and information garbled or lost, all become 
waste. All waste is treated as a single variable for the purpose of this 
conceptual model.

Production (P) is the process by which existing capital and resources are 
combined to create new capital and waste. The quality and quantity of new 
capital created by production are functions of the resources and existing 
capital used in production. Resources and existing capital may be substituted 
for one another in production, but the relation between the two is nonlinear and
complete substitution is impossible. As the use of resources approaches zero, in
particular, maintaining any given level of production requires exponential 
increases in the use of existing capital, due to the effect of decreasing 
marginal return (Clark and Haswell, 1966; Wilkinson, 1973; Tainter, 1988). For 
the purpose of this model, all production is treated as a single variable.

In any human society, resources and capital enter the production process, and 
new capital and waste leave it. Capital is also subject to waste outside 
production ‹ uneaten food suffers spoilage, for example, and unemployed laborers
still grow old and die. Thus maintenance of a steady state requires new capital 
from production to equal waste from production and capital:

C(p) = W(p) + W(c) --> steady state (1)

where C(p) is new capital produced, W(p) is existing capital converted to waste 
in the production of new capital, and W(c) is existing capital converted to 
waste outside of production. The sum of W(p) and W(c) is M(p), maintenance 
production, the level of production necessary to maintain capital stocks at 
existing levels. Thus Equation 1 can be more simply put:

C(p) = M(p) --> steady state (2)

Societies which move from a steady state into a state of expansion produce more 
than necessary to maintain existing capital stocks:

C(p) > M(p) --> expansion (3)

In the absence of effective limits to growth, once started, this expansion 
becomes a self-reinforcing process, because additional capital can be brought 
into the production process, where it generates yet more new capital, which can 
be brought into the production process in turn. The westward expansion of the 
United States in the 19th century offers a well-documented example; in a 
resource-rich environment, increases in human capital through immigration and 
increases in information capital through development of new agricultural 
technologies increased production, driving increases in physical capital through
geographical expansion, settling of arable land, manufacturing, etc., which 
increased production again and drove further increases across the spectrum of 
capital (Billington 1982). This process may be called an anabolic cycle.

The self-reinforcing aspect of an anabolic cycle is limited by two factors that 
tend to limit increases in C(p). First, resources may not be sufficient to 
maintain indefinite expansion. Here the use of "resources" as a single variable 
must be set aside briefly. Each resource has a replenishment rate, r(R), the 
rate at which new stocks of the resource become available to the society. For 
any given resource and society at any given time, r(R) is a weighted product of 
the rates of natural production, new discovery of existing deposits, and 
development of alternative resources capable of filling the same role in 
production. Over time, since discovery and the development of replacements are 
both subject to decreasing marginal returns (Clark and Haswell, 1966; Wilkinson,
1973; Tainter, 1988), r(R) approaches asymptotically the combined rate at which 
the original resource and replacements are created by natural processes.

Each resource also has a rate of use by the society, d(R), and the relationship 
between d(R) and r(R) forms a core element in the model. Resources used faster 
than their replenishment rate, d(R)/r(R) >1, become depleted; a depleted 
resource must be replaced by existing capital to maintain production, and the 
demand for capital increases exponentially as depletion continues. Thus, unless 
all of a society's necessary resources have an unlimited replenishment rate, 
C(p) cannot increase indefinitely because d(R) will eventually exceed r(R), 
leading to depletion and exponential increases in capital required to maintain 
C(p) at any given level. Liebig's law of the minimum suggests that for any given
society, the essential resource with the highest value for d(R)/r(R) may be used
as a working value of d(R)/r(R) for resources as a whole.

Resource depletion is thus one of the two factors that tends to overcome the 
momentum of an anabolic cycle. The second is inherent in the relationship 
between capital and waste. As capital stocks increase, M(p) rises, since W(c) 
rises proportionally to total capital; more capital requires more maintenance 
and replacement. M(p) also rises as C(p) rises, since increased production 
requires increased use of capital and thus increased W(p), or conversion of 
capital to waste in the production process. All other factors being equal, the 
effect of W(c) is to make M(p) rise faster than C(p), since not all capital is 
involved in production at any given time, but all capital is constantly subject 
to conversion to waste. Increased C(p) relative to M(p) can be generated by 
decreasing capital stocks to decrease W(c); by slowing the conversion of capital
to waste to decrease W(c) and/or W(p); by increasing the fraction of capital 
involved in production, to increase C(p); or by increasing the intake of 
resources for production, thus increasing C(p). If these are not done, or prove 
insufficient to meet the needs of the situation, M(p) will rise to equal or 
exceed C(p) and bring the anabolic cycle to a halt.

Broadly speaking, a society facing the end of an anabolic cycle faces a choice 
between two strategies. One strategy is to move toward a steady state in which 
C(p) = M(p), and d(R) = r(R) for every economically significant resource. 
Barring the presence of environmental limits, this requires social controls to 
keep capital stocks down to a level at which maintenance costs can be met from 
current production, and maintain intake of resources at or below replenishment 
rates. This can require difficult collective choices, but as long as resource 
availability remains stable, controls on capital growth stay in place, and the 
society escapes major exogenous crises, this strategy can be pursued 

The alternative is to attempt to prolong the anabolic cycle through efforts to 
accelerate intake of resources through military conquest, new technology, or 
other means. Since increasing production increases W(p) and increasing capital 
stocks lead to increased W(c), however, such efforts drive further increases in 
M(p). A society that attempts to maintain an anabolic cycle indefinitely must 
therefore expand its use of resources at an ever-increasing rate to keep C(p) 
from dropping below M(p). Since this exacerbates problems with depletion, as 
discussed above, this strategy may prove counterproductive.

If the attempt to achieve a steady state fails, or if efforts at increasing 
resource intake fall irrevocably behind rising M(p), a society enters a state of
contraction, in which production of new capital does not make up for losses due 
to waste:

C(p) < M(p) --> contraction (4)

The process of contraction takes two general forms, depending on the 
replenishment rate of resources used by the society. A society that uses 
resources at or below replenishment rate (d(R)/r(R) = 1), when production of new
capital falls short of maintenance needs, enters a maintenance crisis in which 
capital of all kinds cannot be maintained and is converted to waste: physical 
capital is destroyed or spoiled, human populations decline in number, 
large-scale social organizations disintegrate into smaller and more economical 
forms, and information is lost. Because resources are not depleted, maintenance 
crises are generally self-limiting. As capital is lost, M(p) declines steeply, 
while declines in C(p) due to capital loss are cushioned to some extent by the 
steady supply of resources. This allows a return to a steady state or the start 
of a new anabolic cycle once the conversion of capital to waste brings M(p) back
below C(p).

A society that uses resources beyond replenishment rate (d(R)/r(R) > 1), when 
production of new capital falls short of maintenance needs, risks a depletion 
crisis in which key features of a maintenance crisis are amplified by the impact
of depletion on production. As M(p) exceeds C(p) and capital can no longer be 
maintained, it is converted to waste and unavailable for use. Since depletion 
requires progressively greater investments of capital in production, the loss of
capital affects production more seriously than in an equivalent maintenance 
crisis. Meanwhile further production, even at a diminished rate, requires 
further use of depleted resources, exacerbating the impact of depletion and the 
need for increased capital to maintain production. With demand for capital 
rising as the supply of capital falls, C(p) tends to decrease faster than M(p) 
and perpetuate the crisis. The result is a catabolic cycle, a self-reinforcing 
process in which C(p) stays below M(p) while both decline. Catabolic cycles may 
occur in maintenance crises if the gap between C(p) and M(p) is large enough, 
but tend to be self-limiting in such cases. In depletion crises, by contrast, 
catabolic cycles can proceed to catabolic collapse, in which C(p) approaches 
zero and most of a society's capital is converted to waste.

A society in a depletion crisis does not inevitably proceed to catabolic 
collapse. If depletion is limited, so that decreased demand for resources as a 
consequence of diminished production brings d(R) back below r(R), the 
accelerated fall in C(p) may not take place and the crisis may play out much 
like a maintenance crisis. If the gap between C(p) and M(p) is modest, 
nonproductive capital may be diverted to production to raise C(p) or 
preferentially converted to waste to bring down M(p), forcing C(p) and M(p) 
temporarily into balance in order to buy time for a transition to a steady 
state. A society in which depletion is advanced and M(p) rapidly increasing 
relative to C(p), though, may not be able to escape catabolic collapse even if 
such steps are taken. Cultural and political factors may also make efforts to 
avoid catabolic collapse difficult to accomplish, or indeed to contemplate.

Testing the Model

These two forms of collapse, maintenance crisis leading to recovery and 
depletion crisis leading to catabolic collapse, are to some extent ideal types, 
and form two ends of a complex spectrum of societal breakdown. Most historical 
examples of collapse fall somewhere in the range between. The limitations of the
abstract and extremely simplified model on which the theory is based should also
be kept firmly in mind when attempting to apply it to past or present examples. 
Still, a survey of historical examples shows that many of these have features 
which support the model proposed in this paper.

Closest to the maintenance-crisis end of the spectrum are tribal societies such 
as the Kachin of Burma. Kachin communities cycle up and down from relatively 
decentralized (gumlao) to relatively centralized (shan) social forms without 
significant losses of physical, human, or information capital. In this case 
anabolic cycles lead to the growth of organizational capital in the form of 
relatively centralized social forms, but the maintenance costs of this 
organizational capital prove to be unsustainable, leading to maintenance crises,
loss of social capital, and the restoration of less resource- and 
capital-intensive social forms (Leach, 1954).

Essentially the same process on a larger and more destructive scale 
characterizes the history of imperial China from the tenth century BCE to the 
end of the nineteenth century CE.. Efficient cereal agriculture and local market
economies provided the foundation for a series of anabolic cycles resulting in 
the establishment of centralized imperial dynastic states (Gates, 1996; Di 
Cosmo, 1999). These anabolic cycles drove increases in population, public works 
such as canals and flood control projects, and sociopolitical organization, 
which proved unsustainable over the long term. As maintenance costs exceeded the
imperial government's resources, repeated maintenance crises led to the breakup 
of national unity, invasion by neighboring peoples, loss of infrastructure and 
steep declines in population (Ho, 1970; Di Cosmo, 1999). Iimperial China's 
resource base had a relatively high replenishment rate, due largely to the 
long-term sustainability of traditional Chinese agriculture and the use of human
and animal muscle as the primary energy sources, and any significant depletion 
was made good once population levels dropped (Elvin, 1993). Though resource 
depletion played a limited role, the maintenance crises of imperial China were 
self-limiting and resulted in contraction to more modest levels of population 
and sociopolitical organization, rather than the total collapse of the society.

The collapse of the western Roman Empire, by contrast, was a catabolic collapse 
driven by a combined maintenance and resource crisis. While the ancient 
Mediterranean world, like imperial China, was primarily dependent on readily 
replenished resources, the Empire itself was the product of an anabolic cycle 
fueled by easily depleted resources and driven by Roman military superiority. 
Beginning in the third century BCE, Roman expansion transformed the capital of 
other societies into resources for Rome as country after country was conquered 
and stripped of movable wealth. Each new conquest increased the Roman resource 
base and helped pay for further conquests. After the first century CE, though, 
further expansion failed to pay its own costs. All remaining peoples within the 
reach of Rome were either barbarian tribes with little wealth, such as the 
Germans, or rival empires capable of defending themselves, such as the Parthians
(Jones 1974). Without income from new conquests, the maintenance costs of empire
proved unsustainable, and a catabolic cycle followed rapidly. The first major 
breakdown in the imperial system came in 166 CE, and further crises followed 
until the Western empire ceased to exist in 476 CE (Grant 1990, Grant 1999).

The Roman collapse has an instructive feature which offers further support to 
the model presented here. In 297 the emperor Diocletian divided the empire into 
western and eastern halves. Coordination between them waned, and by the death of
Theodosius I in 395, the two halves of the empire were effectively independent 
states. Since the western empire produced 1/3 the revenues of the eastern 
empire, but had more than twice as much northern frontier to defend against 
barbarian encroachments, this placed most of the original empire's 
vulnerabilities in one half and most of its remaining resources in the other. In
terms of the catabolic collapse model, the eastern Empire allowed massive 
quantities of relatively unproductive, high-maintenance capital to be converted 
to waste, bringing its M(p) below its remaining C(p) and breaking out of the 
catabolic cycle. The eastern empire's territory decreased further with the 
Muslim conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries CE; while this was 
involuntary the effects were the same. Successfully shifting to a level of 
organization that could be supported sustainably by trade and agriculture within
a more manageable territory, the eastern Empire survived for nearly a millennium
longer than its western twin (Bury 1923).

Near the depletion crisis end of the spectrum is the collapse of the Lowland 
Classic Maya in the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries of the Common Era. The 
most widely accepted model of the Maya collapse holds on demographic and 
paleoecological evidence that Maya populations grew to a level that could not be
indefinitely supported by Mayan agricultural practices on the nutrient-poor 
laterite soils of the Yucatan lowlands. In terms of the present model, the key 
resource of soil fertility was used at a rate exceeding its replenishment rate, 
and suffered severe depletion as a result. Mayan polities also invested a large 
proportion of C(p) in monumental building programs, which raised maintenance 
costs but could not be readily used for production, and maintained these 
programs up to the beginning of the Terminal Classic period. The result was a 
"rolling collapse" over two centuries, from c. 750 CE to c. 950 CE, in which 
Lowland Maya populations declined precipitously and scores of urban centers were
abandoned to the jungle (Willey and Shimkin 1973, Lowe 1985, Webster 2002).

The Lowland Classic Maya collapse is particularly suggestive in that it appears 
to have been preceded by at least two previous breakdowns. Preclassic sites such
as El Mirador and Becan show many of the same artistic and cultural elements as 
Classic Maya urban centers, but were abandoned in a poorly documented earlier 
collapse around 150 CE (Webster 2002). A second episode, the so-called Hiatus 
between the Early Classic and Late Classic periods (500-600 CE), saw sharp 
declines in monumental building and evidence for political decentralization 
(Willey 1974). Whether these events were maintenance crises preceding the final 
resource crisis of the Terminal Classic, or whether some other explanation is 
called for, is difficult to determine from the available evidence.

Features of comparative sociology outside the realm of collapse processes also 
offer support to the catabolic collapse model. One implication of the model is 
that societies which persist over extended periods will tend to have social 
mechanisms for limiting the growth of capital, and thus artificially lowering 
M(p) below C(p). Such mechanisms do in fact exist in a wide range of societies. 
Among the most common are systems in which modest amounts of unproductive 
capital are regularly converted to waste. Examples include aspects of the 
potlatch economy among Native Americans of northwest North America (Kotschar, 
1950; Rosman, 1971; Beck, 1993) and the ritual deposition of prestige metalwork 
in lakes and rivers by Bronze and Iron Age peoples in much of western Europe 
(Bradley, 1990; Randsborg, 1995). Such systems have been interpreted in many 
ways (Michaelson, 1979), but in terms of the model presented here, one of their 
functions is to divert some of C(p) away from capital stocks requiring 
maintenance, thus artificially lowering W(c) and make a catabolic cycle less 

Such practices clearly have many other meanings and functions within societies. 
Nor does this interpretation require any awareness within societies that systems
of capital destruction prevent catabolic cycles. Rather, if such systems make 
catabolic collapse less likely, cultures that adopt such systems for other 
reasons would be more likely to survive over the long term and to pass on such 
cultural elements to neighboring or successor societies.

Conclusion: Collapse as a Succession Process

Even within the social sciences, the process by which complex societies give way
to smaller and simpler ones has often been presented in language drawn from 
literary tragedy, as though the loss of sociocultural complexity necessarily 
warranted a negative value judgment. This is understandable, since the collapse 
of civilizations often involves catastrophic human mortality and the loss of 
priceless cultural treasures, but like any value judgment it can obscure 
important features of the matter at hand.

A less problematic approach to the phenomenon of collapse derives from the idea 
of succession, a basic concept in the ecology of nonhuman organisms. Succession 
describes the process by which an area not yet occupied by living things is 
colonized by a variety of biotic assemblages, called seres, each replacing a 
prior sere and then being replaced by a later, until the process concludes with 
a stable, self-perpetuating climax community (Odum 1969).

One feature of succession in many different environments is a difference in 
resource use between earlier and later seres. Species characteristic of earlier 
seral stages tend to maximize control of resources and production of biomass per
unit time, even at the cost of inefficiency; thus such species tend to maximize 
production and distribution of offspring even when this means the great majority
of offspring fail to reach reproductive maturity. Species typical of later 
seres, by contrast, tend to maximize the efficiency of their resource use, even 
at the cost of limits to biomass production and the distribution of individual 
organisms; thus these species tend to maximize energy investment in individual 
offspring even when this means that offspring are few and the species fails to 
occupy all available niche spaces. Species of the first type, or R-selected 
species, have specialized to flourish opportunistically in disturbed 
environments, while those of the second type, or K-selected species, have 
specialized to form stable biotic communities that change only with shifts in 
the broader environment (Odum 1969).

Human societies and nonhuman species cannot be equated in a simplistic manner, 
but the radical differences in subsistence and production strategies among human
societies allow them to be compared to distinct biotic groups in certain 
contexts. Human societies enter into common ecological relationships such as 
symbiosis, commensality, parasitism, predation, and competitive exclusion with 
other societies. Thus processes by which human societies are replaced by others 
may be usefully compared to succession to see if common features emerge.

The model of catabolic collapse suggests one such common feature. As outlined 
above, societies differ in their response to changes in resource availability 
and maintenance costs. The spectrum of response ranges from adjustment to a 
steady state, through a history of repeated maintenance crises and partial 
breakdowns followed by recoveries, to severe depletion crisis and total 
collapse. These differences, according to the model presented here, unfold from 
differing relationships among resources, capital, production, and waste, 
especially the relationships between capital production and maintenance, 
C(p)/M(p), and between use and replenishment rates of resources, d(R)/r(R).

These parallel differences between R-selected and K-selected nonhuman species. A
society that maximizes its production of capital, like an R-selected species, 
prospers in an environment with substantial uncaptured resources but falters 
once these are exhausted. Its successors are likely to be societies that, like 
K-selected species, use key resources more sustainably at the cost of decreased 
production of capital. Nonhuman climax communities also typically display a 
higher diversity of species, but a lower population per species, than earlier 
seral stages, and produce notably lower volumes of biomass per unit time (Odum 

Broadly similar changes often distinguish precollapse and postcollapse 
societies. Thus the collapse of the western Roman Empire, for example, could be 
seen as a succession process in which one seral stage, dominated by a single 
sociopolitical "species" that maximized capital production at the cost of 
inefficiency, was replaced by a more diverse community of societies, consisting 
of many less populous "species" better adapted to their own local conditions, 
and producing capital at lower but more sustainable rates. Analyses that portray
this transformation as pure tragedy miss important aspects, since the Roman 
collapse enabled other societies to emerge from Rome's shadow, and launched 
major cultural initiatives such as vernacular literatures in the ancestors of 
today's Celtic, Germanic, and Romance languages (Wiseman 1997). As with any 
succession process, there were gainers as well as losers. If a lapse into 
fantasy may be excused, were nonhuman biota literate and interested in their 
past, a history of lake eutrophication written by meadow grasses would differ 
sharply from one written by fish.

Since humans have capacities for change that most species lack, the same human 
individuals can change from fish to grass, so to speak, composing an 
"R-selected" production-maximizing society at one time and its "K-selected" 
sustainability-maximizing replacement at a later time. The example of the Kachin
cited above shows that this is not merely a theoretical possibility. However, as
other cited examples and the general evidence of history suggest, such a change 
is not inevitable. The possibility of maintenance crisis needs to be considered 
whenever a society shows signs of being unable to maintain its existing capital,
and the possibility of depletion crisis followed by catabolic collapse cannot be
excluded whenever capital production depends on the use of resources at rates 
significantly above their rate of replacement.

Such assessments of past and present societies, in order to achieve a high 
degree of analytic or predictive value, require careful quantitative analysis of
a sort this paper has not attempted. Since each element in the conceptual model 
presented here stands for a diverse and constantly changing set of variables, 
such analysis offers significant challenges, and in many historical examples it 
may be impossible to go beyond proxy measurements of uncertain value for crucial
variables. However, general patterns corresponding to the catabolic collapse 
model may be easier to extract from incomplete data. Any society that displays 
broad increases in most measures of capital production coupled with signs of 
serious depletion of key resources, in particular, may be considered a potential
candidate for catabolic collapse.


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