The end of the Bronze Age, complexity theory and international aid.

I have recently read 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, by Eric Cline. I am totally ignorant about ancient history, and perhaps because of this it made for a fascinating, if mildly disturbing, reading (as I guess any account of a civilization collapse would be). imag00732-copie

Cline, professor of ancient history and archaeology at George Washington University and author of several popular publications, gives a fascinating portrait of the Late Bronze Age, populated by several prosperous civilizations, in active contact with each other with trade, diplomatic and military interactions. This world comes to a sudden end around the 13th centry b.C., lead by reasons that are still not completely understood. The author gives a nuanced account of the end of the great civilizations of the Bronze Age, refusing simplistic views according to which invasions by the so-called Sea Peoples would be the main, if not only, culprit of the sudden decline of the first “global” era of world history. Instead, explains the author, it is much more likely that several factors contributed to the catastrophe, with earthquake swarm, drough, famines, population movements (not necessarily violent) all contributing to lead to a sudden and dramatic system collapse within a relatively short timespan. In such a scenario, the repercussion of each factor were magnified, with what has been called a “multiplier effect” as well as a domino effect.

It is very easy to, and many have, drawn parallels between the collapse of the Late Bronze Age civilizations and nowadays society, especially considering that (in that case, not-human-caused) climate change seems to have been one of the factors contributing to the events described in the book.

Here however I would like to spend a few words on another insight offered by the book. The author, while explaining the possibilty of a system collapse lead by several factors, takes a step further and tries to consider this in light of complexity theory. Complexity theory has been lately quite in vogue in the aid sector (more in the cooperation than emergency relief branch), thanks in particular to the work of Ben Ramalingam (who devoted a whole book to how aid could be re-thought in light of it). I found the notes by Cline quite interesting as they give in a few words a good framework to understand complexity theory and how it can be helpful. It rang a bell to me when the author writes

In suggesting that complexity theory should be brought to bear on the analysis of the causes of the Late Bronze Age collapse, we may just be applying a scientific (or possibly pseudoscientific) term to a situation in which there is insufficient knowledge to draw firm conclusions. It sounds nice, but does it really advance our understanding? Is it more than just a fancy way to state a fairly obvious fact, namely, that complicated things can break down in a variety of ways?

That is something I happened to think as well several times when reading about complexity theory. But:

And yet, scholarly publications still continue to suggest a linear progression for the collapse of the Late Bronze Age, despite the fact that it is not accurate to simply state that a drought casused famine, which eventually caused the Sea Peoples to start moving and creating havoc, which caused the collapse. The progression wasn’t that linear […]

If you happened to have read this you might have guessed where I am heading to. In aid management theory as embodied in the logframe approach, interventions are framed as linear interventions in a linear world of cause-and-effects relationship. I am not the first and quite possibly I am among the less authoritative to make this claim – and I am afraid I will not be the last – but reality is much more messy than this, as anyone who had the chance to manage aid work might testify. So I make mine the conclusions of Cline concerning Complexity theory and the end of the Late Bronze Age, with the convinction that they apply also to international aid:

Complexity theory, especially in terms of visualizing a nonlinear progression and a series of stressors rather than a single driver, is therefore advantageous in explaining the collapse at the end of the Late Bronze Age and in providing a way forward for continuing to study this catastrophe.




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