Economic and Social History Blog

Collapse or Survival?

In 2010 Haiti was hit by a devastating earthquake: a shock from which the country has yet to recover. Admittedly, Haiti was and still is a very poor country, but that poverty does not explain everything is demonstrated by the impact of the Japanese tsunami of 2011: here recovery was also slow and in some respects incomplete. These instances give rise to a question that becomes ever more important in an increasingly complex world facing growing ecological challenges: why are some societies so much more vulnerable to shocks and hazards (be they floods, famines, earthquakes, wars or otherwise) than others? Wealth is only part of the answer; the way in which society is organized is at least as important. But what exactly about the organization of society is it that makes some communities collapse under the strain of natural disasters or, for that matter, financial crises or religious conflicts, whereas others manage to survive and recover? The answer can be found in a range of aspects, from the responsiveness and decisiveness of the national government or international organizations to trust and social cohesion in the local community or even within the family.


A historical perspective can help us to answer these questions. Although the possible impact of hazards may be increasing, in themselves these threats are not new. Societies in the past also had to cope with shocks. Some of them were natural, such as floods or epidemics, and others man-made: war for instance, or soil erosion caused by over-cultivation. Just as in the present, some past societies proved much more resilient to these shocks and were able to recover quickly, while others turned out to be very vulnerable. The potato blight of the 1840s, for instance, gave rise to a truly disastrous famine in Ireland, while in Flanders and the Netherlands, where the potato crop failed just as badly, the consequences were not nearly as dramatic. Understanding what caused the difference may shed light on the causes of present-day vulnerability. In this final course of the track you study how historical societies tried to prevent, cope with and recover from shocks and hazards – or failed to do so.