WHP Lesson 23: How Societies ‘Choose’ to Fail or Succeed

Sometimes things go wrong. Empires fall and societies collapse. But how this happens may have been up to each society. In other words, were empires and societies pushed, or did they jump?

Driving Question: Why do complex societies collapse?

  • Today we are extending our study of collapse beyond empires, because the collapse of complex societies is pretty frequent throughout history. A leading historian on the causes of societal collapse, Jared Diamond, wants us to know that we can study collapses in the past in order to help prepare for problems in the present. This is a central idea of this course—that history can be usable.

Word of the Day: Usable Past

  • Definition: In the context of history, the idea of a usable past means that we study the past in order to make sense of the present and prepare for the future.
  • Keep in mind that while history is useful, we should be cautious about how we use it and recognize that the conditions that exist today are likely different from those historically. We just have to be attentive to where things are similar, and where they are different, so we learn the right lessons!


  • Watch: Collapse in Lesson 4.1 on Khan Academy
  • As you watch, claim test what Jared Diamond is saying. Do you agree with his assertions? Notice how he backs up his claims with evidence from the past.

Historian’s Journal Prompt

  • How can we learn from experts like Jared Diamond, so that we are more prepared for disasters and pandemics like COVID, in the future?
  • COVID-19 has shown us that our world is capable of changing quickly, and that we have quite a bit of control over that. What we might do differently in the future to help prevent societal collapse?