Parallels in History, the Bronze Age to the Rust Belt

Cities are simply destined to fail. They face the same problems over and over again throughout history. Yet today, many rarely tend to think or believe that our system of cities is at any risk of collapse. However, studying history can give rare insights into both what has already happened in the past and what will inevitably happen in the future.

The Bronze Age Collapse of the 12th century BC can be compared to the decline of the Rust Belt today. The Rust Belt of the United States’s Midwest and Great Lakes regions faces severe depopulation, deindustrialization, and de-urbanization. As the industrial heartland saw its manufacturing jobs moved overseas, steel and coal industries declined, and automation increased, the region has spiraled into severe decline.

The Bronze Age Collapse was a regional breakdown of societal order and depopulation of the Aegean, Anatolia, the Levant, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. Many theories and arguments have been put forth for the cause of the Bronze Age Collapse. From natural disasters such as volcanoes and earthquakes to droughts to invading armies, there is not a definite reason for the collapse. Regardless, the Bronze Age featured several parallels to our modern world.

The map above shows the multiple invasions that rocked the Eastern Mediterranean during the late Bronze Age. However, despite the immense destruction of the cities, note the cities that were able to survive the collapse.

The civilizations of the Mycenaean, Hittites, and Egyptians featured interdependent trade among each other. For example, the Uluburun shipwreck of the late 14th century BC showed the transport of goods as it circled the eastern Mediterranean, especially copper and tin ingots, precursors to bronze. Likewise, today’s world is reliant on a system of global trade. In addition, each civilization depended too heavily on bronze for their armies and warrior aristocracy, and as a means to trade for other goods. The very same bronze, as important as crude oil today, whose need of tin, required imports from as far as modern-day Great Britain. This compares to the Rust Belt whose overreliance on manufacturing and its industry to power its economy. The importance of bronze and industry respectively in their systems meant that even a minor disruption can have enormous impacts.

A side-view replica of the Uluburun shipwreck details the exhaustive collection of goods held by the ship as its voyage circled the Eastern Mediterranean.

However, both histories show that collapse is not inescapable. Several Rust Belt cities have found success by shifting away from manufacturing and diversifying their economies with service industries, higher education, and more specialized industries. Similarly, not all cities met their end during the end of the Bronze Age. Several cities adapted to the changing times either by giving up their overreliance on bronze or simply moving away from the torrent of disasters, droughts, and invaders.

The inability of the systems to adapt to new problems is what led to the collapse of the Bronze Age. And likewise, should the Rust Belt cities continue to believe that manufacturing can make a comeback, they will repeat history. The lessons of the Bronze Age Collapse teach us that although we can handle better our problems, we cannot afford to be reliant on a single form of living or to be afraid to adapt.

Works Cited:

Austin, John C. 2017  A tale of two Rust Belts. The Avenue (blog), December 5, 2017., accessed November 4, 2018.

Porter, Eduardo 2018  Lessons from Rust-Belt Cities That Kept Their Sheen. New York Times 1 May. New York.

The Human Journey. Ideas that Shaped our Modern World: Connecting with the Gods, The Bronze Age Collapse. accessed November 4, 2018.  

Image Sources:

Historical Atlas of the Mediterranean. The Bronze Age Collapse (1250-1150 BC) accessed November 4, 2018.

The Human Journey. Ideas that Shaped our Modern World: Connecting with the Gods, The Bronze Age Collapse. accessed November 4, 2018.

Further Reading:

Cline, Eric H 2014  1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Millsap, Adam 2017 The Rust Belt Didn’t Adapt And It Paid The Price. Forbes 19 Jan. Jersey City.

Trash in a Changing World: Patterns of E-Waste Dumping

Bill Rathje’s research of the American landfill painted a dark tale of the direction of our consumerist society. The immense waste of resources and lack of accountability will, according to Rathje, eventually lead to a culture collapse. Looking into today, we face more challenges despite the enormous technological progress we’ve enjoyed. Rather than improve our situation and more effectively use our resources, we face new issues in the form of electronic waste, the discard of electrical and electronic devices.

Today, much of the world’s e-waste originates from developed nations in the Western World such as the United States and Europe. The United Nations estimates that over 50 million tons of e-waste are discarded each year. And as our world’s reliance on technology grows and our current products updated, this number is sure to increase.

It is estimated that 75% of all e-waste is exported to developing countries around the world such as Ghana and Pakistan. The recycling of e-waste is often too costly in developed countries, making dumping a more economical option. Additionally, exporting out e-waste likely prevents the environmental and health dangers of recycling.

In cities where e-waste is dumped, such as Agbogbloshie, Ghana, and Karachi, Pakistan, the local communities have repurposed the e-waste into an economy based on the recycling and reuse of the dumped appliances. They are either repaired in order to be resold, or more likely, disassembled to recover raw materials such as copper, silver, gold, and steel.

Figure 1. A worker burns away wiring insulation in order to extract the copper in Agbobloshie, Ghana.

The dumping of e-waste presents enormous health and environmental concerns to the local community. In the case of Agbogbloshie and Karachi, people are continually affected by the toxins and chemicals released by the burning of e-waste. Workers, especially, are affected by the toxic chemicals as they extract the raw materials from the e-waste. Almost everyone becomes at risk from exposure to lead, cadmium, and other disruptive chemicals.

Figure 2. Various electronic components are transported to be recycled in Karachi, Pakistan.

Studying communities such as Agbogbloshie and Karachi reveals the patterns that affect e-waste dumpsites around the world. For example, even in such an environment such as Agbogbloshie and Karachi, there remains a stark divide between those who utilize the e-waste. ‘Resellers’, often able to receive old or unused electronics, are able to make profits of thousands of Euros a month. Meanwhile, the majority of e-waste workers rely on a subsistence scavenging for grams of materials at a time. Also, the exploitation of developing countries as dumping grounds hark back to previous colonial exploitation of natural resources. And finally, it is the poor that are the most affected by the dumping of e-waste.

In summation, the dump of e-waste in developing countries does not represent an adequate solution as our world becomes both more technologically advanced and consumerist. The dumping of e-waste reflects just a transference of the root problem to other groups and cultures. All in all, e-waste represents the denial and postponement of developed nations actively addressing the growing environmental and health dangers of our trash.

Works Cited:

Blau, John
2006  UN summit on e-waste. CIO UK. CIO UK, 28 November 2006.
Accessed September 16, 2018.

Kuper, Jo
2008   Poisoning the poor: Electronic waste in Ghana. Greenpeace. Greenpeace, August 2008.<>. Accessed September 16, 2018.

2016  ToxiCity: life at Agbobloshie, the world’s largest e-waste dump in Ghana. YouTube. Youtube, 01 June 2016. <>.
accessed September 16, 2018.

2016  The Toxic E-Waste Trade Killing Pakistan’s Poorest. YouTube. YouTube, 11 July 2016. <>. accessed September 16, 2018.