According to modern ecological theory, ecosystems are fragile combinations of diverse elements, and their resilience—or ability to recover after external shocks—varies as the system develops. Under conditions of low resilience, the system can collapse unpredictably and shift into a new state. Biodiversity in ecosystems, however, helps to maintain resilience. These basic natural principles also help to illuminate the social processes of empires. Like ecosystems, empires expand, grow, and collapse unpredictably when they lose the ability to respond to external shocks. Just as biodiversity increases resilience, imperial formations prosper when they are more cosmopolitan, incorporating diverse cultural elements that foster institutional innovation, and they suffer collapse when they limit participation by outside challengers. The author develops this analogy between ecosystems and imperial formations through a discussion of the Ming and Qing empires, concluding with reflections on the Maoist production system and the current resilience of China today.
This article is based on keynote lectures delivered at the “Bordering China: Modernity and Sustainability” Berkeley Summer Research Institute on August 3, 2012 and at the “Conference on Cosmopolitan China” at Manchester University, May 16, 2012.