Land degradation is frequently cited as a factor in the collapse of ancient complex societies. Implicit in these tales of ecological suicide is the assumption that land degradation is an ecological rather than a social problem. Here, I discuss how land degradation can be reconceptualized as a social–environmental dialectic. I then discuss the implications of this perspective using evidence from a recent landscape project exploring diachronic relationships between environmental and social transformations in the development of the Precolumbian Tarascan (Purépecha) empire, centered in the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin, Mexico. Project findings challenge common conceptions regarding the impact of agriculture, urbanism, and state collapse on ancient landscapes, as well as the dating of the most serious episodes of degradation.