Large, low-density settlements of the tropical world disintegrated during the first and second millennia of the CE. This phenomenon, which occurred in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Mesoamerica, is strongly associated with climate variability and extensive landscape transformation. These profound social transformations in the tropical world have been popularized as “collapse,” yet archaeological evidence suggests a more complex and nuanced story characterized by persistence, adaptation, and resilience at the local and regional scales. The resulting tension between ideas of climate-driven collapse and evidence for diverse social responses challenges our understanding of long-term resilience and vulnerability to environmental change in the global tropics. Here, we compare the archetypal urban collapse of the Maya, in modern Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, during the 8th to 11th centuries CE, and the Khmer in modern Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam during the 14th to 15th centuries CE. We argue that the social response to environmental stress is spatially and temporally heterogenous, reflecting the generation of large-scale landesque capital surrounding the urban cores. Divergences between vulnerable urban elite and apparently resilient dispersed agricultural settlements sit uncomfortably with simplistic notions of social collapse and raise important questions for humanity as we move deeper into the Anthropocene.