Sophisticated societies from time to time collapse utterly, often leaving traces of a civilization that was at a proud peak just before the fall. Other societies facing the same dangers figure out how to adapt around them, recover, and go on to further centuries of success. Tonight the author of Collapse examines the differences between them…
To an overflow house (our apologies to those who couldn’t make it in!), Jared Diamond articulately spelled out how his best-selling book, Collapse, took shape.
At first it was going to be a book of 18 chapters chronicling 18 collapses of once-powerful societies— the Mayans with the most advanced culture in the Americas, the Anasazi who built six-story skyscrapers at Chaco, the Norse who occupied Greenland for 500 years. But he wanted to contrast those with success stories like Tokugawa-era Japan, which wholly reversed its lethal deforestation, and Iceland, which learned to finesse a highly fragile and subtle environment.
Diamond also wanted to study modern situations with clear connections to the ancient collapses. Rwanda losing millions in warfare caused by ecological overpressure. China— “because of its size, China’s problems are the world’s problems.” Australia, with its ambitions to overcome a horrible environmental history. And Diamond’s beloved Montana, so seemingly pristine, so self-endangered on multiple fronts.
He elaborated a bit on his book’s account of the Easter Island collapse, where a society that could build 80-ton statues 33 feet high and drag them 12 miles, and who could navigate the Pacific Ocean to and from the most remote islands in the world, could also cut down their rich rain forest and doom themselves utterly. With no trees left for fishing canoes, the Easter Islanders turned to devouring each other. The appropriate insult to madden a member of a rival clan was, “The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth!” The population fell by 90% in a few years, and neither the society nor the island ecology have recovered in the 300 years since.
Diamond reported that his students at UCLA tried to imagine how the guy who cut down the LAST tree in 1680 justified his actions. What did he say? Their candidate quotes: “Fear not. Our advancing technology will solve this problem.” “This is MY tree, MY property! I can do what I want with it.” “Your environmentalist concerns are exaggerated. We need more research.” “Just have faith. God will provide.”
The question everyone asks, Diamond said, is, How can people be so dumb? It’s a crucial question, with a complex answer. He said that sometimes it’s a failure to perceive a problem, especially if it comes on very slowly, like climate change. Often it’s a matter of conflicting interests with no resolution at a higher level than the interests— warring clans, greedy industries. Or there may be a failure to examine and understand the past.
Overall, it’s a failure to think long term. That itself has many causes. One common one is that elites become insulated from the consequences of their actions. Thus the Mayan kings could ignore the soil erosion that was destroying their crops. Thus the American wealthy these days can enjoy private security, private education, and private retirement money. Thus America itself can act like a gated community in relation to the rest of the world, imagining that events in remote Somalia or Afghanistan have nothing to do with us. Isolation, Diamond declared, is never a solution to long-term problems.
I’ll add two items to what Diamond said in his talk. One good sharp question came from Mark Hertzgaard, who asked the speaker if he agreed “with Stewart Brand’s view that the threat of climate change justifies adopting more nuclear power.” To my surprise, Diamond said that he was persuaded by last year’s “Bipartisan Strategy to Meet America’s Energy Challenges” to treat nuclear as one important way to reduce the production of greenhouse gases. (In the commission’s report, the environmentalist co-chair John Holdren wrote: “”Given the risks from climate change and the challenges that face all of the low-carbon and no-carbon supply options, it would be imprudent in the extreme not to try to keep the nuclear option open.”)
While I was driving Jared Diamond back to the El Drisco hotel, we got talking about how to separate the good actors from the bad actors among corporations. He said that third-party validation was absolutely essential. For instance, he studied the exemplary environmental behavior of Chevron in Papua New Guinea and reported on it in “Discover” magazine. As a result of that favorable report, validated by the World Wildlife Fund (where Diamond is a director), Chevron was able to land an immensely valuable contract with Norway, who was demanding environmentally responsible behavior from any oil company it would deal with.
The new term taken seriously in oil and mining corporations, Diamond said, is “social license to operate.” A company must earn that from the public in order to stay in business.
And we the public must do our vigilant part so that “social license” means something.