Jared Diamond, professor of physiology at the UCLA School of Medicine, is the author of the best-selling and award-winning The Third Chimpanzee. He has published over 200 articles in Discover, Natural History, Nature, and Geo magazines.
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive
by Jared Diamond
What is more haunting than the spectre of a civilization’s collapse -- the abandoned temples of Angkor Wat, the Maya cities overgrown by jungle, or the huge stone statues staring out over Easter Island’s now-desolate landscape? We marvel at the monumental ruins that they left behind them, when as children we first learn of them through pictures. When we grow up, many of us plan vacations in order to experience them at first hand as tourists.
The scales of the ruins testify to the former wealth and power of their builders. Yet the builders vanished, abandoning the great structures that they had created at such effort. How could a society that was once so mighty end up collapsing? What were the fates of its citizens? -- did they move away, and (if so) why, or did they die there in some unpleasant way? Lurking behind this romantic mystery is the nagging thought: might such a fate befall our own wealthy society? Will tourists someday stare bewildered at the rusting hulks of London’s skyscrapers, much as we stare today at the jungle-overgrown ruins of Maya cities?
It has long been suspected that many of those mysterious abandonments were triggered by ecological problems: people inadvertently destroying the environmental resources on which they depended. This suspicion of unintended ecological suicide -- ecocide -- has been confirmed by recent discoveries by archaeologists and other scientists and historians. The processes by which past societies damaged their environments ranged from deforestation and unchecked human population growth to problems of water management and introduced species.
But this book, despite thus starting out as an account of romantic archaeological mysteries, evolved into something much bigger, richer, and more relevant to the modern world’s problems. No society’s collapse can be attributed solely to environmental damages: these always interact with one or more of four other factors consisting of climate change, hostile neighbors, friendly trade partners, and the society’s responses (or lack of responses) to its problems. It’s not true that all societies are doomed to collapse because of environmental damage: in the past some did, while others didn’t. Hence a bigger question is why only some societies proved fragile, and what distinguished those that collapsed from those that didn’t. Doesn’t it stand to reason that today’s human population of almost seven billion, with our potent modern technology, must be causing our environment to crumble globally at a much more rapid rate than a mere few thousand people with just stone and wooden tools made it crumble locally in the past?
Hence those famous collapses of past societies have taken on a meaning beyond that of romantic mysteries. Perhaps they could teach us how to identify which societies are now most at risk, and what measures could best help them or ourselves without our having to wait for more modern collapses like the recent one of Somalia.
In order to dispel the notion that environmental collapse threatened only societies remote from us in time and space, like the ancient Maya and modern Somalians, my first chapter is devoted to the western U.S. state of Montana, where my family and I spend our summers. Montana has the advantage of being a modern, affluent, First World society in a beautiful forested environment that seems to be the most pristine in the U.S., but that actually illustrates almost all of the environmental problems operating more severely elsewhere in the world. I know many Montanans well, so that I can connect Montana policies to the often-conflicting motives of individuals. From that familiar perspective of the modern First World, we can more easily imagine what was happening in remote past societies that initially strike us as exotic, and where we can only guess what motivated individuals.
The book’s next seven chapters treat some past societies that collapsed, proceeding from simple cases to complex ones. My first example is Easter Island, whose history is as close as we can get to a “pure” ecological collapse, in this case due to total deforestation that led to war, overthrow of the elite and of the famous stone statues, and a mass population die-off. Polynesians on Pitcairn and Henderson Islands illustrate another set of factors, the environmentally triggered collapses of major trade partners. The Anasazi collapse of Native Americans in the U.S. Southwest adds a well-understood role of climate change. For the Maya collapse in Central America -- the quintessential romantic mystery of cities covered by jungle -- a crucial role of hostile neighbors joins environmental damage and climate change. The disappearance of the Medieval Norse colony on Greenland after four centuries of existence is not only the most complex and well documented of my case studies of past collapses, but it is also the one with which my British readers can identify most closely, because its victims were literate northern Europeans. As contrast cases for those tragedies, I devote a chapter to three success stories of past societies (highland New Guinea, Tikopia Island, and Tokugawa-era Japan) that found solutions to the environmental problems undermining the failed societies.
Part Three of my book then returns to the modern world, to take up four markedly different countries. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 was a horrible Malthusian catastrophe in which population growth, environmental damage, and climate change provided the dynamite, and ethnic violence and the pursuit of power by selfish politicians provided the fuse. The Caribbean island of Hispaniola offers a grim natural experiment illustrating how different cultural, economic, and political factors combined with somewhat different environments to produce the modern New World’s saddest basket case (Haiti) in the west of the island, but the more hopeful and richer Dominican Republic in the east. Next, China suffers from heavy doses of all major types of environmental problems. But because China is so huge in its economy, population, and area, China’s problems affect not only its own people but, inevitably, the rest of the world as well. Australia is at the opposite extreme from Montana, as the First World society occupying the most fragile environment and experiencing the most severe environmental problems. As a result, Australia is among the countries now considering the most radical restructuring of its society, in order to solve these problems.
My book’s concluding section extracts practical lessons for us today. I begin by asking the perplexing question arising for every past society that ended up destroying itself, and that will perplex future earthlings if we too end up destroying ourselves: how could a society fail to have seen the dangers that seem so clear to us in retrospect? It turns out that group decision-making can be undone by a whole series of factors, beginning with failure to anticipate or perceive a problem, and proceeding through conflicts of interest that cause some members of the group to pursue goals good for themselves but bad for everybody else. I then consider the role of modern businesses, some of which are among the most environmentally destructive forces today, while others provide some of the most effective environmental protection. We shall examine why some (but only some) businesses find it in their interests to be protective, and what changes would be necessary before other businesses would find it in their interests to imitate them.
Finally, the last chapter summarizes the types of environmental dangers facing the modern world, the commonest objections raised against claims of their seriousness, and differences between environmental dangers today and those of the past. People often ask me: what is the single biggest environmental threat hanging over our world? A flip answer would be: our misguided search for the single biggest environmental threat! That’s because we actually face a dozen major threats, any of which if unsolved would do us grave harm, and all of which interact with each other. If we solved 11 of our problems but not the 12th one, we would still be in trouble, whichever was the problem remaining unsolved. We have to solve them all, and we have to do it within the next few decades, because our current approaches to them are non-sustainable ones that would limit our lifestyle within the next few decades. For the first time in history, we face the risk of a global decline.
But we are also the first society in history to enjoy the opportunity of learning from developments in societies anywhere else in the world today, and from what has happened in societies at any time in the past. My hope in writing this book has been that enough people will choose to profit from that opportunity to make a difference. That’s why my book, despite focusing on a seemingly depressing subject -- collapses of societies -- basically tells an optimistic and empowering story.
Article kindly supplied by Waterstone's Books Quarterly
Reflective snapshots from Jared Diamond
Past civilizations that collapsed, leaving behind abandoned cities and monuments, exert a fascination on us. Recently, it has become appreciated that their declines were often triggered by the same types of environmental and population problems that we face today. Hence their ends, while continuing to pose romantic mysteries, also carry important messages. Some past societies thrived while others were failing: what can we learn from their fates that could let us continue to thrive? What makes some environments more fragile than others? Why do societies blunder into self-destructive mistakes? How does globalization in the modern world change these lessons from the past
Here are a few anecdotes that arose during the research and writing of my book.
As a personal example making climate change real to me, I first visited the Big Hole Basin of Montana (the subject of Chapter 1) in 1953, when the mountains surrounding the basin remained snow-covered during the summer, so that from the basin floor one saw a white band up in the sky and encircling the basin. When I returned in 1999, I was saddened to see that that beautiful white band had disappeared, because of global warming.
I visited Easter Island, the subject of Chapter 2, to see its famous stone statues. All of us have seen pictures of those statues, but what the pictures don’t prepare us for, and what does emerge from a visit to Easter, is the overwhelming sense of tragedy. Except for a couple of platforms of restored statues, the hundreds of other statues are lying jumbled on the ground at their platforms, broken into pieces – toppled by the islanders themselves as a result of Easter Island’s environmental disaster. The islanders destroyed the monuments that their own ancestors had erected at such great effort.
At the sites of Anasazi civilization in the deserts of the southwestern U.S., at Chaco Canyon, I was impressed by the paradox that these cities, which formerly (up till around A.D. 1200) contained the highest buildings erected in North America until the Chicago Loop skyscrapers of the 1870’s, with thousands of inhabitants fed by Anasazi farmers, today lie surrounded by desert in which no one makes their living by farming.
My first surprise on seeing from the air the Kutubu oil fields managed by ChevronTexaco in Papua New Guinea (Chapter 15) was that Chevron’s environmental precautions had been so rigorous that almost no oil field infrastructure was visible in the horizon-to-horizon expanse of tropical rainforest. The first sign of the oil fields from the air was a narrow road paralleling the underground pipeline through the rainforest: not a disfigurement of the rainforest, but a birdwatcher’s dream.
Finally, Chapter 16 relates towards the end my eureka experience of driving with Dutch friends through one of their many “polders” (drained reclaimed land) below sea level, while they explained to me that in the Netherlands rich and poor people alike live in the bottoms of the polders and are equally at risk from an environmental disaster that would breach the dikes. That is unlike the situation in the United States, where rich people increasingly tend to live in gated communities, seemingly immune from the environmental problems affecting the rest of us. The polder mentality explains why the Dutch are more aware of environmental issues than any other First World society.
Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction
Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction