I just returned from the reading at the First Parish Church where Jared Diamond spoke about his new book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. He started by mentioning that he was born and raised in the area and attended Harvard. He told a few anecdotes about that. His accent may point to a Masachusetts upbringing as well, but I am not great at pinpointing them. And then he launched into a 35 minute breakdown of his book.
He started with the question of why write about how societies’ collapses? For him, it has always been one of the most interesting questions. Civilizations left behind are fascinating to teenagers. What can we learn from their fates?
Diamond then joked about the writing of the book itself and its publication. How interesting it is that his book shares the top 3 spots with books like the memoirs of Scott Peterson’s mistress and Jon Stewart. He’s a witty man—cracked a few jokes throughout the talk.
He chose several representative civilizations failures (Kakutani criticizes him in her review for the arbitrary nature of these choices, I think rather unfairly). Why do some civilizations collapse and others survive? Why do some recognize and solve their problems and others fail to see problems and go over a cliff?
He proposes a five point framework for why societies fail:
1. Societal impact on the environment—deforestation, overfishing, erosion, etc. This, by itself, is never the only cause.
2. Climate change. Again, not by itself a cause of collapse.
3. Enemies: hostile neighbors take advantage when a civilization is weakened by environmental changes and see a chance to take over.
4. Friends: trade partners can also damage as much as an enemy.
5. Political/Economic/Social cultures
A case in point is Easter Island, an extremely remote island in the Pacific (Europeans reached it in 1723) made famous for its huge stone statues built on a tree-less island without modern tools. Archaeological evidence shows that the island was once covered with forests. The islanders chopped down trees to create gardens, build canoes to fish the ocean and to build tools. By the end of the 17th century, all the trees were gone. They could no longer fish the seas and once they wiped out the animal life, there was only one animal left—humans. And as the food disappeared, agression between tribes rose and statues were knocked over. Ecological disaster set the stage for cultural implosion.
The opposite extreme was Greenland, settled by Norwegians who created a Christian civilization for over 450 years. The Inuit also lived on Greenland. The Norwegians lived on cattle and deer, the Inuit on fish. In the end, the Norwegians’ refusal to eat fish brought about the starvation of the people, while the Inuit thrived and managed to take over the island: one society made choices to survive, and one made choices that doomed them.
Diamond also spoke about big businesses—how in the past dozen years, he’s realized that some are good and some are bad (I think that previously he had regarded them as all bad). We need to figure out what motivates a company and praise the good ones before criticizing the bad ones. Also, people have a tendency to isolate themselves in First world nations now with gated communities, sending their kids to private schools, using private health care and private retirement funds. This shelters them from seeing and addressing societal problems like social security, etc. US isolation and our core value of consumerism has become dangerous in a nation where our resources have become finite.
He stated at the end that he was a cautious optimist. We have serious problems of our own making, which we can solve if we choose to. Media is a powerful resource at our disposal: we can learn from mistakes and disasters around the world, both past and present. I was glad to hear that he felt our problems were solvable, and that he wasn’t just another doomsayer.
Questions from the audience: Did he have opinions on the decline and fall of Greece and Rome? (Yes, they also matched his five-point outline for societal collapse.)
How about the decline of Russia and the USSR as superpowers? (Same.)
Could he go into more depth on multinational corporations? (They are a potent force in the world, and if they wish to survive they will have to act for the greater good, to preserve the world in which they exist. For example, Home Depot decided it was in their long term interest to purchase only sustainably-harvested lumber. He added that consumers can influence corporations through educated purchasing.)
How about the role of media? (A source of optimism for him: it can cause problems when incorrect information is spread, but it can also serve as a spur to societal progress and improvement.)
Was religion a help or hindrance? (He didn’t want to generalize; it depends on the society.)
Had he seen misguided conservation efforts? (Sure, lots. Australia introduced cane toads to control pests, but it’s become an unstoppable menace.)
How about war? (War falls under the “enemies” category of the societal collapse model.)
Overpopulation? (Yes, overpopulation is a major problem. The book closes with 12 problems we need to address, including overpopulation and per-capita consumption and waste).