Jared Diamond’s exploration of the collapse of civilizations.
A while back, a friend suggested I read Collapse by Jared Diamond, and I finally got to it. It’s a fascinating read particularly for anyone interested in ancient civilizations. Diamond explores what caused the destruction of various civilizations over the past couple millennia. What interested me, of course, is his final few chapters that clarify what this understand of the world can do for our own understanding of our current position. These are my notes and thoughts as I read:
The Old Problem: Overexploitation of Resources
“The processes through which past societies have undermind themselves by damaging their environments fall into eight categories…: deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems, water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth, and increased percapita impact of people” (6). “Any people can fall into the trap of overexploiting environmental resources, because….resources initially seem inexhaustibly abundant…signs of their incipient depletion become masked by normal fluctuations in resource levels…it’s difficult to get people to agree on exercising restraint…and the complexity of ecosystems often makes the consequences of some human–caused perturbation virtually impossible to predict” (9–10).
People have destroyed their own lives over and over throughout history. The problem, now, is that we’re destroying a global habitat. Diamond has a five-point framework of contributing factors that exacerbate collapse: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, depleting trade partners, and society’s response to its environmental problems (11). Throughout his exploration of collapses over the last couple thousand years, he notes which one or more of the five was responsible for the downfall, but it really just takes one to do it.
Deforestation is a common problem, and one we’re too familiar with today. The immediate consequences include nutrient leaching of the soil, but “further consequences start with starvation, a population crash, and a descent into cannibalism” (109). A ridiculous number of societies ended with cannibalism as noted by digs into preserved garbage piles. The bones of larger game at the bottom, followed by smaller animals, followed by rats, and, at the top of the pile, human bodies with bones broken apart to get at the marrow inside, such was their level of desperation. People do not go gentle into that good night.
He has a fascinating chapter on Easter Island where every last tree was cut down.
“The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious. Thanks to globalization, international trade, jet planes, and the Internet, all countries on Earth today share resources and affect each other, just as did Easter’s dozen clans. Poynesian Easter Island was as isolated in the Pacific Ocean as the Earth is today in space. When the Easter Islanders got into difficulties, there was nowhere to which they could flee, nor to which they could turn for help; nor shall we modern Earthlings have recourse elsewhere if our troubles increase….If mere thousands of Easter Islanders with just stone tools and their own muscle power sufficed to destroy their environment and thereby destroyed their society, how can billions of people with metal tools and machine power now fail to do worse?” (119)
He notes several parallels between past societies: Environmental and population problems led to increasing warfare and civil strife. Peak population numbers were followed swiftly by political and social collapse. Agriculture was expanded to more fragile areas to feed more people which eventually collapsed. Kings/Chiefs sought to outdo each other with more and more impressive temples. The chiefs/kings were passive in the face of the real threats to their societies (177). Sound familiar?
Ways Group Decision-Making Can Fail
Diamond suggests four ways societies make horrible decisions.
1. They fail to anticipate a problem. They might have no prior experience with it, like the introduction of rabbits to Australia. They might reason by false analogy — draw on familiar analogies that are only superficially similar to their current issue (423).
2. They fail to perceive a problem. The origins of some problems are imperceptible, and sometimes there are distant managers tending to issues. Slow trends can be concealed by wide up-and-down fluctuations creating a “creeping normalcy.” We get “landscape amnesia” and forget how different the surrounding landscape looked 50 years ago (425).
3. They fail to even try to solve a problem they perceive. People exhibit,
“…’rational behaviour’ arising from clashes of interest between people. That is, some people may reason correctly that they can advance their own interests by behavior harmful to other people….it empoys correct reasoning, even though it may be morally reprehensible. The perpetrators know that they will often get away with their bad behavior, expecialy if there is no law against it or if the law isn’t effectively enforced” (427).
He discusses the “tragedy of the commons” scenario:
“…as long as there is no effective regulation of how much resource each consumer can harvest, then each consumer would be correct to reason, ‘If I don’t catch that fish or let my sheep graze that grass, some other fisherman or herder will anyway, so it makes no sense for me to refrain from overfishing or overharvesting.’ The correct rational behavior is then to harvest before the next consumer can, even though the eventual result may be the destruction of the commons and thus harm for all conuerms” (428).
But — some commons have been preserved for thousands of years through three alternative arrangements: (1) A government or some other outside force steps in to enforce quotas — but this involves excessive administrative and policing costs; (2) the resources are privatized, divided into individually owned tracts that each owner will be motivated to mainage prudently in his/her own interests — but managers can grow selfish or tyranical; or (3) consumers are made to recognize their common interests and to design, obey, and enforce prudent harvesting quotas themselves — but this only happens when consumers form a homogeneous group, trust and communicate with each other, expect to share a common future, are capable of and permitted to organize and police themselves, and when the boundaries of the resource are well defined (429). There are clashes of interest if a principal consumer has no long-term stake in preserving the resource (431), when the interests of the decision-making elite is in a power clash with the interests of the rest of society, especially if the elite can insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions (430). Then people display irrational behavior — behaviour that’s harmful for everybody like a “refusal to draw inference from negative signs…’sunk-cost effect’ : we feel reluctant to abandon a policy (or to sell a stock) in which we have already invested heavily” (432). The alternative arrangements are possible, but require a delicate hand.
4. They try to solve it but do not succeed.
“It appears to me that much of the rigid opposition to environmental concerns in the First World nowadays involves values acquired early in life and never again reexamined: ‘the maintenance intact by rulers an policymakers of the ideas they started with….It is painfully difficult to decide whether to abandon some of one’s core values when they seem to be becoming incompatible with survival. At what point do we as individuals prefer to die than to compromise and live?” (433).
Irrational motives for failure to address problems abound: “the public may widely dislike those who first perceive and complain about the problem” (434). There could be clashes between short-term and long-term motives. Crowd psychology also plays a part: “individuals who find themselves members of a large coherent group or crowd…may become swept aong to support the group’s decision, even though the same individuals might have rejected the decision if allowed to reflect on it alone at leisure…Anyone taken as an individual is tolerably sensible and reasonable — as a member of a crowd, he at once becomes a blockhead” (435). Denial is rampant: “If something that you perceive arouses in you a painful emotion, you may subconsciously suppress or deny your perception in order to avoid the unbearable pian, even though the practical results of ignoring your erception may prove ultimately disastrous” (435).
So what works?
Listen to Scientists
Diamond looked at societies that almost collapsed, but bounced back, like Iceland: “Europe’s former poorest country has become one of the world’s richest countries on a per-capita basis” (203). “Most governments ignore the pleas of archaeologists. That is not the case in Iceland, where the effects of erosion that began 1,130 years ago are obvious, where most of the vegetation and half of the soil have already been lost, and where the past is so stark and omnipresent” (205). It had to get visibly bad for enough people before leaders were willing to act, but once they recognized how easily all could be lost, they willingly funded scientific research and followed their advice to better manage their resources.
Adapt to Environmental Changes
The force of tradition was sometimes a cause of self-destruction. We have to pay attention to significant changes in our world and change our behaviours to better cope with them.
“At least as important as Europe’s material exports ot Greenland were its psychological exports of Christian identity and European identity. Those two identities may explain why the Greenlanders acted in ways that — we today would say with the value of hindsight — were maladaptive and ultimatively cost them their lives, but that for many centuries enabled them to maintain a functioning society under the most difficult conditions faced by any medieval Europeans” (243).
Like Saul describes in A Fair Country, European explorers who lived as the Inuit did, survived. Those who tried to maintain an old way of life in a new place, or after the end of an era, died. We need to look around at what’s happening and adapt rather than blindly hold tight to traditions that served well only at a different time or place. Diamond discusses the “long-term damage caused by sheep” — a concern Monbiot has raised before as well — but our focus tends to lean towards the immediate, ‘What else will sheep herders do?’ (255). People fight hard to maintain a way of life that no longer works for individuals nor for the greater good. We have a stubborn arrogance that’s fatal.
Another country that almost fell, but learned to adapt was Japan. Four centuries ago, they almost destroyed their forests. Then the shoguns started a rigorous top-down forest management rationing with strict limits of specific amounts of wood for different needs, like housing and furniture. “The shift was led from the top by successive shoguns, who invoked Confucian principles to promulgate an official ideology that encouraged limiting consumption and accumulating reserve supplies in order to protect the country against disaster” (299). After people acclimatized to the limits, they shifted from micromanagement to citizen control: “…control of Japan’s forests fell increasingly into the hands of people with a vested long-term interest in their forest: either because they thus expected or hoped their children would inherit the rights to its use, or because of various long-term lease or contract arrangments” (305). Now Japan is the First World country with the highest percentage (74%) of its land area forested, despite supporting one of the highest human population densities (Plate 20).
Diamond is clear that one management system isn’t better than another, but that we need the “proper choice of an economy to fit the environment” (308). He adds, “I expected to find environmental policies much more advanced under the virtuous democracy than under the evil dictatorship. Instead, I had to acknowledge that the reverse was true” (349).
We need to be aware enough to ensure we’re not stuck in a system that’s not working for us. I fear that we need to be managed in order to learn how to live free from excessive consumption, how to stop cutting down every tree, but that top-down strategy likely won’t work here since political figures are tied to corporate interests which is entirely dependent on public mass-consumption for survival. Something’s got to give. I’m still left wondering how to get the whole system to shift. He has some ideas further on in the book.
Diamond moved on to collapse through genocides with a caution that it’s not enough to increase food production to feed the world; we must simultaneously rein in population growth (312). Many genocidal studies focus on ethnic hatred as the catalyst that must be prevented, but Diamond points out the real problem is typically over-population of an area. He looks at Rwanda in which, in 1993, 40% of citizens were living below the poverty level, and 100% of 25-year-old men were still living at home, unable to live on their own or start their own families. ”It is not rare, even today, to hear Rwandans argue that a war is necessary to wipe out an excess of population and to bring numbers into line with the available land resources” (326). Population pressure, the strain of hunger is the powder in the keg, and the ethnic division was the match. “The people whose children had to walk barefoot to school killed the people who could buy shoes for theirs” (328).
It’s interesting to me that during the genocides, the people didn’t kill the very rich; they killed people just a bit richer than themselves, just one up on the hierarchy. And nobody clearly targeted the middle class for their comfortable lives — they found another reason. Somehow ethnic or religious differences are more acceptable reasons to kill — more of an understandable affront to their lives — rather than acknowledging the bitterness that someone’s better off and has something we don’t. What makes it easier to rally a mass of people to slaughter a slightly different group of people if the difference is ethnicity or religion, rather than financial comfort? Curious. It’s as if a focus on money is too petty a concern to justify murder. They’d (or we’d) rather be seen as bigots than thieves.
The whole time I was reading the book, a part of my brain was cheering on the macabre hope of another plague that could get our world population down by half. I had a long talk with my adult daughter about the concept of being willing to part with half your family for the good of the world if that’s what it comes down to. We can easily give up other people to save ourselves (however willy-nilly we determine what other means), but could we ever be willing to give up our own and ourselves? Like in Snowpiercer, will some of the elderly volunteer to be thrown off the train, or are our survival instincts too strong and short-term?
Anyway… Population might be a bit of a red herring. China has sort of successfully implemented measures of population control. They lowered their population, but a cultural shift stopped multi-generational housing — which means they’re using more resources for more and bigger homes. “The net result of those increases in the number and floor area of households is that China’s human impact is increasing despite its low population growth rate” (360). I considered this effect when I first read Weisman’s book that suggests sterilization of every woman, worldwide, after one birth event. If I only had one child to raise and put through school, instead of three, I might buy me a hummer with the extra cash in my bank account. Fewer children means more spending money for me to buy excessive luxuries. We need to decrease population at the same time as decreasing individual consumption habits.
Fight for Courageous Leadership
Some societies succeed and others fail sometimes because some environments pose more difficult problems, but other times it’s due to the idiosyncrasies of particular individual leaders that will ever defy prediction (439). For some unknown reason, some leaders of the past successful societies have just randomly been resource management or environmentally-minded.
“To solve an explosive crisis…commands our admiration. Yet it calls for a leader with a different type of courage to anticipate a growing problem or just a potential one, and to take bold steps to solve it before it becomes an explosive crisis. Such leaders expose themselves to criticism or ridicule for acting before it becomes obvious to everyone that some action is necessary. But there have been many such courageous, insightful, strong leaders who deserve our admiriation….We should admire not only those courageous leaders, but also those courageous peoples…who decided which of their core values were worth fighting for, and which no longer made sense. Those examples of courageous leaders and courageous peoples give me hope” (439–40).
Get Corporations on Board
“If environmentalists aren’t willing to engage with big businesses, which are among the most powerful forces in the modern world, it won’t be possible to solve the world’s environmental problems” (17). “The interests of big businesses, environmentalists, and society as a whole coincide more often than you might guess from all the mutual blaming. In many other cases, however, there really is a conflict of interest: what makes money for a business, at least in the short run, may be harmful for society as a whole…My motivation is the practical one of identifying what changes would be most effective in inducing companies that currently harm the environment to spare it instead” (442).
Diamond looks specifically at mining and why it’s such an environmental mess. There are economic reasons why it’s more burdensome for mining companies than oil companies to pay cleanup costs — it’s cheaper for mining companies to pay lobbyists to press for weak regulatory laws: “given society’s attitudes and existing laws and regulations, that strategy has worked — until recently” (461). “To claims of toxic problems at mines, the mining industry routinely responds with denial. No one in the oil industry today would deny that spilled oil is harmful, but mine executives do deny the harm of spilled metals and acids” (462).
Well…almost no one.
A pervading issue is that governments allow environmental disasters to happen. “It is rare that our society has effectively held the mining industry responsible for damages” (463). And the solution is boycotts and the right kind of consumer pressure:
“…consumer leverage over retail buyers has already begun to be an effective means for consumers to influence the timber and seafood industries. Environmental groups are just beginning to apply this same tactic to the hardrock mining industry, by confronting metal buyers rather than confronting metal mners themselves” (467–8).
Consumer boycotts have to be in the right direction: “…the most effective pressure on mining companies to change their practices has come not from individual consumers picketing mine sites, but from big companies that buy metals (like Du Pont and Tiffany) and that sell to individual consumers” (477). To change practices, picket the companies that sell to consumers, not the resource extraction companies. Let companies know you won’t buy their product if they continue to practice weak resource management, use other environmentally destructive practices, or violate labour rights.
“In brief, environmental practices of big businesses are shaped by a fundamental fact that for many of us offends our sense of justice. Depending on the circumstances, a business really may maximize its profits, at least in the short term, by damaging the environment and hurting people…[blaming companies ignores the fact that] publicly owned companies with shareholders are under obligation to those sharholders to maximize profits, provided that they do so by legal means. …the car manufacturer Henry Ford was in fact successfully sued by stockholders in 1919 for raising the minimum wage of his workers to $5 per day: the courts declared that, while Ford’s humanitarian sentiments about his employees were nice, his business existed to make profits for its stockholders (483–4).
In the long run, it is the public, either directly or through its politicians, that has the power to make destructive environmental policies unprofitable and illegal, and to make sustainable environmental policies profitable. The public can do that by suing businesses for harming them….by making employees of companies with poor track records feel ashamed of their company and complain to their own management; by preferring their governments to award valuable contract to businesses with a good environmental track record…and by pressing their governments to pass and enforce laws and regulations requiring good environmental practices (484).
To me, the conclusion that the public has the ultimate responsibility for the behavior of even the biggest businesses is empowering and hopeful, rather than disappointing. My conclusion is not a moralistic one about who is right or worng, admirable or selfish, a good guy or a bad guy. My conclusion is instead a prediction, based on what I have seen happening in the past. Businesses have changed when the public came to expect and require different behavior, to reward businesses for behaviour that the public wanted, and to make things difficult for businesses practicing behaviors that the public didn’t want. (485)
Fight for Better Resource Management
LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a green building standard affecting the spread of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-labeled products.
“More than half of the world’s original forests have been cut down or heavily damaged in the last 8,000 years. Yet our consumption of forest products is accelerating, with the results that more than half of those losses have occurred whin the past 50 years — for instance, because of forest clearance for agriculture, and because world consumption of paper has increased five-fold since 1950…Only 12% of the world’s forests lie within protected areas. In a worst-case scenario, all of the world’s readily accessible remaining forests outside those protected areas would be destroyed by unsustainable harvesting within the next several decades, athough in a best-case scenario the world could meet its timber needs sustainably from a small area (20% or less) of those forests if they were well managed” (473).
The FSC label indicates well managed forestry. An experiment was conducted in a Home Depot store to see if people care about environmental issues. They had plywood in two bins that cost the same. One bin had the FSC label, the other didn’t. Plywood in the labelled bit sold two to one. When labeled playwood cost 2% more, 37% bought the labeled product. People are starting to care.
Similarly, the Marine Stewardship Council’s goal is to offer “credible eco-labeling to consumers, and to encourage fishermen to solve their own tragedies of the commons by the positive incentive of market appeal rather than the negative incentive of threatened boycotts” (481).
If timber and seafood could be properly managed, we wouldn’t need to decrease our use even with our current population (525).
Some New Problems: The Dirty Dozen Environmental Problems of Today
Two thirds of the twelve most serious environmental problems facing us today have been a problem for civilizations in the past (most broadly covered by losses of natural resources and population issues), but now we have another four issues to contend with: use of fossil fuels, a photosynthetic ceiling, toxic chemicals, and atmospheric changes. The twelve are interrelated but, “any of our 12 problems of non-sustainability …would suffice to limit our lifestyle within the next several decades. They are like time bombs with fuses of less than 50 years” (498).
- Destroying natural habitats: “Deforestation was a or the major factor in all the callapses of past societies described in this book” (487). Wetland destruction affects water suppies. “If current trends continue, about half of the remaining reefs would be lost by the year 2030” (487).
- Wild food destruction, especially fish: “If wildfish stocks were managed appropriately, the stock levels could be maintained, and they could be harvested perpetually. Unfortunately, the problem known as the tragedy of the commons has regularly undone efforts to manage fisheries sustainably, and the great majority of valuable fisheries already either have collapsed or are in steep decline” (488).
- Biodiversity: “A siginifant fraction of wild species, populations, and genetic diversity has already been lost….Elimination of lots of lousy little species regularly causes big harmful consequences for humans, just as does randomly knocking out many of the lousy little rivets holding together an airplane” (488–9).
- Soil: “Soils of famlands used for growing crops are being carried away by water and wind erosion at rates between 10 and 40 times the rates of soil formation….Other types of soil damaged caused by human agricultural practices include salinization…losses of soil fertility…and soil acidification” (489–90).
- Energy: We primarily use fossil fuels for our energy needs.
- Water: “Most of the world’s fresh water in rivers and lakes is already being utilized for irrigation, domestic and industrial water, and in situ uses such as boat transportation corridors, fisheries, and recreation…Throughout the world, freshwater underground aquifers are being depleted at rates faster than they are being naturally replenished” (490).
- Photosynthetic ceiling: Plant growth per acre dpends on temperature and rainfall. “We are projected to be utilizing most of the world’s terrestrial photosynthetic capacity by the middle of this century. That is, most energy fixed from sunlight will be used for human purposes, and little will be left over to support the growth of natural plant communities, such as natural forests” (491).
- Toxic chemicals: “The culprits include not only insecticides, pesticides, and herbicides, but also mercury and other metals, fire-retardant chemicals, refrigerator coolants, detergents, and components of plastics. We swallow them in our food and water, breather them in our air, and absorb them through out skin…deaths in the U.S. from air pollution alone are conservatively estimated at over 130,00 per year” (491–2).
- Alien species (plants, animals, fungi, bacteria…) being introduced through movement of people.
- GHGs: “…there have already been natural fires and animal respiration producing carbon dioxide, and wild ruminant animals producing methane, but our burning of firewood and of fossil fuels has greatly increased the former, and our herds of cattle and of sheep have greatly increased the latter (493).
- Population growth: We have too many people for our finite resources.
- The impact of people on the environment. “Our numbers pose problems insofar as we consume resources and generate wastes” (494). Former low-impact people in the third world are becoming high-impact people.
The only relevant question about these twelve is “…whether they will become resolved in pleasant ways of our own choice, or in unpleasant ways not of our choice, such as warfare, genocide, starvation, disease epidemics, and collapses of societies.”
Diamond spends some time dismantling common objections to the crisis we’re facing — here are some of the more popular:
- The environment has to be balanced agains the economy: This is said as if environmental concerns are a luxury.
- Technology will solve our problems: It takes decades to develop and phase in technology, and longer to develop it in a usable way in the first place “Technological solutions to environmental problems are routinely far more expensive than preventive measure to avoid creating the problem in the first place…advances in technology just increase our ability to do things…with thousands of examples of unforeseen harmful side effects of new technological solutions” (505). Furthermore, the conversion times for adoption of major switches require several decades (e.g. fossil fuels to solar).
- There’s no real food problem, just a distribution problem: First World citizens show no interest in eating less or subsidizing food for other people. GMOs are also unlikely to solve food problems.
- Conditions are better for most people worldwide now than they ever were:
“80% of the world’s population still lives in poverty, near or below the starvation level” (508). “Spending capital should not be misrepresented as making money. It makes no sense to be content with our present comfort when it is clear that we are currently on a non-sustainable course….On reflection, it’s no surprise that declines of socieites tend to follow swiftly on their peaks” (509) “Our totally unsustainable consumption means that the First World could not continue for long on its present course, even if the Thrid World didn’t exist and weren’t trying to catch up to us” (513).
5. These problems are way off in the future:
“In fact, at current rates most or all of the dozen major sets of environmental problems…will become acute within the lifetime of young adults now alive….We pay for their education and food and clothes…all with the goal of helping them to enjoy good lives 50 years from now. It makes no sense for us to do these things for our individual children, while simultaneousy doing things undermining the world in which our children will be living 50 years from now” (513).
Things Could Get Worse or Better
There’s a strong link between environmental and political problems: “When people are desperate, undernourished, and without hope, they blame their governments, which they see as responsible for or unable to solve their problems. They try to emigrate at any cost….They start civil wars. They figure that they have nothing to lose, so they become terrorists, or they support or tolerate terrorism” (516). A big concern is, “…today’s larger population and more potent destructive technology, and today’s interconnectednesss posing the risk of a global rather than a local collapse” (521).
Yet, like Kolbert’s book, after pages and pages of cannibalism and genocide, Diamond ends on a hopeful note: “we are not beset by insoluable problems” (521). “Courageous, successful, long-term planning also characterizes some governments and some political leaders, some of the time” (523). We’ve had a “reduction in some toxins, investments in public health, …changes in values….” But, he’s still concerned with the “seeming political impossibility of inducing First World citizens to lower their impact on the world. But the alternative, of continuing our current impact, is more impossible….In the spirit [of Churchill], a lower-impact society is the most impossible scenario for our future — except for all other conceivable scenarios” (524).
Finally, we have an opportunity no past society enjoyed: “the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of distant peoples and past peoples” (525). If only we will all take that opportunity.
What Can I Do About It?
If you want to make a difference, “plan to commit yourself to a consistent policy of actions over the duration of your life” (570).
Vote, and take time each month to let elected representative know your views on specific current environmental issues.
Reconsider what you buy, and draw public attention to the company’s policies and products. Praise companies whose policies you like. Go to the trouble of learning which links in a business chain are most sensitive to public influence, and which links are in the strongetst position to influence other links. “Businesses that sell directly to the consumer, or whose brands are on sale to the consumer, are much more sensitive than businesses that sell only to other businesses and whose products reach the public without a label of origin” (571). Don’t praise or blame logging or fishing industry, leave it instead to retail giants to influence the loggers (Home Depot, Whole Foods…). Wal-Mart and other retailers “can virtually dictate agricultural practices to farmers. Multiply your power by talking to other people who also vote and buy.
Invest time and effort in improving your own local environment. Multiply your impact by making donations to organizations promoting policies of your choice (571–3).
Don’t give up.