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Submitted By tahseen136
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Collapse- book is about a history topic about how societies choose to fail or survive. The main characters are historical people and unknown kings of Mayan cities or Easter Island villages. Jared Diamond tells the story of the Viking explorer Erik the Red, who discovered Greeland and Vinland (Terranova, in Canada). Another character is captain Olafsson, a norse sailor who wrote the last news about Greenland in 1410. Another main character is Christopher Columbus, who arrived at Hispaniola in 1492, but now this island is two countries, the Dominican Republic and the Haiti. Diamond studied the politics of two presidents. the dominican Rafael Trujillo, who protected the enviroment and the dictator François, Papa Doc, Duvalier, who decided on politics of deforestatation of his country, Haiti. The author considered the bad politics of another main character, king George II, who was interested in sending merinosheeps from Spain to Australia, an idea which was succesful from 1820 to 1950 but then the farmers understood their lands lost fertility. Another main character is Tokuwaga Jeayasu, a shogun of Japan in 1600, who prohibited Christianity in 1600 and protected his country againt deforestation.
The book takes us to a lot of places around the globe: Mayan cities, Rwanda, Viking colonies of Vinland or Greenland, Haiti and Dominican Republic, Easter Island and Polynesian colonies in Pacific, and the Chaco villages in New Mexico (United States). The time period was from 800 AC, when collapsed Mayan cities to 2005. Other locations are the Viking ships, isolated churches in Greenland, ghostly stone heads in Easter Island, sheep farms in Australia or the farmers of Montana (United States).
The book is richly informative, with a lot of places of diferent peoples and cultures. All the characters were trying to build a wealthy society but they persued bad enviromental politics that damaged the lands, didn’t save water and wasted all reserves, cut the threes and jungles and many species they ate have become extinct. The outcome of the book is a warning to humanity because if our vanished civilitation wasted forest, water and fossil energies, tomorrow maybe our skycapers will one day stand develict and overgrown like the ancient temples of Bangkok or Mayan cities. Diamond studies the past ecological collapses and discovers five factors: enviromental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, friendly trade partners and dependence of them, and the society’s responses to its enviromental problems. For example, the islanders lost a lot of lands from erossion but they understood the problem quickly and preserved the fragile and fertile land. Instead, the Anasazi cities, in New Mexico, and the Mayan cities, in Honduras, wasted the water because the growing population exceded the reserved in a dry age. In Easter Island, people cut all the threes and when they had no food, they had no wood to build ships and abandoned the dry island. In Haiti, Duvalier desforested the country and now they are poorer than their neighbors, the Dominicans [Reader Note: the 2010 earthquake had not occurred when Diamond wrote the book]. In Australia, the shepp and rabits introduced by Europeans ate alle the grass. The author suspected societies collapse due to enviromental damage combined with overgrown population and climate change without an alternative solution. Other cultures, such the inuits, survived because they were good in hard conditions of Artical lands in Greeland but the Vikings failled. Australia, China or Rwanda represents “a Malthusian catastrophe happening under our eyes”, says Diamond. He, like the liberal economist Malthus, think an overpopulated land collapsed in horrible bloodshed was the Maya in the past or Rwand, now, when the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic violence started because of population growth, environmental damage and climate change “provided the dynamite for which ethnic violence was the fuse”.
As I have summarized the whole book I will be touch basing a little more in detail chapter wise briefly starting from the 10th chapter “Malthus in Africa: Rwanda's Genocide “

My final thoughts on a fine balance are that it is gripping and I understood complety the thematic message of the book: we must preserve the environment of the globe or we will fail. I like this book because it is an epic journey around the globe and the history of humanity and its relations with the land and forest. On to the future, we can discover now we van be survivors. The good points are the magnificent work to explain history. Another good point is simple language understable by all people who like history. The weak point is Malthus wrote the same two centuries ago and his theory is thought to farmers and not for industrial countries. Another weak point is Diamond doesn’t study the mystery of the failure of ancient Roman civilitation and only dedicates five pages to study the problem. I learned we must look for our enviromental health because now we are wasting our fragile lands, the poor reserves of oil and cutting Amazonian forest. Maybe, we are stupid and our children will inherit the big problem we created. I would recommend the book to others because it is important to know the risks of our life style with a lot of cars, inefficient energies, overcrowding and the destruction of the environment.

Diamond explained the large disparity between wealth and technology in different parts of the world as an accident of geography. The temperate latitudes of Eurasia facilitated the East-West dispersion of species over an extensive area, allowing a diversity of plants and animals to be domesticated, and this domestication led to increasing civilization as nomadic hunter-gatherers put down roots and progressed in their communities from families to tribes to villages, cities, nations, and empires. By contrast, the Americas with their North-South axis had little opportunity for the diffusion of species and thus were much slower to develop. China lagged behind Europe for different geographical reasons. The mountains, rivers, and irregular coastline of Europe ensured its division into competitive nation-states, which fostered technological development and the rise of a merchant class. With its regular coastline, absence of mountain ranges dividing its mid-section, and two navigable rivers connecting much of the country, China was easily ruled for millennia by a central government that did not encourage development. Although many of the technical inventions, such as gunpowder and large ships, were made about the same time as in Europe, these discoveries were not put to the same effective use. And this, in a nutshell, is why the modern world is dominated by Europeans and their wares. Guns, Germs, and Steel has been criticized by some as being too "deterministic." To me, this is not a criticism but one of the book's virtues. The author marshals his facts with such logical order that the outcomes seem inevitable.
In Collapse, Diamond provides further insight into where we could be going, through case examples of societies that have either perished or survived. He extends his insights into the interactions between geography and societies to explore how man's interaction with his environment affects societies. From analysis of these case studies, he has identified five factors that determined whether a society succeeded or failed: environmental damage; climate change; hostile neighbors; lack of friendly trading partners; and, most important, the society's response to the first four factors. In general, none of these factors by itself has brought down a society, but collectively they bring doom.
Diamond analyzes both large and small communities, some that have lasted for millennia. On the survival side, he examines Tikopia, an isolated island of 1.8 square miles that has been settled and inhabited continuously for 3,000 years, currently by about 1,200 people or 700 people per square mile. A larger example of success is the New Guinea Highlands, an isolated civilization that was not discovered by modern man until air travel revealed its existence. At 7,000 years, it is one of the world's longest-running experiments in sustainable food production. These successes are contrasted with Easter Island and the Pitcairn Islands, which were once extensively populated by relatively sophisticated Polynesians but were nearly completely depopulated by the time they were discovered by Europeans.
Diamond compares the Norse settlements that survived in Greenland for nearly 500 years and collapsed entirely in the early 1400s when the climate became colder with the successful Norse colony of Iceland and the Inuit civilization, both of which continue to thrive in the same inhospitable climate. He also compares Haiti and the Dominican Republic, two countries that occupy the island of Hispaniola. Both have recently emerged from prolonged periods of dictatorship, with Haiti as the Western Hemisphere's basket case and the Dominican Republic as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Caribbean. How did this happen? It turns out that Trujillo and Belaguer were more far-sighted dictators than the Duvaliers.
In presenting these cases, Diamond describes some modern societies that may or may not be on the path...


In the beginning of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond quotes Shelley's poem Ozymandias, a fitting start to this work. It has been said that the United States is the most powerful society in history. But power and even dominance – as Shelley's fictional example posits and Diamond's factual examples prove – are no guarantee of endurance. Societies have risen, sometimes dominated, and fallen, while others, making wiser choices, exist to this day, and this, as the subtitle indicates, is Diamond's argument – that success or failure is a choice.
Diamond examines a number of ancient and modern societies using a five-point framework of factors, referred to in his summary of the book: “Societal collapses involving an environmental component, and in some cases also contributions of climate change, hostile neighbors, and trade partners, plus questions of societal responses.” (pg 15)
Some examples that stayed with me: • In A.D. 984 Scandinavians arrived in Greenland, 1,500 miles from Norway. They built churches, wielded iron tools, farmed, followed the latest European clothing fashions, and then, after 500 years, they vanished. During those 500 years, they shared Greenland with the Inuit (Eskimo). “The Vikings disappeared, but the Inuit survived, proving that human survival in Greenland was not impossible and the Vikings' disappearance not inevitable.” (pg 212) There is evidence of contact between the two cultures, leaving Diamond to rightly conclude that the Vikings chose not to adopt Inuit ways, ways which probably would have enabled them to survive. • Today Easter Island is known for the distinctive large statues called moai, whose creation and transportation, hundreds of years ago, were incredible feats, and evidence of a large, complex, and wealthy society, a society which no longer existed when the first European visited in 1722. Between the time of human settlement, around A.D. 900, and this visit, the island went from being forested, with species that grew to 50 feet or more, to being almost totally bare, and the population declined from a high of about 15,000 to about 3,000. Deforestation was a main cause of this decline. It forced a change in the islanders' diet -- several bird species went extinct, and without trees to make canoes, deep-water fishing was no longer possible. Diamond blames the deforestation primarily on the islanders, who, among other reasons, cut the trees for fuel and to clear land for crops.
Diamond is a professor of geography at UCLA, and winner of the Pulitzer Price for his book Guns, Germs, and Steel. His research for this book was exhaustive, and it helps to have a love of history to make it through the 500+ pages. But that's not to say it's dry and academic. Diamond has a pleasant writing style, and it rarely seems like there is too much information. Rather, he gives topics the attention they deserve.
In addition to the aforementioned failures, he also documents successes. On the Pacific island of Tikopia, pigs were a status symbol, but they rooted up gardens and competed with humans for food. Around 1600, the Tikopians made what must have been a difficult decision and killed all the pigs on the island. Their society is still strong after 3,000 years. Similarly, Japan, in the 1600s, found that their demand for timber was such that their forests were disappearing. The shogun instituted strict limits on logging, and today about 70% of Japan is forested.
One lesson, of course is that threats must be recognized and action taken, and that action will likely involve, as the Tikopians can attest, sacrifice. An unpopular concept, yes – it's been said that the only thing that Americans fear is inconvenience. This trait, paired with the opposition to the overwhelming scientific consensus regarding climate change, does not bode well for us. Power and dominance mean little if we lack the will to act.
Pdf review

Book Review
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 2006, Penkala Bt., Budapest, Hungary
Jared Diamond
Viking Books, ISBN 0-670-03337-5 reviewed by
North Idaho College/Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho
Washington State University/Pullman, Washington
Mankind has been remarkably successful at surviving and succeeding throughout the world. However, there have been disasters and calamities as well as successful civilizations. Men have often destroyed the very environment which nurtured them, whether through over-hunting, or over-grazing. And now, at a time when hurricanes, floods, and droughts, have increased in intensity, one seeks information and insight as to the possible causes and for consequences for human society, not just for natural events, but regarding human activity as well. Professor Jared Diamond has written a serious book to examine such phenomena concerning their social and environmental impacts.
He uses detailed information from diverse sources on many societies which have undergone - indeed often caused - important environmental degradation with the result
(often) of total disaster for the humans involved. He also documents how some cultures with an enlightened appreciation and knowledge of their own circumstances have survived by working with the natural world to create sustainable societies, successful for many hundreds of years.
Diamond’s criteria for the examination throughout the work are: 1) Inadvertent environmental damage and its possible reversibility, 2) Climate change, 3) Hostile
Neighbors, 4) Decreased support by friendly neighbors (e.g., the Greenlanders doom will be hastened by their failure to maintain relations with Europe), 5) Society’s responses to its problems. Says the author, “A society’s responses depend on it’s political, economic and social institutions and on its cultural values. Those institutions and values affect whether the society values (or even tries to solve) its problems.” (p.14-
Diamond begins with the American state of Montana, a beautiful land, known for its mountains, streams, and prairies, wildlife and rugged individualists. This picture today is deceiving. The environment here has been poisoned by mining operations; salinization is occurring at a rapid rate; and there is a social battle at several levels between residents who wish to retain the old ways and values and others who wish to change the land from predominantly agricultural to residential life depending upon a service economy and tourist trade. Montanans are divided on population growth, governmental regulation and how the land is to be used. It is shocking given the modern changes in economy which proceed apace, that if the state were not part of the United
States, it would, according to the author, be a failed state due to the environmental damage, poverty of many of its people, and its dependence on outside assistance in the form of governmental programs.
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 2006, Penkala Bt., Budapest, Hungary
Diamond’s point is that Montana is an example of a drama being reenacted out throughout the world today. However his methodology in the second part is to first delve into the past to examine societies which have been destroyed primarily due to environmental degradation (caused by the factors listed above) or those societies that made crucial, disciplined decisions, which allowed them to survive to this day.
He discusses with rich detail why many societies failed: Easter, Pitcairn and
Henderson Island; the Anasazi and Mayan in North and South America, and the
Greenland Norse. While examples of harsh climate change caused some irreparable damage, he maintains that often the elements for disruption and disaster were selfcaused.
Of the Greenland Norse he says, that in addition to some fluctuations in weather cycles, soil erosion caused by overgrazing, failure to adapt to different conditions from those experienced at another place and time, refusal to learn from a successful indigenous people and an inflexible and incompetent power structure which “created a conflict between the short term interests of those in power, and the long term interests of the society as a whole.”(p.276)
Part II ends with successful examples of survival: the New Guinea Highlands, where sustainable agriculture has been practiced for over 6000 years, Tikopia, and Japan under the Tokugawa rulers, and others.
The third part is given to describing some modern societies: Rwanda, the Dominican
Republic, and Haiti, The People’s Republic of China and Australia. Practices for good and ill are discussed and interesting details emerge constantly. The societies examined are all struggling with the effects of growth, globalization and environmental decline.
Diamond’s tone here is not condemnatory: it is scholarly, seeking to educate and enlighten. He points out many mistakes of the past and present attempts to slow down destructive practices and heal their damage. Of China he says, “China’s leaders have been able to solve problems on a scale scarcely possible for European and American leaders: for instance by mandating a one child policy to reduce population growth and by ending logging…On the other hand, China’s leaders have also succeeded in creating messes on a scale scarcely possible for European or American leaders….”(p.374) He cites the destruction of the public education system during the cultural revolution and the growing environmental and social problems now emerging. (Public demonstrations have recently led to armed hostilities between villagers and officials over income distribution, and lack of public services.)
Part four, “Practical Lessons,” examines the issues of why some societies make bad decisions. He discusses the failure to anticipate, to perceive problems, and rational bad behaviors, and disastrous values. These had been touched on before but here Diamond recapitulates and addresses in detail these factors, as well as other irrational, destructive choices and actions which lead to environmental and societal collapse. Of values he maintains “Perhaps a crux of success or failure as a society is to know which core values to hold on to, and which ones to discard and replace with new values when times change.”(p.433) He had illustrated this clearly with the wool industry in Australia, which has largely been given up, in favor of new technologies and less environmentally damaging practices. He concludes with “Signs of Hope” and points out that some societal leaders do rise to the occasion - leaders who have the courage, and are willing
Book Review
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 2006, Penkala Bt., Budapest, Hungary to risk criticism and even failure - to propose sacrifice and hard work to address problems in their nascent stage, before they become intractable. He cites John Kennedy and numerous European leaders and peoples (p.440) for their willingness to take dramatic stands to solve problems, thus leading to greater possibilities for survival.
Diamond spends an incisive chapter on big business and the environment discussing the good, the bad, and the truly ugly. He says”…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.”(p.483) His effort in this chapter is spent showing examples of good business/environmental practice contrasted with poor ones. (It should be noted that there are businesses which do strive to be good neighbors.) However he concludes astonishingly that since businesses are really there to make money for owners and stockholders, and not to mind the environmental practices of the enlightened, the ultimate responsibility for environmental disaster lies with the public. “In the long run, it is the public, either directly or through its politicians, that has the power to make destructive policies unprofitable and illegal, and to make sustainable environmental policies profitable.”(p.484) This position is mistaken at several levels. First of all it implies companies bear no responsibility for bad practices, that they are ‘non-moral actors’ and have no responsibility for the consequences of their actions or failures to act, and that simply does not work in the moral and real world. It ignores the principle that truly moral leaders look out for the welfare of their people, environmental sustainability, and the consequences of their actions on the sustainability of future generations.
Secondly, there would be no reason to laud the responsible corporations and politicians (which he does) if their actions were not environmentally respectable - especially as he goes to some pains to show that responsible environmental management has costs, as well.
Finally, it seems quite misplaced to say that citizens - where ever they may be - are consulted/and/or allowed to have the moral/technical input he claims it will take to establish justice and sustainability. Responsible and non-responsible corporations hire professionally trained scientists and technicians to help guide work in the extractive and productive industries, to maximize efficiency and productivity, and hopefully safety and environmental soundness, and to minimize environmental degradation. It is their responsibility along with competent governmental agencies to accomplish this. While it is true cynics and lobbyists - and some politicians - serve some businesses that have no intention to do the right thing - it surely doesn’t follow that it is the public’s fault that they do not wish to do so!
It is hopefully true that given the right information and opportunity to decide such issues the people may make their voices heard and respected. It is not always so, but it is surely a goal of democracy that it be so. But it is not the case that most of the world’s people have ever had such an opportunity. While it may be true that it will be informed, conscientious citizens who finally make the moral weight of environmental
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 2006, Penkala Bt., Budapest, Hungary responsibility, sustainability and justice a reality in all such endeavor, it does not follow that the lack of such a state of affairs exonerates malfeasance, degradation, destruction and even murder by those who have been responsible for it.
Diamond concludes with chapter 16, “The World as Polder: What Does It All Mean
To Us Today?” He is summing up in an interesting way, and claims that he is a
“cautious optimist.” (p.521) He cites the Dutch response to disastrous floods in 1953, which killed nearly 2000 citizens. This instigated environmentally, and socially responsible, far-sighted policy for the nation, carried on to this day.
There are he says twelve very critical issues we must face. They are the destruction of natural habitats, including de-forestation; the loss of wild foods, especially fish from increasingly polluted seas, lakes and rivers; loss of biodiversity; enormous loss of soil by natural damage (wind and water) and poor agricultural drainage; the overuse and depletion of major sources of energy; the degradation and loss of fresh water; the loss of available solar energy; the release of toxic chemicals into the total environment; the effects of invasive species on native life; global warming caused by a steady increase of
‘greenhouse gasses’; increasing human population with its concomitant requirements for more clean air, water, space etc; and finally the impacts upon the earth and what he sees as the looming conflict between the developed and developing worlds regarding rising expectations.
“Even if the human populations of the Third World did not exist, it would be impossible for the First World alone to maintain its present course, because it is not in a steady state but depleting its own resources as well as those imported from the Third
World…. What will happen when it finally dawns on all those people in the Third
World that current First World standards are unreachable for them, and that the First
World refuses to abandon those standards for itself?”(p.496)
That of course is a major issue and one which many leaders are contemplating: it is also in my opinion why education, discipline and responsible decision making need to come to the fore - not as in my own country, with an over-reliance on market mechanisms to achieve needed reforms and restoration. Notwithstanding any positive use of such market oriented solutions to problems, the market was not designed for this, and these issues are too serious to rely overmuch on such strategies.
I found the middle and final section of this final chapter which Diamond calls “Oneliner
Objections” and “Reasons for Hope,” to be amongst the liveliest and most interesting in the book. Here he examines ‘reasons’ often advanced to delegitimize environmental concerns.(p.503) Here he seems forthright and at times even adamant. To the claim that we cannot afford good environmental practices, he points out that in the long term it is cheaper and better to avoid illnesses caused by pollution, and asserts
“That illustrates why the U.S. Clean Air Act of 1970, although its cleanup measures do cost money, has yielded estimated net health savings (benefits in excess of costs) of about $1 trillion per year, due to saved lives and reduced health costs.”(p.504)
He illustrates the shortcomings of views that new technology will solve our problems, that we have inexhaustible resources, that poverty is a thing of the past, etc.,
Book Review
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 2006, Penkala Bt., Budapest, Hungary with facts, and reasoned responses. To his credit, he states that it is incumbent on the
First World citizens to begin making more responsible choices, for environmental responsibility and transgenerational sustainability, and concludes that the
“interconnectedness” of the modern world makes it possible for awareness and education regarding these issues, problems, and possible solutions on a scale never before available to man.
Conclusion: I found Collapse to be highly readable, very informative and especially powerful with respect to illustrating the interconnectedness of the problems we face.
Diamond’s choice of failed societies, while not exhaustive seems to illustrate his points well and convincingly. While his work might have been stronger had he examined other well-known societal calamities (e.g., Rome), given his emphasis upon environmental issues and factors, one sees clearly a steady and deadly set of consequences which are either addressed or ignored, to the success or diminishment of the society involved. I was disappointed in his attribution of non-responsibility for corporate polluters, and his misguided comments in this regard: I thought his summary discussion of the major problems we face was very well done, and his answers to objections, powerful, engaging and very appropriate. He addressed major environmental and social issues of the day in some complexity and balance. It is because of this that I recommend this work and indeed have assigned it to my students, with the hope that they will give it the serious attention it and the subject matter deserve.
I am very grateful for the suggestions and criticism of Professor Daniel Holbrook and
Royce Grubic at Washington State University. Any errors are entirely my own.

Part Two begins with four briefer chapters on past societies that did collapse, arranged in a sequence of increasing complexity according to my five-point framework. Most of the past societies that I shall discuss in detail were small and peripherally located, and some were geographically bounded, or socially isolated, or in fragile environments. Lest the reader thereby be misled into concluding that they are poor models for familiar big modern societies, I should explain that I selected them for close consideration precisely because processes unfolded faster and reached more extreme outcomes in such small societies, making them especially clear illustrations. It is not the case that large central societies trading with neighbors and located in robust environments didn’t collapse in the past and can’t collapse today. One of the past societies that I do discuss in detail, the Maya, had a population of many millions or tens of millions, was located within one of the two most advanced cultural areas of the New World before European arrival (Mesoamerica), and traded with and was decisively influenced by other advanced societies in that area. I briefly summarize in the Further Readings section for Chapter 9 some of the many other famous past societies—Fertile Crescent societies, Angkor Wat, Harappan Indus Valley society, and others—that resembled the Maya in those respects, and to whose declines environmental factors contributed heavily.
Our first case study from the past, the history of Easter Island (Chapter 2), 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 massive population die-off. As far as we know, Easter’s Polynesian society remained isolated after its initial founding, so that Easter’s trajectory was uninfluenced by either enemies or friends. Nor do we have evidence of a role of climate change on Easter, though that could still emerge from future studies. Barry Rolett’s and my comparative analysis helps us understand why Easter, of all Pacific islands, suffered such a severe collapse.
Pitcairn Island and Henderson Island (Chapter 3), also settled by Polynesians, offer examples of the effect of item four of my five-point framework: loss of support from neighboring friendly societies. Both Pitcairn and Henderson islands suffered local environmental damage, but the fatal blow came from the environmentally triggered collapse of their major trade partner. There were no known complicating effects of hostile neighbors or of climate change.
Thanks to an exceptionally detailed climate record reconstructed from tree rings, the Native American society of the Anasazi in the U.S. Southwest (Chapter 4) clearly illustrates the intersection of environmental damage and population growth with climate change (in this case, drought). Neither friendly or hostile neighbors, nor (except towards the end) warfare, appear to have been major factors in the Anasazi collapse.
No book on societal collapses would be complete without an account (Chapter 5) of the Maya, the most advanced Native American society and the quintessential romantic mystery of cities covered by jungle. As in the case of the Anasazi, the Maya illustrate the combined effects of environmental damage, population growth, and climate change without an essential role of friendly neighbors. Unlike the case with the Anasazi collapse, hostile neighbors were a major preoccupation of Maya cities already from an early stage. Among the societies discussed in Chapters 2 through 5, only the Maya offer us the advantage of a deciphered written record. Norse Greenland (Chapters 6–8) offers us our most complex case of a prehistoric collapse, the one for which we have the most information (because it was a well-understood literate European society), and the one warranting the most extended discussion: the second sheep inside the boa constrictor. All five items in my five-point framework are well documented: environmental damage, climate change, loss of friendly contacts with Norway, rise of hostile contacts with the Inuit, and the political, economic, social, and cultural setting of the Greenland Norse. Greenland provides us with our closest approximation to a controlled experiment in collapses: two societies (Norse and Inuit) sharing the same island, but with very different cultures, such that one of those societies survived while the other was dying. Thus, Greenland history conveys the message that, even in a harsh environment, collapse isn’t inevitable but depends on a society’s choices. Com- parisons are also possible between Norse Greenland and five other North Atlantic societies founded by Norse colonists, to help us understand why the Orkney Norse thrived while their Greenland cousins were succumbing. One of those five other Norse societies, Iceland, ranks as an outstanding success story of triumph over a fragile environment to achieve a high level of modern prosperity.
Part Two concludes (Chapter 9) with three more societies that (like Iceland) succeeded, as contrast cases for understanding societies that failed. While those three faced less severe environmental problems than Iceland or than most of those that failed, we shall see that there are two different paths to success: a bottom-up approach exemplified by Tikopia and the New Guinea highlands, and a top-down approach exemplified by Japan of the Tokugawa Era.
Part Three then returns to the modern world. Having already considered modern Montana in Chapter 2, we now take up four markedly different modern countries, the first two small and the latter two large or huge: a Third World disaster (Rwanda), a Third World survivor-so-far (the Dominican Republic), a Third World giant racing to catch up with the First World (China), and a First World society (Australia). Rwanda (Chapter 10) represents a Malthusian catastrophe happening under our eyes, an overpopulated land that collapsed in horrible bloodshed, as the Maya did in the past. Rwanda and neighboring Burundi are notorious for their Hutu/Tutsi ethnic violence, but we shall see that population growth, environmental damage, and climate change provided the dynamite for which ethnic violence was the fuse.
The Dominican Republic and Haiti (Chapter 11), sharing the island of Hispaniola, offer us a grim contrast, as did Norse and Inuit societies in Greenland. From decades of equally vile dictatorships, Haiti emerged as the modern New World’s saddest basket case, while there are signs of hope in the Dominican Republic. Lest one suppose that this book preaches environmental determinism, the latter country illustrates what a big difference one person can make, especially if he or she is the country’s leader.
China (Chapter 12) suffers from heavy doses of all 12 modern types of environmental problems. Because China is so huge in its economy, population, and area, China’s environmental and economic impact is important not only for China’s own people but also for the whole world. Australia (Chapter 13) 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, it is also among the countries now considering the most radical restructuring of its society, in order to solve those problems.
This book’s concluding section (Part Four) extracts practical lessons for us today. Chapter 14 asks 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? Can we say that their end was the inhabitants’ own fault, or that they were instead tragic victims of insoluble problems? How much past environmental damage was unintentional and imperceptible, and how much was perversely wrought by people acting in full awareness of the consequences? For instance, what were Easter Islanders saying as they cut down the last tree on their island? 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 leave some members of the group to pursue goals good for themselves but bad for the rest of the group.
Chapter 15 considers 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 emulate them.
Finally, Chapter 16 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 faced by past societies. A major difference has to do with globalization, which lies at the heart of the strongest reasons both for pessimism and for optimism about our ability to solve our current environmental problems. Globalization makes it impossible for modern societies to collapse in isolation, as did Easter Island and the Greenland Norse in the past. Any society in turmoil today, no matter how remote—think of Somalia and Afghanistan as examples—can cause trouble for prosperous societies on other continents, and is also subject to their influence (whether helpful or destabilizing). For the first time in history, we face the risk of a global decline. But we also are the first to enjoy the opportunity of learning quickly from developments in societies anywhere else in the world today, and from what has unfolded in societies at any time in the past. That’s why I wrote this book.
Table of Contents of Collapse

One Island, Two Peoples, Two Histories: The Dominican Republic and Haiti
The Situation:
Haiti and the Dominican Republic make up to two halves of one Caribbean Island located south of Florida. While the Dominican Republic and Haiti directly border one another, economic, social, political, and environmental conditions differ vastly. Both nations began with Indigenous roots; the Tainos people inhabited the land. However, Spanish colonization in the East and eventually French colonization in the West led to the death of natives through disease, exhaustion and sometimes, direct cruelty from the colonizers. Both the eastern (Haiti) and western (Dominican Republic) parts of the island are rooted in a history of European colonization. Africans were imported into the island to replace the dying labor force. Furthermore, both nations endured histories of deforestation and a depletion of natural resources. Both islands endured harsh ruling from dictators. While both countries are poor, the Dominican Republic’s “per capita income is five times higher, and the population density and population growth are lower.” Furthermore, its political system is much more stable and is “at least nominally a democracy.” Finally, the Dominican Republic has a complex natural reserve system with 74 parks or reserves that make up 32% of the land. On the other hand, Haitians live in general poverty with little access to water or electricity. Most of the people are subsistence farmers. Haitians endured a history of political turmoil with little economic and environmental development. Only four parks make up the natural park system in Haiti. How is it possible for two nations to exist so differently on one island?
Jared M. Diamond’s Argument
Diamond argues that the divergence between Haiti and the Dominican Republic begins in colonization and ends in the decisions made leaders. Haiti was colonized by the French who focused on developing the agricultural output through increased imports of Africans for labor. On the other hand, the Dominican Republic was colonized by the Spanish who raised cattle and imported notably less slaves. The Spanish eventually lost interest in that area of the Island, and therefore did not focus on developing agriculturally. Ironically, this impacted the future of the two nations in an opposite manner than expected. The French’s efforts overpopulated Haiti, increasing population without an increase in resources. Furthermore, farming in the mountainous and less-nutrient rich Haiti led to depletion of resources early on. Haitians, now mostly descendents of African slaves or mulatto mixes launched rebellions that left them fearful of foreign invasion. Hence, the people developed a deep fear and distrust of foreigners, closing the country to participation and investment from immigrants or foreign people. The people divided the lands and survived on subsistence farming without room for development. On the other hand, the lack of attention from the Spanish allowed the Dominican Republic to maintain its natural resources and develop more naturally. Viewed from the outside as more Spanish (and therefore European), the Dominican Republic became desirable for European immigrants. The lack of a strong history of slave rebellion left the Dominican Republic more open to participation from immigrants, who eventually became valuable assets in helping to develop the nation economically. Hence, there were less people in the Dominican Republic and more trusting outlook on development from the outside world.
Furthermore, Diamond argues that the history of leadership makes a huge difference in the fate of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Following decolonization, both countries existed in political and social chaos. However, the Dominican Republic was able to stabilize through the ruling of a dictator. This dictator was interested in developing the economy, which eventually led to protection of the environment and development of dams to support hydrological energy. Despite his violent and cruel treatment of his people, Diamond argues that his interest in developing the Dominican Republic is what revived the nation from chaos. Furthermore, the people of the Dominican Republic played a significant role in lobbying the government to protect the natural resources, and eventually the dictators who followed played a role in passing laws and regulations that banned outside logging. The people also formed non-governmental organizations that actively seek to protect, maintain, and develop environmental resources. On the other hand, Haitians survived on subsistence farming. The people had no manner of developing their farm work into cash crops because there were no governmental initiatives to develop the economy. Haitians endured dictatorships under rulers who had no interest in developing the country, but who had more interest in exploiting the people. Hence, the country has become the poorest country in the New World and one of the poorest countries in the world, after African nations.
My Reflection
While Diamond’s analysis on the legacies of colonization and the impact of leadership is revelatory, his criticism of Haitian’s fearful response and individualistic mentalities following colonization lacks complexity. Diamond praises Dominicans for their resilience following decades of colonization and lack of agricultural development. Furthermore, he depicts Dominicans’ efforts to seek a protectorate relationship with their former colonizers in a positive light by suggesting that it demonstrates their trusting relationship with foreign powers. Hence, Dominicans became a nation open to immigration and desirable to immigration. The lack of agricultural investment in the Dominican Republic meant that there were less Africans brought into the nation as slaves. As a result, there are less Dominicans who distrust foreign powers. On the other hand, Diamond suggests that it is this very distrust of foreign powers that leaves Haiti underdeveloped. Histories of colonization led Haitians to divide land individually, leading to an individualistic model of economy. Furthermore, Haitians fear immigration because they fear foreign powers. Hence, Diamond asserts that because Haitians do not open their nations to foreign powers, they are closing themselves to further development. However, Diamond fails to offer an alternative. Diamond almost blames Haitians for their reaction to legacies of colonization.
Background Information
Malthusian: term used to describe East African population issues in Diamond’s Collapse.
This phrase comes from Thomas Malthus, an English economist and demographer, who posits that population growth is exponential and food production is not (rather, food production can only develop arithmetically).
Rwandan genocide deaths exceed all other genocides proportionally— except for the Cambodian genocide.
Belgians made preexisting ethnic distinctions more pronounced by requiring all Hutus and Tutsis to carry identification cards. Throughout the early 1990′s the extremist Hutu government organized Tutsi killings.
Diamond’s Interpretation
Diamond argues that although overpopulation certainly does not necessitate genocide, it seems that the pressure of a country to face an overpopulated nation’s growing needs is one of the most important factors to consider in the Rwandan genocide. Diamond draws parallels between the theoretical Malthusian picture and Rwanda’s very real state of affairs. For instance, he states that “Severe problems of overpopulation, environmental impact, and climate change cannot persist indefinitely: sooner or later they are likely to resolve themselves, whether in the manner of Rwanda or some other manner not of our devising, if we don’t succeed in solving them by our own actions” (328).
Personal Reflection
As Diamond proposes, primarily discussing genocide in terms like “the Malthusian crisis” is not only dispassionate, but quite wrong. It is important to remember that genocide is not a matter of logical, causal relationships. We must understand the indescribably savage and hateful human conditions that occur in genocides before we begin to diagnose their causes according to our cultural prescriptions. Diamond, I think, has this in mind in his book. In this way, (namely, empathy before analysis) we can come to “better” history-writing instead of disadvantageously fragmented narratives. One of my future goals is to achieve official U.S. recognition of the Armenian genocide and Cambodian genocide. This is not only because I have personal political and emotional investment in the genocides or want to hit our youth over the head with more violence and killings, but because we must institutionalize understandings of such atrocities to develop empathy and then important research, like Diamond’s. From there, we can actually contextualize our history and create stronger world leaders.
Big Business and the Environment: Different Conditions, Different Outcomes
One of the biggest struggles our generation faces today is finding the balance between satisfying the interests of big business and those of environmentalists. Often times, there is no room for compromise. In this chapter of Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, the famous scientist, author, and UCLA professor delves into the business practices and motives of several “extraction” industries: oil, hardrock mining and coal, logging, and marine fishing. While politicians, CEO’s, and environmentalists may play a vicious game of tug-of-war in terms of public policy and business regulation, Diamond argues that the interests of big business, environmentalists, and society as a whole coincide more often than you might guess. What may seem like poor, careless business practice on the side of these industries may instead be the product of a society’s failure to make good decisions. For today’s blog post, I plan to briefly summarize each of these industries business practices in relation to their effect on the environment and highlight some misconceptions about the extraction industries that Diamond discusses in this chapter. I will also attempt to connect his insight to other things that we can more easily relate to.
First, to clarify a bit: the chapter does not condemn the oil, mining, logging, or fishing industries and impose an altogether environmentalist philosophy upon us. Rather, Diamond works through each of the industries motives and operations and presents them so that you can determine what business practices seem right or wrong. He begins his discussion with background on oil fields, particularly, the oil fields of the company we know as Chevron. Some of us may already have some pre-existing ill feelings towards the oil industry. Take, for example, British Petroleum’s mega oil spill last year in the Gulf of Mexico. For three months, pictures of oil sodden birds, dead fish, and polluted estuaries bombarded the news and infuriated millions of people across the country. Some people even went as far as boycotting BP, claiming that the billion dollar company hardly makes any effort to spare the environment from its extraction operations. This isn’t the case.
[pic]As bad and horrible and devastating an oil spill may be, the public outrage on these accidents completely undermines years of effort on the behalf of oil companies to prevent such catastrophes. Although oil spills do not happen often, when they do, the negative reception of it by the public is enormous. And that is rightly so, but just like we are suddenly afraid to swim in open waters after a report of a shark attack flashes across the news, we cannot assume that because of one oil spill, the oil industry is the worst thing to ever happen. In fact, Diamond explains that oil companies spend millions of dollars on environmentally conscious business policies and practices so that these accidents never occur. Such practices include paving the narrowest possible roads through rain forests, strict employee safety rules, and fauna conservation within the confines of their oil fields (in Papua New Guinea, there are more wildlife found within Chevron’s oil fields than outside the oil fields). Although Chevron claims that their concern for the environment is their motivating factor, saving money is the ultimate reason for pursuing more environmentally friendly business operations. Look at the Gulf oil spill. Cleaning up accidents and the pollution that they leave is far more expensive than investing in infrastructure that actually prevents such accidents. Do this, you save money and you get the approval of the general public.
The story, however, is different for hardrock mining operations. Hardrock mining, or the extraction of metals, and its effect on the environment is far worse than that of the oil industry. Why? Because it takes so much more land and digging up to attain metals in the earth such as copper or palladium. While the oil industry’s major waste is water, hardrock mining produces mountains of dirt and excess material from the ground that eventually ends up polluting our rivers and oceans.
For the last two industries–logging and fishing–we explore the extraction of renewable natural resources. Trees and fish can reproduce and replenish their populations–oil and copper cannot. So what does Diamond mention about these industries? Unfortunately, they will soon be non-renewing industries because of rapid deforestation and overfishing. When the world population has jumped up above 6 billion, this should come as no surprise. In both these industries, big business seems to win. The demand for paper and seafood (especially in Asian countries) has rapidly increased over the years because of the world’s growing population. And what is driving big business’s to conduct less environmentally friendly behavior? ”Economics, the industry’s cooperate culture, and the attitudes of society and government.”
The film Wall-E was Pixar's first film with eco-friendly themes and, arguably, anti-capitalist propaganda.
So what does this mean for us?
Perhaps a subject we can all relate to is the subject of food. Food is like any of these other industries: we need it, so we buy it. Or you’re like my mother and you grow it. Since there is such a huge demand for food, there are huge corporations and companies that are there to help us satisfy our needs. As explained earlier, when there is big business, you generally have its counterparts–environmentalists and/or other special interest groups that deal with human rights, working conditions, etc. Big business opposition tend to enlighten us through documentaries such as “Sicko” and “The Cove.” If there is one thing that I learned from watching movies like “Food, Inc.” and reading books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma, it’s this: us individuals are a lot more powerful than we might think.
Let’s say you’re at the grocery store and you’re ready to fill your shopping cart with goodies to last you for the next two weeks. You head over to the produce section and scan the area for some tomatoes. As your looking for those tomatoes, what is your main criteria for your fresh produce choice? Is it size? Color? Farm/manufacturing company? Price? The cost of the things that you buy at the grocery store are probably the main criterion, if not the singular criterion, on which you base your purchases. Do you spend time reading labels? Do you know what those labels mean?
The Perverse Pyramid: The Farm Bill's skewed system of subsidies helps explain why unhealthy foods are often cheap and plentiful, while healthy foods are more expensive and less available. The priorities in the subsidy system stand in stark contrast to the federal government's own advice on nutrition.
Here, I’ve posted an interesting depiction of America’s current food industry. Now while we would like to place all the blame on big business and politics for trying to make us fat, we have to remember that every purchase we make is a vote for something. Each time we decide on dinner at McDonald’s over a farmer’s market is a win for the fast food industry. Every time we order a 12 oz. top sirloin steak over a vegetarian plate is a vote for more meat. A demand for something leads to the increased supply of that something, and that is reflected in the distribution of government subsidies and the availability of that object in demand.
Diamond tells us that our blaming of businesses “ignores the ultimate responsibility of the public.” In actuality, we have created the conditions that allow the oil industry, the mining industry, the logging and seafood industry to hurt the public by not forcing them to clean up or be more sustainable. This goes for the food industry as well. We as a public have chosen to let businesses dominate our economy and be less concerned with the environment through either our apathy towards the issue or our consumer decisions. I argue that we do have the power to send shocks to the system. Now, it is a question of whether we are willing to do so or not.
Check once


At the end of March, Jared Diamond was in New York to receive THE LEWIS THOMAS PRIZE Honoring the Scientist as Poet. The prize was presented to Jared by Thomas P. Sakmar, Acting President, The Rockefeller University.
"Throughout history," states the LEWIS THOMAS PRIZE literature, "scientists and poets have sought to unveil the secrets of the natural world. Their methods vary: scientists use tools of rational analysis to slake their compelling thirst for knowledge; poets delve below the surface of language, and deliver urgent communiqués from its depths. The Lewis Thomas Prize honors the rare individual who is fluent in the dialects of both realms — and who succeeds in spinning lush literary and philosophical tapestries from the silken threads of scientific and natural phenomena — providing not merely new information but cause for reflection, even revelation."

"The Lewis Thomas Prize was established in 1993 by the trustees of The Rockefeller University and presented to Lewis Thomas, its first recipient, that year. Other recipients have been François Jacob (1994), Abraham Pais (1995), Freeman Dyson (1996), Max Perutz (1997), Ernst Mayr (1998), Steven Weinberg (1999), Edward O. Wilson (2000), and Oliver Sacks (2001)."
Jared is an early and frequent contributor to Edge. In his first feature in 1997 ("Why Did Human History Unfold Differently On Different Continents For The Last 13,000 Years?") he stated:
"I've set myself the modest task of trying to explain the broad pattern of human history, on all the continents, for the last 13,000 years. Why did history take such different evolutionary courses for peoples of different continents? This problem has fascinated me for a long time, but it's now ripe for a new synthesis because of recent advances in many fields seemingly remote from history, including molecular biology, plant and animal genetics and biogeography, archaeology, and linguistics."
Underlying his task is the question of how to turn the study of history into a science. He notes the distinction between the "hard sciences" such as physics, biology, and astronomy — and what we sometimes call the "social sciences," which includes history, economics, government. The social sciences are often thought of as a pejorative. In particular many of the so-called hard scientists such as physicists or biologists, don't consider history to be a science. The situation is even more extreme because, he points out, even historians themselves don't consider history to be a science. Historians don't get training in the scientific methods; they don't get training in statistics; they don't get training in the experimental method or problems of doing experiments on historical subjects; and they'll often say that history is not a science, history is closer to an art.
He comes to this question as one who is accomplished in two scientific areas: physiology and evolutionary biology. The first is a laboratory science; the second, is never far from history. "Biology is the science," he says. "Evolution is the concept that makes biology unique." He continues to bring together history and biology in new and interesting ways to present global accounts of the rise and fall of civilizations.
More than one million copies of the U.S. edition of Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs, and Steel:The Fates of Human Societies have now been sold. Jared hopes to deliver his much-anticipated new book, Ecocide, at the end of this year for publication in 2004.

Following the Prize Presentation, Jared delivered the Lewis Thomas Prize Lecture "Why Do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions?" The next morning, he stopped by to videotape a reprise of the opening of his talk which Edge is pleased to present as a streaming video along with the text of his lecture.

JARED DIAMOND is Professor of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. Until recently he was Professor of Physiology at the UCLA School of Medicine. He is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the widely acclaimed Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies, which also is the winner of Britain's 1998 Rhone-Poulenc Science Book Prize.

He is also the author of two other trade books: The Third Chimpanzee, which won The Los Angeles Times Book award for the best science book of 1992 and Britain's 1992 Rhone-Poulenc Science Book Prize; and Why is Sex Fun? (ScienceMasters Series).
Dr. Diamond is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship ("Genius Award"); research prizes of the American Physiological Society, National Geographic Society, and Zoological Society of San Diego; and many teaching awards and endowed public lectureships. In addition, he has been elected a member of all three of the leading national scientific/academic honorary societies (National Academy of Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Philosophical Society).
His field experience includes 17 expeditions to New Guinea and neighboring islands, to study ecology and evolution of birds; rediscovery of New Guinea's long-lost goldenfronted bowerbird; other field projects in North America, South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia. As a conservationist he devised a comprehensive plan, almost all of which was subsequently implemented, for Indonesian New Guinea's national park system; numerous field projects for the Indonesian government and World Wildlife Fund; founding member of the board of the Society of Conservation Biology; member of the Board of Directors of World Wildlife Fund/USA.


IDSC 100-01,02
Oct. 20, 2005
From Diamond’s Collapse, Chpt. 14
Why do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions?
A. Failure to anticipate the problem
1. No prior experience, not sensitized to possibility of the problem.
2. We have experience, but it happened so long ago it is forgotten
3. We reason by false analogy. If old and new situations are not comparable, this kind of reasoning will not work.
B. We don't perceive the problem when it arrives
1. Origins of problem are literally imperceptible.
2. Managers are distant from the problem.
3. A slow troubling trend is concealed by wide up and down variations (“noise”).
C. Failure to attempt to solve the perceived problem
1. RATIONAL BEHAVIOR. "It’s good for me, bad for you and everyone else".
Advance own interests by behavior harmful to others.
• "Tragedy of the Commons". A community resource is overharvested, in the best interests of those doing the harvesting. "No need to refrain from harvesting. If I don't harvest, someone else will".
• Principal consumer has no long-term stake in preserving resource; society does.
• Interests of decision-making elite in power (who are insulated from others) conflict with the interests of the rest of society.
2. IRRATIONAL BEHAVIOR. Behavior that is bad for everybody.
• When torn by clash of values, people hold on to deeply held belief we're invested in, even if they lead to our demise. Religious values are frequent here.
• Public widely dislikes those who first perceive and complain about the problem.
• Clashes between short- and long-term motives in an individual.
• Crowd psychology. We get swept along with group decision. "Groupthink".
• Psychologial denial.
D. Despite attempts, we do not solve the problem
1. Problem is beyond our current capacities.
2. Solution exists, but it is too expensive.
3. Our efforts are "too little too late".

Reader Response on “Why Do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions?” by Jared Diamond

18 Oct 2011 Leave a Comment by hcylkowski in Uncategorized
“Perhaps if we understand that the reasons why groups often make bad decisions, we could use that knowledge as a checklist to guide groups to make good decisions” taken from “Why Do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions?” by Jared Diamond is just an example of the main point behind the essay. In his article, Diamond expresses the need for history and the ever classic telling of, history needs to be learned or else it is bound to repeat itself. Such an argument is his main reasoning to why some societies make bad decisions and in some cases, continue to make bad decisions. Diamond’s argument is found in a couple of ways, first being that society tends to ignore a problem if they don’t see anything bad happening currently. This type of ignorance can be found in the present example of the civilization of the United States of America and other countries, that simply ignore the problem of global warming or climate change. The effects of climate change are present upon the world, but in an abstract way. Diamond expresses this particular example with the term “landscape amnesia” which refers to the fact that the newer population of society grows up in the coming environment and believes it to be normal and good. Such as a tribe living in a great forest, cutting down three hundred trees every year. The differences go unnoticed but as time develops and society gets used to the trees not being there, soon enough there will be no trees. This might have been the case with the people of Easter Island who relied heavily on their trees are Diamond explains. I can see this happen everyday and in ways it puts great fear in me.
I know that it’s unrelated to what I have been talking about, but this knowing history extends much farther in the realm of environment awareness. What about World War 1 and 2, what about the political aspects that led to economic success and failure? Being in a comparative government class I have been able to see the differences in what kinds of economy work and don’t wok and a large reason for me knowing these things, is because of history. This article did not challenge my beliefs, only really ensured another opinion on the importance of history in schools, in civilization and the world. Knowing history is the only way to develop really, and in order for America to not crumble and fall, we might as well look back on our history and learn from what didn’t work out.
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Mining Australia

Perhaps the single most astonishing, ridiculously contradictory set of public policies we face, is the left hand of government promoting reduced greenhouse emissions, conservation of diminishing freshwater, soil fertility and other declining natural resources, while the right hand promotes rapid population growth through increased birthrate and immigration.
Is this a classic example of the left hand not knowing (or wanting to know) what the right hand is up to? One well-disposed but concerned observer from abroad (a frequent visitor to our shores) is the United States’ Professor Jared Diamond, author of (inter alia) the very influential Guns, Germs and Steel (1997). This treatise is a convincing science-based exposition of the geographical and environmental reasons for the technological ascendancy of European nation-states during the second millennium, in addition to the usual social and other reasons advanced by historians. It traces humankind’s global history since the appearance of agricultural settlements in the Middle East “fertile crescent”, Nile and Indus valleys and China, wherever our ancestors encountered domesticable animal and plant species, and the consequent spread of agriculture-based societies throughout Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.
Prof. Diamond has since published Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive (Penguin, 2005: 574 pp) which includes a chapter, Mining Australia (38 pp) deserving the most serious consideration by any Australian government, regardless of its party political social theories. In this tour de force, he reviews the reasons for the disintegration of cultures with legacies of abandoned ruins in Norse Greenland, Anasazi Chaco Canyon, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and other Pacific Islands, in Mayan Yucatan, and elsewhere. These reasons - mainly overpopulation and irrational actions driving local environmental degradation - have also played their part in modern tragedies including the Rwandan genocide and the impoverishment of nations such as Haiti, while neighbour states (eg. Dominican Republic) prosper. The prospects for nations including China, the United States, and others subject to environmentally disastrous values, with failure to recognise or anticipate the consequences of irrational political policies and unsuccessful remedies, are comprehensively brought into focus.
He sees Australia, not as a nation facing imminent collapse, but as the first world’s miners’ canary: a developed country facing a rapid decline in living standards as its burgeoning population outstrips its rapidly degrading natural resource base. After consulting widely with government authorities, academics (including Tim Flannery) and grassroots farmers, graziers, and Landcare-type groups, Jared Diamond compares us with other nations, past and present. He details our problems of soil fertility and salinization, land degradation, diminishing freshwater resources, distance costs, over-exploitation of forests and fisheries, importation of inappropriate European agricultural values and methods and alien species, trade and immigration policies. He concludes that the mining of our natural resources - their unsustainable exploitation at rates faster than their renewal rates since European settlement began - gives us the dubious distinction of ”…illustrating in extreme form the exponentially accelerating
“horse race” in which the world now finds itself……on the one hand, the development of environmental problems……on the other hand, the development of public environmental concern, and of private and governmental countermeasures. Which horse will win? Many readers……will live long enough to see the outcome.”
Specifically, he concludes: ”Contrary to their government and business leaders, 70% of Australians say that they want less rather than more immigration. In the long run it is doubtful that Australia can even support its present population: the best estimate of a population sustainable at the present standard of living is 8 million people, less than half of the present population.” The reasons supporting this alarming prognosis (how long is “the long run”?) are very briefly summarised as follows. 1. Non-sustainability: ”At present rates, Australia’s forests and fisheries will disappear long before its coal and iron reserves, which is ironic……the former are renewable but the latter aren’t.” And: ”While many other countries are mining their environments……among First World countries, (our) population and economy are much smaller and less complex than……the U.S., Europe or Japan……the Australian situation is more easily grasped.” 2. Exceptional ecological fragility: ”…the most fragile of any First World country except perhaps Iceland……many problems that could eventually become crippling in other First World countries and already are so in some Third World countries - such as overgrazing, salinization, soil erosion, introduced species, water shortages, and man-made droughts - have already become severe in Australia.” 3. An informed population: we have ”……a well-educated populace…and relatively honest political and economic institutions by world standards. Australia’s environmental problems cannot be dismissed as……ecological mismanagement by an uneducated, desperately impoverished populace and grossly corrupt government and businesses……” 4. Climate change: clearly exacerbating our ”obvious massive impacts on the Australian environment”. 5. Traditional core values: ”……friendly relations with Britain as a trade partner and model society have shaped Australian environmental and population policies……and some imported cultural values……inappropriate to the Australian landscape (e.g. agricultural practices based on high-yield British soils). We are now ”thinking radically” and acting to modify some of these core values. 6. Australian soils, especially their low nutrient and increasingly high salt levels. We inhabit ”…the most unproductive continent…soils with the lowest average nutrient levels…old, leached over billions of years…only a few small areas have been renewed by volcanic or glacial activity or slow uplift. Agriculture has therefore depended on fertilizers and cultivation of large low-yield areas, with increased machinery and fuel costs, competitive disadvantages vis-à-vis food imports, low agroforestry returns due to slow tree growth, and relatively unproductive coastal and inland fisheries due to low-nutrient runoff. 7. Salinity, i.e. salt mobilization. Increasingly, low soil nutrient fertility is worsened by salt, from three causes: sea-salt blown inland over south-west W.A. wheat belt; repeated past marine inundations of the Murray-Darling basin and evaporation of inland lakes; mobilisation of salt by land clearance and irrigation agriculture. ”Salinization…already affects about 9% of all cleared land in Australia……projected under present trends to rise to about 25%.” And: ”The total area in Australia to which salinization has the potential for spreading is more than 6 times the current extent and includes a 4-fold increase in W.A., 7-fold increase in Queensland, 10-fold increase in Victoria and 60-fold increase in New South Wales.” If true: phew!!! 8. Fresh water as a population-limiting factor: ”Australia is the continent with the least of it.” Most readily accessible water is already utilised - domestic, agriculture and industry. For instance, our largest river, the Murray/Darling, has two thirds or more of its flow drawn off each year (in some years no water is left to enter the ocean), and becomes progressively saltier downstream towards Adelaide, with increased burden of pesticides from cotton farming and irrigation practices. Further high-energy desalination plants now seem inevitable for urban requirements. Historically, “Australian land use has gone through many cycles of land clearance, investment, bankruptcy and abandonment” from early colonial times, due to low soil productivity and a disproportionately large fraction of pastoral and arid lands subject to low-average unpredictable unreliable rainfall. This is due to the ENSO (El Nino Southern Oscillation) climatic factor, resulting in uncertain crop returns, bare soil, and consequent soil erosion and salinization. South Australia’s Goyder Line and parts of Western Australia’s Gascoigne provide two of many examples. 9. The “tyranny of distances”, imposing large extra costs, both within Australia and between our trading partners. These costs also mitigate against medium-sized towns, producing the world’s most urbanised nation (about 60% of us dwell in the 5 major cities). 10. Introduced species: cattle and sheep have been of great economic value, while also damaging fragile ecosystems. Whereas rabbits, foxes, cane toads, carp, feral buffalo, camels, donkeys, horses, goats, blackberry, “Paterson’s curse”, mimosa in Kakadu, and other weed species (about 3000, alone causing economic losses of about $2 billion annually), are expensive disasters. 11. Land clearance (encouraged by tax incentives), overstocking and overgrazing have resulted in dryland salinization, soil erosion and land abandonment. ”Rotting and burning of the bulldozed vegetation (in 2005) contribute to Australia’s annual greenhouse emissions a gas quantity approximately equal to the country’s total motor vehicle emissions.” 12. Marine overfishing: species which have been “mined” to uneconomically low levels include coral trout, eastern gemfish, Exmouth Gulf tiger prawns, school shark, southern bluefin tuna, tiger flathead, and orange roughy. Damage to freshwater fisheries, e.g Murray cod and golden perch, may also be irreversible. 13. Forestry: with only 25% of 1788 forests remaining intact, and still being mined, half our export products are wood chips (as low as $7 per ton) sent mostly to Japan, where the resulting paper sells for $1000 per ton; we import nearly 3 times our forest products exports, one-half as paper and paperboard products. ”One expects to encounter that particular type of trade asymmetry ……when an economically backward non-industrialised unsophisticated Third World colony deals with a First World country……buying their raw materials cheaply, adding value……and exporting expensive manufactured goods to the colony.” 14. Trade: ”In short, over the past half century Australia’s exports have shifted from predominantly agricultural products to minerals, while its trade partners have shifted from Europe to Asia.” We are exposed to unprecedented new national security and economic factors, 15. Population policy: ”The fallacy behind the policy of “filling up Australia”, despite ”compelling environmental reasons” to the contrary, arises from our aspirations for national security and economic power (with only a few millions each, Israel, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Singapore already outstrip us, implying that quality is more important than quantity?) Some politicians and business leaders still call for 50 millions, regardless of our declining natural resource base! This may rapidly convert us to “a net food importer rather than exporter of food”, in a world already struggling to feed an expanding population of some 6.6 billions. It will also dilute our per capita earnings from mineral exports. Professor Diamond sympathetically reviews the many remedial policies, individual and group activities which are attempting to control these and other problems. No doubt some items need some up-dating. But his main point remain valid: because it is all happening so rapidly here, he regards our nation as a warning and an example to the developed world. For this reviewer, one local need stands out above all others: the need for a rational population policy, with numbers in balance with our diminishing natural resource base, having due regard for limiting factors listed above. Indeed, this need applies not only to Australia, but to our Earth entire, recently imaged by the outbound Voyager 2 space probe as a single pale blue pixel, a dust mote suspended in a sunbeam. On this damaged dust mote, we and our descendants will continue our species’ history, our unfolding comprehension of our origin, present existence and attainable future. Or so we hope. (Dr) John O’Connor.

Complete summary

"Why did these ancient civilizations abandon their cities after building them with such great effort? Why these ancient collapses? This question isn't just a romantic mystery. It's also a challenging intellectual problem. Why is it that some societies collapsed while others did not collapse?
But even more, this question is relevant to the environmental problems that we face today — what if anything, can the past teach us about why some societies are more unstable than others, and about how some societies have managed to overcome their environmental problems. Can we extract from the past any useful guidance that will help us in the coming decades?" - Jared Diamond, from an ABC Interview, explaining the theme of the book
"A blueprint for disaster in any society is when the elite are capable of insulating themselves." - Jared Diamond, interviewed in "National Review"
00 - Prologue: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive
01 - Under Montana's Big Sky
02 - Twilight at Easter Island
03 - The Last People Alive: Pitcairn and Henderson Islands
04 - The Ancient Ones: The Anasazi
05 - The Maya Collapse
06 - The Viking Prelude and Fugues
07 - Norse Greenland's Flowering
08 - Norse Greenland's End
09 - Opposite Paths to Success
10 - Malthus in Africa: Rwanda's Genocide
11 - One Island, Two Peoples: Dominican Republic and Haiti
12 - China, Lurching Giant
13 - Mining Australia
14 - Why Do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions?
15 - Big Businesses and the Environment
16 - What Does It All Mean For Us Today?
EX - Beyond The Book
Norse Greenland is just one of many past societies that collapsed or vanished, leaving behind monumental ruins such as those that Shelley imagined in his poem "Ozymandias". By collapse, I mean a drastic decrease in human population size and/or politlcal/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time.
By those standards, most people would consider the following past societies to have been famous victims of full-fledged collapses rather than of just minor declines: the Anasazi and Cahokia within the boundaries of the modern US, the Maya cities in Central America, Moche and Tiwanaku societies in South America, Mycenean Greece and Minoan Crete in Europe, Great Zimbabwe in Africa, Angkor Wat and the Harappan Indus Valley cities in Asia, and Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean.
The monumental ruins left behind by those past societies hold a romantic fascination for us all. We feel drawn to their often spectacular and haunting beauty, and also to the mysteries that they pose? Lurking behind this romantic mystery is the nagging thought: might such a fate eventually befall our own wealthy society? Will tourists someday stare mystified at the rusting hulks of New York'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 at least partly triggered by ecological problems: people inadvertently destroying the environmental resources on which their societies depended. This suspicion of unintended ecological suicide (ecocide) has been confirmed by discoveries made in recent decades by archaeologists, climatologists, historians, paleontologists and palynologists (pollen scientists). The processes through which past societies have undermined themselves by damaging their environments fall into eight categories, whose relative importance differs from case to case: deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems, water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth, and increased per-capita impact of people.
Efforts to understand past collapses have had to confront one major controversy and four complications. The controversy involves resistance to the idea that past peoples (some of them known to be ancestral to peoples currently alive and vocal) did things that contributed to their own decline. ...To damage the environment today is considered morally culpable. Not surprisingly, native Hawaiians and Maoris don't like paleontologists telling them their ancestors exterminated half the bird species that had evolved on Hawaii and New Zealand, or do Native Americans like archaeologists telling them that the Anasazi deforested parts of the south-western US... it's as if the scientists were saying, "Your ancestors were bad stewards of their lands, so they deserved to be dispossessed".
It seems to me wrongheaded and dangerous to invoke historical assumptions about environmental practices of native peoples in order to justify treating them fairly. By invoking this (Eden-like environmentalism) to justify fair treatment of native peoples, we imply that it would be ok to mistreat them if that assumption could be refuted.
Managing environmental resources sustainably has always been difficult, even since Homo sapiens developed modern inventiveness, efficiency and hunting skills by around 50,000 years ago. Beginning with the first human colonization of the Australian continent around 46,000 years ago, and the subsequent prompt extinction of most of Australia's former giant marsupials and other large animals, every human colonization of a land mass formerly lacking humans - whether of Australia, North America, South America, Madagascar, the Mediterranean island, or Hawaii and New Zealand and dozens of other Pacific islands - has been followed by a wave of extinction of large animals that had evolved without fear of humans and were easy to kill, or else succumbed to human-associated habitat changes, introduced pest species, and diseases. Any people can fall into the trap of overexploiting environmental resources.
The socieities that ended up collapsing were (like the Maya) among the most creative and (for a time) advanced and succesful of their times, rather than stupid and primitive. Past peoples were neither ignorant bad managers who deserved to be exterminated or dispossessed, nor all-knowing conscientious environmentalists who solved problems that we can't solve today. They were people like us.
When Norwegian colonists of Iceland first encountered an environment superficially similar to that of Norway but in reality very different, they inadvertently destroyed much of Iceland's topsoil and most of its forests. Iceland for a long time was Europe's poorest and most ecologically ravaged country. However, Icelanders eventually learned from experience, adopted rigorous measures of environmental protection, and now enjoy one of the highest per-capita national average incomes in the world. Thus, this book is not an uninterrupted series of despressing stories of failure, but also includes success stories inspiring imitation and optimism.
I don't know of any case in which a society's collapse can be attributed solely to environmental damage, there are always other contributing factors. Eventually, I arrived at a five-point framework of possible contributing factors that I now consider in trying to understand any putative environmental collapse. Four of those sets of factors - environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbours and friendly trade partners - may or may not prove significant for a particular society. The fifth set of factors - the society's response to its environmental problems - always proves significant.
It would be absurd to claim that environmental damage must be a major factor in all collapses: the collapse of the Soviet Union is a modern counter-example, and the destruction of Carthage by Rome in 146 BC is an ancient one. It's obviously true that military or economic factors alone may suffice.
In many historical cases, a society that was depleting its environmental resources could survive as long the climate was benign, but was then driven over the brink of collapse when the climate became drier, colder, hotter, wetter or more variable. Should one then say that the collapse was caused by human environmental impact, or by climate change? Neither of those simple alternatives is correct.
A society may be able to hold off its enemies as long as it is strong, only to succumb when it becomes weakened for any reason, including environmental damage. The proximate cause of the collapse will then be military conquest, but the ultimate factor will have been the factor that caused the weakening. Hence collapses for ecological or other reasons often masquerade as military defeats.
My view is that, if environmentalists aren't willing to engage with big business, which are among the most powerful forces in the modern world, it won't be possible to solve the world's environmental problems.
How can one study the collapses of societies "scientifically"? Science is often misrepresented as "the body of knowledge acquired by performing replicated controlled experiments in the laboratory". Actually, science is something much broader: the acquisition of reliable knowledge about the world.
It's usually neither feasible, legal nor ethical to gain knowledge about birds by experimentally exterminating or manipulating their populations at one site while maintaining their populations at another site as unmanipulated controls... a frequent solution is to apply what is termed the "comparitive method" or the "natural experiment" - i.e. to compare natural situations differing with respect to the variable of interest.
[#2 Twilight at Easter Island]
The prehistoric Polynesian expansion was the most dramatic burst of overwater exploration in human prehistory. Until 1200 BC, the spread of ancient humans from the Asian mainland through Indonesia's islands to Australia and New Guinea had advanced no farther into the Pacific then the Solomon Islands east of New Guinea. Around that time, a seafaring and farming people, apparently originating from the Bismarck Archipelago northeast of New Guinea, and producing ceramics known as Lapita-style pottery, swept nearly a thousand miles across the open oceans east of the Solomons to reach Fiji, Samoa and Tonga and to become the ancestors of the Polynesians. While Polynesians lacked compasses and writing and metal tools, they were masters of navigational arts and of sailing canoe technology. Abundant archaeological evidence at radiocarbon-dated sites - such as pottery and stone tools, remains of houses and temples, food debris, and human skeletons - testifies to the approximate dates and routes of their expansion. By around AD 1200, Polynesians had reached every habitable scrap of land in the vast watery triangle of land whose apexes are Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island.
The first expansion wave of Lapita potters ancestral to Polynesians spread eastwards across the Pacific only as far as Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga, which lie within just a few days' sail of each other. A much wider gap of ocean separates those West Polynesian island from the islands of East Polynesia: the Cooks, Societies, Marquesas, Australs, Tuamotus, Hawaii, New Zealand, Pitcairn group, and Easter. Only after a "Long Pause" of about 1500 years was that gap finally breached — whether because of improvements in Polynesian canoes and navigation, changes in ocean currents, emergence of stepping-stone islets due to a drop in sea level, or just one lucky voyage. Some time around AD 600-800 the Cooks, Societies, and Marquesas, which are the East Polynesian islands most accessible from West Polynesia, were colonized and became in turn the sources of colonists for the remaining islands. With New Zealand's occupation around AD 1200, across a huge water gap of at least 2000 miles, the settlement of the Pacific's habitable islands was at last complete.
To us modern landlubbers, it is literally incredible that canoe voyagers sailing east from Mangareva could have had the good luck to hit an island only nine miles wide from north to south after such a long voyage. However, Polynesians knew how to anticipate an island long before land became visible, from the flocks of nesting seabirds that fly out over a radius of a hundred miles from land to forage. Thus, the effective diameter of Easter would have been a respectable 200 miles to Polynesian canoe-voyagers, rather than a mere nine.
Given the widespead distribution over Polynesia of platforms and statues, why were the Easter Islanders the only ones to go overboard, to make by far the largest investment of societal resources in building them, and to erect the biggest ones? Rano Raraku tuff is the best stone in the Pacific for carving. Other Pacific island societies on islands within a few days' sail of other islands devoted their energy, resources, and labor to interisland trading, raiding, exploration, colonization, and emigration, but these competing outlets were foreclosed for Easter Islanders by their isolation. While chiefs on other Pacific islands could compete for prestige and status by seeking to outdo each other in these interisland activities, "The boys on Easter Island didn't have those usual games to play", as one of my students put it.
[#3 The Last People Alive: Pitcairn and Henderson Islands]
With too many peoples and too little food, Mangareva society slid into a nightmare of civil war and chronic hunger. For protein, people turned to cannibalism. Chronic fighting broke out over the precious remaining cultivatable land; the winning side redistributed the land of the losers. The thought of Lilliputian military dictatorships on eastern and western Mangareva, battling for control of an island only five miles long, could seem funny if it were not so tragic. All that political chaos alone would have made it difficult to muster the manpower and supplies necessary for oceangoing canoe travel... even if trees for canoes themselves had not become unavailable. With the collapse of Mangareva at its hub, the whole East Polynesia trade network that had joined Mangareva to the Marquesas, Societies, Tuamotus, Pitcairn and Henderson disintegrated.
Environmental damage, leading to social and political chaos and to loss of timber for canoes, ended Southeast Polynesia's interisland trade. The end of trade would have exacerbated problems for Mangarevans. For the inhabitants of Pitcairn and Henderson, the results were even worse: eventually, no one was left alive on those islands. Those disappearances of Pitcairn's and Henderson's populations must have resulted somehow from the severing of the Mangarevan umbilical cord.
Did the last Henderson Islanders spend much time on the beaches, for generation after generation, staring out to sea in the hopes of sighting the canoes that had stopped coming, until even the memory of what a canoe looked like grew dim? While the details of how human life flickered out on Pitcairn and Henderson remain unknown, I can't tear myself free of the mysterious drama. In my head, I run through alternative endings of the movie, guiding my speculation by what I know actually did happen to some other isolated societies. When people are trapped together with no possibility of emigration, enemies can no longer resolves tensions merely by moving apart. Those tensions may have exploded in mass murder, which later nearly did destroy the colony of 'Bounty' mutineers on Pitcairn itself. Murder could also have been driven by food shortage and cannibalism, as happened to the Managarevans, Easter Islanders, and the Donner Party in California. Perhaps people grown desperate turned to mass suicide. Desperation might have instead led to insanity, the fare of some members of the Belgian Antarctic Expedition, whose ship was trapped by ice for over a year in 198-1899. Still another catastrophic ending could have been starvation, the fate of Japan's garrison stranded on Wake Island during WW2, and perhaps exacerbated by a drought, typoon, tsunami, or other environmental disaster. Then my mind turns to gentler possible endings of the movie. After a few generations of isolation on Pitcairn or Henderson, everyone in their microsociety of a hundred or a few dozen people would have been everyone else's cousin, and it would have become impossible to contract a marriage not in violation of incest taboos. Hence people may have just grown old together and stopped having children, as happened to California's last surviving Yahi Indians. If the small population did ignore incest taboos, the resulting inbreeding may have caused congenital physical anomalies to proliferate, as exemplified by deafness on Martha's Vineyard Island off Massachusetts or on the remote Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha.
[#4 The Ancient Ones: The Anasazi]
All of these solutions face a similar overarching risk: that a series of good years, with adequate rainfall or with sufficiently shallow groundwater tables, may result in population growth, resulting in turn in society becoming increasingly complex and interdependent and no longer locally self-sufficient. Such a society cannot cope with, and rebuild itself after, a series of bad years that a less populous, less interdependent, more self-sufficient society had previously been able to cope with. As we shall seem precisely that dilemma ended Anasazi settlement of Long House Valley, and perhaps other areas as well.
[#5 The Maya Collapse]
We are accustomed to thinking of military success as determined by quality of weaponry, rather than by food supply. But a clear example of how improvements in food supply may decisively increase military success comes from the history of Maori New Zealand. The Maori are the Polynesian people who were first to settle New Zealand. Traditionally, they fought frequent fierce wars against each other, but only against closely neighbouring tribes. Those wars were limited by the modest productivity of their agriculture, whose staple crop was sweet potatoes. It was not possible to grow enough sweet potatoes to feed an army in the field for a long time or on distant marches. When Europeans arrived in New Zealand, they brought potatoes, which beginning around 1815 considerably increased Maori crop yields. Maori could now grow enough food to supply armies in the field for many weeks. The result was a 15-year period in Maori history, from 1818 until 1833, when Maori tribes that had acquired potatoes and guns from the English sent armies out on raids to attack tribes hundreds of miles away that had not yet acquired potatoes and guns. Thus, the potato's productivity relieved previous limitations on Maori warfare, similar to the limitations that low-productivity corn agriculture imposed on Maya warfare.
Those food supply considerations may contribute to explaining why Maya society remained politically divided among small kingdoms that were perpetually at war with each other, and that never become unified into large empires like the Aztec Empire (fed with the help of their chinampa agriculture and other forms of intensification) or the Inca Empire (fed by more diverse crops carried by Llamas over well-built roads).
[#6 The Viking Prelude and Fugues]
The six Viking colonies on North Atlantic islands constitute six parallel experiments in establishing societies dervied from the same ancestral source. Those six experiments resulted in different outcomes: the Orkney, Shetland and Faeroe colonies have continued to exist for more than a thousand years without their survival ever being in serious doubt; the Iceland colony also persisted but had to overcome poverty and serious difficulties; the Greenland Norse died out after 450 years; and the Vinland colonu was abandoned within the first decade.
The four main environmental variables responsible for the different outcomes appear to be: ocean distances or sailing times by ship from Norway and Britain; resistence offered by non-Viking inhabitants, if there were any; suitability for agriculture, depending especially on latitude and local climate; and environmental fragility, especially suspceptability to soil erosin and deforestation.
The Orkneys are an island archipelago off the northern tip of Britain, wrapped around the large sheltered harbor of Scapa Flow that served as the main base for the British navy in both world wars. The Orkneys are so-called continental islands, really just a piece of the British mainland that became separated only when sea levels rose around the world with glacial melting at the end of the Ice Ages 14,000 years ago. Over that land bridge, many species of land mammals, including elk, otters and hares, immigrated and provided good hunting. The Vikings conquered the Orkneys around AD 800, quickly subdued the indigenous population, known as the Picts, proceeded to use the islands as a base for raiding the nearby British and Irish mainlands, and built up a rich, powerful society that remained for some time an independent Norse kingdom.
The Vinland colony failed because the Greenland colony itself was too small and poor in timber and iron to support it, too far from both Europe and from Vinland, owned too few oceangoing ships, and could not finance big fleets of exploration; and that one or two shiploads of Greenlanders were no match for hordes of Nova Scotia and Gulf of St. Lawrence Indians when they were provoked. In AD 1000, the Greenland colony numbered no more than 500 people, so the 80 adults at the L'Anse camp would have represented a huge drain on Greenland's available manpower... it's no surprise then, that 500 Greenlanders, from the most remote colonial outpost of Norway, one of Europe's poorer nations, could not succeed at conquering and colonizing North America.
The most important thing about the failure of the Vinland colony within 10 years is that it was in part a greatly speeded-up preview of the failure that overtook the Greenland colony after 450 years. Norse Greenland survived much longer than Norse Vinland because it was closer to Norway and because hostile natives did not make their appearancefor the first few centuries. But Greenland shared, albeit in less extreme form, Vinland's twin problems of isolation and Norse inability to establish good relations with Native Americans. If it had not been for Native Americans, the Greenlanders might have survived their ecological problems, and the Vinland settlers might have persisted. In that case, Vinland might have undergone a population explosion, the Norse might have spread over North America after AD 1000, and I as a 20th-century American might now be writing this book in an Old Norse-based languiage like modern Icelandic, rather than in English.
[#8 Norse Greenland's End]
The Inuit play a major role in the story of the demise of Viking Greenland. At minimum, the Inuit represent a missed opportunity: the Greenland Vikings would have had a better chance of surviving if they had learned from or traded with the Inuit, but they didn't. At maximum, Inuit attacks or or threats to the Vikings may have played a direct role in the Vikings' extinction.
Today we think of the Inuit as the native inhabitants of Greenland and the Canadian Arctic. In reality, they were just the most recent in a series of at least four archaeologically recognized peoples who expanded eastward across Canada and entered Northwest Greenland over the course of nearly 4000 years before Norse arrival. Successive waves of them spread, remained in Greenland for centuries, and then vanished, raising their own questions of societal collapse — however we know too little about those earlier disappearances to discuss them in this book except as background to the Vikings' fate.
The Inuits' immediate predecessors were a culture referred to by archaeologists as the Dorset people, from their habitations identified at Cape Dorset on Canada's Baffin Island. After occupying most of the Canadian Arctic, they entered Greenland about 800 BC, and inhabited many parts of the island for about a thousand years, including the areas of the later Viking settlements in the southwest. For unknown reasons, they then abandoned all of Greenland and much of the Canadian Arctic by around AD 300 and contracted their distribution back to some core areas of Canada. Around AD 700, though, they expanded again to reoccupy Labrador and north-western Greenland.
Inuit culture and technology, including mastery of whale-hunting in open waters, arose in the Bering Strait region somewhat before AD 1000. Doglseds on land, and large boats at sea, enabled the Inuit to travel and transport supplies much more rapidly than could Dorset people. As the Arctic became warmer in the Middle Ages and the frozen waterways separating Canadian Arctic islands thawed, the Inuit followed their bowhead whale prey through those waterways eastwards across Canada, entering Northwest Greenland by AD 1200.
The Inuit hunted all of the same prey species that Dorset people had targeted, and probably did so more effectively because they (unlike their Dorset predecessors) possessed bows and arrows. But the hunting of hales as well gave them an additional major food supply unavailable to either Dorset people or the Norse. Unlike the Norse, the Inuit represented the climax of thousands of years of cultural developments by Arctic peoples learning to master Arctic conditions.
Within a few centuries of the Inuit expansion across Canada into Northwest Greenland, the Dorset culture, which had previously occupied both areas, disappeared. Hence, we have not one but two Inuit-related mysteries: the disappearance first of the Dorset people, then of the Norse, both of them soon after Inuit arrival in their territories. In Northwest Greenland some Dorset settlements survived for a century or two after the Inuit appeared, and it would have been impossible for two such peoples to be unaware of each other's presence, yet there is no direct archaeological evidence of contact between them, such as Inuit obkects at contemporary Dorset sites or vice vera. But there is indirect evidence of contact: the Greenland Inuit ended up with several Dorset cultural traits that they had lacked before arriving in Greenland, including a bone knife for cutting snow blocks, domed snow houses, soapstone technology, and the so-called Thule 5 harpoon head. Clearly, the Inuit not only had some opportunities to learn from the Dorset people but also must have had something to do with their disappearance after the latter had lived in the Arctic for 2,000 years. Each of us can imagine our own scenario for the end of Dorset culture. One guess of mine is that, among groups of Dorset people starving in a difficult winter, the women just deserted their men and walked over to Inuit camps where they knew that people were feasting on bowhead whales and ringed seals.
The May arrival of harp and hooded seals was critical to Norse survival, because at that time of year the stocks of stored dairy products from the previous summer and of caribou meat hunted in the previous fall would be running out, but the snow had not yet disappeared from the Norse farms so that livestock could not yet be put out to pasture, and consequently the livestock had not yet given birth and were not yet producing milk. That made the Norse vulnerable to starvation from a failure of the seal migration, or from any obstacle (such as ice in the fjords and along the coast, or else hostile Inuit) that impeded their access to the migratory seals. Such ice conditions may have been especially likely in cold years when the Norse were already vulnerable because of cold summers and hence low hay production.
Not only the Norse but also the Inuit were at frequent risk of starvation in Greenland, and the Inuit could have reduced that risk and diversified their diet by trading for Norse mild products? Why didn't trade develop in medieval times? One answer is the cultural obstacles to intermarriage or just to learning between the Norse and the Inuit. An Inuit wife would not have been nearly as useful to a Norseman as was a Norse wife: what a Norseman wanted from a wife was the ability to weave and spin wool, to tend and milk cattle and sheep, and to make 'skyr' and butter and cheese, which Norse but not Inuit girls learned from childhood. Even if a Norse hunter did befriend an Inuit hunter, the Norseman couldn't just borrow his friend's kayak and learn how to use it, because the kayak was in effect a very complicated and individually tailored piece of clothing connected to a boat, made to fit that particular Inuit hunter, and fabricated by the Inuit's wife who (unlike Norse girls) had learned from childhood how to sew skins.
To turn a first-contact situation into a friendly relationship, let alone to survive the situation, requires extreme caution and patience. Later European colonialists eventually developed some experience at dealing with such situations, but the Norse evidently shot first. In short, the 18th-century Danes in Greenland, and other Europeans meeting native peoples elsewhere, encountered the same range of problems that the Norse did: their own prejudices against "primitive pagans", the question of whether to kill them or rob them or trade with them or marry them or take their land, and the problem of how to convince them not to flee or shoot. Later Europeans dealt with those problems by cultivating that whole range of options and choosing whichever option worked best under the particular circumstances, depending on whether the Europeans were or were not outnumbered, whether the European colonist men did or did not have enough European women along as wives, whether the native people had trade goods coveted in Europe, and whether the natives' land was attractive to Europeans to settle. But the medieval Norse had not developed that range of options. Refusing or unable to learn from the Inuit, and lacking any military advantage over them, the Norse rather than the Inuit became the ones whoe eventually disappeared.
The end of the Greenland Norse colony is often described as a 'mystery'. That's true, but only partly so, because we need to distinguish ultimate reasons (i.e. underlying long-term factors behind the slow decline of Greenland Norse society) from proximate reasons (i.e. the final blow to the weakened society, killing the last individuals or forcing them to abandon their settlements). Only the proximate reasons remain partly mysterious; the ultimate reasons are clear. They consist of five sets of factors: Norse impact on the enviroment, climate change, decline in friendly contact with Norway, increase in hostile contact with the Inuit, and the conservative outlook of the Norse.
Between 1400 and 1420 the climate in the North Atlantic became colder and stormier, and mentions of ship traffic to Greenland cease... our last definite written notices of Norse Greenland are laconic accounts of burning at the stake, insanity and marriage — just the usual goings-on for any medieval European Christain society and give no hint of trouble.
The Greenland Norse did succeed in creating a unique form of European society, and in surviving for 450 years as Europe's most remote outpost. We modern Americans should not be so quick to brand them as failures, when their society survived in Greenland for longer than our English-speaking society has survived so far in North America. Ultimately, though, the chiefs founds themselves without followers. The last right that they obtained for themselves was the privilege of being the last to starve.
[#9 Opposite Paths to Success]
Of traditional Tikopia's seven methods of population regulation, the simplest was contraception by coitus interruptus. Another method was abortion. Alternatively, infanticide was carried out. Younger sons of families poor in land remained celibate, and many among the resulting surplus of marriageable women also remained celibate rather than enter into polygamous marriages. Still another method was suicide, of which there were seven known cases by hanging and 12 by swimming out to sea between 1929 and 1952. Much commoner than explicit suicide was "virtual suicide" by setting out on dangerous overseas voyages, which claimed the lives of 81 men and three women between 1929 and 1952. Such sea voyages accounted for more than one-third of all deaths of young bachelors... the bleak prospects of younger sons in poor families on a crowded island during a famine were probably often a consideration.
A momentous decision taken consciously around AD 1600, and recorded in oral traditions but also attested archaeologically, was the killing of every pig on the island, to be replaced as protein sources by an increase in consumption of fish, shellfish and turtles. According to Tikopians' accounts, their ancestors had made that decision because pigs raided and rooted up gardens, competed with humans for food, were an inefficient means to feed humans (it takes about 10 pounds of vegetables edible to humans to produce just one pound of pork), and had become a luxury food for the chiefs.
[#11 One Island, Two Peoples: Dominican Republic and Haiti]
Haiti used to be much richer and more powerful than its neighbor. In the 19th century it launched several major invasions of the Dominican Republic and annexed it for 22 years. Why were the outcomes so different in the two countries, and why was it Haiti rather than the Dominican Republic that went into steep decline? Some environmental differences do exist between the two halves of the island and made some contribution to the outcomes, but that is the smaller part of the explanation. Most of the explanation has instead to do with differences between the two peoples in their histories, attitudes, self-defined identity, and institutions, as well as between their recent leaders of government. For anyone inclined to cariacature environmental history as "environmental determinism", the contrasting histories of the Dominican Republic and Haiti provide a useful antidote. Yes, environmental problems do constrain human societies, but the societies' responses also make a difference. So too, for better or for worse, do the actions and inactions of their leaders.
[#12 China, Lurching Giant]
China's leaders used to believe that humans can and should conquer Nature, that environmental damage was a problem affecting only capitalist societies, and that socialist societies were immune to it. Now, facing overwhelming signs of China's own severe environmental problems, they know better... In 1983 environmental protection was declared a basic national principle — in theory. Many environmental protection laws and policies that have been adopted on paper are not effectively implemented or enforced.
Sandstorms inflict damage of about $540 million per year, and losses of crops and forests due to acid rain amount to about $730 million per year. More serious are the $6 billion costs of the "green wall" of trees being built to shield Beijing against sand and dust, and the $7 billion per year of losses created by pest species. We enter the zone of impressive numbers when we consider the onetime cost of the 1996 floods ($27 billion, but still cheaper than the 1998 floods), the annual direct losses due to desertification ($42 billion), and the annual losses due to water and air pollution ($54 billion). The combination of the latter two items alone costs China the equivalent of 14% of its GDP each year.
Average blood lead levels in Chinese city-dwellers are nearly double the levels considered elsewhere in the world to be dangerously high and to put at risk the mental development of children. About 300,000 deaths per year and $54 billion of health costs are attributed to air pollution.
Because of geographic factors, China's geographic core was unified already in 221 BC and has remained unified for most of the time since then, whereas geograpgically fragmented Europe has never been political unified. That unity enabled China's rulers to command changes over a larger area than any European ruler could ever command — both changes for the better, and changes for the worse, often in rapid alteration (hence "lurching"). The strengths and risks of China's unity have persisted into recent times, as China continues to lurch on major policies affecting its environment and its population. On the one hand, China's leaders have been able to solve problems on a scale scarcely possible for European and American leaders: for instance, by mandating a one-child policy to reduce population growth, and by ending logging nationally in 1998. On the other hand, China's leaders have also succeeded in creating messes on a scale scarcely possible for European and American leaders: for instance, by the chaotic transition of the Great Leap Forward, by dismantling the national educational system in the Cultural Revolution, and by the emerging environmental impacts of three megaprojects.
[#14 Why Do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions?]
Perhaps the commonest circumstance under which societies fail to perceive a problem is when it takes the form of a slow trend concealed by wide up-and-down fluctuations. Politicians use the term "creeping normalcy" to refer to such slow trends concealed within noisy fluctuations. If the economy, schools, traffic congestion, or anything else is deteriorating only slowly, it's difficult to recognize that each successive year is on the average slightly worse than the year before, so one's baseline for what constitutes "normalcy" shifts gradually and imperceptibly. It may take a few decades of a long sequence of such slight year-to-year changes before people realize, with a jolt, that conditions used to be much better several decades ago, and that what is accepted as normalcy has crept downwards. Another term related to creeping normalcy is "landscape amnesia": forgetting how different the surrounding landscape looked 50 years ago, because the change from year to year has been so gradual.
I suspect that landscape amnesia provided part of the answer to my UCLA students' question: "What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say as he was doing it?"... Gradually Easter Island's trees became fewer, smaller and less important. At the time that the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, the species had long ago ceased to be of any economic significance. Conversely, the speed with which deforestation spread over Tokugawa Japan made it easier for its shoguns to recognize the landscape changes and the need for preemptive action.
The third stop on the road map of failure is the most frequent and the most surprising... it turns out that societies often fail even to attempt to solve a problem once it has been perceived. Many of the reasons for such failure fall under the heading of what economists term "rational behavior", 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. The perpetrators feel safe because they are typically concentrated and highly motivated by the prospect of reaping big, certain and immediate profits while the losses are spread over large numbers of individuals. That gives the losers little motivation to go to the hassle of fighting back, because each loser loses only a little. Examples include so-called perverse subsidies: the large sums of money that governments pay to support industries that might be uneconomic without the subsidies, such as many fisheries, sugar-growing in the US and cotton-growing in Australia.
[#15 Big Businesses and the Environment]
New Guinea has many bird and mammal species whose presence and abundance are sensitive indicators of human disturbance, because they are either large and hunted for their meat, hunted for their spectacular plumage, or else confined to the interior of undisturbed forests. They include tree kangaroos; cassowaries, hornbills and large pigeons; birds of paradise and Pesquet's Parrot and other colorful parrots; and hundreds of species of the forst interior. When I began bird-watching in the Kutubu area, I anticipated that my main goal would be to determine how much less numerous these species were inside the area of Chevron's oil fields, facilities and pipeline than outside it. Instead, I discovered to my astonishment that these species are much more numerous inside the Chevron area than anywhere else I have visited on the island of New Guinea except for a few remote uninhabited areas.
There is an absolute prohibition against Chevron employees and contractors hunting or fishing by any means in the project area... the birds and animals sense that and become tame. In effect, the Kutubu oil field functions as by far the largest and most rigorously controlled national park in Papua New Guinea.
If Chevron were to spend money on environmental policies that ultimately decreased its profits from its oil operations, its shareholders would and should sue it. The company evidently decided that those policies would ultimately help it make more money from its oil operations. How do they help?
One factor is the importance of avoiding very expensive environmental disasters. When I asked a Chevron safety representative who happened to be a bird-watcher what had prompted these policies, his short answer was: "Exxon Valdez, Piper Alpha and Bhopal". These were three of the most notorious, best-publicized and most expensive industrial accidents. Each of them cost the company responsible billions of dollars, and the Bhopal accident ultimately cost Union Carbide its existence as an independent company. Chevron and some of the other larger international oil companies realized that by spending each year a few million dollars on a project, they would save money in the long run by minimizing the risk of losing billions of dollars in such an accident. Cleaning up pollution is usually far more expensive than preventing pollution.
As a result of taxpayers' being left to foot (cleanup) bills, there has been a backlash of anti-mining public sentiment in Montana and other states. Since 1995, public opposition in the US has been increasingly successful in blocking mine proposals, and the mining industry can no longer count on lobbyists and friendly legislators to do its bidding. The hardrock mining industry is the prime example of a business whose short-term favoring of its own interests over those of the public proved in the long term self-defeating and have been driving the industry into extinction.
Economic factors that make environmental cleanup costs less bearable to the hardrock mining industry than to the oil industry (or even the coal industry) include lower profit margins, more unpredictable profits, higher cleanup costs, more insidious and long-lasting pollution problems, less ability to pass on those costs to consumers, less capaital with which to absorb those costs, and a different labor force.
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. When government regulation is effective, and when the public is environmentally aware, environmentally clean big businessed may outcompete dirty ones, but the reverse is likely to be true if government regulation is ineffective and if the public doesn't care.
Our blaming of business ignores the ultimate responsibility of the public for creating the conditions that let a business profit through hurting the public e.g. for not requiring mining companies to clean up, or for continuing to buy wood products from non-sustainable logging operation. In the long run, either directly or through its politicians, it is the public that has the power to make destructive environmental policies unprofitable and illegal, and to make sustainable environmental policies profitable.
Big businesses can exert powerful pressure on their suppliers that might ignore public or government pressure. For instance, after the US public became concerned about the spread of mad cow disease, and after the US government's Food and Drug Administration introduced rules demanding that the meat industry abandon practices associated with the risk of spread, meat packers resisted for five years, claiming that the rules would be too expensive to obey. But when McDonald's Corporation then made the same demands after customer purchases of its hamburgers plummeted, the meat industry complied within weeks: "because we have the world's biggest shopping cart", as a McDonald's representative explained. The public's task is to identify which links in the supply chain are sensitive to public pressure: for instance, McDonald's, Home Depot and Tiffany, but not meat packers, loggers or gold miners.
[#16 What Does It All Mean For Us Today?]
People often ask me, "Jared, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the world's future?" I answer, "I'm a cautious optimist." I mean that, on the one hand, I acknowledge the seriousness of the problems facing us. If we don't make a determined effort to solve them, and if we don't succeed at that effort, the world as a whole within the next few decades will face a declining standard of living, or perhaps something worse.
One basis for hope is that, realistically, we are not beset by insoluble problems. While we do face big risks, the most serious ones are not beyond our control, like a possible collision with an asteroid of a size that hits the Earth every hundred million years or the horrific tsunamis that struck in the Indian ocean. Instead, they are ones that we are generating ourselves. Because we are the cause of our environmental problems, we are the ones in control of them, and we can choose or not choose to stop causing them and start solving them. The future is up for grabs. We don't need new technologies to solve our problems; while new technologies can make some contribution, for the most part we just need the political will to apply solutions already available. Of course, that's a big "just". But many societies did find the necessary political will in the past. Our modern societies have already found the will to solve some of our problems, and to achieve partial solutions to others.
What are the choices that we must make if we are now to succeed, and not to fail? Two types of choices seem to me to be crucial. One of those choices has depended on the courage to practise long term thinking, and to make bold, courageous, anticipatory decisions at a time when problems have become perceptible but before they have reached crisis proportions. This type of decision making is the opposite of the short term, reactive decision making that too often characterises our elected politicians - "90-day thinking". Set against the many depressing bad examples of such short term decision making are the encouraging examples of courageous long term thinking in the past, and in the contemporary world of NGOs, business and government. Among past societies faced with the prospect of ruinous deforestation, Easter Island and Mangareva chiefs succumbed to their immediate concerns, but Tokugawa shoguns, Inca emperors, New Guinea highlanders and 16th century German landowners adopted a long view and reafforested. China's leaders similarly promoted reafforestation in recent decades and banned logging of native forests in 1998. In business, the American corporations that remain successful (eg Procter & Gamble) don't wait for a crisis before re-examining their policies. Courageous, successful, long term planning also characterises some governments and some leaders, some of the time. Over the last 30 years a sustained effort by the US government has reduced levels of the six main air pollutants nationally by 25%, even while energy consumption and population increased by 40% and vehicle miles driven by 150%.
The other crucial choice illuminated by the past involves the courage to make painful decisions about values. Which of the values that formerly served a society well can continue to be maintained under new changed circumstances? Which of those treasured values must instead be jettisoned and replaced with different approaches?
We have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of distant peoples and past peoples. That's an opportunity that no past society enjoyed to such a degree. My hope is that enough people will choose to profit from that opportunity to make a difference.
>> The Guardian has an online summary of the last chapter.
[From an ABC Radio interview with Professor Diamond discussing the themes of the book]
"Why did these ancient civilizations abandon their cities after building them with such great effort? Why these ancient collapses? This question isn't just a romantic mystery. It's also a challenging intellectual problem. Why is it that some societies collapsed while others did not collapse?
But even more, this question is relevant to the environmental problems that we face today; problems such as deforestation, the impending end of the tropical rainforests, over-fishing, soil erosion, soil desalinization, global climate change, full utilization of the world's fresh water supplies, bumping up against the photosynthetic ceiling, exhaustion of energy reserves, accumulation of toxics in water, food and soil, increase of the world's population, and increase of our per capita input. The main problems that threaten our existence over the coming decades. What if anything, can the past teach us about why some societies are more unstable than others, and about how some societies have managed to overcome their environmental problems. Can we extract from the past any useful guidance that will help us in the coming decades?
There's overwhelming recent evidence from archaeology and other disciplines that some of these romantic mystery collapses have been self-inflicted ecological suicides, resulting from inadvertent human impacts on the environment, impacts similar to the impacts causing the problems that we face today. Even though these past societies like the Easter Islanders and Anasazi had far fewer people, and were packing far less potent destructive practices than we do today.
It turns out that these ancient collapses pose a very complicated problem. It's not just that all these societies collapsed, but one can also think of places in the world where societies have gone on for thousands of years without any signs of collapse, such as Japan, Java, Tonga and Tikopea. What is it then that made some societies weaken and other societies robust? It's also a complicated problem because the collapses usually prove to be multi-factorial. This is not an area where we can expect simple answers.
In trying to understand the collapses of ancient societies, I quickly realized that it's not enough to look at the inadvertent impact of humans on their environment. It's usually more complicated. Instead I've arrived at a checklist of five things that I look at to understand the collapses of societies, and in some cases all five of these things are operating. Usually several of them are:
The first of these factors is environmental damage, inadvertent damage to the environment through means such as deforestation, soil erosion, desalinization, over-hunting etc.
The second item on the checklist is climate change, such as cooling or increased aridity. People can hammer away at their environment and get away with it as long as the climate is benign, warm, wet, and the people are likely to get in trouble when the climate turns against them, getting colder or drier. So climate change and human environmental impact interact, not surprisingly.
Still a third consideration is that one has to look at a society's relations with hostile neighbors. Most societies have chronic hostile relations with some of their neighbors and societies may succeed in fending off those hostile neighbors for a long time. They're most likely to fail to hold off the hostile neighbors when the society itself gets weakened for environmental or any other reasons, and that's given rise for example, to the long-standing debate about the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Was the conquest by Barbarians really a fundamental cause, or was it just that Barbarians were at the frontiers of the Roman Empire for many centuries? Rome succeeded in holding them off as long as Rome was strong, and then when Rome got weakened by other things, Rome failed, and fell to the Barbarians. And similarly, we know that there were military factors in the fall of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. So relations with hostiles interacts with environmental damage and climate change.
Similarly, relations with friendlies interacts. Almost all societies depend in part upon trade with neighboring friendly societies, and if one of those friendly societies itself runs into environmental problems and collapses for environmental reasons, that collapse may then drag down their trade partners. It's something that interests us today, given that we are dependent for oil upon imports from countries that have some political stability in a fragile environment.
And finally in addition to those four factors on the checklist, one always has to ask about people's cultural response. Why is it that people failed to perceive the problems developing around them, or if they perceived them, why did they fail to solve the problems that would eventually do them in? Why did some peoples perceive and recognize their problems and others not?
I'll give you four examples of these past societies that collapsed. One is Easter Island, I'll discuss it first because Easter is the simplest case we've got, the closest approximation to a collapse resulting purely from human environmental damage. The second case are the collapses of Henderson and Pitcairn Island in the Pacific, which were due to the combination of self-inflicted environmental damage, plus the loss of external trade due to the collapse of a friendly trade partner. Third I'll discuss, closer to home the Anasazi in the US south-west whose collapse was a combination of environmental damage and climate change. And then finally I'll mention the Greenland Norse who ended up all dead because of a combination of all five of these factors.
There are a series of factors that make people more or less likely to perceive environmental problems growing up around them. One is misreading previous experience. The Greenlanders came from Norway where there's a relatively long growing season, so the Greenlanders didn't realize, based on their previous experience, how fragile Greenland woodlands were going to be. The Greenlanders had the difficulty of extracting a trend from noisy fluctuations; yes we now know that there was a long-term cooling trend, but climate fluctuates wildly up and down in Greenland from year to year; cold, cold, warm, cold. So it was difficult for a long time perceive that there was any long-term trend. That's similar to the problems we have today with recognizing global warming. It's only within the last few years that even scientists have been able to convince themselves that there is a global long-term warming trend. And while scientists are convinced, the evidence is not yet enough to convince many of our politicians.
Problem No. 3, short time scale of experience. In the Anasazi area, droughts come back every 50 years, in Greenland it gets cold every 500 years or so; those rare events are impossible to perceive for humans with a life span of 40, 50, 70 years. They're perceptible today but we may not internalize them. For example, my friends in the Tucson area. There was a big drought in Tucson about 40 years ago. The city of Tucson almost over-draughted its water aquifers and Tucson went briefly into a period of water conservation, but now Tucson is back to building big developments and golf courses and so Tucson will have trouble with the next drought.
Fourthly the Norse were disadvantaged by inappropriate cultural values. They valued cows too highly just as modern Australians value cows and sheep to a degree appropriate to Scotland but inappropriate to modern Australia. And Australians now are seriously considering whether to abandon sheep farming completely as inappropriate to the Australian environment.
Finally, why would people perceive problems but still not solve their own problems? A theme that emerges from Norse Greenland as well as from other places, is insulation of the decision making elite from the consequences of their actions. That is to say, in societies where the elites do not suffer from the consequences of their decisions, but can insulate themselves, the elite are more likely to pursue their short-term interests, even though that may be bad for the long-term interests of the society, including the children of the elite themselves."
This book shines like all Diamond's work: compelling without contrivance, readable without raciness, direct without being dumbed-down. He ranges over vast topics, yet hardly makes a mistake. He is generous with counsel but rarely makes a misjudgment. This is a wise book... yet it is also deeply committed.
Four historic examples of societies that caused or contributed to their own undoing fill nearly half the space. In the remote Pacific, Polynesian colonists had to surrender unsustainable ways of life (and even abandon islands) when they exhausted their woodland. The Canyon People of the North American southwest made the same mistake. The lowland Maya succumbed — Diamond thinks, although specialists dispute it — to overpopulation. The Norse in Greenland get three whole chapters: they failed, whereas their Thule Inuit neighbours are still there. Diamond handles his case studies deftly, mastering the literature and arguing that the demise of these societies owed more to bad decision-making than to the intractability of their environments. Yet these peoples all occupied environments that were only marginally capable of sustaining the hugely ambitious civilisations they housed... Moreover, they all suffered from a deadly defect: extreme isolation. Easter Island's colonists rapidly lost contact with the outside world. The Canyon People were in touch with the civilisations of Mesoamerica — but only just, across death-dealing deserts. The Norse were a long way from their bases in Europe, whereas the Thule reached Greenland at the end of a series of colonisations in Arctic America. These societies are remarkable not for their ultimate demise but because they achieved so much and kept going for so long. Like a dog walking on hind legs, one should not expect civilisation in isolation to be well done, but marvel to see it done at all.
Diamond deserves to be heeded. Environmentalists who read him will have their views confirmed. Others, currently neutral, may find their lives changed. But will the planet be saved in consequence? Ecological profligacy is a consequence of the way humans are. We are environment-modifying animals, and the more changes we make, the more we are driven to intervene in the attempt to rectify the consequences. There never has been and never will be a human society "in harmony" with the rest of nature: we always exploit it for what we can get. Eve bit off more than we can chew. And Eden is probably as inaccessible as ever. - Felipe Fernandez Armesto, from his review in Britain's "Sunday Times"
In his new book, "Collapse", Jared Diamond attempts to demonstrate through case histories of small micro-climates from Easter Island and modern Montana to Iceland and Greenland how civilizations disintegrate: Mishandling of the fragile environment causes wars, famines, depopulation, and eventual breakdown — and we modern wastrels should learn from them all before it is too late. Of course, empires can seem to fall for other reasons, but usually historians fail to see that political and military causation "masquerades" deeper environmental degradation... but Diamond fails to see that his "masquerading" works both ways. If we historians are fooled into thinking environmentally degraded societies lose wars owing to military ineptness rather than resource depletion, then he is utterly incapable of seeing that material want is often a mere pretext for national delusion and aggression. Germany is more populous today on smaller territory than in 1939, when it advanced the bogus notion of Lebensraum; overcrowded contemporary Japan, Inc. does fine within its smaller borders without warring for a Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere.

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