Professor Jared Diamond, Professor of Physiology at UCLA, speaking at Princeton University about what we can learn from the collapse of ancient societies. Professor Diamond won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ in 1997.
October 27, 2002. Why Societies Collapse: Jared Diamond at Princeton University
Jared Diamond: Why did the ancient civilisations that built Angkor Wat, the Mayan civilization, the Easter Islands, Greater Zimbabwe, and the Indus Valley 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 salinization, 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?
“Some of these romantic mystery collapses have been self-inflicted ecological suicides, resulting from inadvertent human impacts on the environment.”
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.
What I’m talking about is the collapses of societies and their applications to the risks we face today. This may sound initially depressing, but you’ll see that my main conclusions are going to be upbeat.
Not many years ago, Montana was one of the wealthiest in America, their wealth based on copper mining, forestry and agriculture. Now it’s very poor. Mining has gone, leaving terrible environmental damage, 70% of the children in Montana are on Food Aid, logging and farming are in decline. What happened was that the mining, forestry and agriculture which earned so much wealth, became destructive. Montana now has terrible forest fires, salinization, erosion, weeds and animal diseases, and population decline.
If Montana were an isolated country, Montana would be in a state of collapse. Montana is not going to collapse, because it’s supported by the rest of the United States, and yet other societies have collapsed in the past, and are collapsing now or will collapse in the future, from problems similar to those facing Montana. The same problems that we’ve seen throughout human history, problems of water, forests, topsoil, irrigation, salinisation, climate change, erosion, introduced pests and disease and population; problems similar to those faced by Montanans today are the ones posing problems in Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Australia, Nepal, Ethiopia and so on. But those countries, Afghanistan, Pakistan etcetera have the misfortune not to be embedded within a rich country that supports them, like the United States.
Visiting Montana again just brought home to me that these problems of ancient civilizations are not remote problems of romantic mysterious people, they’re problems of the modern world including of the United States. I mentioned then that there’s a long list of past societies that did collapse, but there were also past societies that did not collapse. What is it then that makes some societies more vulnerable than others? Environmental factors clearly play a role, archaeological evidence accumulated over the last several decades has revealed environmental factors behind many of these ancient collapses. Again, to appreciate the modern relevance of all this, if one asked an academic ecologist to name the countries in the modern world that suffer from most severe problems of environmental damage and of over-population, and if this ecologist never read the newspapers and didn’t know anything about modern political problems, the ecologist would say “Well that’s a no-brainer, the countries today that have ecologic al and populations, there are Haiti, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, the Philippines, Indonesia, Solomon Islands.” Then you ask a politician who doesn’t know, or a strategic planner who knows or cares nothing about ecological problems, what you see is the political tinderboxes of the modern world, the danger spots, and the politician or strategic planner would say “It’s a no-brainer; Haiti, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, the Philippines, Indonesia, Solomon Islands”, the same list. And that simply makes the point that countries that get into environmental trouble are likely to get into political trouble both for themselves and to cause political troubles around the world.
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.
FIVE MAIN REASONS FOR COLLAPSE 1) The first of these factors is environmental damage, inadvertent damage to the environment through means such as deforestation, soil erosion, salinisation, over-hunting etc.
2) 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.
3) 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.
“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.”
4) 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.
5) 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 recognise 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.
So let’s take then the first of these examples, the collapse of Easter Island society. Any of you here in this room, have any of you had the good fortune to have visited Easter Island? Good for you, you lucky person, I’m going there next month, I’ve wanted for decades to go there. And Easter is the most remote habitable scrap of land in the world; it’s an island in the Pacific, 2,000 miles west of the coast of Chile, and something 1300 miles from the nearest Polynesian island. It was settled by other Polynesians coming from the west, sometime around AD800 and it was so remote that after Polynesians arrived at Easter Island, nobody else arrived there. Nobody left Easter as far as we know, and so the Easter story is uncomplicated by relations with external hostiles or friendlies. There weren’t any. Easter Islanders rose and fell by themselves.
Easter is a relatively fragile environment, dry with 40 inches of rain per year. It’s most famous because of the giant stone statutes – those big statues weighing up to 80 tons – stone statues that were carved in a volcanic quarry and then dragged up over the lift of the quarry and then 13 miles down to the coast and then raised up vertically onto platforms, all this accomplished by people without any draught animals, without pulleys, without machines. These 80 ton statues were dragged and erected under human muscle power alone. And yet when Europeans arrived at Easter in 1722, the statues that the islanders themselves had erected at such great personal effort, the islanders were in the process of throwing down their own statues, Easter Island society was in a state of collapse. How, why and who erected the statues, and why were they thrown down?
Well the how, why and who has been settled in the last several decades by archaeological discoveries. Easter Islanders were typical Polynesians, and the cause of the collapse became clear from archaeological work in the last 15 years, particularly from paeleo-botannical work and identification of animal bones in archaeological sites. Today Easter Island is barren. It’s a grassland, there are no native trees whatsoever on Easter Island, not a likely setting for the development of a great civilization, and yet these paeleo-botannical studies, identifying pollen grains and lake cores show that when the Polynesians arrived at Easter Island, it was covered by a tropical forest that included the world’s largest palm tree and dandelions of tree height. And there were land birds, at least six species of land birds, 37 species of breeding sea-birds – the largest collection of breeding sea-birds anywhere in the Pacific.
Polynesians settled Easter, they began to clear the forest for their gardens, for firewood, for using as rollers and levers to raise the giant statues, and then to build canoes with which to go out into the ocean and catch porpoises and tuna. In the oldest archaeological one sees the bones of porpoises and tuna that the people were eating. They ate the land birds, they ate the sea-birds, they ate the fruits of the palm trees. The population of Easter grew to an estimated about 10,000 people, until by the year 1600 all of the trees and all of the land birds and all but one of the sea-birds on Easter Island itself were extinct. Some of the sea-birds were confined to breeding on offshore stacks.
“The largest animal left to eat with the disappearance of porpoises and tuna were humans…”
The deforestation and the elimination of the birds had consequences for people. First without trees, they could no longer transport and erect the statues, so they stopped carving statues. Secondly, without trees they had no firewood except of their own agricultural wastes. Thirdly, without trees to cover the ground, they suffered from soil erosion and hence agricultural yields decreased, and then without trees they couldn’t build canoes, so they couldn’t go out to the ocean to catch porpoises, there were only a few sea-birds left because they didn’t have pigs the largest animal left to eat with the disappearance of porpoises and tuna were humans. And Polynesian society then collapsed in an epidemic of cannibalism. The spear points from that final phase still litter the ground of Easter Island today. The population crashed from about 10,000 to an estimated 2,000 with no possibility of rebuilding the original society because the trees, most of the birds and some of the soil were gone.
I think one of the reasons that the collapse of Easter Island so grabs people is that it looks like a metaphor for us today. Easter Island, isolated in the middle of the Pacific Island, nobody to turn to to get help, nowhere to flee once Easter Island itself collapsed. In the same way today, one can look at Planet Earth in the middle of the galaxy and if we too get into trouble, there’s no way that we can flee, and no people to whom we can turn for help out there in the galaxy.
I can’t help wondering what the Islander who chopped down the last palm tree said as he or she did it. Was he saying, ‘What about our jobs? Do we care more for trees than for our jobs, of us loggers?’ Or maybe he was saying, ‘What about my private property rights? Get the big government of the chiefs off my back.’ Or maybe he was saying, ‘You’re predicting environmental disaster, but your environmental models are untested, we need more research before we can take action.’ Or perhaps he was saying, ‘Don’t worry, technology will solve all our problems.’
My next example involves the Anasazi in our south west, in the four corners area of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah. How many of you here have been to either Mesa Verde or Chaco Canyon? OK, looks like nearly half of you. It’s very striking to visit say Chaco Canyon where there are still the ruins of the biggest skyscrapers erected in the United States until the Chicago skyscrapers erected in Chicago’s loop in the 1870s and 1880s. But the skyscrapers of Chaco Canyon were erected by native Americans, the Anasazi. Up to 6-storey buildings, with up to 600 rooms. The Anasazi build-up began around AD600 with the arrival of the Mexican crops of corn, squash and beans, and in that relatively dry area. Again it’s very striking today to drive through an area where today either nobody is living at all, or nobody’s living by agriculture. At Chaco Canyon itself there are a couple of houses of National Park Rangers importing their food, and then nobody else living within 20 or 30 miles. And yet to realise, and to see the remains on the ground, this used to be a densely populated agricultural environment.
The Anasazi were ingenious at managing to survive in that environment, with low fluctuating, unpredictable rainfall, and with nutrient-poor soils. The population built up. They fed themselves with agriculture, in some cases irrigation agriculture, channelled very carefully to flood out over the fields. They cut down trees for construction and firewood. In each area they would develop environmental problems by cutting down trees and exhausting soil nutrients, but they dealt with those problems by abandoning their sites after a few decades and moving on to a new site. It’s possible to reconstruct Anasazi history in great detail for two reasons: tree rings, because this is a dry climate, the south-west. From tree-rings you can identify from the rings on the roof beams, what year – 1116, not 1115 AD – what year the tree in that roof was cut down, and also those cute little rodents in the south-west, pack rats, that run around gathering bits of vegetation in their nests and then abandoning their nests after 50 years, a pack rat midden is basically a time capsule of the vegetation growing within 50 yards of a pack rat midden over a period of 50 years. And my friend Julio Betancourt who was near an Anasazi ruin and happened to see a pack rat midden whose dating he knew nothing about. He was astonished to see in what’s now a treeless environment, in this pack rat midden were the needles of pinion pine and juniper. So Julio wondered whether that was an old midden. He took it back, radio carbon-dated it, and lo and behold it was something like AD 800. So the pack-rat middens are time capsules of local vegetation allowing us to reconstruct what happened.
What happened is that the Anasazi deforested the area around their settlements until they were having to go further and further away for their fuel and their construction timber. At the end they were getting their logs, neatly cut logs, uniform weighing on the average 600 pounds, 16 feet logs, were cut at the end on tops of mountains up to 75 miles away and about 4,000 feet above the Anasazi settlements, and then dragged back by people with no transport or pack animals, to the Anasazi settlements themselves. So deforestation spread. That was the one environmental problem.
The other environmental problem was the cutting of arroyos. In the south-west when water flow gets channeled for example in irrigation ditches, then vast water flow is run off in desert rains. It digs a trench in the channel, and digs a trench deeper and deeper so those of you who’ve been to Chaco Canyon will have seen those arroyos up to 30 feet deep. And today, if the water level drops down in the arroyos, that’s not a problem for farmers, because we’ve got pumps, but the Anasazi did not have pumps, and so when the irrigation ditches became incised by arroyo cutting and when the water level in the ditches dropped down below the field levels, they could no longer do irrigation agriculture. For a while they got away with these inadvertent environmental impacts. There were droughts around 1040 and droughts around 1090, but at both times the Anasazi hadn’t yet filled up the landscape, so they could move to other parts of the landscape not yet exploited. And the population continued to grow.
And then in Chaco Canyon when a drought arrived in 1117, at that point there was no more unexploited landscape, no more empty land to which to shift. In addition at that point, Chaco Canyon was a complex society. Lots of stuff was getting imported into Chaco – stone tools, pottery, turquoise, probably food was being imported into Chaco. Archaeologists can’t detect any material that went out of the Chaco Valley, and whenever you see a city into which material stuff is moving and no material stuff is leaving, you think that the modern world – the model could be of New York City or Rome, or Washington and Rome – that is to say you suspect that out of that city is having political control or religious control in return for which the peasants in the periphery are supplying their imported goods.
“When you see a rich place without a wall, you can safely infer that the rich place was on good terms with its poor neighbors, and when you see a wall going up around the rich place, you can infer that there was now trouble with the neighbors. ”
When the drought came in 1117 it was a couple of decades before the end. Again any of you who have been to Pueblo Benito, will have seen that Pueblo Benito was the six storey skyscraper. Pueblo Benito was a big, unwalled plaza, until about 20 years before the end, when a high wall went up around the plaza. And when you see a rich place without a wall, you can safely infer that the rich place was on good terms with its poor neighbors, and when you see a wall going up around the rich place, you can infer that there was now trouble with the neighbors. So probably what was happening was that towards the end, in the drought, as the landscape is filled up, the people out on the periphery were no longer satisfied because the people in the religious and political centre, were no longer delivering the goods. The prayers to the gods were not bringing rain, there was not all the stuff to redistribute and they began making trouble. And then at the drought of 1117, with no empty land to shift to, construction of Chaco Canyon ceased, Chaco was eventually abandoned. Long House Valley was abandoned later. The Anasazi had committed themselves irreversibly to a complex society, and once that society collapsed, they couldn’t rebuild it because again they deforested their environment.
In this case then, the Anasazi case, we have the interaction of well understood environmental impact and very well understood climate change from the tree rings, from the width of the tree rings, we know how much rainfall was falling in each year and hence we know the severity of the drought.
My next to last example involves Norse Greenland. As the Vikings began to expand over and terrorize Europe in their raids. The Vikings also settled six islands in the North Atlantic. So we have to compare not 80 islands as in the Pacific, but 6 islands. Viking settlements survived on Orkney, Shetland, Faeroe and Iceland, albeit it with severe problems due to environmental damage on Iceland. The Vikings arrived in Greenland, settled Greenland AD 984, where they established a Norwegian pastoral economy, based particularly on sheep, goats and cattle for producing dairy products, and then they also hunted caribou and seal. Trade was important. The Vikings in Greenland hunted walruses to trade walrus ivory to Norway because walrus ivory was in demand in Europe for carving, since at that time with the Arab conquest, elephant ivory was no longer available in Europe. Vikings vanished in the 1400s. There were two settlements; one of them disappeared around 1360 and the other sometime probably a little after 1440. Everybody ended up dead.
The vanishing of Viking Greenland is instructive because it involves all five of the factors that I mentioned, and also because there’s a detailed, written record from Norway, a bit from Iceland and just a few fragments from Greenland: a written record describing what people were doing and describing what they were thinking. So we know something about their motivation, which we don’t know for the Anasazi and the Easter Islanders.
Of the five factors, first of all there was ecological damage due to deforestation in this cold climate with a short growing season, cutting turf, soil erosion. The deforestation was especially expensive to the Norse Greenlanders because they required charcoal in order to smelt iron to extract iron from bogs. Without iron, except for what they could import in small quantities from Norway, there were problems in getting iron tools like sickles. It got to be a big problem when the Inuit, who had initially been absent in Greenland, colonized Greenland and came into conflict with the Norse. The Norse then had no military advantage over the Inuit. It was not guns, germs and steel. The Norse of Greenland had no guns, very little steel, and they didn’t have the nasty germs. They were fighting with the Inuit on terms of equality, one people with stone and wooden weapons against another.
So problem No.1, ecological damage, problem No.2, climate change. The climate in Greenland got colder in the late 1300s and early 1400s as part of what’s called the Little Ice Age, cooling of the North Atlantic. Hay production was a problem. Greenland was already marginal because it’s high latitude short growing season, and as it got colder, the growing season got even shorter, hay production got less, and hay was the basis of Norse sustenance. Thirdly, the Norse had military problems with their neighbors the Inuit. For example, the only detailed example we have of an Inuit attack on the Norse is that the Icelandic annals of the years 1379 say ‘In this year the scralings (which is an old Norse word meaning wretches, the Norse did not have a good attitude towards the Inuit), the wretches attacked the Greenlanders and killed 18 men and captured a couple of young men and women as slaves.’ Eighteen men doesn’t seem like a big deal in this century of body counts of tens of millions of people, but when you consider the population of Norse Greenland at the time, probably about 4,000 people, 18 adult men stands in the same proportion to the Norse population then as if some outsiders were to come into the United States today and in one raid kill 1,700,000 adult male Americans. So that single raid by the Inuit did make a big deal to the Norse, and that’s just the only raid that we know about.
Fourthly, there was the cut-off of trade with Europe because of increasing sea-ice, with a cold climate in the North Atlantic. The ships from Norway gradually stopped coming. Also as the Mediterranean reopened Europeans got access again to elephant ivory, and they became less interested in the walrus ivory, so fewer ships came to Greenland. And then finally cultural factors, the Norse were derived from a Norwegian society that was identified with pastoralism, and particularly valued calves. In Greenland it’s easier to feed and take care of sheep and goats than calves, but calves were prized in Greenland, so the Norse chiefs and bishops were heavily invested in the status symbol of calves. The Norse, because of their bad attitude towards the Inuit did not adopt useful Inuit technology, so the Norse never adopted harpoons, hence they couldn’t eat whales like the Inuit. They didn’t fish, incredibly, while the Inuit were fishing. They didn’t have dog sleighs, they didn’t have skin boats, they didn’t learn from the Inuit how to kill seals at breeding holes in the winter. So the Norse were conservative, had a bad attitude towards the Inuit, they built churches and cathedrals, the remains of the Greenland cathedral is still standing today at Gardar. It’s as big as the cathedral of Iceland, and the stone churches, some of the three-stone churches in Greenland are still standing. So this was a society that invested heavily in their churches, in importing stained-glass windows and bronze bells for the churches, when they could have been importing more iron to trade to the Inuit, to get seals and whale meat in exchange for the iron.
“Greenland then is particularly instructive in showing us that collapse due to environmental reasons isn’t inevitable. It depends upon what you do.”
So there were cultural factors also while the Norse refused to learn from the Inuit and refused to modify their own economy in a way that would have permitted them to survive. And the result then was that after 1440 the Norse were all dead, and the Inuit survived. Greenland then is particularly instructive in showing us that collapse due to environmental reasons isn’t inevitable. It depends upon what you do. Here are two peoples and one did things that let them survive, and the other things did not permit them to survive.
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 realise, 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 n 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 recognising 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.
In the case of Norse Greenland, the chiefs and bishops were eating beef from cows and venison and the lower classes were left to eating seals and the elite were heavily invested in the walrus ivory trade because of let them get their communion gear and their Rhineland pottery and the other stuff that they wanted. Even though in the long run, what was good for the chiefs in the short run was bad for society. We can see those differing insulations of the elite in the modern world today. Of all modern countries the one with by far the highest level of environmental awareness is Holland. In Holland, a higher percentage of people belong to environmental organisations than anywhere else in the world. And the Dutch are also a very democratic people. There are something like 42 political parties but none of them ever comes remotely close to a majority, but this which would be a recipe for chaos elsewhere, modern Holland, the Dutch are very good for reaching decisions. And on my last visit to Holland I asked my Dutch friends Why is it this high level of environmental awareness in Holland? And they said, ‘Look around. Most of us are living in Polders, in these lands that have been drained, reclaimed from the sea, they’re below sea level and they’re guided by the dykes’. In Holland everybody lives in the Polders, whether you’re rich or poor. It’s not the case that the rich people are living high up on the dykes and the poor people are living down in the Polders. So when the dyke is breached or there’s a flood, rich and poor people die alike. In particular in the North Sea floods in Holland in the late ’40s and ’50s, when the North Sea was swept by winds and tides 50 to 100 miles inland, all Dutch in the path of the floods died whether they were rich or poor. So my Dutch friends explained it to me that in Holland, rich people cannot insulate themselves from consequences of their actions. They’re living in the Polders and therefore there is not the clash between their short-term interests and the long-term interests of everybody else. The Dutch have had to learn to reach communal decisions.
Whereas in much of the rest of the world, rich people live in gated communities and drink bottled water. That’s increasingly the case in Los Angeles where I come from. So that wealthy people in much of the world are insulated from the consequences of their actions.
Well, finally then. I’ve talked mostly about the past. What about the situation today? There are obvious differences between the environmental problems that we face today and the environmental problems in the past. Some of those differences are things that make the situation for us today scarier than it was in the past. Today there are far more people alive, packing far more potent per capita destructive technology. Today there are 6-billion people chopping down the forests with chains and bulldozers, whereas on Easter Island there were 10,000 people with stone axes. Today, countries like the Solomon Islands – wet, relatively robust environments, where people lived without being able to deforest the islands for 32,000 years, within the past 15 years the Solomon Islands have been almost totally deforested, leading to a civil war and collapse of government within the last year or two.
Another big difference between today and the past is globalisation. In the past, you could get solitary collapses. When Easter Island society collapsed, nobody anywhere else in the world knew about it, nobody was affected by it. The Easter Islanders themselves, as they were collapsing, had no way of knowing that the Anasazi had collapsed for similar reasons a few centuries before, and that the Mycenaean Greeks had collapsed a couple of thousand years before and that the dry areas of Hawaii were going downhill at the same time. But today we turn on the television set and we see the ecological damage in Somalia and Afghanistan, or Haiti, and we pick up a book and we read about the ecological damage caused in the past. So we have knowledge both in space and time, that ancient peoples did not. Today we are not immune from anybody’s problems. Again, if 20 years ago you would ask someone in strategic assessments to mention a couple of countries in the world (in fact I was in on such a conversation) completely irrelevant to American interests. The two countries mentioned as most irrelevant to American interests were two countries that are remote, poor, landlocked, with no potential for causing the United States trouble: Somalia and Afghanistan. Which illustrates that today anybody can cause trouble for anybody else in the world. A collapse of a society anywhere is a global issue, and conversely, anybody anywhere in the world now has ways of reaching us. We used to think of globalisation as a way that we send to them out there our good things, like the Internet and Coca Cola, but particularly in the time since September 11th we’ve realised that globalisation also means that they can send us their bad things like terrorists, cholera and uncontrollable immigration. So those are things that are against us, but things that are for us is that globalisation also means that exchange of information and that information about the past, so we are the only society in world history that has the ability to learn from all the experiments being carried out elsewhere in the world today, and all the experiments that have succeeded and failed in the past. And so at least we have the choice of what we want to do about it. Thank you.
Man: The impression I get is that you are talking about them primarily in relation to environmental factors, you’re talking about an elite that becomes isolated, insular and operates without being affected by the consequences of environmental degradation. What about other cultural forces, such as the development of political instability, civil wars, people who are low down in the hierarchy that are challenging the order. And could it be the societies simply over time devolve towards political instability. What about other factors such as disease for example, could they play a role as well?
“The single factor that is the best predictor of the collapse of societies in the last couple of decades is infant and child mortality.”
Jared Diamond: Absolutely. In two minutes I did not do justice to cultural factors. There’s a large literature on causes of instability and civil wars and collapse of States and civil unrest, and it turns out that you will go home and say Jared Diamond has a list of eight explanations for everything. There are eight variables that people have been able to identify: With risk of civil war, for example there’s a data base of all cases of State failures and civil wars and violent government transitions in the last 30 years. People have mined this data base. Would anybody like to guess what is the single factor that is the best predictor of the collapse of societies in the last couple of decades? This is an unfair question because it’s so surprising. The strongest predictor is infant and child mortality. Countries that have had high infant or child mortality are more likely to undergo State collapse, and there are many links, including difficulties in the workforce, high ratio of children to adults. But in brief, yes, there is a large literature of other cultural factors that contribute to the collapse of societies.
Jared Diamond: Interesting question. For those of you who didn’t hear it: Do I think that today there’s more reliance that technology will come and somehow save us, even though we can’t specify how? Yes there certainly is, and many of my friends, particularly in the technology sector don’t take environmental problems so seriously. I’ll give you a specific example. After ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ was published, it was reviewed by Bill Gates who liked it and gave it a favourable review, and the result was that I had a two-hour discussion with Bill Gates, who is a very thoughtful person, and he’s interested in lots of things. He probes deeply and he has seriously considered positions of his own. The subject turned to environmental issues and I mentioned that that’s the thing that most concerned me for the future of my children, Bill Gates has young children. He paused in his thoughtful way and he said, not in a dismissing way, ‘I have the feeling that technology will solve our environmental problems, but what really concerns me is biological terrorism.’ Look that’s a thoughtful response, but many people in the technology sector assume that technology will solve our problems. I disagree with that for two reasons.
One is that technology has created the explosion of modern problems while also providing the potential for solving them. But the first thing that happens is technology creates the problem and then maybe later it solves it, so at best there’s a lag.
The second thing is that the lesson we’ve learned again and again in the environmental area is it’s cheaper, much cheaper and more efficacious to prevent a problem at the beginning than to solve it by high technology later on. So it’s costing billions of dollars to clean up the Hudson River, and it costs billions of dollars to clean up Montana, it would cost a trivial amount to do it right in the beginning. Therefore, I do not look to technology as our saviour.
Kirsten Garrett: Professor Jared Diamond of UCLA, speaking at Princeton University earlier this month about what we can learn from the collapse of ancient societies. Professor Diamond won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ in 1997. © ABC 2002
January 1, 2005 The Ends of the World as We Know Them By JARED DIAMOND Los Angeles — NEW Year’s weekend traditionally is a time for us to reflect, and to make resolutions based on our reflections. In this fresh year, with the United States seemingly at the height of its power and at the start of a new presidential term, Americans are increasingly concerned and divided about where we are going. How long can America remain ascendant? Where will we stand 10 years from now, or even next year?
Such questions seem especially appropriate this year. History warns us that when once-powerful societies collapse, they tend to do so quickly and unexpectedly. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise:
peak power usually means peak population, peak needs, and hence peak vulnerability. What can be learned from history that could help us avoid joining the ranks of those who declined swiftly? We must expect the answers to be complex, because historical reality is complex: while some societies did indeed collapse spectacularly, others have managed to thrive for thousands of years without major reversal.
When it comes to historical collapses, five groups of interacting factors have been especially important: the damage that people have inflicted on their environment; climate change; enemies; changes in friendly trading partners; and the society’s political, economic and social responses to these shifts. That’s not to say that all five causes play a role in every case. Instead, think of this as a useful checklist of factors that should be examined, but whose relative importance varies from case to case.
For instance, in the collapse of the Polynesian society on Easter Island three centuries ago, environmental problems were dominant, and climate change, enemies and trade were insignificant; however, the latter three factors played big roles in the disappearance of the medieval Norse colonies on Greenland. Let’s consider two examples of declines stemming from different mixes of causes: the falls of classic Maya civilization and of Polynesian settlements on the Pitcairn Islands.
Maya Native Americans of the Yucatan Peninsula and adjacent parts of Central America developed the New World’s most advanced civilization before Columbus. They were innovators in writing, astronomy, architecture and art. From local origins around 2,500 years ago, Maya societies rose especially after the year A.D. 250, reaching peaks of population and sophistication in the late 8th century.
Thereafter, societies in the most densely populated areas of the southern Yucatan underwent a steep political and cultural collapse:
between 760 and 910, kings were overthrown, large areas were abandoned, and at least 90 percent of the population disappeared, leaving cities to become overgrown by jungle. The last known date recorded on a Maya monument by their so-called Long Count calendar corresponds to the year 909. What happened?
A major factor was environmental degradation by people:
deforestation, soil erosion and water management problems, all of which resulted in less food. Those problems were exacerbated by droughts, which may have been partly caused by humans themselves through deforestation. Chronic warfare made matters worse, as more and more people fought over less and less land and resources.
Why weren’t these problems obvious to the Maya kings, who could surely see their forests vanishing and their hills becoming eroded? Part of the reason was that the kings were able to insulate themselves from problems afflicting the rest of society. By extracting wealth from commoners, they could remain well fed while everyone else was slowly starving.
What’s more, the kings were preoccupied with their own power struggles. They had to concentrate on fighting one another and keeping up their images through ostentatious displays of wealth. By insulating themselves in the short run from the problems of society, the elite merely bought themselves the privilege of being among the last to starve.
Whereas Maya societies were undone by problems of their own making, Polynesian societies on Pitcairn and Henderson Islands in the tropical Pacific Ocean were undone largely by other people’s mistakes. Pitcairn, the uninhabited island settled in 1790 by the H.M.S. Bounty mutineers, had actually been populated by Polynesians 800 years earlier. That society, which left behind temple platforms, stone and shell tools and huge garbage piles of fish and bird and turtle bones as evidence of its existence, survived for several centuries and then vanished. Why?
In many respects, Pitcairn and Henderson are tropical paradises, rich in some food sources and essential raw materials. Pitcairn is home to Southeast Polynesia’s largest quarry of stone suited for making adzes, while Henderson has the region’s largest breeding seabird colony and its only nesting beach for sea turtles. Yet the islanders depended on imports from Mangareva Island, hundreds of miles away, for canoes, crops, livestock and oyster shells for making tools.
Unfortunately for the inhabitants of Pitcairn and Henderson, their Mangarevan trading partner collapsed for reasons similar to those underlying the Maya decline: deforestation, erosion and warfare. Deprived of essential imports in a Polynesian equivalent of the 1973 oil crisis, the Pitcairn and Henderson societies declined until everybody had died or fled.
The Maya and the Henderson and Pitcairn Islanders are not alone, of course. Over the centuries, many other societies have declined, collapsed or died out. Famous victims include the Anasazi in the American Southwest, who abandoned their cities in the 12th century because of environmental problems and climate change, and the Greenland Norse, who disappeared in the 15th century because of all five interacting factors on the checklist. There were also the ancient Fertile Crescent societies, the Khmer at Angkor Wat, the Moche society of Peru – the list goes on.
But before we let ourselves get depressed, we should also remember that there is another long list of cultures that have managed to prosper for lengthy periods of time. Societies in Japan, Tonga, Tikopia, the New Guinea Highlands and Central and Northwest Europe, for example, have all found ways to sustain themselves. What separates the lost cultures from those that survived? Why did the Maya fail and the shogun succeed?
Half of the answer involves environmental differences: geography deals worse cards to some societies than to others. Many of the societies that collapsed had the misfortune to occupy dry, cold or otherwise fragile environments, while many of the long-term survivors enjoyed more robust and fertile surroundings. But it’s not the case that a congenial environment guarantees success: some societies (like the Maya) managed to ruin lush environments, while other societies – like the Incas, the Inuit, Icelanders and desert Australian Aborigines – have managed to carry on in some of the earth’s most daunting environments.
The other half of the answer involves differences in a society’s responses to problems. Ninth-century New Guinea Highland villagers, 16th-century German landowners, and the Tokugawa shoguns of 17th- century Japan all recognized the deforestation spreading around them and solved the problem, either by developing scientific reforestation (Japan and Germany) or by transplanting tree seedlings (New Guinea). Conversely, the Maya, Mangarevans and Easter Islanders failed to address their forestry problems and so collapsed.
Consider Japan. In the 1600’s, the country faced its own crisis of deforestation, paradoxically brought on by the peace and prosperity following the Tokugawa shoguns’ military triumph that ended 150 years of civil war. The subsequent explosion of Japan’s population and economy set off rampant logging for construction of palaces and cities, and for fuel and fertilizer.
The shoguns responded with both negative and positive measures. They reduced wood consumption by turning to light-timbered construction, to fuel-efficient stoves and heaters, and to coal as a source of energy. At the same time, they increased wood production by developing and carefully managing plantation forests. Both the shoguns and the Japanese peasants took a long-term view: the former expected to pass on their power to their children, and the latter expected to pass on their land. In addition, Japan’s isolation at the time made it obvious that the country would have to depend on its own resources and couldn’t meet its needs by pillaging other countries. Today, despite having the highest human population density of any large developed country, Japan is more than 70 percent forested.
There is a similar story from Iceland. When the island was first settled by the Norse around 870, its light volcanic soils presented colonists with unfamiliar challenges. They proceeded to cut down trees and stock sheep as if they were still in Norway, with its robust soils. Significant erosion ensued, carrying half of Iceland’s topsoil into the ocean within a century or two. Icelanders became the poorest people in Europe. But they gradually learned from their mistakes, over time instituting stocking limits on sheep and other strict controls, and establishing an entire government department charged with landscape management. Today, Iceland boasts the sixth- highest per-capita income in the world.
What lessons can we draw from history? The most straightforward:
take environmental problems seriously. They destroyed societies in the past, and they are even more likely to do so now. If 6,000 Polynesians with stone tools were able to destroy Mangareva Island, consider what six billion people with metal tools and bulldozers are doing today. Moreover, while the Maya collapse affected just a few neighboring societies in Central America, globalization now means that any society’s problems have the potential to affect anyone else. Just think how crises in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq have shaped the United States today.
Other lessons involve failures of group decision-making. There are many reasons why past societies made bad decisions, and thereby failed to solve or even to perceive the problems that would eventually destroy them. One reason involves conflicts of interest, whereby one group within a society (for instance, the pig farmers who caused the worst erosion in medieval Greenland and Iceland) can profit by engaging in practices that damage the rest of society. Another is the pursuit of short-term gains at the expense of long- term survival, as when fishermen overfish the stocks on which their livelihoods ultimately depend.
History also teaches us two deeper lessons about what separates successful societies from those heading toward failure. A society contains a built-in blueprint for failure if the elite insulates itself from the consequences of its actions. That’s why Maya kings, Norse Greenlanders and Easter Island chiefs made choices that eventually undermined their societies. They themselves did not begin to feel deprived until they had irreversibly destroyed their landscape.
Could this happen in the United States? It’s a thought that often occurs to me here in Los Angeles, when I drive by gated communities, guarded by private security patrols, and filled with people who drink bottled water, depend on private pensions, and send their children to private schools. By doing these things, they lose the motivation to support the police force, the municipal water supply, Social Security and public schools. If conditions deteriorate too much for poorer people, gates will not keep the rioters out. Rioters eventually burned the palaces of Maya kings and tore down the statues of Easter Island chiefs; they have also already threatened wealthy districts in Los Angeles twice in recent decades.
In contrast, the elite in 17th-century Japan, as in modern Scandinavia and the Netherlands, could not ignore or insulate themselves from broad societal problems. For instance, the Dutch upper class for hundreds of years has been unable to insulate itself from the Netherlands’ water management problems for a simple reason:
the rich live in the same drained lands below sea level as the poor. If the dikes and pumps keeping out the sea fail, the well-off Dutch know that they will drown along with everybody else, which is precisely what happened during the floods of 1953.
The other deep lesson involves a willingness to re-examine long-held core values, when conditions change and those values no longer make sense. The medieval Greenland Norse lacked such a willingness: they continued to view themselves as transplanted Norwegian pastoralists, and to despise the Inuit as pagan hunters, even after Norway stopped sending trading ships and the climate had grown too cold for a pastoral existence. They died off as a result, leaving Greenland to the Inuit. On the other hand, the British in the 1950’s faced up to the need for a painful reappraisal of their former status as rulers of a world empire set apart from Europe. They are now finding a different avenue to wealth and power, as part of a united Europe.
In this New Year, we Americans have our own painful reappraisals to face. Historically, we viewed the United States as a land of unlimited plenty, and so we practiced unrestrained consumerism, but that’s no longer viable in a world of finite resources. We can’t continue to deplete our own resources as well as those of much of the rest of the world.
Historically, oceans protected us from external threats; we stepped back from our isolationism only temporarily during the crises of two world wars. Now, technology and global interconnectedness have robbed us of our protection. In recent years, we have responded to foreign threats largely by seeking short-term military solutions at the last minute.
But how long can we keep this up? Though we are the richest nation on earth, there’s simply no way we can afford (or muster the troops) to intervene in the dozens of countries where emerging threats lurk – particularly when each intervention these days can cost more than $100 billion and require more than 100,000 troops.
A genuine reappraisal would require us to recognize that it will be far less expensive and far more effective to address the underlying problems of public health, population and environment that ultimately cause threats to us to emerge in poor countries. In the past, we have regarded foreign aid as either charity or as buying support; now, it’s an act of self-interest to preserve our own economy and protect American lives.
Do we have cause for hope? Many of my friends are pessimistic when they contemplate the world’s growing population and human demands colliding with shrinking resources. But I draw hope from the knowledge that humanity’s biggest problems today are ones entirely of our own making. Asteroids hurtling at us beyond our control don’t figure high on our list of imminent dangers. To save ourselves, we don’t need new technology: we just need the political will to face up to our problems of population and the environment.
I also draw hope from a unique advantage that we enjoy. Unlike any previous society in history, our global society today is the first with the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of societies remote from us in space and in time. When the Maya and Mangarevans were cutting down their trees, there were no historians or archaeologists, no newspapers or television, to warn them of the consequences of their actions. We, on the other hand, have a detailed chronicle of human successes and failures at our disposal. Will we choose to use it?
Jared Diamond, who won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction for “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies,” is the author of the forthcoming “Collapse: How Societies Choose or Fail to Succeed.”
“Collapse,” Jared Diamond shows how societies destroy themselves. THE VANISHING by MALCOLM GLADWELL In “Collapse,” Jared Diamond shows how societies destroy themselves.
A thousand years ago, group of Vikings led by Eric the Red set sail from Norway for the vast Arctic landmass west of Scandinavia which came to be known a Greenland. It was largely uninhabitable-a forbidding expanse of snow and ice. But along the southwestern coast there were two deep fjord protected from the harsh winds and saltwater spray o the North Atlantic Ocean, an as the Norse sailed upriver they saw grassy slope flowering with buttercups dandelions, and bluebells, an thick forests of willow an birch and alder. Two colonies were formed, three hundred miles apart, known as the Eastern and Western Settlements. The Norse raise sheep, goats, and cattle. The turned the grassy slopes into pastureland. They hunted sea and caribou. They built string of parish churches and magnificent cathedral, the remains of which are still standing. They traded actively with mainland Europe, an tithed regularly to the Roma Catholic Church. The Norse colonies in Greenland were law-abiding, economically viable, fully integrate communities, numbering a their peak five thousand people. They lasted for four hundred and fifty years-an then they vanished
The story of the Eastern and Western Settlements of Greenland is told in Jared Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” (Viking; $29.95). Diamond teaches geography at U.C.L.A. and is well known for his best-seller “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” which won a Pulitzer Prize. In “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” Diamond looked at environmental and structural factors to explain why Western societies came to dominate the world. In “Collapse,” he continues that approach, only this time he looks at history’s losers-like the Easter Islanders, the Anasazi of the American Southwest, the Mayans, and the modern-day Rwandans. We live in an era preoccupied with the way that ideology and culture and politics and economics help shape the course of history. But Diamond isn’t particularly interested in any of those things-or, at least, he’s interested in them only insofar as they bear on what to him is the far more important question, which is a society’s relationship to its climate and geography and resources and neighbors. “Collapse” is a book about the most prosaic elements of the earth’s ecosystem-soil, trees, and water-because societies fail, in Diamond’s view, when they mismanage those environmental factors.
There was nothing wrong with the social organization of the Greenland settlements. The Norse built a functioning reproduction of the predominant northern-European civic model of the time-devout, structured, and reasonably orderly. In 1408, right before the end, records from the Eastern Settlement dutifully report that Thorstein Olafsson married Sigrid Bjornsdotter in Hvalsey Church on September 14th of that year, with Brand Halldorstson, Thord Jorundarson, Thorbjorn Bardarson, and Jon Jonsson as witnesses, following the proclamation of the wedding banns on three consecutive Sundays.
The problem with the settlements, Diamond argues, was that the Norse thought that Greenland really was green; they treated it as if it were the verdant farmland of southern Norway. They cleared the land to create meadows for their cows, and to grow hay to feed their livestock through the long winter. They chopped down the forests for fuel, and for the construction of wooden objects. To make houses warm enough for the winter, they built their homes out of six-foot-thick slabs of turf, which meant that a typical home consumed about ten acres of grassland.
But Greenland’s ecosystem was too fragile to withstand that kind of pressure. The short, cool growing season meant that plants developed slowly, which in turn meant that topsoil layers were shallow and lacking in soil constituents, like organic humus and clay, that hold moisture and keep soil resilient in the face of strong winds. “The sequence of soil erosion in Greenland begins with cutting or burning the cover of trees and shrubs, which are more effective at holding soil than is grass,” he writes. “With the trees and shrubs gone, livestock, especially sheep and goats, graze down the grass, which regenerates only slowly in Greenland’s climate. Once the grass cover is broken and the soil is exposed, soil is carried away especially by the strong winds, and also by pounding from occasionally heavy rains, to the point where the topsoil can be removed for a distance of miles from an entire valley.” Without adequate pastureland, the summer hay yields shrank; without adequate supplies of hay, keeping livestock through the long winter got harder. And, without adequate supplies of wood, getting fuel for the winter became increasingly difficult.
The Norse needed to reduce their reliance on livestock-particularly cows, which consumed an enormous amount of agricultural resources. But cows were a sign of high status; to northern Europeans, beef was a prized food. They needed to copy the Inuit practice of burning seal blubber for heat and light in the winter, and to learn from the Inuit the difficult art of hunting ringed seals, which were the most reliably plentiful source of food available in the winter. But the Norse had contempt for the Inuit-they called them skraelings, “wretches”-and preferred to practice their own brand of European agriculture. In the summer, when the Norse should have been sending ships on lumber-gathering missions to Labrador, in order to relieve the pressure on their own forestlands, they instead sent boats and men to the coast to hunt for walrus. Walrus tusks, after all, had great trade value. In return for those tusks, the Norse were able to acquire, among other things, church bells, stained-glass windows, bronze candlesticks, Communion wine, linen, silk, silver, churchmen’s robes, and jewelry to adorn their massive cathedral at Gardar, with its three-ton sandstone building blocks and eighty-foot bell tower. In the end, the Norse starved to death.
Diamond’s argument stand in sharp contrast to the conventional explanations for a society’s collapse. Usually we look for some kind of cataclysmic event. The aboriginal civilization of the Americas was decimated by the sudden arrival of smallpox. European Jewry was destroyed by Nazism Similarly, the disappearance of the Norse settlements is usually blamed on the Little Ice Age, which descended o Greenland in the early fourteen-hundreds, ending several centuries of relative warmth. (One archeologist refers to this as the “It got to cold, and they died argument.) What all these explanations have in common is the idea that civilization are destroyed by force outside their control, by act of God
But look, Diamond says, at Easter Island. Once, it was home to a thriving culture that produced the enormous stone statues that continue to inspire awe. It was home to dozens of species of trees, which created and protected an ecosystem fertile enough to support as many as thirty thousand people. Today, it’s a barren and largely empty outcropping of volcanic rock. What happened? Did a rare plant virus wipe out the island’s forest cover? Not at all. The Easter Islanders chopped their trees down, one by one, until they were all gone. “I have often asked myself, ‘What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?'” Diamond writes, and that, of course, is what is so troubling about the conclusions of “Collapse.” Those trees were felled by rational actors-who must have suspected that the destruction of this resource would result in the destruction of their civilization. The lesson of “Collapse” is that societies, as often as not, aren’t murdered. They commit suicide: they slit their wrists and then, in the course of many decades, stand by passively and watch themselves bleed to death.
This doesn’t mean that acts of God don’t play a role. It did get colder in Greenland in the early fourteen-hundreds. But it didn’t get so cold that the island became uninhabitable. The Inuit survived long after the Norse died out, and the Norse had all kinds of advantages, including a more diverse food supply, iron tools, and ready access to Europe. The problem was that the Norse simply couldn’t adapt to the country’s changing environmental conditions. Diamond writes, for instance, of the fact that nobody can find fish remains in Norse archeological sites. One scientist sifted through tons of debris from the Vatnahverfi farm and found only three fish bones; another researcher analyzed thirty-five thousand bones from the garbage of another Norse farm and found two fish bones. How can this be? Greenland is a fisherman’s dream: Diamond describes running into a Danish tourist in Greenland who had just caught two Arctic char in a shallow pool with her bare hands. “Every archaeologist who comes to excavate in Greenland . . . starts out with his or her own idea about where all those missing fish bones might be hiding,” he writes. “Could the Norse have strictly confined their munching on fish to within a few feet of the shoreline, at sites now underwater because of land subsidence? Could they have faithfully saved all their fish bones for fertilizer, fuel, or feeding to cows?” It seems unlikely. There are no fish bones in Norse archeological remains, Diamond concludes, for the simple reason that the Norse didn’t eat fish. For one reason or another, they had a cultural taboo against it.
Given the difficulty that the Norse had in putting food on the table, this was insane. Eating fish would have substantially reduced the ecological demands of the Norse settlements. The Norse would have needed fewer livestock and less pastureland. Fishing is not nearly as labor-intensive as raising cattle or hunting caribou, so eating fish would have freed time and energy for other activities. It would have diversified their diet.
Why did the Norse choose not to eat fish? Because they weren’t thinking about their biological survival. They were thinking about their cultural survival. Food taboos are one of the idiosyncrasies that define a community. Not eating fish served the same function as building lavish churches, and doggedly replicating the untenable agricultural practices of their land of origin. It was part of what it meant to be Norse, and if you are going to establish a community in a harsh and forbidding environment all those little idiosyncrasies which define and cement a culture are of paramount importance. “The Norse were undone by the same social glue that had enabled them to master Greenland’s difficulties,” Diamond writes. “The values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs over adversity.” He goes on:
“To us in our secular modern society, the predicament in which the Greenlanders found themselves is difficult to fathom. To them, however, concerned with their social survival as much as their biological survival, it was out of the question to invest less in churches, to imitate or intermarry with the Inuit, and thereby to face an eternity in Hell just in order to survive another winter on Earth.”
Diamond’s distinction between social and biological survival is a critical one, because too often we blur the two, or assume that biological survival is contingent on the strength of our civilizational values. That was the lesson taken from the two world wars and the nuclear age that followed: we would survive as a species only if we learned to get along and resolve our disputes peacefully. The fact is, though, that we can be law-abiding and peace-loving and tolerant and inventive and committed to freedom and true to our own values and still behave in ways that are biologically suicidal. The two kinds of survival are separate.
Diamond points out that the Easter Islanders did not practice, so far as we know, a uniquely pathological version of South Pacific culture. Other societies, on other islands in the Hawaiian archipelago, chopped down trees and farmed and raised livestock just as the Easter Islanders did. What doomed the Easter Islanders was the interaction between what they did and where they were. Diamond and a colleague, Barry Rollet, identified nine physical factors that contributed to the likelihood of deforestation-including latitude, average rainfall, aerial-ash fallout, proximity to Central Asia’s dust plume, size, and so on-and Easter Island ranked at the high-risk end of nearly every variable. “The reason for Easter’s unusually severe degree of deforestation isn’t that those seemingly nice people really were unusually bad or improvident,” he concludes. “Instead, they had the misfortune to be living in one of the most fragile environments, at the highest risk for deforestation, of any Pacific people.” The problem wasn’t the Easter Islanders. It was Easter Island.
In the second half of “Collapse,” Diamond turns his attention to modern examples, and one of his case studies is the recent genocide in Rwanda. What happened in Rwanda is commonly described as an ethnic struggle between the majority Hutu and the historically dominant, wealthier Tutsi, and it is understood in those terms because that is how we have come to explain much of modern conflict: Serb and Croat, Jew and Arab, Muslim and Christian. The world is a cauldron of cultural antagonism. It’s an explanation that clearly exasperates Diamond. The Hutu didn’t just kill the Tutsi, he points out. The Hutu also killed other Hutu. Why? Look at the land: steep hills farmed right up to the crests, without any protective terracing; rivers thick with mud from erosion; extreme deforestation leading to irregular rainfall and famine; staggeringly high population densities; the exhaustion of the topsoil; falling per-capita food production. This was a society on the brink of ecological disaster, and if there is anything that is clear from the study of such societies it is that they inevitably descend into genocidal chaos. In “Collapse,” Diamond quite convincingly defends himself against the charge of environmental determinism. His discussions are always nuanced, and he gives political and ideological factors their due. The real issue is how, in coming to terms with the uncertainties and hostilities of the world, the rest of us have turned ourselves into cultural determinists.
For the past thirty years Oregon has had one of the strictest sets of land-us regulations in the nation requiring new development to be clustered in and around existing urban development The laws meant that Oregon has done perhaps the best job in the nation in limiting suburban sprawl, an protecting coastal lands an estuaries. But this November Oregon’s voters passed ballot referendum, known a Measure 37, that rolled back many of those protections Specifically, Measure 37 said that anyone who could show that the value of his land was affected by regulation implemented since it purchase was entitled to compensation from the state If the state declined to pay, the property owner would be exempted from the regulations
To call Measure 37-and similar referendums that have been passed recently in other states-intellectually incoherent is to put it mildly. It might be that the reason your hundred-acre farm on a pristine hillside is worth millions to a developer is that it’s on a pristine hillside: if everyone on that hillside could subdivide, and sell out to Target and Wal-Mart, then nobody’s plot would be worth millions anymore. Will the voters of Oregon then pass Measure 38, allowing them to sue the state for compensation over damage to property values caused by Measure 37?
It is hard to read “Collapse,” though, and not have an additional reaction to Measure 37. Supporters of the law spoke entirely in the language of political ideology. To them, the measure was a defense of property rights, preventing the state from unconstitutional “takings.” If you replaced the term “property rights” with “First Amendment rights,” this would have been indistinguishable from an argument over, say, whether charitable groups ought to be able to canvass in malls, or whether cities can control the advertising they sell on the sides of public buses. As a society, we do a very good job with these kinds of debates: we give everyone a hearing, and pass laws, and make compromises, and square our conclusions with our constitutional heritage-and in the Oregon debate the quality of the theoretical argument was impressively high.
The thing that got lost in the debate, however, was the land. In a rapidly growing state like Oregon, what, precisely, are the state’s ecological strengths and vulnerabilities? What impact will changed land-use priorities have on water and soil and cropland and forest? One can imagine Diamond writing about the Measure 37 debate, and he wouldn’t be very impressed by how seriously Oregonians wrestled with the problem of squaring their land-use rules with their values, because to him a society’s environmental birthright is not best discussed in those terms. Rivers and streams and forests and soil are a biological resource. They are a tangible, finite thing, and societies collapse when they get so consumed with addressing the fine points of their history and culture and deeply held beliefs-with making sure that Thorstein Olafsson and Sigrid Bjornsdotter are married before the right number of witnesses following the announcement of wedding banns on the right number of Sundays-that they forget that the pastureland is shrinking and the forest cover is gone.
When archeologists looked through the ruins of the Western Settlement, they found plenty of the big wooden objects that were so valuable in Greenland-crucifixes, bowls, furniture, doors, roof timbers-which meant that the end came too quickly for anyone to do any scavenging. And, when the archeologists looked at the animal bones left in the debris, they found the bones of newborn calves, meaning that the Norse, in that final winter, had given up on the future. They found toe bones from cows, equal to the number of cow spaces in the barn, meaning that the Norse ate their cattle down to the hoofs, and they found the bones of dogs covered with knife marks, meaning that, in the end, they had to eat their pets. But not fish bones, of course. Right up until they starved to death, the Norse never lost sight of what they stood for.
January 11, 2005
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/11/books/11kaku.html By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
COLLAPSE – How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed By Jared Diamond
Jared Diamond’s fascinating but not always convincing new book, “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” tries hard to live up to its apocalyptic title.
It begins with the stories of several historical collapses, including the demise of the Easter Islanders, remembered now for the iconic stone heads they left behind on their Pacific island home; the fall of the ancient Mayan cities that were once the hub of the New World’s most advanced Native American civilization; and the disappearance of the Norse colony on Greenland after surviving for 450 years as Europe’s most remote outpost. In all these cases, Mr. Diamond diagnoses a similar pattern of catastrophe: environmental damage (usually deforestation leading to soil erosion, food shortages and eventually social and political crises), worsened by other factors like climate change, shifting trade patterns and shortsighted or venal leadership.
From these dire historical tales, Mr. Diamond – the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning best seller “Guns, Germs and Steel” – quickly fast-forwards, suggesting that these ancient examples may hold a lesson for our environmentally challenged world today. He argues that current environmental problems include the same ones that undermined past societies, plus four new ones: “human-caused climate change, buildup of toxic chemicals in the environment, energy shortages and full human utilization of the earth’s photosynthetic capacity.” Many of these problems, he adds, are expected to “become globally critical within the next few decades.”
“Much more likely than a doomsday scenario involving human extinction or an apocalyptic collapse of industrial civilization,” he writes, “would be ‘just’ a future of significantly lower living standards, chronically higher risks and the undermining of what we now consider some of our key values. Such a collapse could assume various forms, such as the worldwide spread of diseases or else of wars, triggered ultimately by scarcity of environmental resources.”
Already, he argues, societal collapse has become a palpable specter in some troubled third-world countries. He contends that environmental problems and resulting land and food shortages played a key role in fueling the ethnic slaughter that plagued Rwanda in the 1990’s, and that similar environmental destruction has contributed to Haiti’s current plight.
With this volume, Mr. Diamond wants very much to write a kind of bookend to “Guns, Germs and Steel.” That earlier book attempted to explain why Western civilizations developed the technologies and social and political strategies that enabled them to dominate the world; this volume attempts to explain in a far more haphazard manner why some societies failed to flourish and eventually vanished from the face of the earth.
Mr. Diamond – who has academic training in physiology, geography and evolutionary biology – is a lucid writer with an ability to make arcane scientific concepts readily accessible to the lay reader, and his case studies of failed cultures are never less than compelling. He presents some intriguing digressions about methods used by scientists and historians to diagnose the trajectory of long dead societies, and provides some provocative analyses of current environmental problems in Australia, the United States and China.
Noting that China is rapidly progressing toward its goal of achieving a first-world economy, Mr. Diamond writes that if that gigantic nation’s per-capita consumption rates do in fact rise to first-world levels, it will result in the approximate doubling of the “entire world’s human resource use and environmental impact.” Something has to give way, he concludes: “That is the strongest reason why China’s problems automatically become the world’s problems.”
Toward the end of “Collapse,” Mr. Diamond poses the question of why some societies undermine themselves and even commit suicide by making disastrous decisions. He comes up with four fuzzily defined categories: 1) failure to anticipate a problem (i.e. the British introduction of foxes and rabbits to Australia – two alien mammals that have cost billions of dollars in damage and control expenditures); 2) failure to perceive a problem that has actually arrived (often because a slow trend like global warming is concealed by wide up and down fluctuations); 3) failure to attempt to solve a problem once it has been identified (usually because leaders put self-interest before the public good or focus on short-term benefits over long-term needs); and 4) failure to find a viable solution to the problem (frequently because of prohibitive costs or because too little has been done too late).
Such discussions are useful in getting the reader to think about the big picture – about matters like the sustainability of current consumption patterns in a world of shrinking resources, and the role that cultural values can play in a society’s welfare. Did the reluctance of the Norse settlers in Greenland to learn survival skills from their Inuit rivals help seal their fate? Did the obsession of Easter Island chiefs with trying to outdo their rivals by building bigger and bigger statues (which consumed precious natural resources and labor) effectively doom their civilization?
Interesting as such questions might be, this book remains, in the end, a messy hodgepodge of case studies, glued together with speculation and questionable analogies. For one thing, Mr. Diamond’s selection of failed civilizations from the past seems arbitrary in the extreme: Why Easter Island and not ancient Rome? Why the Anasazi of the American Southwest and not the Minoans of ancient Crete?
In addition, the reader is left wondering if the examples he has selected truly offer useful analogies to the world’s current situation. After all, as Mr. Diamond himself points out, there are huge differences between the historical examples he cites and the plight of the world today: most notably, the role that technology plays in accelerating change (speeding up both environmental damage and possible solutions to that damage) and the role of globalization in linking the fates of wildly disparate and distant societies. Although Mr. Diamond talks about these differences, he does so in a highly cursory manner – more as a pre-emptive strike against possible critics than as part of a carefully considered analysis central to this book.
69605 Dick Lawrence Jan 31, 2005 Easterbrook wrote a pathetically stupid and envious review in the NYT of Diamond’s book, there is massive criticism on the web on a variety of forums, here’s one from a non-energy group Here’s another critique of Easterbrook’s review of “Collapse”. When a not-very successful wannabe author reviews a much more successful author (who got a Pulitzer as well), watch out.
There are so many fundamental problems with Easterbrook’s review, I don’t know where to start. I’ll just give two:
1. Easterbrook says that since most of Diamond’s examples involve islands, they’re not applicable to the Earth as a whole since it’s not primarily made up of islands. But Diamond chose islands as his examples because they have limited resources, and are consequently more sensitive to impacts from pre-industrial and early industrial societies with lower resource requirements than our modern societies. 6 billion people, and the resources required to maintain a modern industrial society, will have the same kind of resource impacts on the entire planet, and the same effects on its ecosystems, that less-demanding societies had on the limited resources of islands. And if we could launch Gregg Easterbrook into space, which many would argue would be a good thing, he would quickly see that the Earth as a whole *is* an island.
2. Easterbrook argues that since we’re so much more advanced now then earlier societies, we’re bound to come up with a solution that will fix any of those problems, including harvesting resources from the rest of the universe. This isn’t a fact, it’s a belief, it’s faith-based resource management; “crunch all you want, we’ll make more”. Other societies have also felt that things could go on the way they always had, and they’d always be able to find solutions when they needed to; hasn’t always worked out the way. Someone needs to tell Gregg Easterbrook that “deus ex machina” isn’t a viable strategy for solving our problems. Leszek Pawlowicz
Jan Steinman Feb 7, 2005 Jared Diamonds Collapse and Peak Oil I attended a talk of Diamond’s in Portland (Oregon), sponsored by Powell’s Books.
I stood up and asked, “The Easter Islanders died for want of a single 40 watt bulb’s worth of exosomatic energy. North Americans consume the equivalent of seven hair dryers, running 24/7/365. Populations levels have risen as a direct result of cheap energy, from about 1 billion before oil, to over 6 billion today. Each calorie of food we eat currently requires ten calories of fossil fuel to produce. Petroleum production has reached — or will soon reach — a peak, after which it will decline, while demand is still increasing. Natural gas will follow soon after. Recognizing that human population may have to retreat to pre-oil numbers, or that 5 of every 6 people in this room may have to ‘go away,’ how can you be ‘cautiously optimistic’ that our own civilization won’t appear in someone else’s ‘Collapse’ book, many years from now?”
He did a lot of arm-waving and mentioned hybrid cars, but basically hurried on to the next question.