Harming Environment Leads to Societal Collapse
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond addressed a crowd of about a thousand at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on February 3. Dr. Diamond, a professor of history at UCLA, held us in rapt attention while he talked about the subject of his 2005 book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. “That doesn’t seem like the most cheerful subject to write about,” he wryly pointed out, causing a fair amount of laughter among the crowd.
“The real question,” Diamond said, “is, why do some societies collapse, having failed to solve problems that other societies succeeded in solving?” He outlined five factors that negatively impacted the survival of some of the societies he had studied for his book: the Anasazi, the Easter Islanders, the Pitcairn Islanders, the Maya, the Vikings who had once lived in Greenland, and the Haitians of today. These five factors include:
- climate change (caused solely by natural forces, until now)
- conflict with neighbors
- dependence on trade partners
- environmental problems
- the society’s response to those problems
“Today we’re struggling with all the same problems of forest, water, fish, topsoil, climate change,” he said. Even in Montana, “the most beautiful, pristine, underpopulated, least-stretched state of the lower 48… if you scratch the surface, you find … all the environmental problems with which the rest of the world is struggling.” These include toxic waste, climate change (“as a result of which Glacier National Park will be Glacier-less National Park by 2020″), soil erosion, air quality, and population shift.
Not all factors equally affected each society Diamond studied, but every single society that collapsed experienced environmental degradation and destruction. For me, two examples stood out because of the role of deforestation. The first was the island of Hispaniola, which Diamond called “a natural experiment in history.” On one side of the island is the Dominican Republic, a lush environment and a stable, if not wealthy, economy. On the other side of the border, over the wall, is Haiti, a nation that has been deforested to the point of barrenness. The citizens are desperately poor and their side of the island is overpopulated. While deforestation alone was not the cause of Haiti’s economic and social problems, it was a deciding factor.
Another society whose fate was determined largely by deforestation was the “statue-building society” that once inhabited Easter Island. This remote island, some 2,300 miles west of Chile, in the south Pacific Ocean, is the home of “gigantic stone statues, up to 30 feet tall and weighing up to 9 tons, that were somehow transported up to 12 miles, hitched into a vertical position, and erected by people without draft animals….” According to Diamond, the first European explorer, who arrived on the island in 1722, described Easter Island as “the most barren island in the Pacific.”
When Easter Island was first settled by Polynesians, “roughly 1,000 years ago, the island was not the treeless wasteland that we see today, but it was covered with a lush, sub-tropical forest of dozens of species of trees, including the world’s biggest palm tree. The settlers of Easter Island proceeded to chop down trees for the same reason that we and all other people chop down trees: They chopped them for fuel for cooking. Chopped them for firewood to warm themselves. Chopped them down for construction… Chopped them down to make levers to transport and erect the giant statues. They chopped them down to make dugout canoes with which to go out to sea and fish for … tunas and dolphins….
“Roughly around 1680, they chopped down the last tree on the island… Without trees, the landscape of Easter Island was exposed to wind and water erosion. Without trees, they couldn’t build canoes to obtain their main protein source from tuna and dolphin. And with a large population and shrinking resources, Easter Island society collapsed in an epidemic of civil war.
“Rival clans on Easter Island fought each other for pieces of this shrinking resource pie. Victorious clans would tear down and wreck the statues of rival clans. And in the absence of what had been the largest source of protein — tuna and dolphins — people turned to a protein [from] the only big animal left on the island… Easter Island society collapsed in an epidemic of cannibalism.”
Certainly deforestation wasn’t the only problem for Easter Island, but it was a pivotal factor in the society’s collapse, according to Diamond. Deforestation also plagues Haiti, leaving the residents without wood to burn for cooking their food or for warmth.
Environment vs. Economy
After describing the societies and the reasons for their collapse, Diamond took the opportunity to help his audience understand the lessons that we can draw from the collapse of other societies. His goal in doing so was not to lead us to despair, but to “guide us in becoming a success story rather than one of the failures. The most obvious lesson,” he said, “is to take environmental problems seriously. Environmental problems did destroy some of the most advanced societies of the past. They could well destroy us today. “
He warned against the objection that “we have to balance the environment against the economy.’ Just listen to that phrase, ‘Balance the environment against the economy.’ The tacit assumption is that the environmental measures impose costs that detract from the economy, and that one can afford the luxury of environmental degradation. … If you don’t deal with [environmental problems] early on, when they’re soluble, they’ll become insoluble, or prohibitively expensive to deal with later on.”
As an example, he described the refusal of local, state, and federal agencies to spend $200 million to repair the levees in New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina, the cost of repairs has been “several hundred billion dollars, not to mention a couple thousand dead Americans, all because we had ‘balanced the environment against the economy.’ ”
Diamond further warned, “[W]hen a collapse comes, it happens very quickly,” pointing not only to the long-ago societies that failed, but also to the sudden demise of the Soviet Union.
He also warned against the insulation of the wealthy and powerful from the problems of the masses. In his view, gated communities today are similar to the walls of the temples, behind which the powerful Mayans were shielded from the very problems that destroyed their nation and their power. “When the elite of a society insulate themselves from the consequences of their action, that is a recipe for disaster, because then the elite can make decisions that are good for themselves in the short run, but bad for the whole society, including themselves, in the long run.”
A Global Risk
The eminent historian explained that we can learn from the past, though we must acknowledge differences. “One obvious difference is, we have far more people in the world. And we have far more potent destructive technology than at any time in the past,” he said.
“When the Eastern Islanders, around 1580, were chopping down the last tree, that was roughly 10,000 islanders with stone tools, and it had taken them something like 600 years to deforest their island of 64 square miles. But today, we have 6.7 billion people with chain saws and nuclear power deforesting the whole world far more rapidly than the Easter Islanders with their stone tools deforested Easter Island. That combination of much larger population and much more potent destructive technology than at any time in the past makes our present situation far more dangerous….
“Today in a globalized world, when any society gets in trouble, it affects the rest of the world…. [I]t’s no longer possible to have local collapse. Instead, the risk we take is global collapse.”
But Jared Diamond did not end his talk with despair. He gave us a message of hope. “The situation is, I think, hopeful, because of another difference between the present and the past, which gives us a big advantage…. [W]e are the first society in world history with the opportunity to learn from societies remote from us both in space and in time.”
We have the technology to not only know about, but also to learn from, other societies’ tragic mistakes. We don’t have to go the way of the Easter Islanders or the Haitians or the Mayans. It’s our choice. Let’s choose wisely.
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