Dr. John Young                                                                                                                11/11/07

Unitarian Universalist Church of Jacksonville



Why Societies Fail or Succeed


Some years ago, UUCJ member Dave Rohal shared a book with me called Guns, Germs, and Steel, published in 1997. It won the Pulitzer Prize, and it made its author, Jared Diamond, famous. Guns, Germs, and Steel argued that the main international issues of our time are legacies of processes that began as the world first became agricultural and that civilization depended significantly upon temperate climates, grain crops, farm animals, and other ecological factors that both exemplified and gave rise to further human advances. Guns, Germs, and Steel questioned the prevalent tendency to argue that there was something inherently superior about certain peoples. It argued instead that most of agricultural development and complexity are a function of climate and do not depend so much upon particular humans’ ingenuity as upon the resources available because of geography, climate, and the availability of food and shelter. This led some critics to say that Jared Diamond was an ecological or environmental determinist.


These criticisms may have been part of the stimulus for Jared Diamond’s new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, published in 2005. It is a fascinating book. Tim Flannery in Science called Collapse “probably the most important book you will ever read.” William Rees, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist argued that it was an appropriate antidote to “a dangerously illusory cultural myth which still holds most of the modern world still in its sway that “the human enterprise is somehow ‘decoupling’ from the environment and so is poised for unlimited expansion.” Malcolm Gladwell added in The New Yorker that: “The fact is that we can be law-abiding, peace-loving, tolerant, inventive, committed to freedom and true to our own values and still behave in ways that are biologically suicidal.”


Jared Diamond is now 70 years old. His father was a physician and his mother was a teacher, musician and linguist; they were of Jewish-Polish heritage. Jared attended the Roxbury Latin School, earned his BA from Harvard in 1958 and received his Ph.D. in physiology and biophysics from Cambridge University in 1961. He spent four years as a Fellow at Harvard, and then became a professor of physiology at UCLA Medical School in 1966.

In his twenties, he developed a second parallel career in ecology and evolution of New Guinea’s birds and led many expeditions to that region of the world. In his fifties, Diamond gradually developed a third career in environmental history, becoming a professor of geography and environmental health sciences at UCLA, the position he still holds. He speaks a dozen languages. His wife comes from a famous Polish political and noble family, and they have two young adult sons. Author Mark Ridley suggested jokingly that: “Jared Diamond is not a single person, but is actually a committee.”


In Collapse, Diamond argues that the root problem in societal collapse is overpopulation relative to the practicable [as opposed to the ideal theoretical] carrying capacity of the environment. He lists eight factors which have historically contributed to the collapse of past societies: 1. deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems [erosion, salinization, and soil fertility losses], water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth, and increased per-capita impact of people. He adds three new factors beginning now to contribute to societal collapse: 9. human-caused climate change, 10. the build-up of toxic chemicals in the environment, and 11. energy shortages. He is not arguing that military and economic factors are not often of central importance, but simply that we have too often over-looked and depreciated environmental impacts on societies’ collapses, failures, and successes.


Diamond spends a good deal of the book talking about contemporary Western Montana where he spent important parts of his boyhood and now returns as a frequent vacationer, and medieval Norse Greenland that ultimately completely collapsed and is a very well documented case study. When he was a youngster, the valley he knows best in Western Montana was still surrounded by snow and glaciers in the summer. Now, in his old age, the glaciers are gone and the snow too has disappeared by summer. Their mining, lumbering, ranching culture has been transformed by environmental dilemmas. They are making significant changes but also facing daunting challenges. The Norse Greenlanders persevered for 500 years but ultimately died out because they were unwilling to become more like the Inuit hunter-gathers who survived in the same ecological niche.


He unravels the mysteries of the Easter Island culture, which basically committed societal suicide by deforestation because they needed to keep cutting big trees to move their giant statues. The Anasazi of the American Southwest collapsed because of a prolonged drought. These were tiny societies, but the Maya was a culture of millions of people with an advanced civilization that basically also developed far beyond the carrying capacity of their geographic area, descended in warfare for diminishing resources and that was wiped out by prolonged drought.


On the other side of the ledger, Diamond presents the highland farmers of New Guinea, the self-sufficient tiny Pacific island of Tikopia, and the reforestation of Japan by the Tokugawa-era.


Westerners thought the interior of New Guinea was uninhabited. Then, when pilots began to fly over it in the 1930s, they realized that it looked like the most densely populated areas of Holland: broad open valleys with neatly laid-out gardens separated by ditches for irrigation and terraced hillsides as far as the eye could see. People had been living there in sustainable ways for 46,000 years, more than the last 7,000 with sustainable agriculture and forest practices. Their methods until very recently were extremely primitive by Western standards: felling trees with stone axes and digging their gardens with wooden sticks. However, they had constantly experimented with what would grow well and shared their knowledge. They had developed highly cooperative farming that basically used everything available wisely. They had also carefully constructed population practices that kept them from producing more people than they could sustain. When the New Guineans who accompanied him on his birding expeditions traveled with him to other regions, they constantly questioned the farmers they met, and took home samples of anything that looked promising to use in their own gardens.


The island of Tikopia is a tiny Pacific island. It too has developed a highly cooperative agricultural system which basically uses everything on the island in sustainable ways. They too have developed stringent birth control beliefs and practices. The Chiefs now have set zero population protocols for the island. Though the island is hit by an average of two typhoons a year, they have developed group and individual practices that allow them to survive through these disaster periods.


Westerners had always thought that the German principalities invented forest management in the 1500s that spread to the rest of Europe by 1800s.  In turns out that by the 1700s, Japan was also systematically learning to reforest its nation. Japan has the highest population density in the first world, about 1000 per square mile. 80% of Japan’s area now consists of sparsely populated forested mountains. Almost 80% of Japan’s people and agriculture are crammed into the plains that make up only 20% of the country. No doubt, Japan has advantages, few goats or sheep [which eat seedlings], relatively few horses, lots of seafood, both for protein and fertilizer, good rainfall, and fast tree growth. It also has a population that depended upon its own resources, that was and is homogenous, felt that they would be passing their land and trees on to their progeny, and responded to direction from their leaders.


Diamond talks about the fragility of Australia’s ecology. He points out that Australians face the most daunting challenges and, therefore, may eventually be inclined to take some of the most drastic measures. He considers the massive depletion of environmental resources in China, and mourns the disinclination so far of the Chinese government or people to make the changes necessary except in population control. However, he points out that the benefits of population control are being largely offset not only by environmentally uncontrolled economic development but also by the massive changes in social structure. While China cut population growth to 1.3%, their number of households has grown by 3.5% per year for the last 15 years, the number of people per household is half as many, and the per-capita floor space has tripled. At the same time, urbanization has tripled, and rural and village industrialization has degraded large areas of the countryside.


Among the most interesting chapters of the book are on Rwanda, site of the horrendous genocide in 1994, and the different environmental policies of the Dominican Republic and Haiti which share the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. It turns out the Rwanda has the highest population density in Africa and one of the highest in the world. Not incidentally, two other nations, Cambodia and Bangla Desh with horrific genocides also have high population densities. Diamond argues persuasively that population explosion coupled with unsustainable agricultural and economic policies set the stage for the Rwandan genocide. Hutus killed other minorities and other Hutus when Tutsis were not available. If you look at the island of Hispaniola from the air, the Dominican side of the border looks green and the Haitian side barren. In earlier times, the Haitians dominated the island and were wealthier, but while they destroyed their ecology through neglect and bad environmental policies, the Dominicans have created the biggest system of forested lands in the Caribbean, and through that and other smarter environmental policies made their nation relatively prosperous compared with the Haitian basket-case.


So why do societies fail? First, they may fail to anticipate a problem, like the British colonists importing rabbits and foxes into Australia. Second, when the problem arrives, the group may fail to perceive it, as when the U.S. had an oil shortage in 1973 and then in a few years embraced SUVs. Third, they may perceive it, but they may fail even to try to solve it, often the trouble here seems to be that people figure they don’t need to fix it, because somebody else will, or it will be cured by technology, or a few people take advantage of the situation for their own profit, and the rest of us aren’t hurt enough personally to do anything about it, like global warming. Fourth, people may try to solve it, and they may fail, because it is beyond their capacities to solve, because it seems too expensive, or because what they do is too little or too late. In Australia, they imported the Cane Toad to control pests, and it has itself become a pest. Forest fire control in the American West seems possible, but too expensive or too controlling.


If we are to succeed in the twenty-first century, we will need to develop global solutions for our increasingly global world. We will need to begin in the United States by empowering the national government to radically change national policies and work with the international community to change international policies. Governments, corporations, states, cities, neighborhoods and individuals need to be called to account for the ecological consequences of their actions. People will need to feel the pain of their own pollution or anti-sustainable policies. Population control, consumption moderation, first world sacrifices, particularly American sacrifices need to lead the way. With more intelligent and long-term economic and political policies, America could become a leader in a truly new economy that would become sustainable and inspiring toward a successful future instead of lessons in greed and modeling cultural suicidal impulses. As Jared Diamond concludes:


For the first time in history, we face the risk of a global decline, but we also are the first to enjoy the opportunity of learning quickly from developments in societies anywhere else in the world today, and from what has unfolded in societies at any time in the past. That’s why I wrote this book.