Saturday, January 15, 2005

Jared Diamond and the Collapse of Society

By his own account, Jared Diamond is a “cautious optimist” when it comes to the major problems confronting American society in the decades ahead. Those problems can be solved, he said. “The problems are not hopeless. They are all of our making.”

A scholar and Pulitzer-prize winning author, Diamond was in Washington, D.C. this past week to promote his new book, Collapse How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. He is the author of Guns, Germs and Steel, which won a Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction and which enjoyed both critical and popular success.

Diamond began Collapse as an attempt to answer the romantic, archaeological mysteries of the collapse of ancient societies—the Greenland Norse, the Mayans, the Anasazi Indians. The scope of the book expanded as he realized that all past societies were not doomed to collapse.

As his research unfolded, Diamond found himself confronted with an intellectual puzzler: Why do some societies fail, while others succeed? In attempting to answer that question, Diamond came to the realization that existing societies are confronting their own success or failure.

From his studies, Diamond emerged with three deep lessons for the modern world:

  • Take environmental and population problems seriously.
  • A society will fail if its political elite is insulated from the consequences of its political actions.
  • A societiy will fail if it clings to core values, which were once a source of strength, long after those core values no longer serve society.

Two of those three lessons are especially pertinent to the United States today. Diamond said, America must be especially cautious of its isolationism and of its sense of unlimited resources, of endless plenty.

Diamond said that no one factor serves as an explanation for the success or failure of a society. In Collapse he develops a five-point framework or checklist:

  1. Human environmental impacts. Some societies, such as Easter Island, commit ecological suicide by destroying its natural resources. Others, such as Japan, avert disaster through enlightened policies and practices.

  2. Climate change. The climate becomes hotter or colder, drier or wetter. Climate change interacts with human environmental impacts.

  3. Enemies. Enemies may take advantage of a weakened society. Diamond said it is still unresolved whether the Barbarians were the fundamental cause of a Rome’s downfall or if the Barbarians were merely the last straw, toppling a nation already weakened from within.

  4. Friends. A society may be undone by the collapse of its trading partners. As example, Diamond cited the impact of the 1973 Gulf Oil Crisis on America.

  5. How a society responds to points 1 through 4.

Why do societies make fatal mistakes? The answer, Diamond said, is complex. Societies may fail to anticipate a problem. They may fail to perceive a problem. They may not try to solve the problem or they may try to solve it and fail.

Factors such as “landscape amnesia” and “creeping normalcy” contribute to a society’s downfall. A society simply may not “see” slow changes such as global warning or the devastation of plant life.

In researching his book, Diamond said one of his biggest surprises was the realization that big business, which he once viewed as universally evil, can make responsible contributions to society. The public influences business decisions through legislation and through their pocketbooks, according to Diamond.

1 comment:

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