What in Charles Darwin’s name do the people of the Turtle Island or those SUV-ing my neck of the woods, the Inland Northwest, have in common with the ancient Mayans and their pyramids, the folk of Easter Island and their massive carved heads, and the Vikings of Greenland who lived their 500 years until their 1410 “disappearance?”
According to Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond -- ornithologist, evolutionary biologist, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and professor of geography at the University of California in Los Angeles -- our modern society is plowing through resources and tipping the scales of economic and social justice to the point that environmental and social disasters are bound to be the 21st Century’s biggest woes.
Diamond isn’t the first to observe populations doing themselves in by going beyond clearly defined capacities to grow.
In some circles, carrying capacity, ecological footprint, lag time, and population crash are buzz phrases to describe humanity’s out-of-synch consumption and environmental degradation all directly related to a global population approaching 7 billion. Spokane, where I’m currently residing, like China but on a smaller scale, is not living a sustainable existence -- living within our means so future generations can have the same ability to sustain their lives with more or less the same resources and potential for happiness. For Diamond in this most recent book studies individual cultures -- like the Norsemen of Greenland and their Inuit cohabitants, or the “have and have not” cultures of Haiti (the haves not) and the neighboring Dominican Republic (the haves). The book is scholarly and filled with the riveting science of tree ring and soil analysis. Studying middens and the types of flies living within a human community helps us determine how a society ran out of fuel and food.
Some experiments in humanity fail, others succeed. For example, the small island nation of Tikopia in the Pacific (1.8 square miles) has been a success for 1,200 years sustaining itself and preventing collapse. Japan, despite its swelling population, has effectively managed its forests and environment. On the other hand, China, whose economy is growing 10 percent annually, spends hundreds of billions of dollars fighting the effects of drought, soil loss, pollution, dwindling tillable land and disease.
By studying these past and current cultures, big and small, from Easter Island to Haiti, Australia to Montana, Diamond’s meta-discussion converges into a dynamic overlay of geographic, climatic and cultural determinants that play into whether a civilization, or Empire, succeeds or fails. This 540-page book reads like an adventure but without a single protagonist. Archaeology, paleobotany, ethnography, history, and evolutionary biology are the actors in this long book on civilization’s role in anticipating, creating and promulgating collapse.
The Vikings settled Greenland (900 A.D.) with the wrong cultural and societal tools, taking with them European-Christian ideologies that essentially put blinders on them. They tried growing hay and raising cattle in a land inhospitable to those trades. They cut down their forests, which changed the conditions of the soil. They even failed to learn from the Inuit by adapting to icy seas with kayaks and eating seal and whale meat. Archaeologists have found no fish bones in the Norsemen’s middens. Eating fish was taboo to the Norsemen!
So around 1410, the last Greenland Norsemen basically starved and froze to death.
In Collapse, Diamond also makes corollaries to the United States’ own under girder of too much consumption, too much fossil fuel dependence, and rising difficulties with hostile neighbors that have resources we crave. Just on a local level, depending on the region, most places in this country are completely out of balance with the biological and hydrological factors that allow for communities to survive. Is collapse inevitable? Diamond gives the reader every angle from which to ponder this $64,000 question.
Getting back to my own stomping grounds illustrates the correlative tipping points. Washington is losing its vital farmlands and wetlands to the needs of urban and suburban hyper-growth. Our fisheries are collapsing or have already disappeared to quench the thirst of huge agricultural operations and hydroelectric generation. We are straddled with dwindling aquifers and increasingly polluted soils and surface water. Our state is being invaded both by more and more car-dependent hoards and such lovely newcomers as spotted knap weed, milfoil, and West Nile virus. Wild salmon, which sustained this region for thousands of years, are a myth.
Diamond, like his late colleague at Nature magazine, Stephen Jay Gould, writes about the big ideas and revels his readers to contemplate a systems approach to thinking -- that everything in the world is interlinked. In Collapse, the reader goes through myriad travails to grasp Diamond’s interlaced hypotheses why the lessons from collapses of such creative civilizations as the Maya, Norseman of Greenland or Anazasi should be learned by modern civilizations, and we should retool our actions and thinking accordingly.
Diamond’s Collapse superstructure is built upon a simple foundation of five key factors responsible for a society's disintegration: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, loss of friendly trade partners, and either the too slow or incorrect response (political intransigence) to environmental problems. We see that individually, each factor is sufficient enough to trigger collapse in certain predicaments, but in historical reality, though, usually two or more are involved.
Environmental damage and political ineptitude pushed the civilization of Easter Island to collapse. So much human, spiritual and ecological energies were expended for those heads, and the leaders let their people cut down every tree to help construct and raise these moai -- monoliths carved for the Rapa Nui society. The result was soil erosion, starvation, cannibalism and, finally, population crash.
Diamond has become a scientific superstar in the same league as a Carl Sagan, and this has created various forms of criticism (he dabbles in too many fields . . . he relies on scientific reductionism) and jealousy (he’s popularizing science by going Hollywood). His Pulitzer-prize winning book has been turned into a three-hour National Geographic series -- Guns, Germs and Steel – and is currently airing July 11, 18 and 25 at 10 p.m. on PBS stations. The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles is also featuring an exhibit, with Diamond’s collaboration, titled Collapse? and it will travel around the country.
Only a handful of writers confront the survival of the human race in a manner that enthralls the lay public. “It’s a significant problem,” Diamond recently told the LA Weekly. “A lot of scientists and academics are just uninterested in writing for or talking to the public. Even worse, some of them are opposed to those academics who do want to take their work to the public! But if the specialists in a field, the people who know most about a field, are not going to tell the public the take-away messages from the field, how on earth can you expect the best thinking to go on in public circles and in government circles? If we don’t have the facts? Science is just a matter of accurate knowledge of the world. And I see it as the responsibility of scientists; if they have specific knowledge of the world, they ought to share it. If they don’t want to share it, they ought to shut up and let other scientists share it.”
The 68-year-old Diamond, who has lived all over the world, from the Amazon and New Guinea, to Australia, Montana and Indonesia, who speaks or reads more than a half dozen languages, isn’t as apocalyptic as one might expect. In fact, he sees hope in corporations making changes to protect the environment and the social fabric.
“People are not helpless in the face of big business,” he told the LA Weekly. “It’s up to the public to say what it wants. Only when the public bans single-hulled oil tankers from American waters, only when the public says no more selling wood logged from old-growth forests, will companies -- like Home Depot, which now carries a line of sustainable wood -- come up with other solutions.”
And so the reader will be bewildered by what Diamond presents in this interesting and controversial book. And give it to one of his inquisitive students to hit Diamond with the truly provocative question: “What did the last Easter Islander say when he cut down the last tree?” Or what did the last Norsemen say starving to death while the seas around him were teaming with fish?
Paul K. Haeder teaches college at Spokane Falls Community College and other places. He is a former daily newspaper journalist in Arizona and Texas, whose independent work has appeared in many publications. As a book reviewer for the El Paso Times, many of his reviews appeared in other Gannett newspapers.