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The collapse of societies, then and now

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

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I’ve just finished reading Jared Diamond‘s book, Collapse: How Societies choose to fail or survive. Apart from being a fascinating and completely absorbing read, it is a book that is so relevant to our times precisely because we need to understand the factors that primarily determine whether or not a society, any society, will survive challenges to its very existence or succumbs to those challenges and collapses. Diamond is not just another academic professor, but one who combines a vast breadth of knowledge across many different scientific disciplines with a vast record of experience travelling the world, especially to places where societies have actually collapsed. And he applies all that knowledge and experience to considering just how we can learn from all those past collapses in order to avoid the very real danger we face now of our own society collapsing through such accumulative pressures as global warming, environmental and ecological damage through modern industrial practices, globalisation, overpopulation and other factors.

Diamond has constructed a five-point framework for helping to understand how any particular society collapses: the damage that people inadvertently inflict on their environment, climate change (whether that be in either a hotter or colder, wetter or drier  direction), hostile neighbours, decreased support by friendly neighbours, and the society’s responses to its problems. He then applies that framework to detailed case studies of actual societies that have collapsed throughout history, ranging from the distant past to very recently, showing how some or all of the five points may have been involved in the collapse and how those points  interacted with each other in each collapse. The detail of his analysis and the range of evidence he assembles from so many different disciplines in order to support his analysis is breathtaking and convincing, and makes me realise just how vulnerable all societies are to collapse, either rapidly or gradually over several centuries. Obviously not all societies collapse, but the ones that do flourish do so because they usually have to take stock of serious challenges to their very existence and take action, sometimes very drastic action, in order to overcome those challenges and survive. What is also very sobering, and should be a great lesson for our own times, is just how often many of those challenges include dealing with dramatic climate change and environmental or ecosystem destruction that is either deliberately or inadvertently caused by that society’s activities.

A very simple and dramatic example, perhaps the most vivid one,  is that of Easter Island: there a once flourishing society destroyed itself by cutting down all of its trees. Once the trees were gone, that society collapsed very quickly. Trees are essential to ecosystems rich enough to permit humans to carry out essential activities, such as agriculture. Without trees, you eventually have no soil, or soil in the wrong place, or soil lacking in sufficient nutrients, and so forth, and then growing enough food becomes too problematic. And without enough food, well, any society would have trouble coping with that, no matter how prosperous or powerful it is. The people on Easter Island weren’t stupid, and they did value trees very highly, but all societies have within them ways of behaving and thinking that can possibly lead to an inability to be aware of just what problems are emerging, or if there is awareness of the problems, an inability to act upon that awareness by taking the necessary remedial action.

The climax of the book is the final chapter in which Diamond applies his five-point framework to today’s society, which can be considered a truly global society due to the global spread of industrialisation, urbanisation, and the deeply interdependent trading links between economies that is at the heart of globalisation. In the past, some societies could collapse in isolation without having knock-on effects on other contemporary societies. No such chance now, especially not with global warming, which effects all societies today, and if one major economy collapse, then it will have significant knock-on effects on other economies because of today’s global economic interdependencies.

In the final chapter, Diamond isolates the 12 most serious environmental problems that face our present societies and discusses them in detail:

  1. Destruction of natural habitats, especially forests. Diamond says: “Deforestation was a or the major factor in all the collapses of past societies described in this book”
  2. overfishing
  3. loss of wild species, populations and genetic diversity. For example, bees are declining in numbers and health. But without bees, how do we pollinate most of our crops?
  4. Loss of agricultural soil from water and wind erosion, and salinization, acidification, or alkinisation.
  5. The growing scarcity of fossil fuels, the world’s major energy sources, leading to greater financial and environmental costs of extracting the still available reserves.
  6. increasing scarcity and decreasing quality of freshwater
  7. the shrinking terrestrial photosynthetic capacity for growing greater amounts of food, made more acute by the rapid rate of population increase.
  8. toxic chemicals released into the environment by industry.
  9. environmental damage caused by alien species of plants and animals transferred intentionally or inadvertently from places where they are native to ones where they are not.
  10. Gases released into the atmosphere by human activities, causing environmental damage, such as destruction of the ozone layer or causing global warming through exacerbation of the greenhouse effect, thereby leading to climatic changes that can impact adversely on crucial human activities such as agriculture. Here Diamond does, I think, significantly understate the seriousness of global warming as  an environmental problem. He does accept that it is happening and that human activities are contributing to it, but he pulls his punches about just how serious it is. Most climate scientists now accept that global warming is now happening  faster than even the most pessimistic forecasts of the IPCC and that the manifestations of that warming in terms of extreme weather events and significant climate shifts is already happening on a large and rapidly increasing scale around the globe. Diamond even say at one point that “it turns out that global warming will produce both winners and losers”; that is simply wrong as whatever short-term gains there might be in, for example, higher agricultural yields in some areas (and I don’t think there is enough evidence in yet that there are, in fact, any short-term gains at all), will be massively outweighed by the losses, losses which will quickly wipe out any so-called short-term gains. With global warming on its current trajectory, we are all losers, now and much more so as time goes by. And if we don’t get a grip on solving this one environmental problem right now, then our chances of solving all the other problems becomes increasingly more difficult if not impossible to address. Yes, all 12 problems need dealing with now, but the absolute priority is global warming; its threat is that existential.
  11. rapid growth of the global human population
  12. the impact of that growing human population upon the environment.

Diamond makes the very telling point that we need to solve all 12 problems:

because any of the dozen problems if unsolved would do us grave harm, and because they all interact with each other. If we solved 11 of the problems but not the 12th, we would still be in trouble, whichever was the problem that remained unsolved. We have to solve them all.

But Diamond does have a message of hope for us. He describes himself as a cautious optimist because he says that a realistic acknowledgement of the severity of the problems facing us will lead naturally to a willingness to take those problems seriously and deal with them now. And the problems are not insoluble. As he says:

Because we are the cause of our environmental problems, we are the ones in control of them, and we can choose or not choose to stop causing them and start solving them. The future is up for grabs, lying in our own hands. We don’t need new technologies to solve our problems; while new technologies can make some contribution, for the most part we ‘just’ need the political will to apply solutions already available.

The other major reason for hope that Diamond gives is that the prevalence of education and information available today to most of us gives us an awareness about the past and what makes societies survive or fail that was not available to most of the past societies that collapsed. We can learn from history and we have so much information about the past now that we have no excuse as a society for failing to learn from the past. Our society is not immune to the danger of collapse; it has no unique privilege or right to survive where others have failed. Our society will survive  only if it faces up to its problems and changes in radical ways in order to solve them. That means changing the way we think and behave, including our attitudes, values and customs if need be, as well as changing the way we use technology. Diamond’s book is an invaluable contribution towards the necessary consciousness-raising that must precede such positive change.

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  1. January 2, 2012 at 6:13 pm | #1

    More scare-mongering from you Andy? with your ” .. very real danger we face now of our own society collapsing through such accumulative pressures as global warming, environmental and ecological damage through modern industrial practices, globalisation, overpopulation and other factors. .. “. On balance industrialisation has improved the lives of millions of humans. As the process spreads to the developing and underdeveloped regions further improvements in living conditions will be seen by the deprived.

    With the right people in control those economies and regions an benefit through learning from the mistakes that the developed regions made and avoid repeating them. Of course their will always be power-hungry, selfish and greedy people who will hinder such improvement but that how it always has been and I suspect always will be.

    As for “global warming”, that beyond human control. All we can and ever have been able to do is adapt to whatever Mother Nature throws at us.

    Keep enjoying your comfortable life-style Andrew – long may it last

    Best regards, Pete Ridley

  2. andydharma
    January 2, 2012 at 7:39 pm | #2

    Industrialisation, humanely applied and managed, can indeed improve the material living standards of millions of people, but all industrialisation has environmental impacts of one kind or another. The biggest environmental impact of industrialisation is now the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels by industry or the products of industry (cars, planes, etc.). That in turn is causing rapid global warming, which is having very severe impacts on the material standards of living of millions of human beings. If human industry is contributing to global warming, then, through managing human industry carefully enough, we can exert a significant degree of control over the rate of global warming and thereby mitigate the eventual impact upon human beings. Your claim that global warming is “beyond human control” is a recipe for despair and inaction. I favour the side of hope and action for a better future for all.

  3. MindMindful
    April 6, 2012 at 2:57 pm | #3

    I’m for reviving ourselves before we collapse……

    Because your blog is great, I’m giving you the Tell Me About Yourself Award – yea you! http://wp.me/p1zocx-1ek Follow this link to capture the badge for display, & to find the ‘rules’

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