Saturday, January 08, 2005


Salon has an interview with Jared Diamond, the author of the new book Collapse. The book is about the reasons why some civilizations fail and some survive. Diamond looks at long-past, more recent, and contemporary societies to see the common thread behind their success or failure.

One important determinant of a civilization's ultimate success or failure, according to Diamond, is that civilization's willingness to give up long-held values that are no longer useful. In the instance of the United States, Diamond points to two such values: our consumerist bent, and our traditional isolationist posture.

The two traditional American values that I think -- that I know -- have to be discarded are, first, unbridled consumerism resulting from our sense of being in a land of unlimited resources. Historically the United States has viewed itself as the land of infinite bounty, endless fields of grain. But now we're in a world that does not have unlimited resources, and we have to come to grips with that.

And the other long-held American value is the value derived from the United States' relative isolation. George Washington in his farewell address warned Americans about the danger of entangling alliances, and for a couple of hundred years the United States was able to function well because we were separated by oceans from any country that might damage us. But now the oceans don't separate us from countries that could damage us. Now, even desperately poor countries like Afghanistan and Iraq can raise absolute hell with our economy -- as well as killing a few thousand people in the process. So the other long-held value with which we have to come to grips is our sense of isolation. We're not isolated anymore. We have to engage with the rest of the world -- not in order to be charitable to them but for our own self-interest. It's much cheaper to put a few tens of billions of dollars into world programs for public health and environment than to throw $150 billion into Iraq and $100 billion into Afghanistan, when there are about 20 other countries waiting to become the next Iraq and Afghanistan. We can't afford it.

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