Sunday, April 10, 2005

"THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS, not with a bang but a whimper."

T.S. Eliot's famous line from his 1925 poem, "The Hollow Men," came to mind as I was reading Jared Diamond's new book, Collapse. This is how Diamond says societies end: not in a sudden conflagration, but gradually, over time, and as the result of hundreds or thousands of seemingly insignificant choices.

Jared Diamond's credentials and accomplishments are impressive by anyone's standards. He is an evolutionary biologist and ornithologist and spent many years studying birds in New Guinea. He co-authored a book called The Birds of Northern Melanesia with Ernst Mayr, the acclaimed evolutionary biologist who died recently at the age of 100. He taught physiology at the UCLA School of Medicine for many years; currently, he teaches geography and environmental science at UCLA.

All of which is ample proof that Diamond is qualified about 1000 times over to write scholarly academic treatises in half a dozen scientific fields. One would not necessarily expect, however, that the general public would be interested in a book about the relationship between climate change, geography, environmental conditions, and the survival or collapse of civilizations. But that is exactly what happened with this book and the one that preceded it. Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, sold a million copies and won a Pulitzer Prize; Collapse has been on the New York Times bestseller list (for hardcover nonfiction) since it came out.

Guns, Germs and Steel set out to answer the question: Why do some societies achieve dominance over others? In Collapse, Diamond explores the opposite question: Why do some societies succeed and even thrive, while others fail, and vanish from history? Diamond examines half a dozen societies, both ancient and contemporary, to discover the answers. His conclusion is that the difference between successful societies and those that fail lies in the choices they make about how to manage their natural and human environment. For example, the Easter Islanders, an ancient civilization that flourished about 400 years after the start of the Christian era, had a vibrant culture that produced, most famously, eerie-looking, gigantic statues that are still tourist attractions today. But by the time Europeans arrived in the early 18th century, all trace of human life had vanished.

The reasons are now thought to be environmental. For one thing, Easter Island is one of the most isolated places in the world: 2,000 miles from the nearest population centers (Tahiti and Chile). The island's location, of course, is not within human control. But the environmental choices the Islanders made, over many years, were under their control and they made very bad ones. One of the most significant factors in the Easter Island society's eventual collapse was their abuse of the ecosystem. In order to build their houses and provide fuel for heating and cooking, they cut down all the trees on the island. The result: An island that once was covered with forests now is completely bare.

One might ask (and many have): How could these people destroy the very natural resources that they needed to survive? What on earth were they thinking?

The answer is not as clear or obvious as we moderns might think. The truth is, we are faced with the same kinds of environmental choices today that the Easter Islanders were so many hundreds of years ago. It's not always so easy to know what the "right" choice is when economic and environmental choices conflict.

Contemporary Montana is a case in point. The state attracts over 9 million visitors a year, drawn by its spectacular natural beauty and opportunities for fishing, hiking, and other outdoor activities. An increasing number of those visitors -- the ones with lots of money to spend -- are building vacation homes in the state: The real estate industry is booming in Montana. All of this helps Montana's economy and provides jobs; it also puts a burden on Montana's long-time and permanent residents, who have traditionally made their living from ranching and farming, and creates environmental stresses that are hard to resolve in a way satisfactory to everyone. How do people make choices about land use, forest management, water usage, and so on, when there are fundamental conflicts of interest between many different demographic groups that all have stakes in the outcome?

It's not difficult to see the importance of environmental choices to the survival of the ancient Easter Islanders or contemporary Montanans; but Diamond has been taken to task for adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to explaining the survival or collapse of societies as seemingly different from each other as Viking Greenland and modern-day Rwanda. Diamond is well aware of this criticism, and acknowledges it in his book. That only makes his accomplishment in Collapse more impressive; because he manages to make a cogent and convincing case that even seemingly small or personal or unrelated decisions people make about how to use the natural resources available to them can have large effects on the health of the society as a whole -- as in the case of Rwanda, where a shortage of arable land led to conflicts between rich and poor landowners that in turn led to ethnic tensions and many smaller massacres well before the final genocide in which between half a million and 800,000 Rwandans were murdered.

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