Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Societies and their Environments: Collapse, by Jared Diamond

     Jared Diamond. Collapse. (2005) Or How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.
     Diamond begins his survey of failed societies with an elegiac account of Montana, which is overcrowded, over-exploited, and will suffer some kind of ecological collapse unless the individualist values that make Montana attractive to the incomers radically change. And that’s the over-arching thesis: that the values that enable societies to thrive will, sooner or later, clash with ecological (and therefore economic) reality. Then the choice is stark: adapt or die. For all societies depend on the natural systems they exploit.
     These systems may change naturally (very small shifts in temperature or rainfall can make the difference between a garden and a desert). More often, they are over-exploited: the prime example of this is Easter Island. He ends his survey with a rather depressing look at the ways in which our misallocation of resources damages the ecosystems that sustain us. His prime example is mining, which we practice as if there were no long-term costs. He does see some hope here and there, in the shift towards pollution reduction in China, for example, but overall, we are still making choices based on values that made sense when resources were scarce, surplus wealth was difficult or impossible to accumulate, and ecological damage was localised and its effects on people and other life forms was limited.
     Diamond’s work shows that the choice is never between “the economy” and “the environment”, but between values, attitudes, and desires. The fundamental issue is that humans, like any other creatures, depend on the environment. We humans have changed the Earth more thoroughly than any other organism. That has made us very successful, if you measure success by our numbers and the variety of habitats that we occupy.
     But that success contains within it the seeds of our own destruction. We operate on the same imperative as all other life forms: be fruitful and multiply. If we continue to operate on the values of economic growth and profit, if we fail to understand that the standard of living is not about money, we will destroy our civilisation. If we do, will the humans who survive the inevitable population crash learn from our mistakes? The history of societies that destroyed themselves suggests that’s unlikely.
     Recommended. ****

1 comment:

David Moorman said...

That the survivors will learn is very unlikely, Wolf. Maybe a generation will remember.