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SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE  January 2005

SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE January 2005

Subject:

The Ends of the World as We Know Them by Jared Diamond

From:

Robt Mann <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 12 Jan 2005 10:59:17 +1300

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (304 lines)

        This author is v respectable, even trendy. Can you fault him? I
can't.

R


> http://www.truthout.org/docs_05/010205Y.shtml
>

                                           The Ends of the World as We Know
Them
                                           By Jared Diamond
                                           The New York Times

                                           Saturday 01 January 2005

      Los Angeles - New Year's weekend traditionally is a time for us to
reflect, and to make resolutions based on our reflections. In this fresh
year, with the United States seemingly at the height of its power and at
the start of a new presidential term, Americans are increasingly concerned
and divided about where we are going. How long can America remain
ascendant? Where will we stand 10 years from now, or even next year?

                                           Such questions seem especially
appropriate this year. History warns us that when once-powerful societies
collapse, they tend to do so quickly and unexpectedly. That shouldn't come
as much of a surprise: peak power usually means peak population, peak
needs, and hence peak vulnerability. What can be learned from history that
could help us avoid joining the ranks of those who declined swiftly? We
must expect the answers to be complex, because historical reality is
complex: while some societies did indeed collapse spectacularly, others
have managed to thrive for thousands of years without major reversal.

                                           When it comes to historical
collapses, five groups of interacting factors have been especially
important:
 the damage that people have inflicted on their environment;
 climate change;
 enemies;
 changes in friendly trading partners;
and the society's political, economic and social responses to these shifts.
          That's not to say that all five causes play a role in every case.
Instead, think of this as a useful checklist of factors that should be
examined, but whose relative importance varies from case to case.

                                           For instance, in the collapse of
the Polynesian society on Easter Island three centuries ago, environmental
problems were dominant, and climate change, enemies and trade were
insignificant; however, the latter three factors played big roles in the
disappearance of the medieval Norse colonies on Greenland. Let's consider
two examples of declines stemming from different mixes of causes: the falls
of classic Maya civilization and of Polynesian settlements on the Pitcairn
Islands.

                                           Maya Native Americans of the
Yucatan Peninsula and adjacent parts of Central America developed the New
World's most advanced civilization before Columbus. They were innovators in
writing, astronomy, architecture and art. From local origins around 2,500
years ago, Maya societies rose especially after the year A.D. 250, reaching
peaks of population and sophistication in the late 8th century.

                                           Thereafter, societies in the
most densely populated areas of the southern Yucatan underwent a steep
political and cultural collapse: between 760 and 910, kings were
overthrown, large areas were abandoned, and at least 90 percent of the
population disappeared, leaving cities to become overgrown by jungle. The
last known date recorded on a Maya monument by their so-called Long Count
calendar corresponds to the year 909. What happened?

                                           A major factor was environmental
degradation by people: deforestation, soil erosion and water management
problems, all of which resulted in less food. Those problems were
exacerbated by droughts, which may have been partly caused by humans
themselves through deforestation. Chronic warfare made matters worse, as
more and more people fought over less and less land and resources.

                                           Why weren't these problems
obvious to the Maya kings, who could surely see their forests vanishing and
their hills becoming eroded? Part of the reason was that the kings were
able to insulate themselves from problems afflicting the rest of society.
By extracting wealth from commoners, they could remain well fed while
everyone else was slowly starving.

                                           What's more, the kings were
preoccupied with their own power struggles. They had to concentrate on
fighting one another and keeping up their images through ostentatious
displays of wealth. By insulating themselves in the short run from the
problems of society, the elite merely bought themselves the privilege of
being among the last to starve.

                                           Whereas Maya societies were
undone by problems of their own making, Polynesian societies on Pitcairn
and Henderson Islands in the tropical Pacific Ocean were undone largely by
other people's mistakes. Pitcairn, the uninhabited island settled in 1790
by the H.M.S. Bounty mutineers, had actually been populated by Polynesians
800 years earlier. That society, which left behind temple platforms, stone
and shell tools and huge garbage piles of fish and bird and turtle bones as
evidence of its existence, survived for several centuries and then
vanished. Why?

                                           In many respects, Pitcairn and
Henderson are tropical paradises, rich in some food sources and essential
raw materials. Pitcairn is home to Southeast Polynesia's largest quarry of
stone suited for making adzes, while Henderson has the region's largest
breeding seabird colony and its only nesting beach for sea turtles. Yet
the islanders depended on imports from Mangareva Island, hundreds of miles
away, for canoes, crops, livestock and oyster shells for making tools.

                                           Unfortunately for the
inhabitants of Pitcairn and Henderson, their Mangarevan trading partner
collapsed for reasons similar to those underlying the Maya decline:
deforestation, erosion and warfare. Deprived of essential imports in a
Polynesian equivalent of the 1973 oil crisis, the Pitcairn and Henderson
societies declined until everybody had died or fled.

                                           The Maya and the Henderson and
Pitcairn Islanders are not alone, of course. Over the centuries, many other
societies have declined, collapsed or died out. Famous victims include the
Anasazi in the American Southwest, who abandoned their cities in the 12th
century because of environmental problems and climate change, and the
Greenland Norse, who disappeared in the 15th century because of all five
interacting factors on the checklist. There were also the ancient Fertile
Crescent societies, the Khmer at Angkor Wat, the Moche society of Peru -
the list goes on.

                                           But before we let ourselves get
depressed, we should also remember that there is another long list of
cultures that have managed to prosper for lengthy periods of time.
Societies in Japan, Tonga, Tikopia, the New Guinea Highlands and Central
and Northwest Europe, for example, have all found ways to sustain
themselves. What separates the lost cultures from those that survived?
Why did the Maya fail and the shogun succeed?

                                           Half of the answer involves
environmental differences: geography deals worse cards to some societies
than to others. Many of the societies that collapsed had the misfortune to
occupy dry, cold or otherwise fragile environments, while many of the
long-term survivors enjoyed more robust and fertile surroundings. But
it's not the case that a congenial environment guarantees success: some
societies (like the Maya) managed to ruin lush environments, while other
societies - like the Incas, the Inuit, Icelanders and desert Australian
Aborigines - have managed to carry on in some of the earth's most daunting
environments.

                                           The other half of the answer
involves differences in a society's responses to problems. Ninth-century
New Guinea Highland villagers, 16th-century German landowners, and the
Tokugawa shoguns of 17th-century Japan all recognized the deforestation
spreading around them and solved the problem, either by developing
scientific reforestation (Japan and Germany) or by transplanting tree
seedlings (New Guinea). Conversely, the Maya, Mangarevans and Easter
Islanders failed to address their forestry problems and so collapsed.

                                           Consider Japan. In the 1600's,
the country faced its own crisis of deforestation, paradoxically brought on
by the peace and prosperity following the Tokugawa shoguns' military
triumph that ended 150 years of civil war. The subsequent explosion of
Japan's population and economy set off rampant logging for construction of
palaces and cities, and for fuel and fertilizer.

                                           The shoguns responded with both
negative and positive measures. They reduced wood consumption by turning
to light-timbered construction, to fuel-efficient stoves and heaters, and
to coal as a source of energy. At the same time, they increased wood
production by developing and carefully managing plantation forests. Both
the shoguns and the Japanese peasants took a long-term view: the former
expected to pass on their power to their children, and the latter expected
to pass on their land. In addition, Japan's isolation at the time made it
obvious that the country would have to depend on its own resources and
couldn't meet its needs by pillaging other countries. Today, despite
having the highest human population density of any large developed country,
Japan is more than 70 percent forested.

                                           There is a similar story from
Iceland. When the island was first settled by the Norse around 870, its
light volcanic soils presented colonists with unfamiliar challenges. They
proceeded to cut down trees and stock sheep as if they were still in
Norway, with its robust soils. Significant erosion ensued, carrying half of
Iceland's topsoil into the ocean within a century or two. Icelanders became
the poorest people in Europe.
                                       But they gradually learned from
their mistakes, over time instituting stocking limits on sheep and other
strict controls, and establishing an entire government department charged
with landscape management. Today, Iceland boasts the sixth-highest
per-capita income in the world.

                                           What lessons can we draw from
history? The most straightforward: take environmental problems seriously.
They destroyed societies in the past, and they are even more likely to do
so now. If 6,000 Polynesians with stone tools were able to destroy
Mangareva Island, consider what six billion people with metal tools and
bulldozers are doing today. Moreover, while the Maya collapse affected just
a few neighboring societies in Central America, globalization now means
that any society's problems have the potential to affect anyone else. Just
think how crises in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq have shaped the United
States today.

                                           Other lessons involve failures
of group decision-making. There are many reasons why past societies made
bad decisions, and thereby failed to solve or even to perceive the problems
that would eventually destroy them. One reason involves conflicts of
interest, whereby one group within a society (for instance, the pig farmers
who caused the worst erosion in medieval Greenland and Iceland) can profit
by engaging in practices that damage the rest of society. Another is the
pursuit of short-term gains at the expense of long-term survival, as when
fishermen overfish the stocks on which their livelihoods ultimately depend.

                                           History also teaches us two
deeper lessons about what separates successful societies from those heading
toward failure. A society contains a built-in blueprint for failure if the
elite insulates itself from the consequences of its actions. That's why
Maya kings, Norse Greenlanders and Easter Island chiefs made choices that
eventually undermined their societies. They themselves did not begin to
feel deprived until they had irreversibly destroyed their landscape.

                                           Could this happen in the United
States? It's a thought that often occurs to me here in Los Angeles, when I
drive by gated communities, guarded by private security patrols, and filled
with people who drink bottled water, depend on private pensions, and send
their children to private schools. By doing these things, theylose the
motivation to support the police force, the municipal water supply, Social
Security and public schools. If conditions deteriorate too much for poorer
people, gates will not keep the rioters out. Rioters eventually burned
the palaces of Maya kings and tore down the statues of Easter Island
chiefs; they have also already threatened wealthy districts in Los Angeles
twice in recent decades.

                                           In contrast, the elite in
17th-century Japan, as in modern Scandinavia and the Netherlands, could not
ignore or insulate themselves from broad societal problems. For instance,
the Dutch upper class for hundreds of years has been unable to insulate
itself from the Netherlands' water management problems for a simple reason:
the rich live in the same drained lands below sea level as the poor. If
the dikes and pumps keeping out the sea fail, the well-off Dutch know that
they will drown along with everybody else, which is precisely what
happened during the floods of 1953.

                                           The other deep lesson involves a
willingness to re-examine long-held core values, when conditions change and
those values no longer make sense. The medieval Greenland Norse lacked
such a willingness: they continued to view themselves as transplanted
Norwegian pastoralists, and to despise the Inuit as pagan hunters, even
after Norway stopped sending trading ships and the climate had grown too
cold for a pastoral existence. They died off as a result, leaving
Greenland to the Inuit. On the other hand, the British in the 1950's faced
up to the need for a painful reappraisal of their former status as rulers
of a world empire set apart from Europe. They are now finding a different
avenue to wealth and power, as part of a united Europe.

                                           In this New Year, we Americans
have our own painful reappraisals to face. Historically, we viewed the
United States as a land of unlimited plenty, and so we practiced
unrestrained consumerism, but that's no longer viable in a world of finite
resources. We can't continue to deplete our own resources as well as those
of much of the rest of the world.

                                           Historically, oceans protected
us from external threats; we stepped back from our isolationism only
temporarily during the crises of two world wars. Now, technology and global
interconnectedness have robbed us of our protection. In recent years, we
have responded to foreign threats largely by seeking short-term military
solutions at the last minute.

                                           But how long can we keep this
up? Though we are the richest nation on earth, there's simply no way we can
afford (or muster the troops) to intervene in the dozens of countries where
emerging threats lurk - particularly when each intervention these days can
cost more than $100 billion and require more than 100,000 troops.

                                           A genuine reappraisal would
require us to recognize that it will be far less expensive and far more
effective to address the underlying problems of public health, population
and environment that ultimately cause threats to us to emerge in poor
countries. In the past, we have regarded foreign aid as either charity or
as buying support; now, it's an act of self-interest to preserve our own
economy and protect American lives.

                                           Do we have cause for hope? Many
of my friends are pessimistic when they contemplate the world's growing
population and human demands colliding with shrinking resources. But I
draw hope from the knowledge that humanity's biggest problems today are
ones entirely of our own making. Asteroids hurtling at us beyond our
control don't figure high on our list of imminent dangers. To save
ourselves, we don't need new technology: we just need the political will to
face up to our problems of population and the environment.

                                           I also draw hope from a unique
advantage that we enjoy. Unlike any previous society in history, our
global society today is the first with the opportunity to learn from the
mistakes of societies remote from us in space and in time. When the Maya
and Mangarevans were cutting down their trees, there were no historians or
archaeologists, no newspapers or television, to warn them of the
consequences of their actions. We, on the other hand, have a detailed
chronicle of human successes and failures at our disposal. Will we choose
to use it?


                                           Jared Diamond, who won the 1998
Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction for "Guns, Germs and Steel: The
Fates of Human Societies," is the author of the forthcoming "Collapse: How
Societies Choose or Fail to Succeed."

                                         -------

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