DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond

By David Brin, Ph.D.

Do you imagine the future will be better, transformed by steady progress and rising human wisdom? Is your picture one of steady -- or sudden -- decline? Optimism and pessimism come in ironic shades. Some anticipate a biblically-scripted apocalypse, or else a breakdown into ecological hell. Others expect the future will take care of itself -- solutions will arise naturally out of market forces, or we'll just continue our run of incredible luck.

History would seem to favor pessimists. In COLLAPSE: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond shows how past cultures toppled, sometimes with little warning. Supplementing historical records with discoveries in archaeology and climatology, he offers a guided tour of crashes and narrow escapes, ranging from Viking Greenland and the Yucatan Mayans to the Anasazi peoples of America's southwest. Then, globe-hopping from Australia and China to Montana and Southern California, Diamond surveys how modern societies are adapting to even greater perils.

The lesson in a nutshell: learn from history, or risk repeating it.

[image from Wikipedia]

A UCLA professor, MacArthur Fellow and winner of the National Medal of Science, Jared Diamond proved his gift for conveying serious issues in lucid, riveting books like Guns, Germs and Steel. That bestseller explored how Western peoples developed the technologies and immunities that allowed them to dominate the world. Now his attention focuses on the rapid arc from triumph to decline that many of our ancestors lived through, watching in helpless despair as their cultures overturned, often from their very zenith.

Easter Island (Rapa Nui) and Norse Iceland illustrate what can happen when a people's daily needs collide with their habitat's limited carrying capacity. Diamond shows how each isle must have seemed a paradise to early settlers, heavily timbered and thronging with wild foods. Through archaeological evidence, we can track ensuing sagas of deforestation, followed by rapid loss of topsoil, then a plummet in human population.

The same pattern scourged dozens of other places, from fragile territories where all inhabitants simply vanished (Pitcairn, Viking Greenland and the Chaco settlements) to more robust lands like Central America, where some natives survived the collapse of their cities and splendor.

Amid his outpouring of dour facts, Jared Diamond pauses to wonder. "What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?" Then, more generally -- "How can a society have failed to have seen the dangers that seem so clear to us in retrospect?" It is in addressing this core question -- why do cultures so often falter? -- that his book shows both strengths and faults.

[image from UCLA Asia Institute]

The topic once drew lively interest. Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West (1922) maintained that civilizations run through a life cycle similar to organisms, from birth and violent vigor to senescence and death -- which he forecast shortly for Western society in the wake of World War One. Even earlier, Karl Marx charted selected examples to propose that history's many "setbacks" are mere phases in a fated rise of the proletariat, painful but ordained by natural law.

Rejecting loopy determinism, Arnold Toynbee's twelve volume Study of History (1934-61) presented the trajectories of 26 civilizations which he saw arising when "creative minorities" inspired unprecedented effort to solve difficult challenges. Societies fail, in Toynbee's view, when the creative minority wanes or loses society's support.

For all their faults, Spengler and Toynbee did not lack thought-provoking boldness. A boldness that Jared Diamond re-ignites while putting forward five general elements that seem to have been crucial, whether past societies yielded to fate or overcame it. "Four of those sets of factors -- environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, and friendly trade partners -- may or may not prove significant for a particular society," Diamond concludes. "The fifth set of factors -- a society's response to its environmental problems -- always proves significant."

An elderly Toynbee said much the same thing -- somewhat mystically -- in Mankind and Mother Earth (1976). Only Jared Diamond now offers a wealth of examples and fresh evidence, from heedless deforestations performed by calamitous cultures like Haiti to relative success stories like Tonga and modern Holland, where ruinous trends were noticed and acted upon in time.

Alas, failures far outnumber successes. As further stern examples, he might have included Mycennae, Akkad, Inland Arabia and the pre-Inca Tiwanaku. The list goes on. And, to be sure, both communism and capitalism continued the all-too human tradition of shortsightedness till our day.

[image from The Extraenvironmentalist]

Diamond keeps his most important promise, providing a page-turner filled with well-patterned information for a thoughtful reader. Each tale is dramatic, like a novel about people careening toward hazards they ought to see, but willfully ignore. This book might have been titled Requiem for the Obstinate.

Collapse is less successful shedding light on problem-solving skills for avoiding future failure. Diamond's "success stories" aren't helpful examples for a world-spanning civilization of seven billion electricity-users. Most were small-scale cultures, dependent on trade with dynamic outsiders; or else they mastered ecological deterioration by imposing draconian limits on both technology and personal will.

Diamond seems to favor pastoral-conservation combined with cultural-conservatism, a mix that Garrett Hardin extolled in "The Tragedy of the Commons" and John Perlin in A Forest Journey. True, kings and fierce traditions may compel a peasantry to coppice instead of cutting the forest. Diamond lauds the Hopi, Tikopeans, New Guineans and Tokugawa Japan for establishing enduring sustainability. Alas, all of them sacrificed freedom and/or progress.

Diamond gives a nod toward balance: "...if environmentalists aren't willing to engage with big businesses, which are among the most powerful forces in the modern world, it won't be possible to solve the world's environmental problems."

Still, he ultimately chooses sides from the standard cast of 20th Century characters, aligning with Paul Ehrlich and the sullen Club of Rome tradition. Their dire warnings in the 1970s and 1980s may have helped to propel environmentalism, but critics like Bjorn Lomberg can point to glaring failed predictions (e.g. the turn of the century did not feature planetary famine). Voters fear that the puritanical prescription will mean shivering in the dark, an approach to saving the world that proved politically unpersuasive.

Diamond rightfully disdains dogmatists of the other side -- like Julian Simon and the neoconservatives quoting him -- who blithely assume that elites and markets will somehow generate miraculous resource and environmental solutions, a magic spell that never rescued any other culture. Ever.

Must we choose between these two hackneyed poles?

Between paternalist ascetism and laissez faire mysticism?

Between those who would plan everything and those who deny any plan is needed?

Between puritan pessimists who preach only guilt and zealous pollyannas who ignore lessons of the past?

If so, we had better resign ourselves to collapse... or else find another menu. There has to be something different from the common theme that we see in both Julian Simon's Calvinist belief in predestined success and Paul Ehrlich's puritanical rant of ecological Original Sin. Both positions are essentially mystical, zealously intransigent, and contemptuous of criticism.

Above all, both views feature the paramount trait of romanticism -- utter reluctance ever to give common folk an ounce of credit.

[image from A Moment of Moore]

Long ago, Arnold Toynbee wrote that creativity and will to overcome are critical to a civilization's success. And while Toynbee is fusty and dated, I find it odd that Jared Diamond never lists these two factors. Instead he proceeds, in five paragraphs, to shrug away technological innovation in general! This is especially troubling because he knows that pastoral-like prescriptions will not work on Planet Earth.

Three quarters of the world's population desperately want what one quarter has, and won't give up. A warm, clean home with electric appliances, services and the means to travel with autonomy. Only fierce oppression could deny it to them. And if they get this life style -- even in the modest fashion of the resource-miserly Dutch -- then environmental loads on this planet will grow enormously. If the Third World does it like today's spendthrift Americans, the loads would overwhelm an Earth twice its size.

Some voices have risen to suggest a third way. As Gregg Easterbrook points out in The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, social and technological innovations are already making a difference. (For example, ozone-depletion was addressed with remarkable maturity and many prosperous nations have begun rebuilding their forests.)

Not enough difference to support the mystical-markets complacency of Simon and Lomberg. But enough to suggest we can deal with modern perils by combining urgency with confidence. By supplementing adjusted market forces with some priority projects, cranked-up investment and intense research. By believing we can provide a modest middle class lifestyle for nine billion people while ratcheting down the harm we're doing to our grandchildrens' planet.

[image from Resilience Science blog]

Is this cuckoo? Or is our worst failing one of creativity and will? Let's experiment. I'll offer two true statements. You may, by political reflex, nod in sad agreement with one of them and seethe at the other.

The Right spent decades ignoring human-generated Climate Change. Conservatives sneer at the leading role that conservation must play in resolving this peril. Refusing to let efficiency and sustainability become Urgent Projects, they pray instead to the "problem-solving magic of markets," the way natives of Rapa Nui beseeched big statues to restore their ravaged isle.

The Left rejects any role for nuclear power, which helped lift millions out of poverty worldwide without adding appreciably to greenhouse emissions. Three generations have seen high benefit-to-harm ratios from fission reactors. Despite Chernobyl. Despite pollution that -- while frightening -- is intrinsically containable. (This outcomes-ratio stands, astonishingly, even if you include Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) Yet, liberals won't even debate adding carefully designed, next-generation nuclear plants to our toolset for crossing the Gap.

Did you fume at one paragraph while nodding at the other? Step back. Can you see a common reflex? To ignore contrary evidence and automatically say no? These "opposite" party lines share an underlying trait -- loathing distrust for the can-do spirit of modernity and science.

Sensible people, viewing the historical panorama of obstinacy portrayed by Jared Diamond in Collapse, might tighten their belts and pay whatever it takes to bridge the next two-score crucial years, investing in a dozen Apollo Programs aimed at developing efficient, sustainable technologies... along with vigorous conservation and stopgap measures to help us get there without deprivation or shivering in the dark. Clever tradeoffs might give us both. Stubborn radicals ensure we'll get neither.

Meanwhile, does anyone heed the creative tinkerers and scientists who built our cities and satellites, libraries and Internet, universities and microscopes, vaccines and toys? The same miracle workers who probed gene and atom while transforming flight from unachieved dream into something we take for granted, are now spurned by both Right and Left.

Jared Diamond legitimately grumbles that "New technologies, whether or not they succeed in solving the problems that they were designed to solve, regularly create unanticipated new problems." (See Edward Tenner's Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences.) Indeed, there have been burnt fingers. Technology offers gas-guzzlers and hybrid cars, Chernobyls and solar panels. By reducing death rates, we spurred population growth and thus need even more solutions. So? Should we not have saved billions with medicine and sanitation?

No. The answer has to lie in the opposite direction from pastoral simplicity, under which far more cultures failed than thrived.

Chastened by a century of lessons, modernists aren't asking us to buy new, ingenious solutions on faith. Skeptical criticism and accountability are pivotal success factors that both Toynbee and Diamond neglect to mention -- traits that were lacking in every culture that failed. So by all means, let us argue and take care.

Still, faced with the alternative of following past civilizations into ruin, shall we sit and complain? Modern civilization had the wisdom to foster Jared Diamond's career, to heap honors on him and publish this book. One can hope several million citizens will read it, gaining perspective on time and danger that our poor ancestors never had. That perspective and warning may even help us to avoid our own collapse.

But only if it is accompanied by the creativity and will that Toynbee long ago called elemental to a civilization's success.

An alert readiness to try.