I’ve promised to write more about the book Collapse:How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond, but I’ve had a number of other things going on in my life so it’s taken a while to get back to.
I’ve only read about a third of the book, but at least for the third of the book I’ve read, the following passage appears to sum up Mr. Diamond’s thesis:
Despite these varying proximate causes of abandonments, all were ultimately due to the same fundamental challenge: people living in fragile and difficult environments, adopting solutions that were brilliantly successful and understandable “in the short run,” but that failed or else created fatal problems in the long run, when people became confronted with external environmental changes or human-caused environmental changes that societies without written histories and without archaeologists could not have anticipated.
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, pg. 173
At first blush, this thesis might appear to be somewhat deterministic, consigning illiterate societies in marginal environments to doom and, by omission, relieving our literate civilization of any threat of disaster. Further, it seems to absolve the individuals of either society of any blame or credit; the cruel environment blesses or dooms a society with its deterministic fate. I don’t believe, however, that is what Mr. Diamond has in mind.
In fact, despite his best efforts to maintain a squarely “hard science” emphasis on observable and measurable environmental causes of collapse such as rain fall and temperature, rates of deforestation, replenishment of soil from volcanic sources, etc., he is continually pulled into the realm of social science and matters of moral or ethical concern such as descent into cannibalism, tribal warfare and regicide. Collapse, it seems, is inescapably a social and ethical event, not just an environmental and economic one. And it is precisely these aspects of the problem that most interest me and make his book quite engaging.
As one who sees the culture around him in a state of social and ethical decay, I find it impossible not to compare the tales he relates of collapses long ago and mostly far away with events occurring here and now. I see decision making in the business environment that I work in that are distressingly well described by the paragraph above. And I see an electorate that seems truly incapable of either the memory or foresight to make wise choices. All that seems missing, for the time being, is the “external environmental change” that will bring it all crashing down. Global warming may or may not be that change. I think economic exhaustion, resource depletion or a broad and violent reaction by the have-not nations of the world to encroaching globalism and capitalist exploitation each could provide the coup de grâce to our over-extended cultural system.
The other key element in Diamond’s story (so far) is that collapses do not seem to take place after a long, slow decline, but rather suddenly, with little warning, when these societies are at the peak of their power. The Anasazi of Chaco Canyon disappeared completely within 20 to 70 years of their peak population. Collapses on Easter Island and the Pitcairn Islands all took place within the span of about 100 years, two or three generations, in other words. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States was seen as being at the apex of power, the undisputed superpower, perhaps even the hegemon. Diamond reminds us that being at the top is no guarantee of permanence, or even survival. We could disappear as a country, even as a culture, by the turn of the next century.
Will we? That all depends on whether we can pull ourselves away from making decisions for the short run, and begin to think and act as though we plan to be here 100 or even 1000 years from now. Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president at a time of economic calamity worse even than we find ourselves in today. He led and inspired this nation to build institutions, communities and parks through the WPA, the CCC, the Social Security Administration and many other government programs that would sustain and nurture Americans for generations. Today, so-called political leaders like New Jersey governor Christie and Arizona governor Brewer seek to dismantle government and end vital immigration, leaving citizens and society with nothing as their legacy. Corporate “leaders” by the thousands are shrinking their corporate human capital balances, diminishing the goodwill of remaining employees and reducing the number of potential consumers for their own companies and the economy as a whole. The Tea Party fanatics who are demanding lower taxes and an elimination of government spending are just as nihilistic. These “short run” choices, I believe, are exactly the types of decisions made by leaders in places like Easter Island and the Mayan city states. Their legacy is all to clear.
We need a new FDR, a leader who will call the citizens of this nation to account for nihilist selfishness and chauvinism, a leader who will remind us of our responsibility to preserve and transmit our civilization to future generations. This is a debt far greater than any we owe to some selfish, short-sighted bankers. It is the debt we owe to humanity. Financial bankruptcy pales in comparison to cultural bankruptcy, just ask the next Anasazi you run into. We need a leader who will remind us of this. So far, I haven’t seen such a leader; and that is deeply troubling.
Until the Revolution,