I recently listened to the audiobook version of Jarrod Diamond’s book Collapse. I’ve spent some time thinking and writing about societies collapsing, but this was the first time I read something that systematically and academically addressed the question of why societies succeed or fail. While Diamond’s thesis about why societies succeed or fail has met with some resistance, his work seems very thorough, well-researched and subtly nuanced when read carefully. He takes great pains to make clear that his conclusions are not a racist attempt to blame brown people for destroying their own societies. Instead he covers almost the entire globe (five out of seven continents lacking only one that is inhabited) and thus skin tones by looking at examples from Easter Island and Polynesia, New Guinea, Norse Societies on Iceland and Greenland, Mayans, Anasazi, Japan, Rwanda, Haiti, Dominican Republic and Australia. I found the book and its arguments compelling (most likely because they support my own prior convictions, but still).

I could not make his arguments any better than the book, which I highly recommend. Instead I would just state his primary thesis and address some of the conclusions and connections I found most interesting. Diamond points to eight historical categories of collapse: “deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems, water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, affects of introduced species on native species, human population growth and increased per capita impact of people.” Then he adds that “the environmental problems facing us today include the same eight that faced past societies plus four new ones: human caused climate change, build up of toxic chemicals in the environment, energy shortages and full human utilization of the earth’s photosynthetic capacity.” He posits five possible contributing factors to a society’s collapse:

  1. Environmental damage
  2. Climate change
  3. Hostile neighbors
  4. Friendly trade partners
  5. The society’s responses to these factors

He points out that not all of the first four are always present, but the fifth, how a society responds to these factors, is always an important factor. The survey of societies from across the globe and throughout history was both fascinating and convincing, especially with an ear constantly to the present. After enormous detail concerning many different ancient and more modern society’s collapse, Diamond spends a good amount on examples of how societies successfully dealt with challenges, the most hopeful part of the book, including Japan’s forestry management and the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC).

Is Greed Good?

One of the most helpful insights I think Diamond ends up with is that we as individuals are ultimately responsible for the society we live in. It’s too easy to pass blame on to Multinational corporations (which certainly must share some blame particularly for environmental damage, i.e. BP in the Gulf of Mexico or Shell in Nigeria). We, the citizens of our respective societies and ultimately a global economy, make it possible for corporations to behave the way that they do. To expect publicly traded companies, which have a legally binding, fiduciary responsibility to maximize profit, to behave morally and ethically is like expecting a bull to give milk. It’s not in its nature. We have always had to create laws in order to force corporations to behave morally, because they are not moral entities.

We should not expect anything different and should recognize our own complicity in the behavior of corporations. We buy products and live lifestyles that serve the interests and bottom line of corporations that drill for oil (which makes everything from gas and oil to anything plastic) or make products cheaply in China or elsewhere. Just as abolitionists in Britain, the United states and elsewhere demanded an end to an economy based on slavery as a morally reprehensible practice, we have to demand the kind of society that we want to live in. It will not simply fall into our laps from the good intentions of the wealthy and powerful. It seems to me that this is the way it has always been.

Diamond also gives both a good and bad example of an oil company’s impact on society and the environment. The first example, you can probably imagine, involved environmental standards ignored, workers treated badly, destruction to local economy, etc. Perhaps the good example is an exception, but it was instructive. Chevron, working in conjunction with the World Wildlife Fund, tried to create the most environmentally friendly oil project. The author went with WWF to help observe the wildlife in the area. He was amazed to discover that there was more wildlife in the area where Chevron worked. From the sky he could not see any signs of the project except a very small road winding through the wilderness. This kind of project developed a reputation for the company that opened up new projects which it won based on its environmental track record. The trick is being able to switch from a short term to long term thinking that can account economically for factors outside of the average profit and loss statement, including relationships with governments, reputation, employee satisfaction and pride, not to mention the sustainability of the work itself.

Is Collapse Inevitable?

The argument of this book is partially what drives me to focus on agriculture, consumerism and the environment. I believe that it involves the very survival of our species. Regardless of the particular shape that your doomsday scenario takes, the point is that the indications are that our current global structure is akin to the Titanic steering a course aimed at an iceberg. Maybe it will end with a bang and maybe a whimper, but it cannot continue in the direction we’re headed. The question is whether or not a collapse is inevitable?

I find discussions of these scenarios interesting if not overly speculative. The future is notoriously difficult to predict. Will our globalized system cause collapse on a massive scale? Or will there be lots of mini-collapses as we saw with the ripple effects of the recent financial collapse? Or is it possible for the United States or any individual country to steer a course that misses the iceberg completely? The closer we get to the iceberg the harder it will be to turn any ship as large as government, not to mention one the size of the United States, fast enough to miss completely. Given the fact that we have already seen collapses in places like Rwanda, which he points out had as much to do with population pressure as ethnic hatreds, Diamond points out that it is not so much a matter of if, but when.

So, in some ways I think that some sort of collapse is inevitable. Following Diamond’s five-fold criteria for collapse, it seems that we are balanced on the precipice of the tipping point. Empires, or modern countries that behave like empires, have always risen and fallen the reasons that Diamond gives. This is a long historical trend and it seems like hubris for us to believe that we are an historical exception to this rule while we follow much the same path as those who collapsed before us. Diamond also pokes holes in many of the oft-heard one-liner arguments for why everything will be hunky-dory (which I will spend another post on).

All of this colludes to make Diamond seem like a pessimist. I often seem like a pretty cynical person as well, because of my dour and negative take on the current arrangement of our economic, global, social and ecological order. However, I think Diamond and I are ultimately both optimists. Just the fact that we continue to write about these issues has at least a glimmer of hope. More than that though, I see signs of hope all around me. The work I do with indigenous communities and Low German Mennonites often shows me the possibilities latent in communities and across cultural divides when we find common ground. The hope I find is not in changes made by any government or large institutions, but by small communities that find the dignity of working toward sustainability in every sense of the word and have the vision to connect their situation with the broader challenges that face our global community.

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