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LESSONS FROM THE PAST

Self-interest and those Greenland pigs

by Stephen Hesse

Why do some societies last for hundreds, even thousands, of years, while others soar, dazzle but then fizzle like short-lived summer fireworks?

This is the question American evolutionary biologist and biogeographer Jared Diamond explores in his 2004 book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” which looks at some failures, such as the Maya of Central America, and some successes, including Japan and parts of Europe.

Diamond, who is professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, is also the author of “The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal” (1992), “Why Is Sex Fun?: The Evolution of Human Sexuality” (1997) and the 1998 Pulizer prize-winning “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.”

Last year I bought “Collapse” with every intention of reading it during the summer break. But, like too many other books stacked in my office, I had not even cracked its binding when I received online issue No. 844 of “Rachel’s Democracy & Health News” (March 2, 2006), which includes a piece titled, “Why Civilizations Decline,” by Peter Montague, a Rachel’s editor .

Montague’s essay following on an op-ed piece Diamond wrote for the New York Times in January 2005 sent me rummaging for my copy of “Collapse.” Then when I found it, I remembered why it lay unread: At 500-plus pages in hard cover, this is not a train book, and trains are where I do most of my reading.

Colorful observations

Fortunately, Montague offers a digestible glimpse of Diamond’s findings, as well as a number of his own colorful observations.

One of Montague’s first quotes from Diamond is a wakeup call. “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,” Diamond explains.

But Diamond was not talking about just any powerful society. His question was addressed to his fellow U.S. citizens at the start of George W. Bush’s second term in office. “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?” Diamond asks.

Even a glance into the recent past, and the demise of the once-mighty Soviet Bloc should be enough to remind us just how fleeting empires can be.

Montague then lists five interwoven causes of societal collapse that Diamond has identified: human damage inflicted on their environment; climate change; enemies; changes in friendly trading partners; and society’s political, economic, and social responses to those shifts. Not surprising, all five of these are now critical issues globally.

So what can we do to avoid the fate of our less fortunate predecessors?

Above all, Diamond tells us, “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 [in the tropical Pacific Ocean], consider what 6 billion people with metal tools and bulldozers are doing today. Moreover, 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,” he writes.

Decision-making failures are another reason for collapse, and Diamond classifies these into several types. One is conflict of interest, which occurs when one group within a society profits from activities that harm others. Diamond gives the example of pig farmers in medieval Greenland and Iceland, whose herds caused serious erosion that harmed everyone’s interests.

Montague turns the clock forward and compares those pigs to today’s petrochemical industry, which “reaps mountainous profits by selling products that are heating up the planet, contaminating our bodies with biologically-active industrial poisons, and leaving tens of thousands of chemically-contaminated waste sites for taxpayers to try to deal with.”

Of course, this comparison is unfair to the pigs and their owners. Medieval pig farmers had little knowledge of environmental limits and tipping thresholds. And pigs don’t willingly raise offspring in their own wastes.

A second decision-making failure that Diamond notes is “the pursuit of short-term gains at the expense of long-term survival, as when fishermen over-fish the stocks on which their livelihoods ultimately depend.”

Montague adds several more examples. “Unsustainable logging practices; industrialized agriculture, which depletes topsoil and contaminates water with fertilizer and pesticides; and waste-treatment plants that discharge wastes into waters that must then be cleaned for drinking and other essential purposes,” he writes.

Diamond also notes that history teaches two “deeper lessons” about why societies succeed or fail. The first: “A society contains a built-in blueprint for failure if the elite insulates itself from the consequences of its actions.” And the second: There needs to be “a willingness to re-examine long-held core values, when conditions change and those values no longer make sense,” he writes.

Unrestrained consumerism

Diamond is writing for Americans in particular, but his conclusions can inform policymaking worldwide. “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,” he observes.

“Historically, oceans protected us from external threats; . . . 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 to intervene in the dozens of countries where emerging threats lurk,” Diamond argues.

The Iraq war, Montague notes, has cost the U.S. $244 billion to date, with no end in sight.

Diamond urges that fixing, not fighting, offers the only real hope for societal survival.

“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,” he concludes.

Self-interest. Now there’s something that all societies can agree on.