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Collapse, by Jared Diamond


Review by Nancy Brannon

For this year’s Earth Day, I look back at Jared Diamond’s 2005 book Collapse – his in-depth analysis of how human societies’ decision-making and actions about managing environmental resources can lead to their success or collapse. As Diamond examines reasons why past societies collapsed, the main example being Easter Island, and others were successful, he also looks at factors that can change people’s decision-making toward sustainability. It revealing about how people think about and manage natural resources – from an individual perspective to societal policy.

Diamond “arrived at a five-point framework of possible contributing factors” that help us understand environmental collapse. Among the five, “the society’s responses to its environmental problems always prove significant,” Diamond writes. “The first set of factors involves damage that people inadvertently inflict on their environment. …The next consideration is climate change…A third consideration is hostile neighbors…The fourth set of factors is decreased support by friendly neighbors…And the last set of factors is the society’s responses to its problems.” (pp. 11-15)
Diamond recognizes that “issues of human environmental impacts today tend to be controversial, and opinions about then tend to fall on a spectrum between two opposite camps: ‘environmentalist’ and ‘non-environmentalist,’ e.g., the world of big business and economics.” However, this dichotomy proves to be not all inclusive, as he describes in detail his experience with the Kutubu oil field in Papua New Guinea, managed by the Chevron Corporation, which not only effectively minimized its environmental impact, but also increased environmental diversity in the area where it operated. Diamond itemizes the factors that resulted in this company operating in a way that “delivers environmental benefits to the area of operations and to the people who live there.” (p. 451)

Diamond also helps us understand individual differences of opinion regarding exploitation or preservation of environmental resources. He begins with the area he knows well: Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, which draws people to it because of its scenic natural beauty. But here, too, human impact has left this valley with “a dozen types of environmental problems that have undermined pre-industrial societies in the past…” The problems he iterates are: toxic waste residues from metal mining; logging and burning forests; soil exhaustion, erosion, and salinization;  and water problems: “the ultimate reason for decreasing amounts of water is climate change.” (pp. 35-49) Diamond describes additional environmental problems: air pollution, invasive non-native species, loss of valuable native species (both plants and animals), and the impact of Chronic Wasting Disease on deer and elk.

“All of these problems translate into economic problems. Now we have a two-tiered society with lower income families struggling to survive at the bottom and wealthier newcomers at the top…” (p. 56) Thus comes the clash of opinions and lifestyles, with development pressures that increasing the price of land and devalues natural and agricultural lands. An interesting note: “The Bitterroot is becoming a horse valley. Horses are economic because…many people are willing to spend anything for horses that yield no economic benefit.” (p. 59)

Throughout the book Diamond gives meticulous and clearly understandable analyses of the evidence from past societies and how their decision-making about the management of the environmental resources that sustained them either led to their collapse or led to practices that were sustainable in the long term. Long-term vs. short-term decision making is a vital factor – not just at the societal level, but also at the corporate, government, and individual level. The other key is understanding how all twelve sets of environmental problems that he describes are linked. “Human population affects all eleven other problems…The energy problem is linked to other problems… (“nuclear energy poses potentially the biggest ‘toxic’ problem of all…”) To make his analysis less abstract, he illustrates how these dozen problems affect the city of Los Angeles. (pp. 499-503)

He reveals lessons that are apropos to humans’ impact on the global environment today. “Our world society is presently on a non-sustainable course…The world’s environmental problems will get resolved…The only question is whether they will become resolved in pleasant ways of our own choice, or in unpleasant ways not of our choice, such as warfare, genocide, starvation, disease epidemics, and collapses of societies.” (p. 498)

In the latter part of the last chapter he critically examines many of the “one-liners” that we often hear regarding environmental issues, and offers logical explanations that debunk these misleading statements.

He offers a basis of hope for our future. “While we do face big risks, the most serious ones are not ones beyond our control…Because we are the cause of our environmental problems, we are the ones in control of them, and we can choose or not choose to stop causing them and start solving them.” He completes the book by offering methods to start solving them: e.g., the courage to practice long-term thinking and planning; the courage to make decisions about values; to manage shared resources and avoid the tragedy of the commons. “A lower-impact society is the most impossible scenario for our future – except for all other conceivable scenarios.”(p. 524) “We have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of distant peoples and past societies…My hope is enough people will choose to profit from that opportunity to make a difference.”

My hope in revisiting this erudite tome is that enough people will learn from Diamond’s insight to make a difference for a better future for all.
Some points that Diamond makes throughout the book:
 “…failures of group decision making on the part of whole societies or other groups…is related the problem of failures of individual decision-making.” (p.420)

“…after a society has or hasn’t anticipated a problem before it arrives, involves its perceiving or failing to perceive a problem that has actually arrived.” (p.424)

“…societies often fail to attempt to solve a problem once it has been perceived.” (p.427)

“Measures benefiting a small minority at the expense of a large majority are especially likely to arise in certain types of democracies that bestow ‘swing power’ on some small groups; e.g., senators from small states in the U.S. Senate, or small religious parties often holding the balance of power…” (p. 427)

The “Tragedy of the Commons is discussed (p. 428-429), as well as solutions.

“Throughout recorded history, actions or inactions by self-absorbed kings, chiefs, and politicians have been a regular cause of societal collapses.” (p. 431) Diamond refers to Barbara Tuchman’s March of Folly, which exposes “famous historical examples of disastrous decisions…” (p. 431)

…”failures to solve perceived problems because of conflicts of interest between the elite and masses are much less likely in societies where the elite cannot insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions.” (p. 431)

“The final reason that I shall mention for irrational failure to try to solve a perceived problem is psychological denial.” (p. 435)

In Chapter 9 he discusses examples drawn from the majority of societies that succeeded.

“As Irving Janis pointed out in his book Groupthink , numerous characteristics lead to bad decisions…” (p. 539)

In the Chapter 15 Diamond answers the question: why do businesses (or governments) make decisions that benefit them but harm the larger society and the environment? “…there is a conflict of interest: what makes money for a business, at least in the short run, may be harmful for a society as a whole. “…a business may maximize its profits in the short term by damaging the environment and hurting people.” (p. 483) …a large-scale example of rational behavior on the part of one group translating into disastrous decision-making by a society…” (p. 442) In this chapter he identifies what changes would be most effective in inducing companies that currently harm the environment to spare it instead.

An important factor is public expectations…” (p. 447)…the potential role of the public in influencing outcomes.” (p. 451)

 “In the long run, it is the public, either directly or through its politicians, that has the power to make destructive environmental policies unprofitable and illegal and to make sustainable environmental policies profitable.” (p. 484) “The public’s task is to identify which links in the supply chain are sensitive to public pressure…” (p.484)

Businesses have changed when the public came to expect and require different behavior, to reward businesses for behavior that the public wanted, and to make things difficult for businesses practicing behaviors that the public didn’t want.” (p. 485)

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