Sunday, March 06, 2005

A History of Humanity's Collapse

Collapse of Societies: From Easter Island to Iraq - to Western World?
by Linda Moulton Howe


from earthfile.com

This article includes an interview with anthropologist Jared Diamond about his new book:


here is an excerpt of Linda Moulton Howe's article:


Economists Are Worried About Collapse

Howe:
HAVE YOU TALKED OFF THE RECORD WITH SOMEBODY WHO IS DEALING AT THE GLOBAL ECONOMIC LEVEL. I'M THINKING OF PAUL VOELKER. [Chairman of the U. S. Federal Reserve during the Jimmy Carter Administration, 1976-1980.) HE RECENTLY WROTE AN ARTICLE HAVING TO DO WITH HIS FEAR THAT THE DOLLAR COULD START GOING INTO A FREE FALL COLLAPSE WITHIN FIVE YEARS OF 2005, WHICH WOULD BE BY 2010. IT HAS TO DO WITH A SHIFT IN GLOBAL ECONOMIES TO THE EURO AND OTHER CURRENCIES AND ISSUES AROUND PETROLEUM. HAVE YOU TALKED WITH ANYONE ABOUT THAT?

Diamond:
Yes. I have not talked with Paul Voelker, but with other economists. I have had discussions with the famous economist, Jeffrey Sachs, at Columbia University. His point of view is very similar to mine. He regards as the biggest economic problem in the world today the nexus between public health problems and environmental problems and population problems. He has been going around the world advising countries about how to improve their economies, but also talking to First World countries about the importance of solving these problems.

Another person I've talked to is a (Bush Administration) cabinet minister who I cannot name, but a cabinet minister of the current administration. This cabinet minister has a point of view that is very different from that of our president. This cabinet minister read my book, Guns, Germs and Steel and read my book, Collapse, and is convinced of the seriousness of these problems.

Howe:
POTENTIALLY WE COULD BE FACING A TOTAL COLLAPSE OF WORLD ECONOMIES?

Diamond:
That's the worst case scenario. The best case scenario is that potentially we could be facing getting a grip on our problems and solving them in a way that the United States has made big progress in dealing with our problems of air and water pollution, within the last 30 years. Air and water quality are much better now, even though we've got far more people and far more cars. That's something that gives one optimism.

Howe:
COULD THE ULTIMATE TRIGGER POINT FOR GLOBAL COLLAPSE OF JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING BE OUR UNDERESTIMATING THE IMPACT THAT GLOBAL WARMING AND CHANGING CLIMATE IS GOING TO HAVE ON EVERYTHING FROM FOOD PRODUCTION TO SHORELINES?

Diamond:
That's one of the many possible trigger points. I think there are other trigger points that will come earlier than global warming, such as the collapses of half a dozen more countries. Or such as water wars, or such as the depletion of the world's remaining significant fisheries on which most people in the Third World depend for their protein.

Howe:
Can Other Collapsing Nations Drag U.S.
and Europe Down With Them?

WHAT COULD THE FIRST WORLD DO IF THERE WERE HALF A DOZEN MORE THIRD WORLD COUNTRY BLOW UPS?

Diamond:
Not very much. We couldn't afford the money. We don't have the troops. The American army is not big enough. I think we've committed about one-third of our troops to Iraq and therefore, if six more countries blow up, that requires double the number of troops that we've got. Six more countries blowing up ­ the world can't cope with it.

Howe:
AND WHAT HAPPENS?

Diamond:
What happens, it's a big mess! More than what we've got now. More immigrants. If six countries collapse, instead of one or two, we've got far more immigrants swamping our ability to deal with them. Bigger epidemics of emerging diseases and bigger economic problems. The worst case scenario is that it would be a collapse similar to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, or similar to the collapse of Easter Island, or similar to the collapse of Haiti. A worse case scenario is that all the world gets to be like Haiti and Somalia. Somalia ripples out until much of Africa and Asia and then Europe is in a condition like Somalia. That's the worst case scenario.

But whenever one says something pessimistic about that, let's reverse and say: it could go either way. It could be that the rest of the world is going to end up like Scandinavia or The Netherlands or Bhutan or Australia ­ getting a grip on their environmental problems.

Howe:
ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC OR PESSIMISTIC ABOUT THIS COUNTRY'S FUTURE?

Diamond:
The phrase I use is 'cautiously optimistic.' By that, I mean on the one hand, we do have serious problems. And if the serious problems went on as they are going now, then we are going to be in deep trouble within the next several decades.

On the other hand, the problems are all ones we are causing and we are perfectly capable of solving them. We don't need new technology. We could solve them if we chose to solve them. That's what makes me cautiously optimistic ­ neither pessimistic nor straight out optimistic, but I would say, cautiously optimistic. We could solve our problems if we chose to do so. Whether we will, I can't predict."

(Prof. Diamond's last words in his book are:)

" My remaining cause for hope is another consequence of the globalized modern world's interconnectedness. Past societies lacked archaeologists and television. While the Easter Islanders were busy deforesting the highlands of their overpopulated island for agricultural plantations in the 1400s, they had no way of knowing that thousands of miles to the east and west at the same time, Greenland Norse society and the Khmer Empire were simultaneously in terminal decline, while the Anasazi had collapsed a few centuries earlier, Classic Maya society a few more centuries before that, and Mycenean Greece 2,000 years before that. Today, though, we turn on our television sets or radios or pick up our newspapers, and we see, hear, or read about what happened in Somalia or Afghanistan a few hours earlier. Our television documentaries and books show us in graphic detail why the Easter Islanders, Classic Maya, and other past societies collapsed. Thus, we have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of distant peoples and past peoples. That's an opportunity that no past society enjoyed to such a degree. My hope in writing this book has been that enough people will choose to profit from that opportunity to make a difference."



Please read the whole article.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

A most interesting article and book however consider this: most societies that have fallen (and there have been many) did not do so as a result of damage they inflicted upon their environment.
In reality, most societies down through history died because they were conquered. Homicide was the fate of most extinct societies.
the Aztecs and the Incas, Cherokee, the Sioux, Maoris, the Tasmanians, the Australian Aborigines, the Chatham Islanders the Saxons in Britain and the Arabs in Sicily. These are just a few of the many examples.

Yes we should worry about the environment today, but largely because of current data and analysis, not because of past history. If you look at the past, the single overwhelming fact is that all previous environmental problems, at the highest macro level, were overcome. We moved from the squalor of year 1000 to the impressive successes of 2005, a huge step forward. Environmental problems, however severe, did not prevent this progress. If you are a pessimist you should be concerned with the uniqueness of the contemporary world, not its similarities to the past.

What global scale environmental problems we have now are ultimately solvable. For example, should we ever need to stop using fossil fuels then as I've previously argued, nuclear power plants could provide all the power we need for transportation and for a cost that would still allow modern lifestyles. Huge amounts of capital are available to build new coal-fired electric power plants. As CO2 extraction and sequestration technologies advance the costs of adding on CO2 emissions control systems will fall to the point where stopping CO2 emissions will become much cheaper than it would be to do today. Energy shortages are not going to stop us.

Jarred Diamon has seriously overstated the future water shortage. He fails to tell you that in the industrialized countries we have too many ways to deal with potential future water shortages. We can desalinate. Desalination is more expensive but still affordable. We can stop subsidizing agricultural uses of water. Farmers can adopt practices that use water more efficiently. We can put on more efficient fixtures in showers. We currently mix all waste water together even though some types are much harder to process. So we could gradually build our plumbing and waste water street pipes to separate them out. There are just too many options for handling water more efficiently for more efficient use and reuse that are doable for affordable prices. In the face of warnings about water shortages starting in the year 2003 for the first time in history more than half of the human race now has piped water.

It isn't the "globalization, international trade, jet planes, and the Internet" that Diamond worries about that are the problem, it is the “Concorde fallacy”, big projects entered into for flimsy reasons and maintained even when it is crystal clear that they are nothing but resource sinks. It's important to grasp this because Diamond's solution is to engage in even "greater integration of parts" so that he can enforce his proposed bans on logging or whatever. Group behaviors are less intelligent than individual behaviors for such problems and the larger the group the more this is true.

6:04 PM  
Blogger sourmonkey said...

Wow! What a great post. Thanks... anonymous.

You have said some very interesting things, and overall I agree with what you suggest. I do believe that, for now, nuclear technology is prehaps the best means for overcoming our society's addiction to oil consumption. However, man is both a genius and a beast, and with nuclear energy comes great responsibility. Considering humanity's propensity for violence, and the current state of global nuclear nonproliferation, I suggest we move forward through the postmodern nuclear age with extreme caution...

Afterall, humans have been killing other humans for as long humans have existed. It is only now in this miraculous, technologically modern era that we can unleash the fission of the Sun here on Earth and irradiate our environment for thousands of generations to come...

I worry about the short sightedness of human vision.

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