Can we stop our footprint stamping out all life?

January 28, 2005

Crispin Tickell admires a panoramic sweep over humanity's past that outlines risks, lessons and choices for our future

Since the end of the last ice age some 12,000 years ago (a mere blink of geological time), humans have come together in societies of ever-increasing complexity. Many have crashed. Some have survived. Why? Is there a methodology of collapse or survival?

Jared Diamond is not the first to put together issues across a spectrum that reaches from archaeology and history to biology, psychology and economics. But he brings detailed knowledge, personal experience and fresh insights of a kind already seen in his earlier works The Third Chimpanzee and Guns, Germs and Steel . In this book, he aims to persuade us to think differently, and he succeeds triumphantly.

Diamond distinguishes five main factors that bear on the failure or success of a society. The first is the way in which its members treat their geographical environment. Obviously some environments are more robust than others, so experience in one place is not necessarily relevant in another.

Next comes climatic change, however caused and whether favourable or unfavourable. Then comes hostile relationships with neighbours or invaders.

Then there are trading relationships. Some societies are dependent on raw materials from others, whether forest products, food or - today - coal, oil and gas. Last is how societies respond to the inevitable stresses that arise from these factors or combinations of them. As can be seen many times in history, responses can be very different. A society's resilience can be tested by such unexpected events as a meteorite impact or - as last month - a disastrous tsunami. To Diamond's list could be added other factors such as the effects of complexity and hierarchy in urban societies, and the tendency evident in humans, as in other animals, to proliferate when times are good and to crash when times are bad.

The case studies make fascinating reading. There are the micro-societies of Easter Island, Mangareva, Pitcairn, Tikopia and Henderson in the Pacific.

Easter Island is a classic case. The first few Polynesians arrived in their canoes some time before AD900. In a fragile environment, they cut down the trees, cultivated the relatively poor soils, vastly increased their numbers, possibly to about 15,000, and divided the land into competing and sometimes warring clans. It was largely between 1400 and 1600 that most of the extraordinary statues and their supporting platforms were constructed.

By 1722, when the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen arrived, the society had all but collapsed. The few living people in a bare and devastated landscape had suffered from total isolation and food shortages, and had even been driven to cannibalism. One of Diamond's students put the key question:

"What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree think while he was doing it?" The response could have been that of some present-day loggers or politicians: "jobs not trees" or "technology will find an answer" or "we need more research".

For macro-societies, we know broadly what happened to the Anasazi and their neighbours in what is now the southwest of the US from about AD700 onwards.

There, the fundamental problem was, and is, a precarious environment for agriculture. Deforestation and soil exhaustion, made worse in some regions by salinisation from irrigation agriculture, came together with population increase to put society on a dangerous edge. With the severe droughts of the 12th century, people could no longer cope as they had done in the past.

They had to flee or starve. Arizona and California experience the same problems today. Immigration is still increasing. In some areas, the price of water is subsidised, so it makes commercial sense to supply golf courses from reserves of fossil water. Yet the whole area is in the seventh year of a drought, with more drought predicted as part of global warming.

The collapse of Maya society in southern Mexico in the 8th or 9th century AD is still the subject of argument. It was not the only pre-Columbian society to have crashed. In the 6th century the great city of Teotihuac n, among the largest in the world at the time, came to grief. Indeed, there is a regular pattern of collapse in pre-Columbian societies, followed in almost all cases by regeneration on the spot or not far away. There are many of the same factors: deforestation, soil exhaustion, overpopulation, endemic quarrels between city-states, complexity leading to widening gaps between rulers and ruled, and, perhaps as the tipping point, climatic change in the form of droughts.

The story of the Viking colonisation of the North Atlantic region has special aspects. The settlements on the northeast tip of Newfoundland were a bridge too far. Vinland (as the best-known settlement was called) was remote even from Greenland, lacking in key raw materials, and already well populated by indigenous people. No wonder that it was soon abandoned. By contrast, those on the southwest tip of Greenland had a relatively long life. There, the main hazards were gradual climatic cooling and eventual failure to respond to the special character of the environment. The Norse proved incapable of learning from the indigenous Inuit (whom they seem to have despised) and stuck to their inappropriate values and methods.

Of more modern case histories, Diamond looks at two disasters, one relative success, two areas of high vulnerability (Japan and Australia) and one of global dimensions that combines almost everything. An unequivocal disaster was the collapse of the state followed by genocide in Rwanda and Burundi.

Thomas Malthus, who first worked out the relationship between rates of population increase and food supply, would have felt vindicated. Add a history of disputes between Hutu and Tutsi (and even some within these communities), environmental degradation, rising poverty and climate change, and it makes for a lethal cocktail.

A contrast between relative disaster and relative success can be seen in the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. On one side of a north-south line is Haiti, and on the other the Dominican Republic. The environment is not all that different, and both former colonies have histories of corrupt and arbitrary government. But the contrasts are enormous. Haiti, now one of the poorest countries in the world with a denuded environment, is a classic case of disaster; while the Dominican Republic is many times richer, still well forested and with lower population density and growth. How did this happen? The answers are at least partly cultural and relate to leadership.

In the Dominican Republic, one president made it his policy to protect the environment (to the extent of shooting illegal loggers), to defy certain vested interests and to enlist public opinion in his efforts. Whether this will continue remains to be seen.

Last is the case of China with its varied environments and huge population.

The environmental history of China over the past few thousand years has recently been explored elsewhere. It is one of regional boom and bust and boom. Much of China suffers from deforestation, desertification and loss of biodiversity, and the rush to the big cities is creating new hazards.

Industrial development sometimes seems out of control. In addition, the Chinese National Academy of Sciences foresees substantial climatic change with different and potentially dangerous new patterns of rainfall. Yet the present Chinese leadership seems better aware of the perils than most. It is introducing new methodologies to measure wealth and wellbeing, and it is trying to correct what Diamond calls the lurches between accelerating environmental damage and accelerating environmental protection. Curiously, he says nothing about the performance of the US in this respect, although he brings out well the contradictions in the state of Montana.

In the words of the title of this remarkable book, how do societies choose to fail or survive? It is central to Diamond's thesis that there is an element of choice and no inevitability in what happens. Time after time, there is a failure to foresee the problems likely to arise when people move into an unfamiliar environment. Then there is often a failure to recognise problems when they do arise. They do not fit past experience and so are all too easily ignored or denied. Finally, there is a failure to cope even when the solutions are obvious. Here new conflicts arise between short-term advantage and long-term respect for the public interest. People's needs, like that of the person who cut down the last tree on Easter Island, are real and immediate, but their minds are often elsewhere. States, cities, corporations and individuals are in competition with each other. Even today, how many economists bring long-term values into their calculations?

In short, we have to change our minds - and this needs three things: leadership from individuals or institutions; pressure from those adversely affected; and a catastrophe or two, preferably not too devastating, to make obvious and urgent the need for change. Our present situation is unique.

For the first time, the problems are global. The human footprint is everywhere. What happens in one place very soon affects what happens in another. Information travels almost instantaneously worldwide.

Nation-states exercise diminishing control over their affairs while global institutions have yet to acquire accountability. Here, disasters such as the Asian tsunami may eventually lead to greater global responsibility. At the same time, society has become more vulnerable, not just to terrorism or the use of exotic weapons, but also to breakdown of the electronic systems on which people increasingly depend, and the effects of widening gaps between rich and poor.

Diamond writes clearly and engagingly, although his text could have been pruned. He ends on a note of slightly forced optimism. Understanding of interconnectedness is essential for the management of any society, whether seen from top down or from bottom up. It requires that we see problems in terms of each other, and act before it is too late, always assuming that we have the will to do so. That is a big assumption.

Sir Crispin Tickell is chancellor, Kent University.

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive

Author - Jared Diamond
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Pages - 575
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 7139 9286 7

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments