Cocooned by privilege but driving on the edge

January 28, 2005

Only if our rulers learn the lessons of history can we avoid the grim fate of Easter Island, says Jared Diamond

People ask me why I decided to write about the collapse of past societies. The answer is simple. I chose this subject because it raises the most fascinating and important questions that I could think of.

As teenagers we get interested in the romantic mysteries surrounding the Maya abandoning their cities, the fate of Easter Island and Norse Greenland. But studying the collapse or survival of past societies can teach us lessons that may help us avoid becoming one more disaster story.

One lesson is that environment and population problems have to be taken seriously.

Some of these societies had only 6,000 people and stone tools but they still managed to destroy their environment. You can bet that the 6.5 billion of us today, with our metal tools and nuclear power, are in a strong position to follow suit.

Another lesson has to do with understanding the social factors that enabled some societies to solve their problems and others not.

I eventually realised that a blueprint for disaster is when the elite insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions. Why did the Maya kings allow their landscape to be deforested and not stop fighting one another before it was too late? Because they were detached from the consequences of their actions, living from taxation and getting their food brought to them.

They did not notice that the commoners were gradually becoming malnourished - the kings had bought themselves the privilege of being the last to starve.

I worry about this in modern Los Angeles. As you drive around the city, you see the gated communities, watched over by private security guards instead of the police, their residents probably sending their children to private rather than to public schools, drinking bottled water, depending on private pensions and protected by private health insurance.

They've succeeded in insulating themselves from the problems of the rest of society and hence lack the personal motivation to solve them.

In the past, that has been a recipe for trouble and that's what makes me worried for the US today.

Another lesson has to do with core values. A predictor of whether a society succeeds or fails has to do with whether it is willing to reappraise its core values when they become inappropriate as conditions change. The US has a number of agonising reappraisals awaiting it.

Its isolationism, protected by the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, from any other country strong enough to cause it trouble, served the country well in the past. But it no longer serves it well today. Any remote country - Somalia, Afghanistan or Iraq - can cause the US big trouble and cost it hundreds of billions of dollars in economic losses.

The US has also to reappraise its self-image as a land of unlimited plenty.

This has enabled the country to become the most prodigious consumerist country on earth. That was OK so long as the resources were in effect infinite. But today that is not the case - the world is running out of resources.

Can our globalised, technologically advanced society really learn from the experience of the Polynesians on Easter Island?

Of course there are differences, but some make our situation even more dangerous.

When Easter Island collapsed, nobody else in the world even noticed. Now, when a remote state such as Somalia fails American troops go in.

No country today can collapse without there being reverberations in other countries. So the risk that we face is one of global decline. That could make one pessimistic. But there are reasons for hope.

When the Easter Islanders were chopping down the last palm tree, there was no way they could know the consequences of deforestation. They did not have television, satellites, radio or newspapers to tell them about the deforestation in Japan at about the same time.

But we can see the conditions in environmentally devastated areas such as Afghanistan. We also have archaeologists and know about the disasters that have already befallen in the past.

So we are the first society in world history to have the opportunity to learn from remote places and from the remote past and hence to mend our ways.

That was my main motivation in writing Collapse , the hope that we would choose to learn.

Jared Diamond is professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. This article is based on his distinguished lecture to the US Skeptics Society.

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