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Collapsing societies

So I finally got around to reading Jared Diamond’s 2005 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Clearly I’m way behind the times, but the book is eight hundred pages long. Anyway, the central thesis of the book is that environmental factors, and the way people respond to them, can play a major role in the collapse of societies. The suggestion is not that environmental issues cause all societal collapses, but that if enough environmental pressure is placed on a society, if that pressure is not relieved or responded to in an appropriate way, societies can fail – and even cease to exist.

The environmental factors Diamond outlines as having severely impacted societies in the past are as follows: deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems, water management, overhunting, overfishing, the effects of introduced species on native species, overpopulation, and increased ‘per person impact’ on the environment. He adds that we currently face environmental challenges that haven’t existed in the past: human-caused climate change, the build up of chemicals in the environment, energy shortages, and the potential for full human utilisation of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity (we’re closer than you might think).

Most of the book focuses on how societies can collapse because of their failure to manage their environments. However, he also spends a chapter or so on two societies that faced severe environmental problems but survived. The two societies specifically examined are Tikopia, a tiny island nation in the Pacific Ocean, and Japan.

Both societies faced severe environmental problems. Tikopia had problems with overpopulation, but also deforestation. Japan’s problems were primarily deforestation and all of its associated side issues, including drought and soil salinisation. What’s interesting is that these nations each solved their problems in directly opposite ways.

On Tikopia, the island and population were both tiny. Because both were tiny, the entire population was familiar with pretty much the entire island. When problems began to appear, it was reasonably obvious to everyone what they were – and also obvious that any kind of environmental problem on the island was going to affect everyone. Accordingly, everyone responded to these problems: they reestablished birth control methods that had been used previously and engaged in reforestation. Problem solved; the islanders are still there today.

In Japan, on the other hand, no individual was ever going to be familiar with the entirety of the country and the problems it faced. No-one was ever going to look around and see the creeping environmental damage, and no-one person responding would ever make a significant difference. But Japan had something that Tikopia didn’t – a strong, singular government, with near universal control over the country’s resources and people. While they couldn’t make every individual care about Japan’s environmental problems, they could place limits on the amount of timber individuals were allowed to collect from existing forests, and could establish long lasting programs to reforest their country. At the time of writing, Japan was one of the few countries in the world whose percentage of forests was actually increasing – which isn’t half bad given the size of the population and the country.

So Japan and Tikopia both had environmental issues, but both managed to overcome them and survive into the current day. What’s interesting, though, is that they employed opposite but effective means of doing so. Tikopia went bottom-up; Japan went top-down. But both worked.

In contrast, societies that were big enough that everyone wasn’t familiar with their total environment, or that weren’t controlled and run by a single authority, sunk. Diamond has example after example of societies that just couldn’t respond to their environment in time or in the right way, and went extinct. It’s depressing reading.

Here’s the thing though: critics have disagreed with individual cases in Diamond’s book, but I haven’t heard much criticism of the total thesis. So in general, yes, societies can fail because they can’t respond to their environment in time.

Suppose for a moment that today’s greatest environmental challenge is in fact climate change. I’m an environmental scientist by trade, so I’m obliged to think so; everyone else pretends along with me. What size would you say our society is? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that despite the Internet, we’re not yet at a place where every part of our society is familiar with every part of our planet. At the other end of the scale, we’re not so singular and powerful that we have a central authority that everyone is going to listen to. (We have the UN, but I think everyone saw how the Copenhagen summit played out.)

I’m hoping everyone is following me so far. Basically: we don’t all know our world well enough to notice every small and dangerous change in it. So the bottom-up approach won’t work for us. We also don’t have a strong, single government that can mandate the way we all run our lives in relation to climate change. So the top-down approach isn’t going to work either. So it looks like we’re precisely on that dangerous middle path Diamond talks about, where no-one has strong control over what’s going on anymore. Where we don’t have the tools or capacity to respond to changes in our environment as a whole.

So wrap up well, folks.

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