"Why did these ancient
civilizations abandon their cities after building them with such great
effort? Why these ancient collapses? This question isn't just a romantic
mystery. It's also a challenging intellectual problem. Why is it that some
societies collapsed while others did not collapse?
But even more, this question is relevant to the environmental problems that we face today — what if anything, can the past teach us about why some societies are more unstable than others, and about how some societies have managed to overcome their environmental problems. Can we extract from the past any useful guidance that will help us in the coming decades?"
- Jared Diamond, from an ABC Interview, explaining the theme of the book
"A blueprint for disaster
in any society is when the elite are capable of insulating themselves."
- Jared Diamond, interviewed in "National Review"
00 - Prologue:
How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive
01 - Under Montana's Big Sky
02 - Twilight at Easter Island
03 - The Last People Alive: Pitcairn and Henderson Islands
04 - The Ancient Ones: The Anasazi
05 - The Maya Collapse
06 - The Viking Prelude and Fugues
07 - Norse Greenland's Flowering
08 - Norse Greenland's End
09 - Opposite Paths to Success
10 - Malthus in Africa: Rwanda's Genocide
11 - One Island, Two Peoples: Dominican Republic and Haiti
12 - China, Lurching Giant
13 - Mining Australia
14 - Why Do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions?
15 - Big Businesses and the Environment
16 - What Does It All Mean For Us Today?
EX - Beyond The Book
Norse Greenland is just one of many past societies that collapsed or vanished, leaving behind monumental ruins such as those that Shelley imagined in his poem "Ozymandias". By collapse, I mean a drastic decrease in human population size and/or politlcal/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time.
By those standards, most people would consider the following past societies to have been famous victims of full-fledged collapses rather than of just minor declines: the Anasazi and Cahokia within the boundaries of the modern US, the Maya cities in Central America, Moche and Tiwanaku societies in South America, Mycenean Greece and Minoan Crete in Europe, Great Zimbabwe in Africa, Angkor Wat and the Harappan Indus Valley cities in Asia, and Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean.
The monumental ruins left behind by those past societies hold a romantic fascination for us all. We feel drawn to their often spectacular and haunting beauty, and also to the mysteries that they pose? Lurking behind this romantic mystery is the nagging thought: might such a fate eventually befall our own wealthy society? Will tourists someday stare mystified at the rusting hulks of New York's skyscrapers much as we stare today at the jungle-overgrown ruins of Maya cities?
It has long been suspected that many of those mysterious abandonments were at least partly triggered by ecological problems: people inadvertently destroying the environmental resources on which their societies depended. This suspicion of unintended ecological suicide (ecocide) has been confirmed by discoveries made in recent decades by archaeologists, climatologists, historians, paleontologists and palynologists (pollen scientists). The processes through which past societies have undermined themselves by damaging their environments fall into eight categories, whose relative importance differs from case to case: deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems, water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth, and increased per-capita impact of people.
Efforts to understand past collapses have had to confront one major controversy and four complications. The controversy involves resistance to the idea that past peoples (some of them known to be ancestral to peoples currently alive and vocal) did things that contributed to their own decline. ...To damage the environment today is considered morally culpable. Not surprisingly, native Hawaiians and Maoris don't like paleontologists telling them their ancestors exterminated half the bird species that had evolved on Hawaii and New Zealand, or do Native Americans like archaeologists telling them that the Anasazi deforested parts of the south-western US... it's as if the scientists were saying, "Your ancestors were bad stewards of their lands, so they deserved to be dispossessed".
It seems to me wrongheaded and dangerous to invoke historical assumptions about environmental practices of native peoples in order to justify treating them fairly. By invoking this (Eden-like environmentalism) to justify fair treatment of native peoples, we imply that it would be ok to mistreat them if that assumption could be refuted.
Managing environmental resources sustainably has always been difficult, even since Homo sapiens developed modern inventiveness, efficiency and hunting skills by around 50,000 years ago. Beginning with the first human colonization of the Australian continent around 46,000 years ago, and the subsequent prompt extinction of most of Australia's former giant marsupials and other large animals, every human colonization of a land mass formerly lacking humans - whether of Australia, North America, South America, Madagascar, the Mediterranean island, or Hawaii and New Zealand and dozens of other Pacific islands - has been followed by a wave of extinction of large animals that had evolved without fear of humans and were easy to kill, or else succumbed to human-associated habitat changes, introduced pest species, and diseases. Any people can fall into the trap of overexploiting environmental resources.
The socieities that ended up collapsing were (like the Maya) among the most creative and (for a time) advanced and succesful of their times, rather than stupid and primitive. Past peoples were neither ignorant bad managers who deserved to be exterminated or dispossessed, nor all-knowing conscientious environmentalists who solved problems that we can't solve today. They were people like us.
When Norwegian colonists of Iceland first encountered an environment superficially similar to that of Norway but in reality very different, they inadvertently destroyed much of Iceland's topsoil and most of its forests. Iceland for a long time was Europe's poorest and most ecologically ravaged country. However, Icelanders eventually learned from experience, adopted rigorous measures of environmental protection, and now enjoy one of the highest per-capita national average incomes in the world. Thus, this book is not an uninterrupted series of despressing stories of failure, but also includes success stories inspiring imitation and optimism.
I don't know of any case in which a society's collapse can be attributed solely to environmental damage, there are always other contributing factors. Eventually, I arrived at a five-point framework of possible contributing factors that I now consider in trying to understand any putative environmental collapse. Four of those sets of factors - environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbours and friendly trade partners - may or may not prove significant for a particular society. The fifth set of factors - the society's response to its environmental problems - always proves significant.
It would be absurd to claim that environmental damage must be a major factor in all collapses: the collapse of the Soviet Union is a modern counter-example, and the destruction of Carthage by Rome in 146 BC is an ancient one. It's obviously true that military or economic factors alone may suffice.
In many historical cases, a society that was depleting its environmental resources could survive as long the climate was benign, but was then driven over the brink of collapse when the climate became drier, colder, hotter, wetter or more variable. Should one then say that the collapse was caused by human environmental impact, or by climate change? Neither of those simple alternatives is correct.
A society may be able to hold off its enemies as long as it is strong, only to succumb when it becomes weakened for any reason, including environmental damage. The proximate cause of the collapse will then be military conquest, but the ultimate factor will have been the factor that caused the weakening. Hence collapses for ecological or other reasons often masquerade as military defeats.
My view is that, if environmentalists aren't willing to engage with big business, which are among the most powerful forces in the modern world, it won't be possible to solve the world's environmental problems.
How can one study the collapses of societies "scientifically"? Science is often misrepresented as "the body of knowledge acquired by performing replicated controlled experiments in the laboratory". Actually, science is something much broader: the acquisition of reliable knowledge about the world.
It's usually neither feasible, legal nor ethical to gain knowledge about birds by experimentally exterminating or manipulating their populations at one site while maintaining their populations at another site as unmanipulated controls... a frequent solution is to apply what is termed the "comparitive method" or the "natural experiment" - i.e. to compare natural situations differing with respect to the variable of interest.
Twilight at Easter Island]
The prehistoric Polynesian expansion was the most dramatic burst of overwater exploration in human prehistory. Until 1200 BC, the spread of ancient humans from the Asian mainland through Indonesia's islands to Australia and New Guinea had advanced no farther into the Pacific then the Solomon Islands east of New Guinea. Around that time, a seafaring and farming people, apparently originating from the Bismarck Archipelago northeast of New Guinea, and producing ceramics known as Lapita-style pottery, swept nearly a thousand miles across the open oceans east of the Solomons to reach Fiji, Samoa and Tonga and to become the ancestors of the Polynesians. While Polynesians lacked compasses and writing and metal tools, they were masters of navigational arts and of sailing canoe technology. Abundant archaeological evidence at radiocarbon-dated sites - such as pottery and stone tools, remains of houses and temples, food debris, and human skeletons - testifies to the approximate dates and routes of their expansion. By around AD 1200, Polynesians had reached every habitable scrap of land in the vast watery triangle of land whose apexes are Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island.
The first expansion wave of Lapita potters ancestral to Polynesians spread eastwards across the Pacific only as far as Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga, which lie within just a few days' sail of each other. A much wider gap of ocean separates those West Polynesian island from the islands of East Polynesia: the Cooks, Societies, Marquesas, Australs, Tuamotus, Hawaii, New Zealand, Pitcairn group, and Easter. Only after a "Long Pause" of about 1500 years was that gap finally breached — whether because of improvements in Polynesian canoes and navigation, changes in ocean currents, emergence of stepping-stone islets due to a drop in sea level, or just one lucky voyage. Some time around AD 600-800 the Cooks, Societies, and Marquesas, which are the East Polynesian islands most accessible from West Polynesia, were colonized and became in turn the sources of colonists for the remaining islands. With New Zealand's occupation around AD 1200, across a huge water gap of at least 2000 miles, the settlement of the Pacific's habitable islands was at last complete.
To us modern landlubbers, it is literally incredible that canoe voyagers sailing east from Mangareva could have had the good luck to hit an island only nine miles wide from north to south after such a long voyage. However, Polynesians knew how to anticipate an island long before land became visible, from the flocks of nesting seabirds that fly out over a radius of a hundred miles from land to forage. Thus, the effective diameter of Easter would have been a respectable 200 miles to Polynesian canoe-voyagers, rather than a mere nine.
Given the widespead distribution over Polynesia of platforms and statues, why were the Easter Islanders the only ones to go overboard, to make by far the largest investment of societal resources in building them, and to erect the biggest ones? Rano Raraku tuff is the best stone in the Pacific for carving. Other Pacific island societies on islands within a few days' sail of other islands devoted their energy, resources, and labor to interisland trading, raiding, exploration, colonization, and emigration, but these competing outlets were foreclosed for Easter Islanders by their isolation. While chiefs on other Pacific islands could compete for prestige and status by seeking to outdo each other in these interisland activities, "The boys on Easter Island didn't have those usual games to play", as one of my students put it.
The Last People Alive: Pitcairn and Henderson Islands]
With too many peoples and too little food, Mangareva society slid into a nightmare of civil war and chronic hunger. For protein, people turned to cannibalism. Chronic fighting broke out over the precious remaining cultivatable land; the winning side redistributed the land of the losers. The thought of Lilliputian military dictatorships on eastern and western Mangareva, battling for control of an island only five miles long, could seem funny if it were not so tragic. All that political chaos alone would have made it difficult to muster the manpower and supplies necessary for oceangoing canoe travel... even if trees for canoes themselves had not become unavailable. With the collapse of Mangareva at its hub, the whole East Polynesia trade network that had joined Mangareva to the Marquesas, Societies, Tuamotus, Pitcairn and Henderson disintegrated.
Environmental damage, leading to social and political chaos and to loss of timber for canoes, ended Southeast Polynesia's interisland trade. The end of trade would have exacerbated problems for Mangarevans. For the inhabitants of Pitcairn and Henderson, the results were even worse: eventually, no one was left alive on those islands. Those disappearances of Pitcairn's and Henderson's populations must have resulted somehow from the severing of the Mangarevan umbilical cord.
Did the last Henderson Islanders spend much time on the beaches, for generation after generation, staring out to sea in the hopes of sighting the canoes that had stopped coming, until even the memory of what a canoe looked like grew dim? While the details of how human life flickered out on Pitcairn and Henderson remain unknown, I can't tear myself free of the mysterious drama. In my head, I run through alternative endings of the movie, guiding my speculation by what I know actually did happen to some other isolated societies. When people are trapped together with no possibility of emigration, enemies can no longer resolves tensions merely by moving apart. Those tensions may have exploded in mass murder, which later nearly did destroy the colony of 'Bounty' mutineers on Pitcairn itself. Murder could also have been driven by food shortage and cannibalism, as happened to the Managarevans, Easter Islanders, and the Donner Party in California. Perhaps people grown desperate turned to mass suicide. Desperation might have instead led to insanity, the fare of some members of the Belgian Antarctic Expedition, whose ship was trapped by ice for over a year in 198-1899. Still another catastrophic ending could have been starvation, the fate of Japan's garrison stranded on Wake Island during WW2, and perhaps exacerbated by a drought, typoon, tsunami, or other environmental disaster. Then my mind turns to gentler possible endings of the movie. After a few generations of isolation on Pitcairn or Henderson, everyone in their microsociety of a hundred or a few dozen people would have been everyone else's cousin, and it would have become impossible to contract a marriage not in violation of incest taboos. Hence people may have just grown old together and stopped having children, as happened to California's last surviving Yahi Indians. If the small population did ignore incest taboos, the resulting inbreeding may have caused congenital physical anomalies to proliferate, as exemplified by deafness on Martha's Vineyard Island off Massachusetts or on the remote Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha.
The Ancient Ones: The Anasazi]
All of these solutions face a similar overarching risk: that a series of good years, with adequate rainfall or with sufficiently shallow groundwater tables, may result in population growth, resulting in turn in society becoming increasingly complex and interdependent and no longer locally self-sufficient. Such a society cannot cope with, and rebuild itself after, a series of bad years that a less populous, less interdependent, more self-sufficient society had previously been able to cope with. As we shall seem precisely that dilemma ended Anasazi settlement of Long House Valley, and perhaps other areas as well.
The Maya Collapse]
We are accustomed to thinking of military success as determined by quality of weaponry, rather than by food supply. But a clear example of how improvements in food supply may decisively increase military success comes from the history of Maori New Zealand. The Maori are the Polynesian people who were first to settle New Zealand. Traditionally, they fought frequent fierce wars against each other, but only against closely neighbouring tribes. Those wars were limited by the modest productivity of their agriculture, whose staple crop was sweet potatoes. It was not possible to grow enough sweet potatoes to feed an army in the field for a long time or on distant marches. When Europeans arrived in New Zealand, they brought potatoes, which beginning around 1815 considerably increased Maori crop yields. Maori could now grow enough food to supply armies in the field for many weeks. The result was a 15-year period in Maori history, from 1818 until 1833, when Maori tribes that had acquired potatoes and guns from the English sent armies out on raids to attack tribes hundreds of miles away that had not yet acquired potatoes and guns. Thus, the potato's productivity relieved previous limitations on Maori warfare, similar to the limitations that low-productivity corn agriculture imposed on Maya warfare.
Those food supply considerations may contribute to explaining why Maya society remained politically divided among small kingdoms that were perpetually at war with each other, and that never become unified into large empires like the Aztec Empire (fed with the help of their chinampa agriculture and other forms of intensification) or the Inca Empire (fed by more diverse crops carried by Llamas over well-built roads).
The Viking Prelude and Fugues]
The six Viking colonies on North Atlantic islands constitute six parallel experiments in establishing societies dervied from the same ancestral source. Those six experiments resulted in different outcomes: the Orkney, Shetland and Faeroe colonies have continued to exist for more than a thousand years without their survival ever being in serious doubt; the Iceland colony also persisted but had to overcome poverty and serious difficulties; the Greenland Norse died out after 450 years; and the Vinland colonu was abandoned within the first decade.
The four main environmental variables responsible for the different outcomes appear to be: ocean distances or sailing times by ship from Norway and Britain; resistence offered by non-Viking inhabitants, if there were any; suitability for agriculture, depending especially on latitude and local climate; and environmental fragility, especially suspceptability to soil erosin and deforestation.
The Orkneys are an island archipelago off the northern tip of Britain, wrapped around the large sheltered harbor of Scapa Flow that served as the main base for the British navy in both world wars. The Orkneys are so-called continental islands, really just a piece of the British mainland that became separated only when sea levels rose around the world with glacial melting at the end of the Ice Ages 14,000 years ago. Over that land bridge, many species of land mammals, including elk, otters and hares, immigrated and provided good hunting. The Vikings conquered the Orkneys around AD 800, quickly subdued the indigenous population, known as the Picts, proceeded to use the islands as a base for raiding the nearby British and Irish mainlands, and built up a rich, powerful society that remained for some time an independent Norse kingdom.
The Vinland colony failed because the Greenland colony itself was too small and poor in timber and iron to support it, too far from both Europe and from Vinland, owned too few oceangoing ships, and could not finance big fleets of exploration; and that one or two shiploads of Greenlanders were no match for hordes of Nova Scotia and Gulf of St. Lawrence Indians when they were provoked. In AD 1000, the Greenland colony numbered no more than 500 people, so the 80 adults at the L'Anse camp would have represented a huge drain on Greenland's available manpower... it's no surprise then, that 500 Greenlanders, from the most remote colonial outpost of Norway, one of Europe's poorer nations, could not succeed at conquering and colonizing North America.
The most important thing about the failure of the Vinland colony within 10 years is that it was in part a greatly speeded-up preview of the failure that overtook the Greenland colony after 450 years. Norse Greenland survived much longer than Norse Vinland because it was closer to Norway and because hostile natives did not make their appearancefor the first few centuries. But Greenland shared, albeit in less extreme form, Vinland's twin problems of isolation and Norse inability to establish good relations with Native Americans. If it had not been for Native Americans, the Greenlanders might have survived their ecological problems, and the Vinland settlers might have persisted. In that case, Vinland might have undergone a population explosion, the Norse might have spread over North America after AD 1000, and I as a 20th-century American might now be writing this book in an Old Norse-based languiage like modern Icelandic, rather than in English.
Norse Greenland's End]
The Inuit play a major role in the story of the demise of Viking Greenland. At minimum, the Inuit represent a missed opportunity: the Greenland Vikings would have had a better chance of surviving if they had learned from or traded with the Inuit, but they didn't. At maximum, Inuit attacks or or threats to the Vikings may have played a direct role in the Vikings' extinction.
Today we think of the Inuit as the native inhabitants of Greenland and the Canadian Arctic. In reality, they were just the most recent in a series of at least four archaeologically recognized peoples who expanded eastward across Canada and entered Northwest Greenland over the course of nearly 4000 years before Norse arrival. Successive waves of them spread, remained in Greenland for centuries, and then vanished, raising their own questions of societal collapse — however we know too little about those earlier disappearances to discuss them in this book except as background to the Vikings' fate.
The Inuits' immediate predecessors were a culture referred to by archaeologists as the Dorset people, from their habitations identified at Cape Dorset on Canada's Baffin Island. After occupying most of the Canadian Arctic, they entered Greenland about 800 BC, and inhabited many parts of the island for about a thousand years, including the areas of the later Viking settlements in the southwest. For unknown reasons, they then abandoned all of Greenland and much of the Canadian Arctic by around AD 300 and contracted their distribution back to some core areas of Canada. Around AD 700, though, they expanded again to reoccupy Labrador and north-western Greenland.
Inuit culture and technology, including mastery of whale-hunting in open waters, arose in the Bering Strait region somewhat before AD 1000. Doglseds on land, and large boats at sea, enabled the Inuit to travel and transport supplies much more rapidly than could Dorset people. As the Arctic became warmer in the Middle Ages and the frozen waterways separating Canadian Arctic islands thawed, the Inuit followed their bowhead whale prey through those waterways eastwards across Canada, entering Northwest Greenland by AD 1200.
The Inuit hunted all of the same prey species that Dorset people had targeted, and probably did so more effectively because they (unlike their Dorset predecessors) possessed bows and arrows. But the hunting of hales as well gave them an additional major food supply unavailable to either Dorset people or the Norse. Unlike the Norse, the Inuit represented the climax of thousands of years of cultural developments by Arctic peoples learning to master Arctic conditions.
Within a few centuries of the Inuit expansion across Canada into Northwest Greenland, the Dorset culture, which had previously occupied both areas, disappeared. Hence, we have not one but two Inuit-related mysteries: the disappearance first of the Dorset people, then of the Norse, both of them soon after Inuit arrival in their territories. In Northwest Greenland some Dorset settlements survived for a century or two after the Inuit appeared, and it would have been impossible for two such peoples to be unaware of each other's presence, yet there is no direct archaeological evidence of contact between them, such as Inuit obkects at contemporary Dorset sites or vice vera. But there is indirect evidence of contact: the Greenland Inuit ended up with several Dorset cultural traits that they had lacked before arriving in Greenland, including a bone knife for cutting snow blocks, domed snow houses, soapstone technology, and the so-called Thule 5 harpoon head. Clearly, the Inuit not only had some opportunities to learn from the Dorset people but also must have had something to do with their disappearance after the latter had lived in the Arctic for 2,000 years. Each of us can imagine our own scenario for the end of Dorset culture. One guess of mine is that, among groups of Dorset people starving in a difficult winter, the women just deserted their men and walked over to Inuit camps where they knew that people were feasting on bowhead whales and ringed seals.
The May arrival of harp and hooded seals was critical to Norse survival, because at that time of year the stocks of stored dairy products from the previous summer and of caribou meat hunted in the previous fall would be running out, but the snow had not yet disappeared from the Norse farms so that livestock could not yet be put out to pasture, and consequently the livestock had not yet given birth and were not yet producing milk. That made the Norse vulnerable to starvation from a failure of the seal migration, or from any obstacle (such as ice in the fjords and along the coast, or else hostile Inuit) that impeded their access to the migratory seals. Such ice conditions may have been especially likely in cold years when the Norse were already vulnerable because of cold summers and hence low hay production.
Not only the Norse but also the Inuit were at frequent risk of starvation in Greenland, and the Inuit could have reduced that risk and diversified their diet by trading for Norse mild products? Why didn't trade develop in medieval times? One answer is the cultural obstacles to intermarriage or just to learning between the Norse and the Inuit. An Inuit wife would not have been nearly as useful to a Norseman as was a Norse wife: what a Norseman wanted from a wife was the ability to weave and spin wool, to tend and milk cattle and sheep, and to make 'skyr' and butter and cheese, which Norse but not Inuit girls learned from childhood. Even if a Norse hunter did befriend an Inuit hunter, the Norseman couldn't just borrow his friend's kayak and learn how to use it, because the kayak was in effect a very complicated and individually tailored piece of clothing connected to a boat, made to fit that particular Inuit hunter, and fabricated by the Inuit's wife who (unlike Norse girls) had learned from childhood how to sew skins.
To turn a first-contact situation into a friendly relationship, let alone to survive the situation, requires extreme caution and patience. Later European colonialists eventually developed some experience at dealing with such situations, but the Norse evidently shot first. In short, the 18th-century Danes in Greenland, and other Europeans meeting native peoples elsewhere, encountered the same range of problems that the Norse did: their own prejudices against "primitive pagans", the question of whether to kill them or rob them or trade with them or marry them or take their land, and the problem of how to convince them not to flee or shoot. Later Europeans dealt with those problems by cultivating that whole range of options and choosing whichever option worked best under the particular circumstances, depending on whether the Europeans were or were not outnumbered, whether the European colonist men did or did not have enough European women along as wives, whether the native people had trade goods coveted in Europe, and whether the natives' land was attractive to Europeans to settle. But the medieval Norse had not developed that range of options. Refusing or unable to learn from the Inuit, and lacking any military advantage over them, the Norse rather than the Inuit became the ones whoe eventually disappeared.
The end of the Greenland Norse colony is often described as a 'mystery'. That's true, but only partly so, because we need to distinguish ultimate reasons (i.e. underlying long-term factors behind the slow decline of Greenland Norse society) from proximate reasons (i.e. the final blow to the weakened society, killing the last individuals or forcing them to abandon their settlements). Only the proximate reasons remain partly mysterious; the ultimate reasons are clear. They consist of five sets of factors: Norse impact on the enviroment, climate change, decline in friendly contact with Norway, increase in hostile contact with the Inuit, and the conservative outlook of the Norse.
Between 1400 and 1420 the climate in the North Atlantic became colder and stormier, and mentions of ship traffic to Greenland cease... our last definite written notices of Norse Greenland are laconic accounts of burning at the stake, insanity and marriage — just the usual goings-on for any medieval European Christain society and give no hint of trouble.
The Greenland Norse did succeed in creating a unique form of European society, and in surviving for 450 years as Europe's most remote outpost. We modern Americans should not be so quick to brand them as failures, when their society survived in Greenland for longer than our English-speaking society has survived so far in North America. Ultimately, though, the chiefs founds themselves without followers. The last right that they obtained for themselves was the privilege of being the last to starve.
Opposite Paths to Success]
Of traditional Tikopia's seven methods of population regulation, the simplest was contraception by coitus interruptus. Another method was abortion. Alternatively, infanticide was carried out. Younger sons of families poor in land remained celibate, and many among the resulting surplus of marriageable women also remained celibate rather than enter into polygamous marriages. Still another method was suicide, of which there were seven known cases by hanging and 12 by swimming out to sea between 1929 and 1952. Much commoner than explicit suicide was "virtual suicide" by setting out on dangerous overseas voyages, which claimed the lives of 81 men and three women between 1929 and 1952. Such sea voyages accounted for more than one-third of all deaths of young bachelors... the bleak prospects of younger sons in poor families on a crowded island during a famine were probably often a consideration.
A momentous decision taken consciously around AD 1600, and recorded in oral traditions but also attested archaeologically, was the killing of every pig on the island, to be replaced as protein sources by an increase in consumption of fish, shellfish and turtles. According to Tikopians' accounts, their ancestors had made that decision because pigs raided and rooted up gardens, competed with humans for food, were an inefficient means to feed humans (it takes about 10 pounds of vegetables edible to humans to produce just one pound of pork), and had become a luxury food for the chiefs.
One Island, Two Peoples: Dominican Republic and Haiti]
Haiti used to be much richer and more powerful than its neighbor. In the 19th century it launched several major invasions of the Dominican Republic and annexed it for 22 years. Why were the outcomes so different in the two countries, and why was it Haiti rather than the Dominican Republic that went into steep decline? Some environmental differences do exist between the two halves of the island and made some contribution to the outcomes, but that is the smaller part of the explanation. Most of the explanation has instead to do with differences between the two peoples in their histories, attitudes, self-defined identity, and institutions, as well as between their recent leaders of government. For anyone inclined to cariacature environmental history as "environmental determinism", the contrasting histories of the Dominican Republic and Haiti provide a useful antidote. Yes, environmental problems do constrain human societies, but the societies' responses also make a difference. So too, for better or for worse, do the actions and inactions of their leaders.
China, Lurching Giant]
China's leaders used to believe that humans can and should conquer Nature, that environmental damage was a problem affecting only capitalist societies, and that socialist societies were immune to it. Now, facing overwhelming signs of China's own severe environmental problems, they know better... In 1983 environmental protection was declared a basic national principle — in theory. Many environmental protection laws and policies that have been adopted on paper are not effectively implemented or enforced.
Sandstorms inflict damage of about $540 million per year, and losses of crops and forests due to acid rain amount to about $730 million per year. More serious are the $6 billion costs of the "green wall" of trees being built to shield Beijing against sand and dust, and the $7 billion per year of losses created by pest species. We enter the zone of impressive numbers when we consider the onetime cost of the 1996 floods ($27 billion, but still cheaper than the 1998 floods), the annual direct losses due to desertification ($42 billion), and the annual losses due to water and air pollution ($54 billion). The combination of the latter two items alone costs China the equivalent of 14% of its GDP each year.
Average blood lead levels in Chinese city-dwellers are nearly double the levels considered elsewhere in the world to be dangerously high and to put at risk the mental development of children. About 300,000 deaths per year and $54 billion of health costs are attributed to air pollution.
Because of geographic factors, China's geographic core was unified already in 221 BC and has remained unified for most of the time since then, whereas geograpgically fragmented Europe has never been political unified. That unity enabled China's rulers to command changes over a larger area than any European ruler could ever command — both changes for the better, and changes for the worse, often in rapid alteration (hence "lurching"). The strengths and risks of China's unity have persisted into recent times, as China continues to lurch on major policies affecting its environment and its population. On the one hand, China's leaders have been able to solve problems on a scale scarcely possible for European and American leaders: for instance, by mandating a one-child policy to reduce population growth, and by ending logging nationally in 1998. On the other hand, China's leaders have also succeeded in creating messes on a scale scarcely possible for European and American leaders: for instance, by the chaotic transition of the Great Leap Forward, by dismantling the national educational system in the Cultural Revolution, and by the emerging environmental impacts of three megaprojects.
Why Do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions?]
Perhaps the commonest circumstance under which societies fail to perceive a problem is when it takes the form of a slow trend concealed by wide up-and-down fluctuations. Politicians use the term "creeping normalcy" to refer to such slow trends concealed within noisy fluctuations. If the economy, schools, traffic congestion, or anything else is deteriorating only slowly, it's difficult to recognize that each successive year is on the average slightly worse than the year before, so one's baseline for what constitutes "normalcy" shifts gradually and imperceptibly. It may take a few decades of a long sequence of such slight year-to-year changes before people realize, with a jolt, that conditions used to be much better several decades ago, and that what is accepted as normalcy has crept downwards. Another term related to creeping normalcy is "landscape amnesia": forgetting how different the surrounding landscape looked 50 years ago, because the change from year to year has been so gradual.
I suspect that landscape amnesia provided part of the answer to my UCLA students' question: "What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say as he was doing it?"... Gradually Easter Island's trees became fewer, smaller and less important. At the time that the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, the species had long ago ceased to be of any economic significance. Conversely, the speed with which deforestation spread over Tokugawa Japan made it easier for its shoguns to recognize the landscape changes and the need for preemptive action.
The third stop on the road map of failure is the most frequent and the most surprising... it turns out that societies often fail even to attempt to solve a problem once it has been perceived. Many of the reasons for such failure fall under the heading of what economists term "rational behavior", arising from clashes of interest between people. That is, some people may reason correctly that they can advance their own interests by behavior harmful to other people. The perpetrators feel safe because they are typically concentrated and highly motivated by the prospect of reaping big, certain and immediate profits while the losses are spread over large numbers of individuals. That gives the losers little motivation to go to the hassle of fighting back, because each loser loses only a little. Examples include so-called perverse subsidies: the large sums of money that governments pay to support industries that might be uneconomic without the subsidies, such as many fisheries, sugar-growing in the US and cotton-growing in Australia.
Big Businesses and the Environment]
New Guinea has many bird and mammal species whose presence and abundance are sensitive indicators of human disturbance, because they are either large and hunted for their meat, hunted for their spectacular plumage, or else confined to the interior of undisturbed forests. They include tree kangaroos; cassowaries, hornbills and large pigeons; birds of paradise and Pesquet's Parrot and other colorful parrots; and hundreds of species of the forst interior. When I began bird-watching in the Kutubu area, I anticipated that my main goal would be to determine how much less numerous these species were inside the area of Chevron's oil fields, facilities and pipeline than outside it. Instead, I discovered to my astonishment that these species are much more numerous inside the Chevron area than anywhere else I have visited on the island of New Guinea except for a few remote uninhabited areas.
There is an absolute prohibition against Chevron employees and contractors hunting or fishing by any means in the project area... the birds and animals sense that and become tame. In effect, the Kutubu oil field functions as by far the largest and most rigorously controlled national park in Papua New Guinea.
If Chevron were to
spend money on environmental policies that ultimately decreased its profits
from its oil operations, its shareholders would and should sue it. The
company evidently decided that those policies would ultimately help it
make more money from its oil operations. How do they help?
One factor is the importance of avoiding very expensive environmental disasters. When I asked a Chevron safety representative who happened to be a bird-watcher what had prompted these policies, his short answer was: "Exxon Valdez, Piper Alpha and Bhopal". These were three of the most notorious, best-publicized and most expensive industrial accidents. Each of them cost the company responsible billions of dollars, and the Bhopal accident ultimately cost Union Carbide its existence as an independent company. Chevron and some of the other larger international oil companies realized that by spending each year a few million dollars on a project, they would save money in the long run by minimizing the risk of losing billions of dollars in such an accident. Cleaning up pollution is usually far more expensive than preventing pollution.
As a result of taxpayers' being left to foot (cleanup) bills, there has been a backlash of anti-mining public sentiment in Montana and other states. Since 1995, public opposition in the US has been increasingly successful in blocking mine proposals, and the mining industry can no longer count on lobbyists and friendly legislators to do its bidding. The hardrock mining industry is the prime example of a business whose short-term favoring of its own interests over those of the public proved in the long term self-defeating and have been driving the industry into extinction.
Economic factors that make environmental cleanup costs less bearable to the hardrock mining industry than to the oil industry (or even the coal industry) include lower profit margins, more unpredictable profits, higher cleanup costs, more insidious and long-lasting pollution problems, less ability to pass on those costs to consumers, less capaital with which to absorb those costs, and a different labor force.
Environmental practices of big businesses are shaped by a fundamental fact that for many of us offends our sense of justice. Depending on the circumstances, a business really may maximize its profits, at least in the short term, by damaging the environment and hurting people. When government regulation is effective, and when the public is environmentally aware, environmentally clean big businessed may outcompete dirty ones, but the reverse is likely to be true if government regulation is ineffective and if the public doesn't care.
Our blaming of business ignores the ultimate responsibility of the public for creating the conditions that let a business profit through hurting the public e.g. for not requiring mining companies to clean up, or for continuing to buy wood products from non-sustainable logging operation. In the long run, either directly or through its politicians, it is the public that has the power to make destructive environmental policies unprofitable and illegal, and to make sustainable environmental policies profitable.
Big businesses can exert powerful pressure on their suppliers that might ignore public or government pressure. For instance, after the US public became concerned about the spread of mad cow disease, and after the US government's Food and Drug Administration introduced rules demanding that the meat industry abandon practices associated with the risk of spread, meat packers resisted for five years, claiming that the rules would be too expensive to obey. But when McDonald's Corporation then made the same demands after customer purchases of its hamburgers plummeted, the meat industry complied within weeks: "because we have the world's biggest shopping cart", as a McDonald's representative explained. The public's task is to identify which links in the supply chain are sensitive to public pressure: for instance, McDonald's, Home Depot and Tiffany, but not meat packers, loggers or gold miners.
What Does It All Mean For Us Today?]
People often ask me, "Jared, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the world's future?" I answer, "I'm a cautious optimist." I mean that, on the one hand, I acknowledge the seriousness of the problems facing us. If we don't make a determined effort to solve them, and if we don't succeed at that effort, the world as a whole within the next few decades will face a declining standard of living, or perhaps something worse.
One basis for hope is that, realistically, we are not beset by insoluble problems. While we do face big risks, the most serious ones are not beyond our control, like a possible collision with an asteroid of a size that hits the Earth every hundred million years or the horrific tsunamis that struck in the Indian ocean. Instead, they are ones that we are generating ourselves. 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. The future is up for grabs. We don't need new technologies to solve our problems; while new technologies can make some contribution, for the most part we just need the political will to apply solutions already available. Of course, that's a big "just". But many societies did find the necessary political will in the past. Our modern societies have already found the will to solve some of our problems, and to achieve partial solutions to others.
What are the choices that we must make if we are now to succeed, and not to fail? Two types of choices seem to me to be crucial. One of those choices has depended on the courage to practise long term thinking, and to make bold, courageous, anticipatory decisions at a time when problems have become perceptible but before they have reached crisis proportions. This type of decision making is the opposite of the short term, reactive decision making that too often characterises our elected politicians - "90-day thinking". Set against the many depressing bad examples of such short term decision making are the encouraging examples of courageous long term thinking in the past, and in the contemporary world of NGOs, business and government. Among past societies faced with the prospect of ruinous deforestation, Easter Island and Mangareva chiefs succumbed to their immediate concerns, but Tokugawa shoguns, Inca emperors, New Guinea highlanders and 16th century German landowners adopted a long view and reafforested. China's leaders similarly promoted reafforestation in recent decades and banned logging of native forests in 1998. In business, the American corporations that remain successful (eg Procter & Gamble) don't wait for a crisis before re-examining their policies. Courageous, successful, long term planning also characterises some governments and some leaders, some of the time. Over the last 30 years a sustained effort by the US government has reduced levels of the six main air pollutants nationally by 25%, even while energy consumption and population increased by 40% and vehicle miles driven by 150%.
The other crucial choice illuminated by the past involves the courage to make painful decisions about values. Which of the values that formerly served a society well can continue to be maintained under new changed circumstances? Which of those treasured values must instead be jettisoned and replaced with different approaches?
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 is that enough people will choose to profit from that opportunity to make a difference.
>> The Guardian has an online summary of the last chapter.
BEYOND THE BOOK
[From an ABC Radio interview with Professor Diamond discussing the themes of the book]
"Why did these ancient
civilizations abandon their cities after building them with such great
effort? Why these ancient collapses? This question isn't just a romantic
mystery. It's also a challenging intellectual problem. Why is it that some
societies collapsed while others did not collapse?
But even more, this question is relevant to the environmental problems that we face today; problems such as deforestation, the impending end of the tropical rainforests, over-fishing, soil erosion, soil desalinization, global climate change, full utilization of the world's fresh water supplies, bumping up against the photosynthetic ceiling, exhaustion of energy reserves, accumulation of toxics in water, food and soil, increase of the world's population, and increase of our per capita input. The main problems that threaten our existence over the coming decades. What if anything, can the past teach us about why some societies are more unstable than others, and about how some societies have managed to overcome their environmental problems. Can we extract from the past any useful guidance that will help us in the coming decades?
There's overwhelming recent evidence from archaeology and other disciplines that some of these romantic mystery collapses have been self-inflicted ecological suicides, resulting from inadvertent human impacts on the environment, impacts similar to the impacts causing the problems that we face today. Even though these past societies like the Easter Islanders and Anasazi had far fewer people, and were packing far less potent destructive practices than we do today.
It turns out that these ancient collapses pose a very complicated problem. It's not just that all these societies collapsed, but one can also think of places in the world where societies have gone on for thousands of years without any signs of collapse, such as Japan, Java, Tonga and Tikopea. What is it then that made some societies weaken and other societies robust? It's also a complicated problem because the collapses usually prove to be multi-factorial. This is not an area where we can expect simple answers.
In trying to understand
the collapses of ancient societies, I quickly realized that it's not enough
to look at the inadvertent impact of humans on their environment. It's
usually more complicated. Instead I've arrived at a checklist of five things
that I look at to understand the collapses of societies, and in some cases
all five of these things are operating. Usually several of them are:
The first of these factors is environmental damage, inadvertent damage to the environment through means such as deforestation, soil erosion, desalinization, over-hunting etc.
The second item on the checklist is climate change, such as cooling or increased aridity. People can hammer away at their environment and get away with it as long as the climate is benign, warm, wet, and the people are likely to get in trouble when the climate turns against them, getting colder or drier. So climate change and human environmental impact interact, not surprisingly.
Still a third consideration is that one has to look at a society's relations with hostile neighbors. Most societies have chronic hostile relations with some of their neighbors and societies may succeed in fending off those hostile neighbors for a long time. They're most likely to fail to hold off the hostile neighbors when the society itself gets weakened for environmental or any other reasons, and that's given rise for example, to the long-standing debate about the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Was the conquest by Barbarians really a fundamental cause, or was it just that Barbarians were at the frontiers of the Roman Empire for many centuries? Rome succeeded in holding them off as long as Rome was strong, and then when Rome got weakened by other things, Rome failed, and fell to the Barbarians. And similarly, we know that there were military factors in the fall of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. So relations with hostiles interacts with environmental damage and climate change.
Similarly, relations with friendlies interacts. Almost all societies depend in part upon trade with neighboring friendly societies, and if one of those friendly societies itself runs into environmental problems and collapses for environmental reasons, that collapse may then drag down their trade partners. It's something that interests us today, given that we are dependent for oil upon imports from countries that have some political stability in a fragile environment.
And finally in addition to those four factors on the checklist, one always has to ask about people's cultural response. Why is it that people failed to perceive the problems developing around them, or if they perceived them, why did they fail to solve the problems that would eventually do them in? Why did some peoples perceive and recognize their problems and others not?
I'll give you four examples of these past societies that collapsed. One is Easter Island, I'll discuss it first because Easter is the simplest case we've got, the closest approximation to a collapse resulting purely from human environmental damage. The second case are the collapses of Henderson and Pitcairn Island in the Pacific, which were due to the combination of self-inflicted environmental damage, plus the loss of external trade due to the collapse of a friendly trade partner. Third I'll discuss, closer to home the Anasazi in the US south-west whose collapse was a combination of environmental damage and climate change. And then finally I'll mention the Greenland Norse who ended up all dead because of a combination of all five of these factors.
There are a series
of factors that make people more or less likely to perceive environmental
problems growing up around them. One is misreading previous experience.
The Greenlanders came from Norway where there's a relatively long growing
season, so the Greenlanders didn't realize, based on their previous experience,
how fragile Greenland woodlands were going to be. The Greenlanders had
the difficulty of extracting a trend from noisy fluctuations; yes we now
know that there was a long-term cooling trend, but climate fluctuates wildly
up and down in Greenland from year to year; cold, cold, warm, cold. So
it was difficult for a long time perceive that there was any long-term
trend. That's similar to the problems we have today with recognizing global
warming. It's only within the last few years that even scientists have
been able to convince themselves that there is a global long-term warming
trend. And while scientists are convinced, the evidence is not yet enough
to convince many of our politicians.
Problem No. 3, short time scale of experience. In the Anasazi area, droughts come back every 50 years, in Greenland it gets cold every 500 years or so; those rare events are impossible to perceive for humans with a life span of 40, 50, 70 years. They're perceptible today but we may not internalize them. For example, my friends in the Tucson area. There was a big drought in Tucson about 40 years ago. The city of Tucson almost over-draughted its water aquifers and Tucson went briefly into a period of water conservation, but now Tucson is back to building big developments and golf courses and so Tucson will have trouble with the next drought.
Fourthly the Norse were disadvantaged by inappropriate cultural values. They valued cows too highly just as modern Australians value cows and sheep to a degree appropriate to Scotland but inappropriate to modern Australia. And Australians now are seriously considering whether to abandon sheep farming completely as inappropriate to the Australian environment.
Finally, why would people perceive problems but still not solve their own problems? A theme that emerges from Norse Greenland as well as from other places, is insulation of the decision making elite from the consequences of their actions. That is to say, in societies where the elites do not suffer from the consequences of their decisions, but can insulate themselves, the elite are more likely to pursue their short-term interests, even though that may be bad for the long-term interests of the society, including the children of the elite themselves."
This book shines like
all Diamond's work: compelling without contrivance, readable without raciness,
direct without being dumbed-down. He ranges over vast topics, yet hardly
makes a mistake. He is generous with counsel but rarely makes a misjudgment.
This is a wise book... yet it is also deeply committed.
Four historic examples of societies that caused or contributed to their own undoing fill nearly half the space. In the remote Pacific, Polynesian colonists had to surrender unsustainable ways of life (and even abandon islands) when they exhausted their woodland. The Canyon People of the North American southwest made the same mistake. The lowland Maya succumbed — Diamond thinks, although specialists dispute it — to overpopulation. The Norse in Greenland get three whole chapters: they failed, whereas their Thule Inuit neighbours are still there. Diamond handles his case studies deftly, mastering the literature and arguing that the demise of these societies owed more to bad decision-making than to the intractability of their environments. Yet these peoples all occupied environments that were only marginally capable of sustaining the hugely ambitious civilisations they housed... Moreover, they all suffered from a deadly defect: extreme isolation. Easter Island's colonists rapidly lost contact with the outside world. The Canyon People were in touch with the civilisations of Mesoamerica — but only just, across death-dealing deserts. The Norse were a long way from their bases in Europe, whereas the Thule reached Greenland at the end of a series of colonisations in Arctic America. These societies are remarkable not for their ultimate demise but because they achieved so much and kept going for so long. Like a dog walking on hind legs, one should not expect civilisation in isolation to be well done, but marvel to see it done at all.
Diamond deserves to be heeded. Environmentalists who read him will have their views confirmed. Others, currently neutral, may find their lives changed. But will the planet be saved in consequence? Ecological profligacy is a consequence of the way humans are. We are environment-modifying animals, and the more changes we make, the more we are driven to intervene in the attempt to rectify the consequences. There never has been and never will be a human society "in harmony" with the rest of nature: we always exploit it for what we can get. Eve bit off more than we can chew. And Eden is probably as inaccessible as ever.
- Felipe Fernandez Armesto, from his review in Britain's "Sunday Times"
In his new book, "Collapse",
Jared Diamond attempts to demonstrate through case histories of small micro-climates
from Easter Island and modern Montana to Iceland and Greenland how civilizations
disintegrate: Mishandling of the fragile environment causes wars, famines,
depopulation, and eventual breakdown — and we modern wastrels should learn
from them all before it is too late. Of course, empires can seem to fall
for other reasons, but usually historians fail to see that political and
military causation "masquerades" deeper environmental degradation... but
Diamond fails to see that his "masquerading" works both ways. If we historians
are fooled into thinking environmentally degraded societies lose wars owing
to military ineptness rather than resource depletion, then he is utterly
incapable of seeing that material want is often a mere pretext for national
delusion and aggression. Germany is more populous today on smaller territory
than in 1939, when it advanced the bogus notion of Lebensraum; overcrowded
contemporary Japan, Inc. does fine within its smaller borders without warring
for a Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere.
- Victor Davis Hanson, from his overview of Diamond's work, "National Review"
Also by Professor Diamond: Guns, Germs & Steel and The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee
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