Thursday, January 13, 2005


I just got back from the Jared Diamond talk on his new book "Collapse." I thought showing up at the Lisner Auditorium with fifteen minutes to spare would be plenty, but arrived to find a scene that looked like the opening night of the new Star Wars movie. The line of ruffled academics stretched all the way around the block, and they looked like they were getting ready to start up a barter economy in New Yorkers, Odwallada juice and granola bars. I ran into the preternaturally affectionate Mansir and his friend Joanna, whom I'd last seen at a Quaker house party, juggling flaming torches. "This guy is like a nerd rock star!" Mansir said, giving me a huge hug.

As I filed into my birds-eye-view seat in Lisner, I said a brief prayer of thanks that my nose generally only bleeds for reasons of psychosomatism, not altitude.

I'll summarize Jared Diamond's speech for those of you who don't ever intend to read his book.

He said that he'd been fascinated by the glamorous mystery of human groups that collapsed and perished ever since he was a teenager: Atlantis, the Maya, Easter Island, the Spice Girls. Now that he was a famous academic, he had a chance to indulge his interest, and travel around studying societies throughout history, and modern times, that collapsed - or else that succeeded and overcame their problems, for some societies do manage to do this, although the price is sometimes prohibitive ( Rwanda's population pressures and environmental degradation, for example, were relieved through the grisly means of a civil war that killed six million people.)

A major theme of his book is environmental management, and he was sometimes lucky enough to come across perfect control studies. The Caribbean island of Hispaniola, for example, is divided down the middle with Haiti to the west and the Dominican Republic to the east. The western side is brown and deforested, while the Dominican Republic has maintained 30% of its forest coverage; thus when hurricanes recently struck the island, the Haitian side was devastated by mudslides on their eroded land, while the DR escaped mostly unscathed. (Sample Dominican Republic newspaper headline: "Nah nah nah, nah nah nah!")

During the course of his research, Jared said, he decided to analyze all the various societies and their failures through the lens of five key lessons:
1. Human environmental impacts (Seen in its purest form in the deforestation of Easter Island in Polynesia, eventually leading to that society's demise)
2. Climate change (which has happened in the past, often in the form of droughts)
3. Attacks by enemies (for example the barbarians which overran Rome, although it's debatable whether enemies only ever take advantage of a society's inherent internal collapse)
4. The failures of friends (the economic collapse of a trading partner you depend on, for example, such as another Polynesian island, Pittehendeson, which depended on raw materials from another island which wiped itself out through deforestation)
5. And finally, how a society chooses to respond and reorganize itself in response to these four types of problems.

He gave a brief review of some of history's more spectacular failures. Easter Island has always been a favorite case study in environmental degradation, since it's so isolated and had no friends or enemies to complicate the picture. Before humans arrived, the island was covered in subtropical forest, including some of the world's biggest palm trees. The Islanders chopped trees down for many reasons: building boats to hunt fish, clearing space for gardens, making tools like levers and carts to transport the stones for their sculptures, and a pro-active bid for making the Guinness Book of World Record's for "History's Largest Toothpick." And then one day there weren't any trees left. Without the boats that allowed them to fish, the Islanders then quickly exterminated all of the large land creatures on their island. When those were gone, they ate each other.*

The Norse in Greenland were a European Christian settlement that arrived around 450AD and died out around 1400AD. Their demise was a more complicated mixture of Jared's five factors, but he believes one of their most important mistakes was to cling stubbornly to their old Christian values, so that they refused to learn survival techniques like ice-fishing from their neighbors, the Inuits. And eventually the Inuits overran and destroyed them.

Yet there are also success stories, Jared said: not just of societies that remained remarkably stable over thousands of years, as in Iceland and China, but of societies that faced potentially cataclysmic environmental threats, and managed to respond to them in time. For example, in Japan when the Shoguns came to power, the age of peace and prosperity led to deforestation, as rulers built themselves monumental wood palaces, and a growing economy made the cities boom. And since the Shoguns pursued a deliberate policy of isolationism, they couldn't trade with anyone for more wood. So they introduced various timber conservation schemes, controlling architectural styles to be less wasteful, and also paid scientists to develop various scientific forestry techniques in the 1600s (the invention of which is usually credited to the Europeans.) As a result, Japan was self-sufficient in wood until it began trading with the West in the 1850s.

A more recent (if limited) example, he claimed, is the management of new oil-fields developed by Western oil companies. He said he had been extremely skeptical on this point, but visited a site run by Chevron-Texaco which was managed better than the national parks run by the government, with populations of endangered plants and animals that were flourishing. (This comment seem to provoke some audience indignation, and Jared had a few questions on this point.)

Jared said that he could boil down his analysis of all these different societies into three "deep" lessons:

1. You've got to take environmental and population problems very seriously
2. The blueprint for failure is a political elite insulated from the results of their decisions, such as the Mayan leadership, ensconced in their palaces (much bitter audience laughter at this point, and catcalls of "George W Bush!") Jared said he often spent time in LA, and was struck by the continuing spread of gated communities, full of people who managed to isolate themselves from the wider community's police, schooling, and general economic systems.
3. Societies that overcame their challenges were those that showed a willingness to change their core values that had been a source of strength in the past.

For the U.S., Jared thought, the most important core values that would have to change included the sense of independence and isolation, and the sense of plenty, of unlimited resources. While those values have been quite useful for the States in the past - fueling enthusiastic growth - they are unsustainable in a world that simply cannot afford for every one of its 6 billion inhabitants to enjoy a developed world living standard.

After the speech, audience members were invited to ask questions. Joanna noticed that there were absolutely no women in any of the three long lines at different microphones, so she nudged me indignantly: "Ask a question about the relationship between a society's gender equity and its environmental sensitivity! And you should ask those men if you can cut in line, since there aren't any other women asking questions!"

Unlike my cute li'l roommate, I generally don't instinctively look at situations through a feminist lens, and I hadn't noticed the all-male lines - but I was game for her suggestion, more in a performance-art sort of way than out of true sincerity, I have to admit.** When I asked, one of the men standing in line glared at me with vituperative hatred. "All I've got to say," he said, his voice quivering with rage, "is, why didn't you come down in the first place?" It was so interesting how upset he was, because I was very polite when I asked the question.

So I never got to find out what Jared thinks about gender inequality and environmental conservation. But I thought one of the best questions was when someone asked about a society's perception of time and its ability to manage disasters - particularly those which descended with very few warning signs.

What did I think of the presentation? Well, I agree with most of it, and I think it's great that so many people showed up and were willing to pay $15 and seemed so enthusiastic. But while with "Guns, Germs, and Steel" I felt as though he smashed all my paradigms for how to think about the grand sweep of human history, this book seemed like Jared was basically stuffing a lot of conventional wisdom into a well-written package. "We've got to take our environmental problems very seriously." Oh really, Jared?

But then again, the deepest and most profound concepts - like ahimsa and tapas - are not novel or hard to explain, but they're very very hard to implement, especially if you're dealing with momentum. And our society probably needs all the wakeup calls it can get. After the lecture, Mansir, Joanna and I went for some pho, and as we were waiting to cross K St, still chatting about human societies and their abilities to avoid disasters, an oncoming car smashed into another car that was making a bad left turn. One of the cars skidded at Mansir and me with an ugly screech, and it was all so fast that even though I was watching every detail of the whole thing happen, I couldn't even move, and neither could Mansir. We just stood there like deers in headlights, and with its brakes smoking, the wrecked car shuddered stop a few feet away from us. Only then - after it was all over - did Mansir grab me and pull me away.

"Oh my god," he said. "That just happened so fast. I couldn't even figure out how to react. I thought we'd had it."

I guess it's not that anybody wants their society to collapse. It's just a question of figuring out that you have a problem, and responding to it, before it runs you over. Unfortunately, unlike my K St. car, I don't think Nature has brakes.


*The book was originally taught as a Berkeley undergraduate course, and Jared said he got the most student questions on this subject: "Why the hell didn't they see it coming? What on earth was the Easter Islander who cut down the very last palm tree thinking?" He said that these types of questions led him to digress into a long chapter on the failures of group decision making, including landscape amnesia, creeping change, conflicts of interest, and the tragedy of the commons.

**I don't think I myself have ever been held back by my gender, I've never felt like I couldn't do whatever I wanted to, and the few times I've been sexually harassed, it's inspired emotions of pity for the abject lameness of my harassers, rather than internal feelings of opression. So I just don't have the fire in the belly necessary for feminist activism, even though intellectually I know it's still very necessary in the world.


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