Collapse or Ecocide – which will it be?
Collapse = An end to modern human civilisation as we have known it.
Ecocide = Unintended ecological suicide (mass extinction of all complex life on Earth).
Do we have a third option – Survival?
I have recently started reading Jared Diamond’s 2005 book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed… I know I have been a bit slow but, as recently as 2007, I did not really understand why so many people were protesting outside coal-burning power stations (“All that smoke is just water vapour so what’s the big deal?”). I know it’s shameful; but I am nothing if not honest. Anyway, to get back to Diamond and his book, I have touched on this before; after watching Doomsday 2210? on TV (which is based on the book) and, even though I am only now reading the book, I have long felt that time for modern civilisation to undergo radical voluntary behaviour modification is running out; soon it will be imposed upon us by the force of our changing environment – the writing is very much on the wall.
However, as it is over 500 pages long and is not that new, you will be pleased to know that I am not going to attempt to review the whole thing in a series of blog posts. However, the Introduction to the book does lend itself to being summarised quite well, so that is what appears below; a summary of a summary – “Collapse in a nutshell” so to speak…
In Diamond’s earlier book, Germs, Guns and Steel (1997), he presented the findings of his research into the reasons why different societies grew in complexity and sophistication at different rates. In Collapse, he applies the same individual and comparative analysis to investigating the different reasons why societies have disappeared in the past. He has done this in the hope that modern civilisation might not fail to take heed of George Santayana’s warning that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” …If, as E.F. Schumacher once warned us “we have mistaken nature’s capital for a source of income” – and as Herman Daly put it “we are treating the Earth as if it were a business in liquidation” – why should societal collapse not await us? Furthermore, if we have now broken the Earth’s thermostat, what is now to stop us causing global ecocide?
The answer is you and me: We can and must challenge the enslavement of our politicians to the ongoing misinformation campaign being waged by the fossil fuel lobby; aided and abetted by a cabal of ignorant journalists. To this end, here is a summary of Diamond’s message:
Diamond starts by suggesting that the processes though which past societies have undermined themselves fall into the following categories:
– environmental ignorance (deforestation and habitat destruction);
– soil degradation (erosion, salinization, and nutrient depletion);
– water management problems (water pollution and over-abstraction);
– over-consumption of resources (over-fishing and over-hunting);
– ecological interference (introduction of non-native species);
– over-population (too many people trying to live off available land); and
– individual behaviour (excessive per capita impact).
– environmental damage (as above);
– climate change (natural);
– hostile neighbours (war);
– trading partners (who turn nasty); and
– societal responses (to all the above).
Diamond acknowledges that no society has ever collapsed as a consequence of environmental problems or natural climate change alone, but cautions that the following are decisive:
– the fragility or resilience of the environment;
– the extent to which the humans first degrade their environment;
– the human response to adversity often involves warfare; and
– formerly friendly neighbour can become hostile!
Thus, societal responses become fundamentally important; and depend upon political, economic, and social institutions; and on cultural values. With regard to potential individual and societal responses, Diamond suggests that to say people can be either pro- or anti-environmentalist is too simplistic. He prefers pro-environmentalists (who see problems as in need or urgent resolution) and non-environmentalists (i.e. problems are exaggerated and concern unwarranted). However, even then, Diamond sees this as a potential over-simplification because:
– many people who are pro-business would object to being called non-environmentalists;
– many pro-environmental arguments are not anti-business; and
– pro-environmentalists must engage with business and get it on-side in order to succeed.
Based on all of the above, Diamond then goes to examine and/or explain reasons for success or failure:
– Current problems – Detailed assessment of the complex problems faced where most might think there are none (Montana, USA);
– Past Failures – Easter Islanders, Pitcairn Islanders, the Anasazi, the Maya, and a detailed assessment for the failure of Norse settlement in Greenland (whilst the Inuit have survived);
– Past successes – New Guinea, Tikopia, Tokugawa and Japan.
– Modern differences – Rwanda (failure), Dominican Republic/Haiti (struggling), China (a growing problem), Australia (successful).
Diamond then concludes his book with:
– Questions for all of us;
– Questions for business; and
– A summary of the real environmental problems we must now deal with.
Basically, pretending we do not have a problem is not a good idea!
I know I implied this would be a one-off but, I think Diamond’s questions (page 23) deserve more attention (tomorrow).