Archive for the ‘Jared Diamond’ Category
I have been using this analogy a lot recently. This is because, as I explained to potentially-baffled readers on Learning from Dogs recently, I am using it to summarise the essence of the final part in Schalk’s recent series on the unfolding collapse of the global economy: That the people with the power will not relinquish it voluntarily and, in the meantime, they have our politicians completely fixated on burning fossil fuels simply because “they are there”…
This may be a legitimate reason to climb mountains; but it is no way to manage a planet.
I summarised all of the above in my previous two posts but, once again, with my thanks to Schalk Cloete (Oneinabillion blog), let me re-state the potential solutions and the obstacles we face, as simply as possible:
The potential solutions (see Schalk’s Heal the System):
– Minimise our wasteful consumption of non-renewable resources and energy.
– Eliminate business and economic practices that encourage over-consumption.
– Live within our means and start paying-off our currently mortgaged future.
– Educate women in poor countries to eliminate excessive population growth.
The obstacles to implementation (see Schalk’s Practical Challenges):
– Convince hundreds of millions of people that consuming things will not make them happy.
– Invest in things that benefit society (not those who are already wealthy).
– Spend less than we earn and save the rest (not spend more and borrow the difference).
– Acknowledge the needs of future generations (not just assert our rights to please ourselves).
With my thanks to Pendantry, one of the most faithful visitors to this blog, I have become aware that the day on which our annual consumption of the Earth’s resources exceeded its annual supply, Earth Overshoot Day, was 22 August this year. I find this particularly shocking because Earth Overshoot Day was 27 September last year. That is 36 days earlier (86% of the time it took last year). I am not sure how such a large change since last year can be possible (it is certainly not sustainable) but even if the goalposts have been moved in some way, we certainly should not be complacent.
Use it up and wear it out is OK when cleaning your teeth; but it’s no way to manage a planet.
With my thanks to JPGreenword, another faithful friend of this site, I offer these very prescient words of wisdom from one of the greatest scientists that the World has ever known:
“The world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation.” – Albert Einstein
Finally, I must return to something else Schalk has written, this time as a guest post on Learning from Dogs, where he says that we must… “motivate people to take action by strongly emphasizing on the immediate personal benefits of making these lifestyle changes…”
It is often said that charity begins at home but, so to, it seems, will revolution. However, the revolution we now need is not merely political – it is psychological and metaphysical. To be sure, political revolution has been tried; and it has always failed. Therefore, what humans need now is a revolution of the mind; such that we may all perceive what we are doing to this planet and – in addition to living within our own individual means – live within the our planetary means.
I’m spending my kids’ inheritance is OK as a car sticker; but it’s no way to manage a planet.
I think the solution therefore lies in getting our politicians to look beyond the ballot box – to see the World that we are currently bequeathing to our children – and if that requires widespread civil disobedience, so be it. We may think we live in a democracy, where government of the people, by the people, for the people, has been a longstanding benefit. Sadly, however, if it was ever a reality, it is now a cruel myth because, in almost every case, what we are suffering from at present is government of the people, by the politicians, for the plutocrats.
I believe we can get the turkeys to vote for Christmas.
However, nothing worthwhile has ever been achieved without a struggle. Therefore, in order to do this, we must break the stranglehold that big business has upon our politicians. Sadly, this is an almost impossible task but, if anything can precipitate it, I am certain that the realisation that we face an impending ecological catastrophe can do it. The alternative, of course, is that which Jared Diamond has described in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, in that governments spend more and more money ensuring their own survival rather than tackling the cause of their growing instability.
I really do hope we can avoid that scenario but, if we are to do so – if we are to get our political turkeys to vote for a carbon-free Christmas – we will have to convince them we must all become “vegetarians”; and invite them to join us as we celebrate with the nutloaf of renewable energy instead of the meat of fossil fuels.
Some young boys are infatuated with their teachers (of either gender). However, thanks to the influence of a slightly older friend, I was totally sold-out on the classic British prog-rock band YES…
Their albums were all brilliant (or so at least I thought at the time); as was the artwork produced by Roger Dean. At one time, I almost had a complete collection of them: I think my favourite was Fragile – for both its music and its artwork. In fact, wow, this is somewhat disconcerting, could it be that this is where my almost subconscious concern for the environment originally came from…?
I still don’t know what Close to the Edge was all about lyrically or, indeed, if it was about anything in particular; but the incorporation and/or electronic generation of sound-effects (like dripping water) in the recording was truly ground-breaking. It is perhaps time, then, for a trip down memory lane…
As you ponder the transient nature – and possibly perilous position – of our existence on planet Earth, I hope you will therefore enjoy this amazing juxtaposition of a live performance of part of Close to the Edge with awesome helicopter video footage of Angel Falls in Venezuela; the Grand Canyon; the Serengeti and Victoria Falls in Africa…
Will all those who are inclined to indulge in blame-shifting arguments please note that I do not own a video camera; I have never been in a helicopter; and I have never flown to or over the locations featured in this video.
Update (16 August 2012): For a better appreciation of YES’ artistic merit watch this:
I must thank fellow-blogger Paul Handover for alerting me to – and not posting on his own Learning from Dogs blog – the strange and disturbing real-life story of a man in Oregon who has been sent to jail for a month for collecting rain that fell on his property. When Paul first emailed me about this, I must admit my initial response was one of astonishment. “Whatever next”, I said, “will someone be arrested for sunbathing?”
However, when you read the background to the story, it turns out that the man has been sent to jail as a result of legal action started ten years ago by the Medford Water Commission (MWC), who have argued (successfully it would appear) that the rain falling from the sky within their catchment area belongs to them. Their case rested upon the wording of a State law (dating from 1925) that granted to the MWC full ownership of – and rights to – the water. This makes me wonder whether similar laws have been enacted in other States of the USA but, since I live in the UK, I will leave that to others to investigate…
This may seem ridiculous and insane; and to be even more absurd than people arguing about who owns the land – as Crocodile Dundee (the alter-ego of Australian comedian Paul Hogan) famously equated to being “like fleas arguing about who owns the dog…” However, I think it raises some very important questions.
In rural parts of the USA, it is my understanding that, as the land was settled by early pioneers they were granted ownership of land and the groundwater beneath it on a first-come, first-served basis. In his book, Collapse, Jared Diamond painted a very vivid picture of how this policy has run into trouble in the beautiful Bitterroot Valley area of southwest Montana: As it becomes increasingly over-populated there is – quite simply – not enough water to go around. However, I was not aware that government agencies at City, County, State or Federal level might be able to claim prior ownership of atmospheric water vapour before it actually falls to Earth because they need it to suppress fires. It may well be that the City of Medford is unique (or at least very unusual) but what of the important questions this raises…? Well, perhaps the situation in the UK will make these clearer:
Rightly or wrongly, Margaret Thatcher privatised the business of water supply and drainage back in the 1980’s. Prior to that Water Authorities were public institutions. However, whether they were publicly-owned or – as now – private enterprises, the fact remains that the vast majority of UK citizens do not have access to a private water supply (i.e. stream, spring, well, or borehole) – they rely on it being supplied to them. Furthermore, most abstractions from either surface or groundwater for domestic purposes are exempt from licensing (although it is likely this will change in the future as over-licensed and/or over-abstracted resources become more common).
Therefore, if citizens expect their water supply to be provided to them, it is understandable that the relevant water authority will seek to protect its ability to collect rainfall or groundwater and, if so, for others to collect it would indeed become a form of poaching.
It seems to me that this story plays into the hands of those libertarians and climate sceptics who want us all to worry about an over-bearing State (i.e. an autocratic government that seeks to control every aspect of our lives and limit our freedom)… or a dangerous and exploitative monopoly making huge profits out of selling people things that are essential for life (i.e. what will be next – sunshine and clean air?)…
However, if libertarians were to win every argument, Garret Hardin’s ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ outcome would be guaranteed. Hardin used the analogy of medieval commons owned by nobody but used to graze animals by everybody. In such a situation, Hardin suggested, each individual seeking to maximise their own benefit will place more and more animals on the commons unless or until it becomes over-grazed and useless. However, the best modern day analogy would be fish in the sea: No-one owns them but if we over-fish them, they will disappear… After over half a century, the European Union (EU) has still to resolve this problem: It tried to claim common ownership of the seas – and make fishing a common market but it has spent much of the last 50 years rolling-back on this principle. As such, we have ended-up with the absurdity of the EU dictating who can fish where and when and for how long; with quotas for individual boats; and dead fish being thrown back into the sea.
So then, the Oregon man has in effect been jailed for poaching. You could see this as a very dangerous precedent to set or… You could argue that the only alternative is no centralised provision of forest fire-fighting or water supply; because this will not be possible if everyone decides to catch and use all the rain that falls on their property.
As I said many months ago now:
When you live in a wilderness, it is probably safe to treat a passing river as your source of drinking water, washing room, and toilet. However, if you are unfortunate enough to live in a Mumbai slum, this will almost certainly contribute to causing your premature death.
If we ever did, most of us do not live in a wilderness any longer; and, given that an environment’s capacity to support life determines how many people it can support, even one person in a desert could make it over-populated. Therefore:
When the early European settlers of North America began to move west in search of new lands and new opportunities, a Frontier mentality was understandable. However, to retain such an attitude today is socially unacceptable and morally irresponsible.
Humanity today has a choice: We must either recognise that there are ecological limits to the number of humans the Earth can physically cope with (especially if we are all going to live comfortably); or we will have those limits imposed on us by force: Collapse or Ecocide – which will it be?…
Or do we have a third choice – survival? I hope the jury is still out on that one.
Over the last two days, I have explained why I am not a Socialist (despite dabbling with it in the past); and why I have lost my faith in Capitalism (despite being unavoidably enmeshed in it to this day)… So, what is the answer? Is there a “Third Way”…?
Yes, I think there is and, in what follows, I will attempt to explain what I mean. However, first of all; a few words addressed specifically to recent subscribers: Even if I do not thank you all individually – or follow all your blogs – I am extremely grateful to all those who choose to follow this blog (i.e. newcomers arrive almost daily). It has occurred to me that, to some long-standing followers, this blog may at times be repetitive; whereas to others it may seem that I often assume the reader understands the whole backstory (i.e. has read everything I have ever written). If you identify with either statement, then I can only apologise. However, because my last two posts seem to demand it, I am going to risk repeating myself, or rather, repeating the words of the late Petra Kelly, the inspirational young leader of the Green Party in Germany in the 1980s:
Greens are neither left nor right; they are out in front!
Last September, I posted (in 3 parts) one of the many 5000-word essays (i.e. written assignments) that I had to do for my MA in Environmental Politics, which addressed the question: “Can modernisation ever be ecological?” Although a play on words (i.e. within the sphere of environmental politics ‘Ecological Modernisation’ is a concept similar to sustainable development), the essay essentially addresses the question as to whether environmental degradation can and will ever be decoupled from economic development.
That essay was written, at the very end of 2010, from an institutional perspective (i.e. what would we have to do to achieve the laudable aim and how might go about it). However, a few months later, I had to write another essay, this time from a purely philosophical perspective, which addressed the question implied by Petra Kelly’s statement, namely: “Can, should, and/or does environmental politics transcend the left versus right political divide?” I was tempted to post this essay in 3 parts as well but, so as not to frustrate established readers, have decided not to. However, I suspect that, somewhere or other, I will have said it all before. Nevertheless, for the benefit of those who definitely haven’t “heard it all before”, you may wish to take a look at any of the following (if you have not already done so):
The ecological challenge for conservatism (13 October 2011) (followed by posts on liberalism and socialism).
Green politics in a nutshell (21 January 2012)
Green philosophy in a nutloaf (23 January 2012)
Living on the edge of an environmental breakdown (24 January 2012)
Apart from that, I would just like to repeat a few of the key things I feel I learned from doing the research for both the essays referred to above. I believe these go to the heart of our modern dilemma; and point the way to how we may yet resolve it:
Three kinds of value (Neil Carter in The Politics of the Environment )
– Instrumental value: That which something has for someone as a means to an end (e.g. money [also known as utility or exchange value]).
– Inherent value: That which something has because it is considered desirable (e.g. precious metals such as silver, gold and platinum).
– Intrinsic value: That which something has because of what it is – typically essential for the existence of life (e.g. sunlight, clean air, and clean water).
A green theory of value (Robert Goodin in Green Political Theory )
– Capitalists are focussed upon the inherent value of things they consume.
– Marxists are focussed on the instrumental value of the things they produce.
– Greens should be focussed on the value of nature itself – whether inherent or intrinsic.
Goodin, however, chose not to pursue this (as does Carter) to suggest that the intrinsic value of nature is not contingent on our being here to value it!
Five ways to value nature (Robyn Eckersley in Environmentalism and Political Theory )
Eckersley proposed that our attitude to nature must lie somewhere on a spectrum between strongly anthropocentric to strongly ecocentric, and suggested 5 main possibilities:
1. Resource conservation – the wise use of natural resources for human benefit: Eckersley suggests that the conservation movement was founded upon the Judeao-Christian notion of humans having “dominion” over the Earth; rather than any duty of “stewardship” towards it, as exemplified by Gifford Pinchot (the first chief of the US Forest Service).
2. Human welfare ecology – an appeal to enlightened self-interest: Eckersley cites Barry Commoner’s “four laws of ecology” as (1) everything is connected to everything else; (2) everything must go somewhere; (3) nature knows best; and (4) there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
3. Preservationism – seeking the aesthetic preservation of wilderness areas: Whereas Gifford Pinchot wanted to preserve nature for development (i.e. maximise the utility of natural resources for human benefit), John Muir (of the Sierra Club) wanted to preserve nature from development (i.e. minimise the human impact on the natural environment).
4. Animal liberationism – the prevention of cruelty to certain animals: A comparatively modern, radical, development; which can trace its heritage back to “humane” societies formed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals (RSPCA).
5. Ecocentrism – seeking the preservation of nature for its own sake (also known as Biocentric Egalitarianism, Ecologism, or Deep Ecology).
Nothing in life is simple (Martin Lack in Lack of Environment …!)
When I was at University I was very tempted to set up a Vegetable Rights Society. I was therefore not surprised to find out nearly 25 years later that even people like the late Arne Naess conceded that, since food is an essential requirement for life, an entirely egalitarian attitude towards nature is untenable… As Neil Carter has more recently put it:
“Certainly, any principle along the lines of biocentric egalitarianism would be impossible to implement. Taking it to the extreme, how could a human justify killing any animal of fish, or consuming a vegetable, bean or berry? All involve some restraint on another entity’s capacity to live and flourish.”
As nice as it would be for there to be a simple answer to all this stuff, there isn’t. In all of the above, I have not even mentioned humanity’s Optimism Bias (i.e. a tendency to remain optimistic when presented with evidence that it is unwarranted); and I have not mentioned the two alternative sources for that “faith in the future”, namely nature’s bounty (i.e. Cornucopianism) and human ingenuity (i.e. Prometheanism – a.k.a. “technological optimism”). But, either way, the basic problem is that, despite all the good things it gave rise to, the fallacy of the Age of Enlightenment was to think that humanity is superior to – and detached from – nature; whereas in reality we are not superior to nature – we are part of it. We cannot impact nature without impacting ourselves. If we do not protect our environment; we will ultimately destroy it and, in so doing, we will destroy ourselves. This is what the history of past human civilisations tells us.
More relevant posts you may like to read (if you have not done so before):
All things are connected… (12 January 2012)
All things are still connected (17 January 2012)
Collapse or ecocide – which will it be (14 February 2012)
Jared Diamond’s warning from history (15 February 2012).
Where is a Messiah when you really need one?
The USA may not be the World’s sole super power – or at least not to the extent it once was – but we nevertheless need it to be on board and pulling in the right direction. Unfortunately, even with Barrack Obama in the White House these last four years, this is quite clearly not what the USA has been doing.
With regard to climate change, a ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ outcome is almost guaranteed because, as Garrett Hardin once incisively observed, “Ruin is the destination to which all men rush, each pursuing his own interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons”. However, I do not think that this is reason alone to give up on trying to avoid it.
All around us today, we can see emerging signs of the reality of Limits to Growth phenomena: We were warned about this over 40 years ago but, almost since such warnings were first uttered, they have been variously dismissed as anti-progress, anti-Western or anti-human. Unfortunately, history has proven them to be only one thing; and that is anti-sceptic.
Whether it be the abstraction of groundwater or the fishing of our oceans; and/or the pollution of our groundwater, rivers, oceans or atmosphere; things that once seemed to be OK are now a problem simply because of the scale and/or rate at which they are being undertaken: Anthropogenic Climate Disruption (ACD) is not just a physically-inevitable consequence of the Laws of Physics (belief in which is not optional), nor just the consequence of physics we have understood well for over 150 years and observed for at least 50 years. ACD is the most obvious evidence of the reality of Limits to Growth that we will ever have.
ACD has become our greatest problem simply because of our refusal to acknowledge its reality; and because we seem incapable of preventing perpetual growth in the rate at which we allow it to impact the Planet: It did not matter a great deal when there were only 1 billion humans chopping down trees to make charcoal. However, when there are at over 7 billion humans chopping down trees and burning them to clear forests to feed people whose existence seems predicated on the burning of fossil fuels, this is a very big deal indeed.
Scale of operation and rate of pollution is everything; and we are currently doing these things at faster rates than those with which the biosphere can clearly cope: In other words, Homo sapiens has now exceeding the Earth’s ecological carrying capacity for it as a species. Either we must modify our behaviour or nature will modify it for us (or us for it?).
There is no Messiah waiting to save us. We must save ourselves (or Nature is likely to deploy some very unpleasant pest control measures against us). If we are to do this, we need everyone to be on board and playing by the same rules. In this respect, the USA is not the only “problem-child in the nursery”; problematic States are almost ubiquitous: Afghanistan, Brazil, Canada… [some time later]… Venezuela, USA, Western Sahara, Xanadu(?), (the former) Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia, and Zimbabwe…
Whoever we are and wherever we are, there are a number of things we cannot afford to do any longer: These include (1) blame the problem on someone else; (2) wait for someone else to take action first; (3) and/or complain that unilateral action is futile… If we wish to avoid overshoot, collapse and/or ecocide, it is now time for aggressive, brave, collective, and decisive action by any and all who understand the nature, scale and urgency of the need to act. Given the additional evidence of the reality of the existential threat we face literally pouring in every day, we can and must hope that the more recalcitrant elements of our species will soon either admit their error and/or be shamed into joining the Anthropocene fight for survival in which we are now engaged.
Welcome to Belshazzar’s Feast: I am afraid your place was reserved for you many years ago. Although attendance is mandatory, over-indulgence should definitely be considered optional.
I have come the very long way around to being concerned about anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD). As a teenager I became interested in geography, then geomorphology, and finally geology. Having tried my hand at that for a few years, I went into hydrogeology; but the goal of helping poor people somehow escaped me. Now, however, I believe I have found my niche.
This is because if we don’t try to stop it, ACD will impact (actually it is already impacting) people in poor countries the hardest: As Adam Corner pointed out in the New Scientist magazine a year ago people in poor countries have no time for climate change scepticism. It is therefore the asymmetric nature of our ACD problem that drives me: Those who bear the greatest responsibility for having caused the problem are not the first to suffer; whereas those who bear the least responsibility for it (so far) are those that will suffer the longest and the greatest. Therefore, despite the fact that we are in the middle of a global debt crisis, investment in ACD mitigation must be seen as just that; an investment. However, enough context; what about Antarctica…?
I am grateful to Paul Handover – over at the excellent, multi-faceted and excessively popular Learning from Dogs blog – for prompting the train of thought that has led to this post. A few days ago, Paul posted an item about a new mining proposal at Pebble Bay in Alaska, which somehow got be thinking about mining in wilderness areas in general; and Antarctica in particular.
This is an important issue to me because, as much as I enjoyed my experience working at the Mt Whaleback iron ore mine in Newman WA (1986-89), it left me feeling deeply conflicted about the way we humans are raping and pillaging the planet. However, it was not until last year that I read E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: A study of economics as if people mattered;(1973) and was literally bowled over by this quote: “we have mistaken nature’s capital for a source of income”.
Former mining consultant, Jared Diamond (i.e. the author of Collapse: How Societies choose to fail or succeed), is similarly conflicted and, although he has done a great deal to encourage mining companies to embrace environmental responsibility, he ultimately concedes that mining companies are not charities and, in many cases began working sites decades ago when legal requirements for site reclamation and/or restoration did not exist. Therefore they did not plan for it; and thus they will often do just about anything to abdicate responsibility for it.
Clearly then, it would be best if all mining were to stop in wilderness areas (especially highly polluting practices such as the cyanide heap leaching process used to extract minute amounts of gold from very poor quality ores. Not only is this highly polluting of the environment, the ore grade is so low that enormous volumes of material have to be dug up to extract enough gold for even one ingot.
Unfortunately, all mining is not going to stop today, tomorrow, or ever. One good thing though, the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) should prevent it being raped for the mineral resources that undoubtedly lie beneath the ice cap. I say“undoubtedly” because Antarctica was once geologically contiguous with Australia, South Africa and South America. Therefore, it will have all the same mineral deposits (see my blog back in October)… For those that are not familiar with it, the ATS was a product of the Cold War and suspended all sovereignty claims to the continent. As such, it’s primary objectives were to keep Antarctica as a demilitarised area and a nuclear-free zone. Then, one-by-one a series of protocols were added to the ATS to protect various species; the environment was very much an after-thought. Then, in 1989, after 18 years of negotiation the Parties to the ATS very nearly ratified the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctica Mineral Resources (CRAMRA) but fortunately did not (because it would not have banned anything): CRAMRA was torn-up and replaced a few years later with the Madrid Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty was ratified instead. However, even this only guarantees Antarctica will not be touched for about 35 more years (and it could be torn up at any time if any party chooses to dissent from the moratorium).
Given Hillary Clinton’s willingness to indulge in deeply disingenuous stunts as she did in Greenland last summer; trying to dress-up raping and pillaging the Arctic as conservation (almost as hypocritical as Richard Lindzen – apparently), the time for America to agree not to trash the wilderness in its own backyard is now. Rather than allowing Environmental Protection legislation to be weakened, rolled-back, or repealed; we need to demand that it maintained where it is now strong; strengthened in countries where it is now deficient; and enacted where it is now absent (i.e. in the Arctic). Although I have not done much with it (I have been focussing on this blog), it was thanks to Hillary Clinton’s antics in Greenland – and inspired by Greenpeace – that I set up my Stop Oil Exploration in the Arctic page on Facebook. I also blogged about this back in October too.
So what should be done:
1. All mining in the High Arctic and/or wilderness areas should be banned.
2. The ATS needs to be strengthened to ensure Antarctica is never exploited.
(Well, at least until all the ice is gone and the penguins are dead.)
3. Failing to recycle metals should be made a criminal offence!
I know this sounds extreme – and plays into the hands of those who claim environmentalists just want to oppress people but – what is the alternative? I’ll tell you what the alternative is… we continue to rape the planet; treat the environment with contempt; and pursue perpetual growth as if it is – or ever could be – the answer to all our problems. This is an insane fantasy! Indeed, as I suggested to readers of the Geological Society’s monthly Geoscientist magazine recently – growth is our ultimate problem!
However, for the record, in addition to being a Conservative voter, I am not anti progress (N.B. you may need to read to the end of this linked-artcle (i.e. one of my earliest on here) to see the relevance but I believe it will be worth it – especially if you think you are a “sceptic”!), but I am anti-mining in pristine wilderness and/or in a reckless fashion; unless all necessary safeguards are placed on operators (i.e. Bonds designed to provide funding for clean-up if mining company goes bankrupt). With regard to existing mines, some way must be found to stop companies filing for bankruptcy protection in order to walk away and let the Government pick up the bill (i.e. because the costs were unexpected). For new mines, clean-up costs should be factored-in at the start; if the mine can’t make a profit after allowing for them then it should not be started. It really do think it is as simple as that.
Yesterday, I attempted to summarise Jared Diamond’s 500-page book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005). However, having done that, I decided that his own summary of his conclusions warranted specific attention. This is because, despite being very widely acclaimed at the time of its publication, very few of our politicians seem to have taken on board the warning to humanity that I think the book represents: The people with the real power to affect change are still living in denial of the reality and urgency of the problems we face. This situation will not change unless we all demand that it does.
Therefore, in the hope that it will encourage all to take control of their own destiny – to take advantage of living in a democratic country where individuals have the right to lobby their representatives and/or actively participate in that democratic process – I reproduce here a transcript of the final page of the Introduction to Diamond’s book (any added emphasis being mine only):
This book’s concluding section (Part Four) extracts practical lessons for us today. Chapter 14 asks the perplexing question arising from every past society that ended up destroying itself, and that will perplex future earthlings if we too end up destroying ourselves: How could a society fail to have seen the dangers that seem so clear to us in retrospect? Can we say that their end was the inhabitants’ own fault, or that they were instead tragic victims of insoluble problems? How much past environmental damage was unintentional and imperceptible, and how much was perversely wrought by people acting in full awareness of the consequences? For instance, what were the Easter Islanders saying as they cut down the last tree on their island? It turns out that group decision-making can be undone by a whole series of factors, beginning with the failure to anticipate or perceive a problem, and proceeding through conflicts of interest that lead some members of the group to pursue goals good for themselves but bad for the rest of the group.
Chapter 15 considers the role of modern businesses; some of which are among the most environmentally-destructive forces today, while others provide some of the most effective environmental protection. We shall examine why some (but only some) businesses find it in their interests to be protective, and what changes would be necessary before other businesses would find it in their interests to emulate them.
Finally, Chapter 16 summarizes the types of environmental dangers facing the modern world, the commonest objections raised against claims of their seriousness, and the differences between environmental dangers today and those faced by past societies. A major difference has to do with globalization, which lies at the heart of the strongest reasons for both pessimism and or optimism about our ability to solve our current environmental problems. Globalization makes it impossible for modern societies to collapse in isolation, as did Easter Island and the Greenland Norse in the past. Any society in turmoil today, no matter how remote – think of Somalia and Afghanistan as examples – can cause trouble for prosperous societies on other continents, and is also subject to their influence (whether helpful or destabilizing). For the first time in history, we face the risk of a global decline. But we are also the first to enjoy the opportunity of learning quickly from developments in societies anywhere else in the world today and from what unfolded in societies at any time in the past. That’s why I wrote this book.
Yet again, quoting George Santayana seems appropriate:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
Truly, we have been warned…
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).
Amongst the most interesting facets to this book is the way in which Cuba is held up as an example of success: Cuba undoubtedly has its critics (as does Venezuela and Bolivia) but, following the disappearance of subsidised Russian oil in 1990, Fidel Castro was forced to embark on radical programme to make Cuba energy-independent. As Wall notes, Cuba is the only country in the world to have achieved a form of sustainable development (i.e. reduced its ecological impact whilst raising living standards) without using carbon trading or carbon taxes (i.e. by embracing the principles of localism and permaculture). Unfortunately, this has meant that its success has been ignored by policymakers because of what one might call Cuba’s “political incorrectness” or, as Wall puts it, because its success “did not generate income for bankers”!
As well as being deeply critical of globalised Capitalism and growthmania, Wall is at times painfully honest about the failings of Latin American ecosocialism. For sure, he highlights the good things that have been achieved by the likes of Bolivia’s indigenous President Evo Morales (at home and abroad), but he does not shrink from pointing out that Bolivia is currently heavily-dependent on exporting Gas and, in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez’s ‘Marxism for the 21st Century’ is bankrolled by Oil exports. However, in a rare omission, Wall fails to mention that Chavez also manipulates demographic data to hide the appalling poverty and worsening inequality in Venezuelan society; whilst simultaneously retaining the docility of his own citizens by selling fuel to them for just a few centimos per litre.
Nevertheless, the most challenging parts of Wall’s book are the bits where he talks about the future: In so doing, he makes repeated reference to Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), which, coincidentally, also formed the basis of a programme recently re-broadcast on the National Geographic channel in the UK, entitled Doomsday 2210?. As the name suggests, the programme focused on what the Earth could be like in 200 years time if humanity does not wake up to the fact that its environmental bank account is hideously overdrawn; and that it must now at least begin to try to live within the Earth’s environmental means.
Having won the Pulitzer Prize for his Guns, Gems, and Steel book in 1997, in which he examined the reasons for the current supremacy of ‘Western’ civilisation, Diamond’s 2005 book examines what we can learn about the collapse of a range of previous societies including the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century AD; and the disappearance of Mayan and Anasazi civilisations just under 1000 years ago: His conclusion being that they were all partly victims of their own success. However, whereas Rome fell because it ran out of fuel (i.e. slaves), the Mayans abandoned their cities because they ran out of food, and the Anasazi abandoned Chaco Canyon because they ran short of water. (The Mayan’s may also have hastened their own end by adopting a practice of human sacrifice to placate angry gods – polluting their own water supply in the process.)
So what should we learn from all of this? Well, firstly, it is clear that Limits to Growth exist and, if not anticipated and/or acknowledged, have caused – and can and will cause – societal collapse. Secondly, although collapse (or abandonment of individual locations) can be sudden, it is also possible that it will be preceded by a period in which those holding political power spend evermore greater sums of money maintaining their power; rather than tackling the environmental problems that are destabilising them.
I think this latter point is the most scary because it chimes with Herman E Daly’s spectre of uneconomic growth, which is the “elephant in the room” for supporters of globalised Capitalism: No-one is willing to acknowledge the insanity of pursuing perpetual quantitative growth on a planet with finite physical resources and waste absorption properties; and thus not prepared to even consider the wisdom of pursuing qualitative development instead. Therefore, even once we have won the battle against those that deny that climate change is happening, I think the majority of our political leaders are going to continue to deny that globalised Capitalism is the real impediment to solving our environmental problems.
Therefore, if we can learn anything from history it is that those who do not adapt to their changing environment do not survive: Unless globalised Capitalism is reformed, I think there is good reason to be concerned that, by resisting change for as long as possible, it will ensure that its own failure will be more sudden and cataclysmic than it needs to be.
Furthermore, whilst I do not believe that radical revolution or anarchy is either necessary, desirable or inevitable, I do believe that the more prudent path would be to acknowledge that not everything about globalised Capitalism is good; and not everything about supposedly-Marxist Cuba is bad. We must find a third way; and I believe that third way has been provided for us by Green politics, which I believe should legitimately be accepted as being “neither left nor right but out in front”!
Here endeth the Lesson (thanks be to God).