Jared Diamond’s warning from history
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…