Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

Jared Diamond’s warning from history

with 16 comments

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…

16 Responses

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  1. And therein lies the most frustrating part of being an environmentalist in the year 2012. We have history that shows us past mistakes. We have science that shows us the dangers of the path we are on. We have technology giving us the tools to get off of that path. And yet, here we are… still on the path. Humans are an odd species!


    15 February 2012 at 00:15

    • Very well put, JP. You are even better than me at summarising stuff!😉

      Martin Lack

      15 February 2012 at 08:02

      • Thanks! It’s probably from having to explain things to children all day long.:-)


        15 February 2012 at 08:48

  2. Very nice couple of Posts, Martin. (But it does feel slightly odd to be reading your Post for the 15th at 5.30pm on the 14th!😉

    Paul Handover

    15 February 2012 at 00:26

    • Thanks Paul (I know what you mean – Skeptical Science updates arrive in my inbox at 1pm and, if you were to sign up they would arrive at 6am).

      Martin Lack

      15 February 2012 at 08:06

  3. Hello Martin, sorry I haven’t been around, I have been very busy doing something special and I’m supposed to stay out of the net until it is finished …… but I just had to show you this link.

    Something to warm your cobbles, mate ….looks like you were right all along, you deserve a medal, mate!!!

    See you around, mate.

    PS: I still read your site, don’t give up … :-)


    15 February 2012 at 13:35

    • Donald! What a relief to hear from you! I became very alarmed when your site became unavailable and your email address unserviceable. I thought you must have been arrested.

      Thanks for the heads-up on Bob Carter’s humiliation. It is nice to know that all my research into climate change scepticism was not a complete waste of time. However, Denial HQ is still the Atlas Network – they pull the strings of over 400 right-wing libertarian think tanks (ideologically-prejudiced against accepting the reality of any environmental problem for business-oriented reasons) all around the world, including all the big names in the US, UK and Australasia.

      Very best wishes to you for whatever it is you are working on (I only hope it is not a legal defence against claims of defamation of character).

      Martin Lack

      15 February 2012 at 14:08

  4. and a couple more links just to prick it out on the [bar stewards]…

    “-Confirmation that skeptic blogger Anthony Watts is part of Heartland’s funded network of misinformation communicators.” …… “We have also pledged to help raise around $90,000 in 2012 for Anthony Watts to help him create a new website to track temperature station data.”

    life can be fun for those in the know (cough, cough, wink, wink)

    How will Mr Watts explain this one???

    See you in a few months … maybe a bit earlier :-)


    15 February 2012 at 13:54

    • Anthony Watts unmasked as a master of a Heartland Institute-funded misinformation campaign? I am not at all surprised but, nevertheless, very grateful for your letting me know – I feel like the polar opposite of James Delingpole having received notification of the Climategate emails.

      What will it be next? Will we discover that the Heartland Institute was behind Climategate itself? I for one would not bet against it.

      Martin Lack

      15 February 2012 at 14:13

  5. Nah, I’m ok, I just took on a special job …. extremely interesting, I couldn’t resist the offer, I’m stuck in a tiny little room some 14 hours a day but I’m loving every moment of it. :-)

    No more chat or I’ll get busted by my new minders … catch yah soon, best I go before the night nurse catches me and pumps me up full of laxettes … again 😦


    15 February 2012 at 14:25

  6. Martin,

    I did read this article, but not having read the book, it is pretty hard to comment. Societies collapse for many different reasons. Which significant society collapsed for environmental reasons?

    John Kosowski

    17 February 2012 at 13:56

    • I think my outline of the content of the book (i.e. the post prior to this one) is accurate: Diamond admits no past society has collapsed purely due to environmental reasons; but the combination of environmental factors and human arrogance and/or ignorance has often proved deadly. Do you really feel we have nothing to learn from human history and nothing to fear from the globalised nature of modern society? If so, then like I said to you two weeks ago, I hope you’re feeling lucky…

      Martin Lack

      17 February 2012 at 14:36

  7. […] still connected (17 January 2012) Collapse or ecocide – which will it be (14 February 2012) Jared Diamond’s warning from history (15 February 2012). Share this:TwitterFacebookLinkedInLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

  8. […] 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 […]

  9. […] What will our governments do then?  Admit they were wrong and make radical changes, or send the Army on to the streets to maintain order?  Sadly, I think we know the answer to that one – Jared Diamond gave it to us several years ago: […]

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