Jared Diamond: The Ends of the World as We Know Them
- ...I'm much more a "carnage and culture" guy than I am a "guns, germs, and
steel" guy, these days. :-)
The New York Times
January 1, 2005
The Ends of the World as We Know Them
By JARED DIAMOND
os Angeles - NEW Year's weekend traditionally is a time for us to reflect,
and to make resolutions based on our reflections. In this fresh year, with
the United States seemingly at the height of its power and at the start of
a new presidential term, Americans are increasingly concerned and divided
about where we are going. How long can America remain ascendant? Where will
we stand 10 years from now, or even next year?
Such questions seem especially appropriate this year. History warns us that
when once-powerful societies collapse, they tend to do so quickly and
unexpectedly. That shouldn't come as much of a surprise: peak power usually
means peak population, peak needs, and hence peak vulnerability. What can
be learned from history that could help us avoid joining the ranks of those
who declined swiftly? We must expect the answers to be complex, because
historical reality is complex: while some societies did indeed collapse
spectacularly, others have managed to thrive for thousands of years without
When it comes to historical collapses, five groups of interacting factors
have been especially important: the damage that people have inflicted on
their environment; climate change; enemies; changes in friendly trading
partners; and the society's political, economic and social responses to
these shifts. That's not to say that all five causes play a role in every
case. Instead, think of this as a useful checklist of factors that should
be examined, but whose relative importance varies from case to case.
For instance, in the collapse of the Polynesian society on Easter Island
three centuries ago, environmental problems were dominant, and climate
change, enemies and trade were insignificant; however, the latter three
factors played big roles in the disappearance of the medieval Norse
colonies on Greenland. Let's consider two examples of declines stemming
from different mixes of causes: the falls of classic Maya civilization and
of Polynesian settlements on the Pitcairn Islands.
Maya Native Americans of the Yucatan Peninsula and adjacent parts of
Central America developed the New World's most advanced civilization before
Columbus. They were innovators in writing, astronomy, architecture and art.
From local origins around 2,500 years ago, Maya societies rose especially
after the year A.D. 250, reaching peaks of population and sophistication in
the late 8th century.
Thereafter, societies in the most densely populated areas of the southern
Yucatan underwent a steep political and cultural collapse: between 760 and
910, kings were overthrown, large areas were abandoned, and at least 90
percent of the population disappeared, leaving cities to become overgrown
by jungle. The last known date recorded on a Maya monument by their
so-called Long Count calendar corresponds to the year 909. What happened?
A major factor was environmental degradation by people: deforestation, soil
erosion and water management problems, all of which resulted in less food.
Those problems were exacerbated by droughts, which may have been partly
caused by humans themselves through deforestation. Chronic warfare made
matters worse, as more and more people fought over less and less land and
Why weren't these problems obvious to the Maya kings, who could surely see
their forests vanishing and their hills becoming eroded? Part of the reason
was that the kings were able to insulate themselves from problems
afflicting the rest of society. By extracting wealth from commoners, they
could remain well fed while everyone else was slowly starving.
What's more, the kings were preoccupied with their own power struggles.
They had to concentrate on fighting one another and keeping up their images
through ostentatious displays of wealth. By insulating themselves in the
short run from the problems of society, the elite merely bought themselves
the privilege of being among the last to starve.
Whereas Maya societies were undone by problems of their own making,
Polynesian societies on Pitcairn and Henderson Islands in the tropical
Pacific Ocean were undone largely by other people's mistakes. Pitcairn, the
uninhabited island settled in 1790 by the H.M.S. Bounty mutineers, had
actually been populated by Polynesians 800 years earlier. That society,
which left behind temple platforms, stone and shell tools and huge garbage
piles of fish and bird and turtle bones as evidence of its existence,
survived for several centuries and then vanished. Why?
In many respects, Pitcairn and Henderson are tropical paradises, rich in
some food sources and essential raw materials. Pitcairn is home to
Southeast Polynesia's largest quarry of stone suited for making adzes,
while Henderson has the region's largest breeding seabird colony and its
only nesting beach for sea turtles. Yet the islanders depended on imports
from Mangareva Island, hundreds of miles away, for canoes, crops, livestock
and oyster shells for making tools.
Unfortunately for the inhabitants of Pitcairn and Henderson, their
Mangarevan trading partner collapsed for reasons similar to those
underlying the Maya decline: deforestation, erosion and warfare. Deprived
of essential imports in a Polynesian equivalent of the 1973 oil crisis, the
Pitcairn and Henderson societies declined until everybody had died or fled.
The Maya and the Henderson and Pitcairn Islanders are not alone, of course.
Over the centuries, many other societies have declined, collapsed or died
out. Famous victims include the Anasazi in the American Southwest, who
abandoned their cities in the 12th century because of environmental
problems and climate change, and the Greenland Norse, who disappeared in
the 15th century because of all five interacting factors on the checklist.
There were also the ancient Fertile Crescent societies, the Khmer at Angkor
Wat, the Moche society of Peru - the list goes on.
But before we let ourselves get depressed, we should also remember that
there is another long list of cultures that have managed to prosper for
lengthy periods of time. Societies in Japan, Tonga, Tikopia, the New Guinea
Highlands and Central and Northwest Europe, for example, have all found
ways to sustain themselves. What separates the lost cultures from those
that survived? Why did the Maya fail and the shogun succeed?
Half of the answer involves environmental differences: geography deals
worse cards to some societies than to others. Many of the societies that
collapsed had the misfortune to occupy dry, cold or otherwise fragile
environments, while many of the long-term survivors enjoyed more robust and
fertile surroundings. But it's not the case that a congenial environment
guarantees success: some societies (like the Maya) managed to ruin lush
environments, while other societies - like the Incas, the Inuit, Icelanders
and desert Australian Aborigines - have managed to carry on in some of the
earth's most daunting environments.
The other half of the answer involves differences in a society's responses
to problems. Ninth-century New Guinea Highland villagers, 16th-century
German landowners, and the Tokugawa shoguns of 17th-century Japan all
recognized the deforestation spreading around them and solved the problem,
either by developing scientific reforestation (Japan and Germany) or by
transplanting tree seedlings (New Guinea). Conversely, the Maya,
Mangarevans and Easter Islanders failed to address their forestry problems
and so collapsed.
Consider Japan. In the 1600's, the country faced its own crisis of
deforestation, paradoxically brought on by the peace and prosperity
following the Tokugawa shoguns' military triumph that ended 150 years of
civil war. The subsequent explosion of Japan's population and economy set
off rampant logging for construction of palaces and cities, and for fuel
The shoguns responded with both negative and positive measures. They
reduced wood consumption by turning to light-timbered construction, to
fuel-efficient stoves and heaters, and to coal as a source of energy. At
the same time, they increased wood production by developing and carefully
managing plantation forests. Both the shoguns and the Japanese peasants
took a long-term view: the former expected to pass on their power to their
children, and the latter expected to pass on their land. In addition,
Japan's isolation at the time made it obvious that the country would have
to depend on its own resources and couldn't meet its needs by pillaging
other countries. Today, despite having the highest human population density
of any large developed country, Japan is more than 70 percent forested.
There is a similar story from Iceland. When the island was first settled
by the Norse around 870, its light volcanic soils presented colonists with
unfamiliar challenges. They proceeded to cut down trees and stock sheep as
if they were still in Norway, with its robust soils. Significant erosion
ensued, carrying half of Iceland's topsoil into the ocean within a century
or two. Icelanders became the poorest people in Europe. But they gradually
learned from their mistakes, over time instituting stocking limits on sheep
and other strict controls, and establishing an entire government department
charged with landscape management. Today, Iceland boasts the sixth-highest
per-capita income in the world.
What lessons can we draw from history? The most straightforward: take
environmental problems seriously. They destroyed societies in the past, and
they are even more likely to do so now. If 6,000 Polynesians with stone
tools were able to destroy Mangareva Island, consider what six billion
people with metal tools and bulldozers are doing today. Moreover, while the
Maya collapse affected just a few neighboring societies in Central America,
globalization now means that any society's problems have the potential to
affect anyone else. Just think how crises in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq
have shaped the United States today.
Other lessons involve failures of group decision-making. There are many
reasons why past societies made bad decisions, and thereby failed to solve
or even to perceive the problems that would eventually destroy them. One
reason involves conflicts of interest, whereby one group within a society
(for instance, the pig farmers who caused the worst erosion in medieval
Greenland and Iceland) can profit by engaging in practices that damage the
rest of society. Another is the pursuit of short-term gains at the expense
of long-term survival, as when fishermen overfish the stocks on which their
livelihoods ultimately depend.
History also teaches us two deeper lessons about what separates successful
societies from those heading toward failure. A society contains a built-in
blueprint for failure if the elite insulates itself from the consequences
of its actions. That's why Maya kings, Norse Greenlanders and Easter Island
chiefs made choices that eventually undermined their societies. They
themselves did not begin to feel deprived until they had irreversibly
destroyed their landscape.
Could this happen in the United States? It's a thought that often occurs to
me here in Los Angeles, when I drive by gated communities, guarded by
private security patrols, and filled with people who drink bottled water,
depend on private pensions, and send their children to private schools. By
doing these things, they lose the motivation to support the police force,
the municipal water supply, Social Security and public schools. If
conditions deteriorate too much for poorer people, gates will not keep the
rioters out. Rioters eventually burned the palaces of Maya kings and tore
down the statues of Easter Island chiefs; they have also already threatened
wealthy districts in Los Angeles twice in recent decades.
In contrast, the elite in 17th-century Japan, as in modern Scandinavia and
the Netherlands, could not ignore or insulate themselves from broad
societal problems. For instance, the Dutch upper class for hundreds of
years has been unable to insulate itself from the Netherlands' water
management problems for a simple reason: the rich live in the same drained
lands below sea level as the poor. If the dikes and pumps keeping out the
sea fail, the well-off Dutch know that they will drown along with everybody
else, which is precisely what happened during the floods of 1953.
The other deep lesson involves a willingness to re-examine long-held core
values, when conditions change and those values no longer make sense. The
medieval Greenland Norse lacked such a willingness: they continued to view
themselves as transplanted Norwegian pastoralists, and to despise the Inuit
as pagan hunters, even after Norway stopped sending trading ships and the
climate had grown too cold for a pastoral existence. They died off as a
result, leaving Greenland to the Inuit. On the other hand, the British in
the 1950's faced up to the need for a painful reappraisal of their former
status as rulers of a world empire set apart from Europe. They are now
finding a different avenue to wealth and power, as part of a united Europe.
In this New Year, we Americans have our own painful reappraisals to face.
Historically, we viewed the United States as a land of unlimited plenty,
and so we practiced unrestrained consumerism, but that's no longer viable
in a world of finite resources. We can't continue to deplete our own
resources as well as those of much of the rest of the world.
Historically, oceans protected us from external threats; we stepped back
from our isolationism only temporarily during the crises of two world wars.
Now, technology and global interconnectedness have robbed us of our
protection. In recent years, we have responded to foreign threats largely
by seeking short-term military solutions at the last minute.
But how long can we keep this up? Though we are the richest nation on
earth, there's simply no way we can afford (or muster the troops) to
intervene in the dozens of countries where emerging threats lurk -
particularly when each intervention these days can cost more than $100
billion and require more than 100,000 troops.
A genuine reappraisal would require us to recognize that it will be far
less expensive and far more effective to address the underlying problems of
public health, population and environment that ultimately cause threats to
us to emerge in poor countries. In the past, we have regarded foreign aid
as either charity or as buying support; now, it's an act of self-interest
to preserve our own economy and protect American lives.
Do we have cause for hope? Many of my friends are pessimistic when they
contemplate the world's growing population and human demands colliding with
shrinking resources. But I draw hope from the knowledge that humanity's
biggest problems today are ones entirely of our own making. Asteroids
hurtling at us beyond our control don't figure high on our list of imminent
dangers. To save ourselves, we don't need new technology: we just need the
political will to face up to our problems of population and the environment.
I also draw hope from a unique advantage that we enjoy. Unlike any previous
society in history, our global society today is the first with the
opportunity to learn from the mistakes of societies remote from us in space
and in time. When the Maya and Mangarevans were cutting down their trees,
there were no historians or archaeologists, no newspapers or television, to
warn them of the consequences of their actions. We, on the other hand, have
a detailed chronicle of human successes and failures at our disposal. Will
we choose to use it?
Jared Diamond, who won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction for
"Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies," is the author of the
forthcoming "Collapse: How Societies Choose or Fail to Succeed."
R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah@...>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'