February 05, 2006

Why Societies Fail

[Ed: this is another of my articles which was first published in the December 2005 issue of the Vox Populi Nebraska eZine.]

Jared Diamond is known as one of our age’s foremost public intellectuals. Having an intense curiosity about our world combined with a broad and varied background, he knits together data and knowledge from a multitude of different specialties resulting in some new and fascinating insights into human societies, our history, and how we interact with our world. His latest study concerns the collapse of human societies which involve an environmental component, how they disappeared into time and what actually caused the collapses. In his most recent book on this study, Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail or Succeed, he explores what we can learn by studying their lessons by asking the following questions: what happened on Easter Island? Why did the Anasazi vanish from their dwellings in the Southwest United States? What caused the Mayans to abandon their magnificent cities in Central America even before Columbus came on these shores? And why were the Norse communities ultimately unable to make a go of it in Greenland? He also talks about other societies that have faced similar problems yet found a way to survive. Finally, he asks, what can these stories about these societies tell us about our world today, as we face the coming century with the trials of environmental degradation, the consequences of global warming, reduced potable water, decreasing arable land and increasing human population.

Diamond was able to identify five basic problems that afflict societies with damaged environments which led to catastrophic collapse. From his research, different failed societies had different parts of these problems, yet they all experienced at least environmental degradation. Diamond used these five criteria to build a methodology to study societies facing environmental stress and thus provide a framework to look at how we might solve some of our own problems.

The first dimension in Diamond’s framework is the inadvertent damage to the environment such as deforestation, soil erosion, overdrawing water tables, which depending on the fragility of the environment can be irreversible. Climate change, with the local weather becoming hotter or colder, wetter or dryer or more or less variable, is the next criteria which can seriously stress a society. Hostile neighbors was another problem that can affect whether a society will survive, although Diamond says that environmental damage comes first and helps weaken the society so that military conquest can carry the day. Another problem for societies is when traditional allies become less available, either because they become less trustworthy or they are less able to participate in mutual trade. The final dimension that affects the outcomes for societies is their reaction to the problems they face. Some societies through history have faced increasing environmental damage, yet made decisions that allowed them to adjust and to mitigate the extent of the damage so they could survive. Others do not.

Diamond’s framework can be used to study societies that have vanished without a leaving much of a trace, as well as societies that face environmental stress and still survive. A society that is isolated, such as the Easter Islanders, can be unable to compensate for the damage done by deforestation. Diamond found that deforestation is a particularly perilous problem for parts of the world where the climate is drier or the growing season is short, where the soil is marginal or eroded. A society located in an area where the forests can be thought of as a renewable resource is lucky indeed, as they are able to count on the environment withstanding ordinary human uses. But when the people of Easter Island cut their forests, they were living in an area where the rainfall was low and the trees that they cut took a very long time to grow. Once they cut their big trees, they were cut off from the world because they no longer could build ships that could take them the hundreds of miles to their nearest neighbors. And they could no longer get out to sea to fish. Thus they were imprisoned on their island, with little in the way of natural resources until finally they died out. As Diamond said, they must have realized the consequences, yet still continued cutting the forests. And he asked, “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?”

Diamond remarks again and again that one thing that affected the outcome of these trials societies faced was the choices societies made. Societies that were run by chiefs or leaders that only cared for their own glory or wealth were incapable of finding ways to adjust and change enough to stop the environmental degradation or other threats. As things got bad on Easter Island, the rival chiefs each demanded bigger and more ostentatious statues until finally the people could no longer believe their ability to influence the gods and rose up against them. The Anasazis found themselves living in a much drier and more marginal world (after they cut all the forests close to their homes) and eventually were overrun by other tribes. The Mayan chiefs spent their time in fighting each other as their climate changed, the crops failed and the large numbers of people starved.

Through meticulous study, Diamond shows how societies do not survive outside the constraints of their environment. It is not just ideology nor is it simply politics that create the world in which a society exists. Societies are part of the real world and their impact on the environment and their ability to adapt to climate change affects their ability to survive. Yet, he also shows, societies can be so blinded by their own ideology, that they essentially commit suicide. The lesson of the Norse in Greenland is a particularly vivid example of this: the Norse starved to death in a land where the Inuits thrived because they refused to change or to copy the techniques of the Inuits. In a land where the abundance of the sea was close at hand, the Norse Greenlanders never ate fish evidently because of some taboo. Instead they denuded the hillsides to grow hay for their cows, grazed their animals on fragile grasslands, and spent time and energy hunting walruses for their ivory in the summer to buy fancy religious materials from Europe for the greater glory of the Church. Meanwhile their pasturelands were shrinking due to the cutting of large sections of turf, the climate was growing colder and growing seasons were becoming shorter. Eventually the conservatism of the society that required strict obedience to the rulers meant that the Norse lost their ability to live in the shrinking environment in which they found themselves.

In his review of Collapse for the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell painted this picture of the Norses’ end in Greenland:

When archeologists looked through the ruins of the Western Settlement, they found plenty of the big wooden objects that were so valuable in Greenland – crucifixes, bowls, furniture, doors, roof timbers – which meant that the end came too quickly for anyone to do any scavenging. And, when the archeologists looked at the animal bones left in the debris, they found the bones of newborn calves, meaning that the Norse, in that final winter, had given up on the future. They found the toe bones from cows, equal to the number of cow spaces in the barn, meaning that the Norse ate their cattle down to the hoofs, and they found the bones of dogs covered with knife marks, meaning that, in the end, they had to eat their pets. But not fish bones, of course. Right up until they starved to death, the Norse never lost sight of what they stood for.

Diamond wrote this book because he could see the trial that we humans are now facing: a world with significant environmental degradation leading to looming climate change brought on by our own actions. By studying societies that failed and others that found ways to survive for thousands of years living within the bounds of their environment, he thought he could help find some answers on what we can do, if we only choose to do so. And he reminds us, the environment must be considered if we want to have a world in which we can survive.

Posted by Mary at February 5, 2006 10:15 AM | Environment | Technorati links |