Choosing to Fail or Succeed

By Ryan McGreal
Published July 11, 2005

I just came across this New York Times op-ed by Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies and the recently published Collapse: How Societies Choose or Fail to Succeed.

Whereas the former book looked at the factors that contribute to a civilization's survival, the latter concerns itself with the factors that contribute to a civilizations failure to survive.

Jared writes:

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.

This, of course, is the argument that underlies Peak Oil theory: when the cheap, versatile, abundant energy supply that allows a society to bloom goes into decline, the society risks going into decline as well unless it can somehow learn to live on ever-diminishing energy flows. (This, of course, cannot be accomplished by pursuing the status quo.)

Diamond identifies the "five groups of interacting factors" most relevant to a civilization's fate:

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.

Diamond points out that the key is the fifth factor: whether and how a society responds to the challenges it faces. The Ontario government is trying to respond sensibly to environmental destruction and climate change through the Greenbelt Plan. The plan aims to preserve what remains of Ontario's forests and farmlands before suburban sprawl wipes it all out.

Discussing the collapse of the ancient Maya civilization, Diamond writes:

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. ...

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.

Does this sound like any other elite groups we may want to consider?

Diamond believes fully in the truism about not repeating history, and identifies the most important lesson we can draw from past collapses: "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.
Explaining why past civilizations made poor decisions, Diamond writes:
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.

Yikes! Our economy is based almost entirely on hiding conflicts of interest and pursuing short-term profit; not an encouraging basis for long-term survival.

Diamond highlights two factors that influence whether a society chooses to respond to its problems: whether "the elite insulates itself from the consequences of its actions", and whether the society is willing to "re-examine long-held core values, when conditions change and those values no longer make sense."

Translation: if we want to survive far into the 21st century, we need to break up the groupthink that surrounds our leaders with a corporate bought priesthood and protects them from the public. We also need to give up what I'll call the Bush Doctrine: the [North] American way of life is non-negotiable."

Diamond concludes:

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?

For Diamond's calculus of hope to work, we need a communications media willing to serve the public instead of narrow, moneyed interests, and we need a citizenry willing to re-engage in the great debates that shape our society.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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