Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Insights from "Collapse" by Jared Diamond Part 1

Jo Hunter Adams

This is the first of three posts about Collapse by Jared Diamond. The question I asked myself when reading this book was "how are the choices we are making similar to the mistaken choices that other societies made, and what can we do about it?"

By the author of Guns, Germs and Steel, Collapse is a view of societies that have failed because of the way their resources were managed. Like Guns, Germs and Steel the scope huge but the message is straightforward. He argues that it is not all that shocking that states used up all their resources, and that it is conceivable that many of today's societies, particularly in the west, may similarly use up all their resources, even though they are not nearly as limited by the landscape as many of the ancient societies he describes.

Rather than giving a full review, which is available elsewhere, I will choose some key themes and explore these further.

Diamond starts off with a snapshot of Montana, a society for whom there seemed to be a long-term, successful economic foundation in agriculture and minerals. As the chapter moves forward, you begin see cracks in this picture. One major thing I learned was that regulation of mining has traditionally been very limited in the U.S., and a mining company can declare bankrupcy rather than clean up their mess (a cost borne by the state). He pointed out that it was not only that this kind of approach was possible, but that the culture of the industry made this an acceptable option.

This was contrasted with the obligations placed on an international oil company in Indonesia, where safety and the conservation of the natural landscape are paramount for the government. Why? because, if the company cuts down a tree, they must pay compensation for that tree. If that tree was a likely habitat of an endangered birds, the cost is greater. As a result, there is an ongoing incentive to keep operations efficient, and to organize in such a way that minimal damage is done to the surrounding environment.

Many of you have heard of the mystery of the stone heads on Easter Island-- weighing up to 80 tons and transported miles across the island to where they now stand. The bigger mystery is why the people of Easter Island were all but extinct a few hundred years later.

The question evoked by this story is powerful: what was the person cutting down the island's last tree thinking? Why did they do that, knowing that their ability to get to neighboring islands depended on carving trees into kayaks, and knowing that topsoil needed to be grounded by trees. Easter island could not draw on the resources of other islands because of it's isolation. Today, Diamond argues, the whole modern world, as a unit, has something in common with Easter Island. Like those on Easter Island, there is no other planet were earthlings can run if things get worse in our world.

Did you know that there was a Norse settlement in Greenland before the Inuits arrived? Everyone in a settlement died one winter because resources were so scarce. The Inuits and the Norse had a bad relationship, and while the Inuits seemed to adapt their lifestyles to use a few of the Norse tools, the Norse did not use any Inuit tools or strategies for surviving the winter. The Norse lifestyle was carefully adapted to fit the harsh winter, and they lived in Greenland for many hundreds of years, yet these adaptations were within certain bounds. This meant that, when trees and shrubs were depleted, they were left with very few options. Despite the fact that cows could only live outdoors for three months of the year, the Norse prized cows so much that they kept cows even though it meant that resources would be depleted and the cows really couldn't contribute as much as sheep in that landscape. They relied heavily on wood for keeping warm, so once the trees had all been cut down they could not keep warm. Contrasted against the Inuit, who lived in Igloos and burnt whale blubber and so were not faced with the same constraints. The Inuit were also able to go out in kayaks to hunt whales, because kayaks were made with stretched seal skin.

Yet the Norse never considered adopting any of these means of survival. It struck me because I can totally imagine sitting there in the cold thinking "how can I keep warm and fed" but limiting my view to my lifestyle and what was acceptable and normal in my corner of Greenland.

Check back soon for Part 2, tomorrow.

Also coming soon
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
Preparing for the growing season in Boston

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