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Collapse ahh, ahh (sung to the tune of Queen's "Flash")


The subtitle of Jared Diamond's Collapse- "How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed"- doesn't quite give you the idea that the core of collapses that he examines are from environmental causes. Environmental causes couple with human ignorance or hubris, that is.
Diamond chronicles the fall of several past societies--Easter Island and some other South Pacific groups, the Anasazi of the American Southwest, the Maya, the Vikings, and the Norse of Greenland. Additionally, he looks at some contemporary examples of collapse and those on the verge--Rwanda being the former with Haiti, China, and Australia in the latter. Diamond also examines the state of Montana for signs of despair and hope closer to home.
He outlines five factors that combine to cause a society's collapse; they are 1) the resilience of the local environmental region and the amount of human-inflicted damage, 2) climate change (which isn't necessarily warming), 3) hostile neighbors, 4) decreased support by friendly neighbors, and 5) human responses to the first four factors.
What I find fascinating are his studies for the peoples who failed. For instance, Easter Island is a relatively treeless island covered by grasses and sedges. It wasn't always so. Easter Islanders cut down all their trees (which in turn allowed their fertile soil to blow away) to erect those huge stone heads the island is now known for.
Why would anyone cut down all the trees? Why wouldn't someone notice earlier? "Hey, man, we've only 37 trees left." Diamond discusses the concept of "'landscape amnesia': forgetting how different the surrounding landscape looked 50 years ago, because the change has been so gradual." The trees weren't all cut down in a day, so those born after half the trees on the tiny island were gone would only see a half-treed island as normal. And so on. . . .
This is a worthwhile read in that, before Al Gore, before the Clean Air and Water Acts, there were environmental problems, some so severe that whole societies were swallowed by their circumstances. The key is in the subtitle--that we choose to succeed or die. Not every problem trumpeted by environmentalists is real, of course, but the danger comes when we ignore the real problems past the point of recovery.

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