| Jared Diamond, Pulitzer prize-winning author of Guns, Germs and Steel, recently gave a lecture on the collapse of societies, and how bad decision-making contributes to such collapses. Edge.org has the complete transcript . Diamond is working on his next book, due out at the end of the year, entitled Ecocide. It’s not unheard of for writers to foreshadow the message of an upcoming book in their lectures. Here’s an interesting, and perhaps prophetic, story from his lecture that you can bet will make its way into the book.
The Easter Islanders, Polynesian people, settled an island that was originally forested. The Easter Islanders gradually chopped down that forest to use the wood for canoes, firewood, transporting statues, raising statues, and carving and also to protect against soil erosion. Eventually they chopped down all the forests to the point where all the tree species were extinct, which meant that they ran out of canoes, they could no longer erect statues, there were no longer trees to protect the topsoil against erosion, and their society collapsed in an epidemic of cannibalism that left 90 percent of the islanders dead. The question that most intrigued my UCLA students was one that hadn’t registered on me: how on Earth could a society make such an obviously disastrous decision as to cut down all the trees on which they depended? For example, my students wondered, what did the Easter Islanders say as they were cutting down the last palm tree? Were they saying, think of our jobs as loggers, not these trees? Were they saying, respect my private property rights? Surely the Easter Islanders, of all people, must have realized the consequences to them of destroying their own forest. It wasn’t a subtle mistake. One wonders whether ? if there are still people left alive a hundred years from now ? people in the next century will be equally astonished about our blindness today as we are today about the blindness of the Easter Islanders.
The lecture also talks about the impact on social collapse of the tragedy of the commons (our selfish neglect of the value of shared resources), which thanks to Marie has been much discussed in the blogosphere of late, and about the folly of Lomborgian eco-holocaust denial. The lecture’s worth a complete read while we wait for the book to come out.
April 30, 2003
(this memoir was prompted by David’s and Rayne’s childhood memory posts)
97 oF, fifth day in a row, and in those days no one had air conditioning. We’d go down in the basement with the Zenith portable radio and the fan, and then, restless, try to round up the neighbourhood kids for baseball or tag. And if no one was around we’d throw the India rubber ball against the front steps — you had to throw it just right, so it would pop up into the air. You’d get ten points if you caught it before a bounce, five for a one-bouncer, three for a two-bouncer, one for a grounder. Whoever got the ball threw it the next time and the first to 100 won the game. Sometimes we’d play tackle, to prevent the other player from catching it, and it would roll out onto the street and the cars going by would honk and we’d laugh if they actually ran over the ball, and run to stop it rolling down the curb into the storm sewer.
On a clear day the prairie summer sky is a deeper, purer blue than anywhere else on Earth. The very hot days were usually windless, motionless, as if everything had stopped. You could always hear the crickets, though, and the mourning doves. We’d have checked the weather forecast but we knew even before we heard it what was coming: “severe late-day thunderstorms”. You knew from the silence, you could smell it, the intense dry heat that could not be sustained. First there’d be a thin dark line on the distant horizon and a few gusts of wind, and then it would come fast. You’d hurry to finish the last game and then head to someone’s house to get ready for “the show”.
The wind would pick up quickly then and there’d be the smell of rain in the air. Our mothers would be out hurriedly taking the clothes off the clotheslines, and we’d chase the clothes that blew away and help with the last few items when the sudden cold, large droplets of rain started. Now the sky would be menacing, black, the line of nimbus moving rapidly forward like a blanket covering everything, something out of an Edvard Munch or Van Gogh painting and we’d be sitting in someone’s kitchen and listening to the radio, all crackling now with static from the storm, and just for fun because it got so dark so fast we’d turn on the kitchen lights which was somehow comforting, and watch out the window, saying “bet there’ll be a tornado or a hurricane or something”. We’d usually go to the house of whoever’s mother was baking or making something we liked for supper.
Then the rumble of thunder in the distance would give way to the first dazzling lightning strikes and we’d be running around the house trying to get the best window view and shouting “wow, did you see that one”, and counting the seconds as thousands of feet: “one thousand, two thousand”, and then the thunder would be coming within a second of the lighting flash, over and over and we’d be cheering it on with our hearts racing, and feeling sorry for the cat that was hiding under the table with its hair standing on end. Then with the crack of lightning striking trees the rain would suddenly pick up and the breeze through the window screens would suddenly change direction and drop twenty degrees. We’d be closing the windows now, at least on the side of the house the rain was coming in, inhaling the smell one last time as we closed each window, the amazing crisp fresh smell of rain and it would be pounding down, in sheets so strong you could hardly see the street.
The windows would fog up and if we felt bold we’d strip off our shirts and run outside in the downpour, jumping up and down on the waterlogged lawns splashing each other. Then we’d take cover, foolishly under the trees or in the hide-and-seek hiding places we knew about. The rain would have soaked through our shorts and our clothes would be sticking to our skin, and if there was a girl with us in our chosen hiding place we’d have a funny feeling and maybe try to kiss her, and if there wasn’t we’d wish their was and save the feeling for when we were alone in bed that night.
And then as fast as it began it would be over. The sheet of black clouds would race on and the blue sky would return as rich as ever, and the sun would now be low in the horizon and reflect off the water droplets on the leaves and the grass. Even after they were over, these storms were a continuous light show. We’d wander back to whoever’s house we’d been visiting and their mother would have towels for us to dry off and would invite us to stay for dinner if we got permission from our mothers first. With the lovely sunset and the renewed calm and the smells of grass and flowers in the air and soaked into our hair and clothes, and exhausted from the excitement of the storm, we’d feel this incredible mellow feeling. All the terrors of childhood and adolescence would briefly fade away and we’d be more relaxed and yet more exhilarated than we ever were in the rest of our mundane young lives. We’d sit out on the porch watching the sunset and eating hot dogs and potato chips or ice cream, making fun of each other when we caught someone singing along with the Four Seasons or Trini Lopez on the radio.
I’d head up to bed feeling kind of cheerful and sad at the same time. I’d sit at my bedroom desk staring out the back window, all my senses alert. Then I’d pull out the bedroom window screen and climb out onto the sun porch roof, carrying the cat with me, and with him nestled in my lap I’d sit out there in my pyjama bottoms looking at the moon, peeking in the neighbours’ windows, and listening to the sounds of the neighbourhood until I could hardly keep my eyes open, and then drag myself back in to bed and sleep the sleep of the dead.