WHY SOCIETIES COLLAPSE

easter island 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.

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