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Old Jul 24th 2011, 09:44 PM
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Michael Michael is offline
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Default Collapse, by Jared Diamond

I've just finished reading Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, a book by Jared Diamond. Since some interest was expressed when I mentioned this book in another thread, I figured I'd start a thread for it.

It is an excellent book that studies a wide variety of different social and ecological situations (and problems) and how various different groups of people solved, or failed to solve, the problem of social survival. Most interesting (for me) is the in-depth focus on several Pacific island cultures, including Easter Island as a known 'failure', but also a couple others that didn't fail. Likewise with the Norse Atlantic colonies, some of which survived/thrived, some did not. These sources of similar (but slightly different) environmental challenges provide some very good information about how and why some failed and some succeeded.

Towards the end of the book, in one of the concluding chapters, Jared Diamond addresses a very basic question that really goes to the heart of the issue and theme of the book.

Why do some societies make disastrous decisions?

The more one reads about what is known about Easter Island, you have to ask yourself this question. Those huge stone statues were an enormous drain on the economy and required vast amounts of lumber to build them. And the very last ones built were the largest of them all. And then there were no more trees big enough to use for building huge stone statues.

One might think that these people might notice that the island was becoming denuded of trees and forest, but apparently, they just kept on building bigger and more impressive versions of these huge stone statues until the forests were all gone and then the soil erosion and lack of lumber to build fishing boats made them starve to death.

The Easter Islanders were not the only people to wipe themselves out with bad social decision making - they just happen to be some of the most famous ones. There are many other examples in the book.

Anyway, in response to the question, Jared Diamond suggests four possible ways that various societies may fail to deal with catastrophic environmental or resource problems.

1. A group may fail to anticipate a problem before the problem actually arrives.
2. When a problem does arrive, the group may fail to perceive it.
3. When a problem arives and is recognized, the group may fail to even try to solve it.
4. When a problem arives and is recognized, the group may try to solve it but fail.

Most of the known examples do fall clearly into one of these four categories. A few of them fall into more than one as these four possibilities may also represent a progression of social responses over time to the same problem.

In the case of the Easter Islanders and the Greenland Norse, the first three are clearly in evidence.

Of course, the reason this book is so interesting is because of the potential parallels to our own contemporary society. And in this light, I honestly felt that our modern society sure as heck looks a lot like the Easter Islanders right now... we are still trying to build bigger, better, faster vehicles to travel around our designed to be oil-dependent society. It sure does look like we are well on our way to using our last trees to build the biggest stone statue of them all (figuratively speaking).

Any thoughts or comments on this book or this topic?
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