02 January 2005


Jared "Guns, Germs, and Steel" Diamond has long op-ed in The New York Times.
History warns us that when once-powerful societies collapse, they tend to do so quickly and unexpectedly. That shouldn't come as much of a surprise: peak power usually means peak population, peak needs, and hence peak vulnerability. What can be learned from history that could help us avoid joining the ranks of those who declined swiftly? We must expect the answers to be complex, because historical reality is complex: while some societies did indeed collapse spectacularly, others have managed to thrive for thousands of years without major reversal.

When it comes to historical collapses, five groups of interacting factors have been especially important: the damage that people have inflicted on their environment; climate change; enemies; changes in friendly trading partners; and the society's political, economic and social responses to these shifts.

He could just leave the implications as an exercise for the reader.


Anonymous said...

Holy Shit sums it up nicely. I've been saying for a couple of years that we are in the decline of the Roman Empire.

- Thorn

Indri said...

The interesting thing is that in a sense we haven't inflicted as much damage on our own environment as we have that of other people. While yes, a distressing amount of our territory has been paved, deforested, and poisoned, think of how many square hectares of other places--I'm thinking of Central America, just off the top of my head--have been paved, deforested and poisoned in the name of providing things to be sold in our market (cheap meat being the obvious).

I don't know enough history to know if the Romans could say the same thing--despoilment at a distance.

I just saw a scary bit on a news site about the health risks of flat-screen televisions. Not to consumers, but to the people who make them. A worker had developed a horrible respiratory condition, and when they checked they found traces of a metal used in the production of the televisions in his lungs. A spokesperson was quick to assure the reporter that the televisions were not a health risk to consumers, but all I could think was how that didn't matter the tiniest part of a damn.

Just because it's not happening in our yard, or to us directly, doesn't mean it won't lead to our downfall.

Anonymous said...

A related link, studying "eco-collapse" by 4 civilizations:


Indri said...

Daniel Quinn (Ishmael, The Story of B, etc) talks about many of the same issues in a very simplified way. He couches the problem in terms of what happens when a society reaches the "carrying capacity" of its bioregion...the first thing I noticed about the cultures Diamond mentions as survivors (Japan and Java in particular) is that they are very conscious of their resources; historically, their religions and political structures have had their underpinnings in not using more than is available.

Unlike ours, which is based on a fairy-tale idea that there will always be more. More trees, more clean water, more good soil.

It's interesting to note that as Japan has become more Westernized, they're starting to have more ecological problems; they have started to overreach their resources.

Anonymous said...
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Jonathan Korman said...

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A few minutes' examination of the site revealed it to concern human genetic diversity, racial populations, intelligence research, with a bit of sex and gender mixed in. Connect the dots. I'm bloody well not helping these people with their Google rank.

Curious readers can find the googlebombed page here: