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November 12, 2006

Collapse – Will We or Won’t We?

Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, follows up with Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. The purpose of the book is to give us a few hints on how and how not to deal with the multiple environmental and economic catastrophes which Diamond believes are looming.

Despite that mission statement, it’s not a pompous book.  Diamond tells stories well, thinks well, chooses his examples well, and, although tremendously worried about human civilization in the next fifty years, considers himself a “cautious optimist”.  I’d much rather be lectured about the environment by Jared Diamond than Al Gore any day.

It’s possible that clever use of resources would support twice the world’s current population of humans, Diamond says, but continues by calculating that we will be using twelve times as much resources as we are now if people in third world countries achieve their aspiration of first world life styles – even if there is no population growth at all.  Whoops.  Can’t do that.

I’ve blogged that there isn’t enough energy for cars for everyone, single family homes etc. etc. but never knew how many other scarce resources there are nor the pernicious downward spirals in some of these resources AND negative interaction between them.

Early example in the book:  Diamond’s assertion that deforestation was the disaster that did in the Easter Islanders – the ones who made the big heads.  Problem may have been that they needed logs to make a grid to drag the statues over.  There’s good evidence that there was a keeping-up-with-the-Jones thing going on between the chiefs of the clans which divided the island.  Each chief needed to have a bigger statue made than the last guy; there go a lot more trees.

But (here’s the interaction part), cut down the trees and the poor soil of the island erodes away.  The island doesn’t have any recent volcanoes of its own and it’s not downwind from any refreshing dust plumes.  So the soil just doesn’t come back.  Now agriculture of all kinds suffers.  Moreover, small game and birds that depended on the trees are gone.  To make matters much worse, without trees you can’t make boats and most of the fish and shellfish accessible from the shore were already depleted and not coming back.  The documented result was a population crash accompanied and accelerated by cannibalism.

Having to meet the needs of an elite can put a civilization on the road to collapse.  Success story of overcoming that problem is the island of Tikopia, 1.8 square miles, too far from anywhere for trade, population of around 1200 people, and they’ve been there for 3000 years.  They have many excellent agricultural practices they’ve developed over the years, all sustainable obviously and capable of being reestablished after one of the area’s very frequent cyclones goes through.  Turns out, though, that they had a pig problem.  Nasty things root up gardens and are an inefficient way to make food – 10 pounds of edible veggies go into making a pound of bacon.  But the chiefs did like their pork.  Nevertheless, in a more-or-less consensus driven society, a decision was made around 1600 to kill every pig on the island.  Done.  Food supply stabilized.  Can we make decisions like that?  Diamond doesn’t hesitate to draw the high-on-the-hog parallel with CEO salaries.

When the amount of arable land per person goes down, the temptation is to skimp on practices like letting fields lie fallow or irrigating with caution. Of course the problem now gets worse instead of better as the soil yields less and less or, in some cases, becomes depleted and can’t come back at all.  That’s happening through much of the world.  Sounds a lot like focusing on quarterly results and letting the company go to hell (my observation and not Diamond’s). 

Of course you can fertilize.  But it takes energy to make fertilizer.  And fertilizer runoff causes algae blooms which wipe out the fish that you’d like to eat in place of the crops that aren’t growing.

No societies avoid problems.  If they last long enough they encounter some kind of climate change. When there’s beneficial climate change, the population grows.  Then the cycle swings the other way; some cope; some don’t.  Will we? Diamond asks.

Done right and in the right places, agriculture and hunting are both sustainable.  Done wrong or in the wrong place and crops and animals become a resource that don’t replenish any more than coal, iron, or oil do.  One of Diamond’s examples is the former forests of Australia.  First Europeans who got there saw some huge trees in thick stands.  They cut a lot of them down and shipped them off in trade.  Big mistake.  Turns out that those lush tree stands grew on very infertile soil.  Most of the nutrition of the forest is tied up in the standing trees.  If you haul out trees, there’s no nutrition for the next “crop” even if you’ve been very careful not to clear cut, carefully reseed etc. This is not true everywhere.  Forestry and other forms of agriculture can be sustainable if done right AND in the right places.  Otherwise you’re living off the capital and not the interest.

Globalization puts us all on the same island, says Diamond.  He’s not railing against globalization, just citing a fact.  But he’s mildly optimistic that we can make the right decisions for two basic reasons: some other civilizations have been able to AND we have very good history of what bad decisions were and how/why they were made.  His book’s a great addition to that information.

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