MENACE TO SOCIETY
How poor choices – environmental, cultural, technological – led to some civilizations' decline and fall
By Joseph Stiglitz
BOOK REVIEW Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed By Jared Diamond Viking, 575 pp., illustrated, $29.95
With "Collapse," Jared Diamond has written a fascinating account of the collapse of civilizations around the world, including the Mayans, Easter Islanders, and Greenlanders. All of these failed because of environmental degradation. Sometimes the demise was augmented by outside forces, and sometimes the civilization faced a challenge of a fragile and changing environment. But in each case it was the misconduct of those within the country that was at the root of the problem. These societies caused their own demise.
How, one might ask, could societies be so self-destructive? The large number of examples so richly described in "Collapse" enables Diamond to provide an incisive taxonomy of the explanation based on both rational and irrational behavior. As one reads these accounts, one thinks of modern parallels, and lest we miss the point, the author provides a detailed description of environmental problems around the world today, from Montana to China to Australia. He describes, for instance, how the glaciers that gave their name to Montana's Glacier National Park are fast disappearing. A reader cannot help but leave the book wondering whether we are following the track of these other civilizations that failed, ignoring the signals that there is an impending problem, somehow hoping that in the end technology will save the day.
In the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami, there are calls for an early-warning system. No one claims we can prevent tsunamis, that we can alter these forces of nature. Rather, we have to learn to cope with them. But in one area, we have already been given an early warning in global warming. Most countries have recognized this. That's why they came together in Rio de Janeiro and Kyoto to do something about it not enough, but the Kyoto protocol was intended only as a start. Sadly, some of the same countries ravaged by the tsunami will likely be destroyed by global warming, such as the low- lying Maldives.
One might have thought we were in a far better position than these earlier societies, for we have the advantage of modern science. And Diamond's account shows the power of the scientific approach. As he describes each collapse, he weighs alternative explanations and brings to bear a variety of evidence from a wide range of disciplines, looking at each piece carefully, giving due attention to the arguments put forward by the proponents of each hypothesis, showing how the evidence supports or contradicts each. At least for this lay reader, the argument is extremely persuasive.
But science is not enough. Many of the civilizations facing collapse had early warning signs, which they chose to ignore. Years after there was broad scientific consensus on global warming, President Bush (no scientist himself) tried to cast doubt on it; when the National Academy of Sciences came to the only conclusion it could, reaffirming the conclusions of the international scientific community, he could no longer give that reason; he simply chose to do nothing. Detroit and the oil companies, of course, benefit from the current system, even if the world loses. This kind of situation, where particular interests prevail over the general interests, is one of the principal explanations identified by Diamond for collapses.
In Montana, even after the mining companies were made legally responsible for cleaning up their environmental wastes, they managed to pass the costs estimated at some half a billion dollars on to Montana and US taxpayers. Having paid out millions to shareholders and their executives, having exhausted the minerals from the mines, they simply went bankrupt. The cost to the public may well exceed the total benefit received.
While Diamond identifies the many examples of countries that have abused their environment and suffered the consequences, he also discusses a number of important examples of countries that have not done so, and even of mining companies that have been good corporate citizens. A natural question arises, into which Diamond provides some interesting insights: what determines whether a particular country (or firm) respects the environment? Market-oriented economists often refer to the tragedy of the commons, the failure to assign property rights. With well-defined property rights, it is argued, there will be no incentive to deplete resources too rapidly or to spoil the environment. But Diamond points out that private firms (as in Montana) have often despoiled the environment, and many civilizations have learned to manage their environment in other ways. Communities can regulate environmental usage, punishing those whose actions threaten the well-being of the entire community. He even identifies some of the circumstances that are more likely to lead firms to abuse the environment foreign firms far removed from the people of the country whose resources they are exploiting, feeling little or no social responsibility for their actions. Here too there is an important lesson on the limits of globalization. (One slight quibble with Diamond is that he could have gone further in explaining the inherent nature of the problem, and how difficult it is to resolve. Under capitalism American style, firms' responsibilities are to their shareholders, not to other stakeholders. That means they are obligated to get away with as much as they can.)
Though abuse of the environment is the common theme running through "Collapse," the book is replete with other fascinating stories, a treasure trove of historical anecdotes. Greenland's demise was affected, for instance, by the diminution in the demand for the one product in which it had a strong comparative advantage: walrus tusks. The Crusades opened a supply of a competitive product, elephant tusks, and in the ever-changing fads and fashions of the time, the overall demand for ivory for carving diminished. Climate change, the little Ice Age, played a role too, as the sea lanes connecting Greenland and Norway became more clogged with ice. And so did politics, when Norway, with which Greenland had the closest connections, became neglected after the unification of the Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish kingdoms.
Diamond provides a number of haunting statistics. The enormous growth of China and many other countries has been well beyond the dreams of even the optimists a half-century ago. It has brought increased life expectancy and rising living standards, and not just to a few. But if the developing countries succeed in closing the gap between themselves and the more advanced industrial countries, the demands on the environment will increase some twelve-fold and meanwhile, of course, the United States and the other advanced industrial countries will continue their course of increased emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, and increased usage of depletable natural resources. All of this is simply not sustainable. Optimists, of course, say we have heard all of this before Malthus and other doomsayers have been proven wrong so far.
According to Diamond, religion played a role in the collapse of many of the societies he writes about, and one can imagine the priests and people of Easter Island, Greenland, and the Mayan empire calling on the gods to save them. Today it is belief in new technology that persuades many that our societies are immune to collapse. But in the race between technology and the abuses of the environment, technology is losing. The concentration of greenhouse gases has already increased enormously, and there is every reason to believe it will continue to do so. Modern science has shown definitively that our world is at risk just as many ancient societies were. Any reader of "Collapse" will leave the book convinced that we must take steps now to save our planet.