The brink of destruction


The Philippines, Indonesia, and the U.S. are just three of nine countries Jared Diamond believes are in imminent danger. “I couldn’t tell you what society will collapse next,” Diamond, author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed and professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the audience gathered in the SSA lobby at Thursday’s Helen Harris Perlman Lecture, but those countries “are all sources of concern.”

Diamond touched on a number of vanished societies, including Easter Island, Pitcairn Island, the Mayans, and the American Southwest’s Anasazi, whose ancient Pueblo dwellings were the world’s tallest structures until Chicago’s steel-framed skyscrapers rose in the late 1800s. Human environmental mismanagement, climate change, war, trade-partner dependence, and resulting inept institutional responses, he explained, can all induce societal disintegration.

“What do you think the person to chop down the last tree on Easter Island said?” asked Diamond, recounting a question he poses to his undergraduate classes. Typical responses—reflecting contemporary debates—range from “there will be a new alternative technology that will develop to replace the need for trees” to “it’s my property, leave me alone” to “all this environmental concern…You’re all fear mongers.” Like the Easter Islanders, he said, American society cannot afford to sweep problems of limited environmental resources under the rug.

So why do some societies deal with their issues while others do not? “If the elite suffer,” Diamond said, “the problems are solved.” He cited the Netherlands, one-third of which lies below sea level and, unlike the worst hit areas of New Orleans, is inhabited by both rich and poor. After a 1953 flood killed more than 1,800 people, the Dutch responded. Today, he said, the Netherlands has one of the world’s highest percentages of individuals involved in environmental organizations.


Photo: Diamond called himself a "cautious optimist" at the SSA.

Photo by L.G.

October 20, 2006