December 28, 2004 8:30 PM   Subscribe

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed [oh and, also see :]
posted by kliuless (30 comments total)
So, if I skim the links correctly the problem is that there are 6 billion of us and we are stressing the environment (but not in any sort of quantitatively measurable way that I saw). So, given that killing off half the planet is probably not a socially acceptable way to solve this problem, and living standards aren't going to get lower (sorry), what should we do other than dickering on MeFi? Maybe I didn't get that far through the links.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 8:55 PM on December 28, 2004

To clarify - it's a good set of links (well researched!), but I'm not sure where it leads us since they're all riffs on the same theme (that's also being played out in the "Global Baby Bust" thread)
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 8:56 PM on December 28, 2004

That Gladwell article in the New Yorker (2nd link) is really good. Haven't read the rest.
posted by Tlogmer at 9:22 PM on December 28, 2004

This'll all be moot once Jesus comes back.
posted by Smedleyman at 9:52 PM on December 28, 2004

Short version....Pride goeth before the Fall.

oh, and make like the ants, not the grasshopper, young grasshopper.
posted by wah at 10:43 PM on December 28, 2004

Thanks for dragging those links into one post, kliuless. I read the New Yorker article about Collapse yesterday, and was going to hunting for more. You saved me the trouble. Muchly ta.
posted by bright cold day at 11:22 PM on December 28, 2004

Most of these links are repetitive -- Diamond has a few good examples he's mined to death in his book, and regurgitates them all in the various articles and talks.

We've had better threads on Diamond in the past. He isn't being an alarmist; he is saying that the whole debate about climate change is being framed wrongly -- that we don't want to save the environment for the snail darter, we want to save it for us.

(This reminds me of the annoying GM SUV commercial, where the engineer says they're building more efficient engines "for my mountains". Air quality problems relating to vehicular pollution sources are primarily in urban areas.)

One thing to keep in mind about the six billion of us is that number is likely to plateau and then decline beginning around 2050, if trends in industrialized countries will apply to Third World nations as they catch up. Then it becomes less a question of resources per person as it does one of resource management for the future. I think this is the key framing problem we're dealing with -- right now, people feel they're in competition with everyone else living right now; it seems a bit of a pile-on to expect them to "compete" with their progeny and everyone else's, as well.
posted by dhartung at 11:26 PM on December 28, 2004

This'll all be moot once Jesus comes back.

Diamond argues that technology won't save us, and the lag time between when the tech fucks things up and fucks things down can be quite uncomfortable for the fuckees.

One second thought, maybe you made a typo and meant to say, "soot"?
posted by wah at 11:44 PM on December 28, 2004

Is this the right thread for a peak oil link?
posted by metaldark at 1:25 AM on December 29, 2004

I almost made my first front page post about the Massey Lectures this year, "A Short History of Progress". unfortunately that would have been more "best of the radio" than "best of the web". Ronald Wright was brilliant! You can still listen to part 1 online, but to me it was the least interesting of the series.

Here is an excerpt from part 3, on Easter Island, that I typed out by hand for a group of friends (yes the spellings were very challenging for a dyslexic engineer, but it was worth the effort).

Rapa Nui, as Polynesians call the place, was settled during the 5th century AD by migrants from the Marquesas or the Gambiers arriving in big catamarans stocked with their usual range of crops and animals: Dogs, chickens, edible rats, sugar cane, bananas, sweet potatoes, and mulberry for making bark cloth. Easter Island proved too cold for breadfruit and coconut palm, but was rich in seafood: fish, seals porpoises, turtles and nesting sea birds. Within five or six centuries the settlers multiplied to about 10,000 people - a lot for 64 square miles. They built villages with good houses on stone footings, and cleared all the best land for fields. Socially, they split into clans and ranks: nobles, priests, commoners. And their may have been a paramount chief or king.

Like Polynesians on some other islands each clan began to honour its ancestry with impressive stone images. These were hewn from the yielding volcanic tuff of a crater and set up on platforms by the shore. As time went on the statue cult became increasingly rivalrous and extravagant, reaching its apogee during Europe's high middle ages while the Plantagenet kings ruled England.

Each generation of images grew bigger than the last. Demanding more timber rope and manpower for hauling to the 'ahu' or alters. trees were cut faster than they could grow, a problem worsened by the settlers rats, who ate the seeds and saplings. By AD 1400 no more tree pollen is found in the annual layers of the crater lakes. The woods had been utterly destroyed by both the largest and the smallest mammals on the island.

We might think that in such a limited place, were from the height of Terevaca islanders could survey their whole world at a glance, steps would have been taken to halt the cutting, to protect the saplings, to replant. We might think that as trees became scarce the erection of statues might have been curtailed and timber reserved for essential purposes such as boat building and roofing. But that is not what happened. The people who felled the last tree could see it was the last, could know with complete certainty that there would never be another, and they felled it anyway.

All shade vanished from the land, except the hard edged shadows cast by the petrified ancestors, whom the people loved all the more because they made them feel less alone. For a generation or so there was enough old lumber to haul the great stones and still keep a few canoes sea worthy for deep water. But the day came when the last good boat was gone. The people then knew there would be little seafood, and worse, no way of escape. The word for wood 'rakau' became the dearest in their language. Wars broke out over ancient planks and worm eaten bits of jetsam. They ate all their dogs and nearly all the nesting birds and the unbearable stillness of the place deepened with animal silences.

There was nothing left now but the moai, the stone giants who had devoured the land, and still these promised the return of plenty if only the people would keep faith and honour them with increase. "But how will we take you to the alters" asked the carvers. And the Moai answered that when the time came they would walk there on their own.

So the sound of hammering still rang from the quarries and the crater walls came alive with hundreds of new giants, growing even bigger now that they had no need of human transport. The tallest ever set on an alter is over 30' high and weighs 80 tons. The tallest ever carved is 65' long and more than 200 tons. Comparable to the greatest stones worked by the Incas or the Egyptians, except of course that it never budged an inch. By the end there were more than one thousand Moai. One for every ten islanders in their heyday. But the good days were gone. Gone with the good earth which had been carried away on the endless wind and washed by flash floods into the sea. The people had been seduced by a kind of progress that becomes a mania, an ideological pathology as some anthropologists call it.

When Europeans arrived in the 18th century the worst was over. They found only one or two living soles per statue. "A sorry remnant" in Cooke's words "small lean, timid and miserable." The Europeans heard tales of how the warrior class had taken power. How the island had convulsed with burning villages, gory battles, and cannibal feasts. Daggers and spearheads became the commonest tools on the island, horded in pits like the grenades and assault rifles kept by modern day survivalists. Even this was not quite the nadir.

Between the Dutch visit of 1722 and Cooke's 50 years later the people again made war on each other, and for the first time on the ancestors as well. Cooke found moai toppled from their platforms, cracked and beheaded, the ruins littered with human bone. We do not know exactly what promises had been made from the demanding moai to the people. But it seems likely that the arrival of an outside world in floating castles of unimaginable wealth and menace might have exposed certain illusions of the statue cult. Replacing compulsive beliefs with equally compulsive disenchantment.

Whatever its animus the destruction on Rapa Nui raged for at least 70 years, each foreign ship saw fewer upright statues, until not one giant was left standing on it's alter. The work of demolition must have been extremely arduous for the few descendants of the builders. Its thoroughness and deliberation speak of something deeper than clan warfare, of a people angry at their reckless fathers, of a revolt against the dead.

posted by Chuckles at 1:49 AM on December 29, 2004 [1 favorite]

The Diamond article just goes to show you what happens without cable tv....
posted by Postroad at 4:18 AM on December 29, 2004

The Diamond article just goes to show you what happens without cable tv....

You start thinking?
posted by rough ashlar at 7:24 AM on December 29, 2004

Jared Diamond is a dingbat with an agenda. In "Guns, Germs and Steel" he want to prove to the west that all its greatness is merely a matter of dumb luck, and that culture and the Protestant work ethic had nothing to do with it. Now he wants us to torpedo the work of three centuries of civilization and progress to satisfy his boundless hatred for American and Western European culture and religion (which probably represent the "father" to him. In these cases, it usually does.) Don't let him get you down.
posted by Faze at 9:57 AM on December 29, 2004

In "Guns, Germs and Steel" he want to prove to the west that all its greatness is merely a matter of dumb luck, and that culture and the Protestant work ethic had nothing to do with it.

Which came first, widespread agriculture or Western culture?
posted by callmejay at 10:16 AM on December 29, 2004

Don't let him get you down.

Why? it hurts?

Really, you should elaborate a bit more if you want me to take your comment seriously. I am interested in changing my mind when I am presented with good arguments.
posted by samelborp at 12:05 PM on December 29, 2004

...the Protestant work ethic...

Just amazing. Lord knows those godless Asians never worked and the Catholic and Orthodox are notoriously lazy.
posted by norm29 at 5:24 PM on December 29, 2004

the best critique i read of diamond was on the atlantic online message boards (post/riposte!) after an article spelling the imminent demise of russia ("russia is finished" by jeffrey tayler)... um, anyway the discussion for whatever reason turned into this great catfight between one guy trumpeting diamond and another guy more than holding his ground citing david landes' wealth and poverty of nations (not unlike this discussion), viz. "If we learn anything from the history of economic development, it is that culture makes all the difference."

i tend to be a techno-cultural determinist (w/ a splash of historical materialism :) so i tend to agree with faze in privileging culture, but i do not dismiss diamond's geographical determinism either and indeed they're not really even mutually exclusive; i think both should be considered. but as to which is primary...

i suspect the accident of geography was more influential in prehistory and early civilisation, but became (is becoming) less so as society 'progresses' and the fitness landscape one maneuvers thru increasingly becomes more uh, "semiotic" than physical - atoms to bits...

be that as it may - there is no information without physical representation - we still live in the physical world. as marx & engels might say, "man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind" :D funnily enough, one of the 'accidents of geography' still very relevant today is that "our oil" lies under "their sand" with 63% of proved oil reserves located in the middle east... on that note, one last thing i'd like to add regarding resource use wrt oil is this bit extrapolating per capita consumption from comparative historical development trajectories:
Just consider that China's car population has more than doubled since 2002 and that it is up tenfold since 1994. Thus, as mentioned above, oil imports of China have risen by 40% so far in 2004. And while I certainly do not believe that Chinese oil imports will rise every year by 40%, it is equally unlikely that oil imports into China will ever decline again meaningfully.

In fact, if we look at what happened to per capita oil consumption during phases of industrialization in the US between 1900 and 1970, we see that per capita consumption rose from one barrel per year to around 28 barrels. In the case of Japan's industrialization between 1950 and 1970 and South-Korea's between 1965 and 1990, per capita oil consumption rose from one barrel to 17 barrels.

In the case of China, oil demand per capita is still only 1.7 barrels per year, and for India it has only reached 0.7 barrels. By comparison Mexico consumes annually about 7 barrels of oil per capita and the entire Latin American continent around 4.5 barrels.

Therefore, starting from such a low base, oil consumption in Asia will, in my opinion, double in the next ten to 15 years from currently 20 million barrels per day to around 40 million barrels per day.

Remember also, that if China's per capita oil consumption went to the level of Mexico's per capita consumption China would consume 24 million barrels of oil daily, which would be close to 30% of global production. And since it is most unlikely that current total global oil production of 80 million barrels per day can be increased much - in fact, it may begin to decline because no major oil field has been discovered since 1965 - I expect that prices will increase further in the future - possibly far more than anyone is now expecting.
posted by kliuless at 7:11 PM on December 29, 2004

History casts a long shadow. Nations do have individual personalities, a la Gore Vidal -- at least to some degree. It's memetics, not fuzzy thinking; culture promogulates itself forward, and if you go far enough back, culture rests on geography (what else could it rest on? genetics? Blind accident, I suppose, but that just amounts to statistical noise; doesn't further anyone's argument).

So yeah, I'm basically rephrasing callmejay. Faze, you suck.
posted by Tlogmer at 11:18 PM on December 29, 2004

On further reflection, I guess you could retort that culture rests on the historical contributions of certain individuals. But Ceasar wouldn't have been able to do much if he'd been born in central australia.

This is one area where the conservative emphaisis on personal values juts against the liberal emphaisis on the power of circumstance; I suspect that's what jerked Faze's knee. But we're not devising educational strategies; we're figuring out how things happened a long time ago. Insisting on the personal responsibility perspective in this context is stupid.
posted by Tlogmer at 11:22 PM on December 29, 2004

Don't let him get you down.

Thanks Faze!

*continues to frivolously use a disproportionate amount of remaining global oil supplies*
posted by goethean at 7:51 AM on December 30, 2004

devildanced: "...and living standards aren't going to get lower (sorry),..."

That's quite an assumption you've made there!

Perhaps it should be rephrased as "those with very high standards of living will not willingly allow them to be lowered," which I think is more accurate.

As you mention, we've been going on about this in the Baby Bust thread, but I just want to condense some thoughts from there to respond to this idea about standard of living down into:

Once the energy equation gets to the point where it takes more energy to maintain the current "standard of living infrastructure" than we produce out of it to power our technological society, the standard of living WILL decrease - whether we like it or not.

The question is, do we burn all the super-cheap energy as we are now, not only maintaining but increasing our standard of living, until there is no more super-cheap energy (there will still be energy, just not cheap) - whereupon the whole structure crashes - or do we use our brains and try to work out some smart ways to hedge against such a happening?

The Rapa Nui example is quite instructive, since that question faced them, and they took the "what, me worry?" path. Their civilization, frankly, went insane, and then ate itself from the inside out - the insanity being defined and demonstrated by their collective refusal to look at the reality of their situation. They kept doing the same thing over and over, devoting all their time and energy to their Statue Cult, even when it became clear it was destroying them. They even listened to the words of their stone Gods - the words of big stone statues that they had created themselves - who said "don't worry, we'll provide." One wonders how they heard words from inanimate, material objects, eh? Generally if someone says to me, "this rock is speaking to me in the voice of God!" I start edging away, because that usually means they're insane.

I can only imagine what it must have been like. A stone carver working on a statue in the crater says, "Oh, I am starving, I am so hungry," and the Statue Cult priest comes over and says, "Keep carving, the only way we'll be blessed with food is if this statue is perfect and the Ancestors are pleased!" "Uh... okay..." tap tap tap tap. Wonder how long it took before that conversation was punctuated by a whip.

It's folly to assume that we, as human beings just like the Rapa Nui, would be any different. It's only the scale of the problem that differs.
posted by zoogleplex at 11:10 AM on December 30, 2004

Whoof, and also what happened to the Greenlanders. Wow, I thought it was the Little Ice Age too (which surely contributed)... but wow... eating newborn calves before winter, yet not taking advantage of ridiculously plentiful fishing... insanity.
posted by zoogleplex at 11:21 AM on December 30, 2004

Thanks Chuckles. Sobering reading.
posted by talitha_kumi at 3:33 PM on December 30, 2004

Thanks, I found this really interesting.
posted by beth at 6:28 PM on December 30, 2004

"Nations do have individual personalities, a la Gore Vidal"

waste not your pity on them :D

also btw, i do think memetics is "fuzzy thinking"!

i find the term misleading as its conception begs continual thought and expression that in my mind are more accurately characterized as processes rather than ideas with implicit boundaries, which the idea of memes seems to imply.
posted by kliuless at 8:08 PM on December 30, 2004

I'm not a memetic totalist -- I don't, as the "fuzzy thinking" link put it, think all thought is propaganda.

A way of thinking can, of course, be simultaneously true and compelling, and then it's usually both true and a meme. The very idea of "meme" has indistinct boundaries, which makes it problematic, but I'm just using it here becuase it's the simplest way of encapsulting all the ways a culture will perpetuate itself. The most obvious observable facets of a culture often seem trivial, but they're the proverbial iceburg's tip, indicators of an area's inhabitants' overriding modes of thought.

When Guns, Germs and Steel talked about physical/geographical antecedents to the way societies operate, it wasn't discounting culture; it was just explaining culture, along with everything else, as a byproduct of physical circumstance. This makes sense, even if the physical circumstances have changed recently.

(I mean, come on. A world map color-coded by temperature is (very very roughly) a world map color-coded by income. That's not coincidence.)
posted by Tlogmer at 9:39 PM on December 30, 2004

hey! diamond wrote an nytimes oped to ring in the new year :D where i think he makes some good points...
What lessons can we draw from history? The most straightforward: take environmental problems seriously. They destroyed societies in the past, and they are even more likely to do so now. If 6,000 Polynesians with stone tools were able to destroy Mangareva Island, consider what six billion people with metal tools and bulldozers are doing today. Moreover, while the Maya collapse affected just a few neighboring societies in Central America, globalization now means that any society's problems have the potential to affect anyone else. Just think how crises in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq have shaped the United States today.

Other lessons involve failures of group decision-making. There are many reasons why past societies made bad decisions, and thereby failed to solve or even to perceive the problems that would eventually destroy them. One reason involves conflicts of interest, whereby one group within a society (for instance, the pig farmers who caused the worst erosion in medieval Greenland and Iceland) can profit by engaging in practices that damage the rest of society. Another is the pursuit of short-term gains at the expense of long-term survival, as when fishermen overfish the stocks on which their livelihoods ultimately depend.

History also teaches us two deeper lessons about what separates successful societies from those heading toward failure. A society contains a built-in blueprint for failure if the elite insulates itself from the consequences of its actions. That's why Maya kings, Norse Greenlanders and Easter Island chiefs made choices that eventually undermined their societies. They themselves did not begin to feel deprived until they had irreversibly destroyed their landscape.


The other deep lesson involves a willingness to re-examine long-held core values, when conditions change and those values no longer make sense. The medieval Greenland Norse lacked such a willingness: they continued to view themselves as transplanted Norwegian pastoralists, and to despise the Inuit as pagan hunters, even after Norway stopped sending trading ships and the climate had grown too cold for a pastoral existence. They died off as a result, leaving Greenland to the Inuit. On the other hand, the British in the 1950's faced up to the need for a painful reappraisal of their former status as rulers of a world empire set apart from Europe. They are now finding a different avenue to wealth and power, as part of a united Europe.
also found this reason discussion interesting btw, oh and singer's review of posner's catastrophe :D

re: 'memes'

i guess my thing is i think 'memes' tends to get conflated with (as the lamarckian version of?) genes, or rather that 'memetics' derives some sort of cachet from genetics, when i think it should not... it's sort of a pet peeve of mine in that invoking memes just tends to confuse the issue imho, precisely because of its shorthand(waving) nature. like rather than being "the simplest way of encapsulting," i feel it obscures "all the ways a culture will perpetuate itself."

unless memetics can define this as well as genetics can define how phenotypes can perpetuate, i.e. better than normative and descriptive disciplines already at hand in the social 'sciences', then i shall continue to be peeved by its use!

i agree that diamond wasn't discounting culture :D

posted by kliuless at 9:12 PM on January 2, 2005

Regarding the Massey lecture discussion of Easter Island, you can find pretty much the same material, in more detail, in the transcript of a 2003 BBC documentary.

Some points are almost verbatim the same:

NARRATOR: But by now nothing could stop the frenzy of destruction.

JOHN FLENLEY: In the case of Easter Island it's a fairly small island. You could stand on the summit of Easter Island and see the whole place. The person who cut down the last tree must have known that it was the last tree, but they still cut it down. This is the most amazing example in the world of total deforestation by people.
posted by bluffy at 12:35 PM on January 4, 2005

bluffy, that sure is a striking "coincidence". It seems to be the only point that is obviously lifted. On the other hand it is the climax of Ronald Wright's narrative, which makes the plagiarism kind of offensive...

I found a transcript of The Pemala Denoon Lecture, 1997 which contains the idea that they must have known it was the last tree. Christine Milne is gracious enough to attribute the idea to Clive Ponting's book A Green History of the World. Looks like an interesting book! Unfortunately the excerpt on Amazon ends just as they are getting to the key pages...
posted by Chuckles at 5:46 PM on January 11, 2005

I take it back, it isn't that plagiarized at all. I thought Wright actually used the words "nothing could stop the frenzy of destruction" but he doesn't...

The Ponting book still looks interesting though :P
posted by Chuckles at 5:53 PM on January 11, 2005

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