Jared Diamond Collapse

 | 3 min

The second lecture by Jared Diamond (on Thursday night) was essentially based on his book Collapse. It examines the factors that cause some societies to fail while others thrive.

Not surprisingly, given Diamond's interest in ecology and geography, environmental factors play a large role. The richness & fertility of the environment is one of the key factors, as is the nature human impact on the environment. The presence of absense of both friends and foes can make the difference between life or death, as can the society's willingness to reexamine and change some of it's core values when faced with a crisis.

His primary example is Easter island - the most remote inhabitated bit of land in the world. Some of his other examples were the Greenland Norse, the Anasazi of the American southwest and the Mayans of the Yucatan peninsula. He also contrasts these with examples of societies that were at risk of collapse but managed to avert it: Iceland and Japan in the Tokugawa era.

When the polynesian colonists arrived on Easter island, it was a lush temperate forest, with many species of large trees, including the largest species of palm tree in the world. Initially, the island must have seemed very fertile and resource-rich. The islanders dined on tuna and dolphin (fished from their ocean-going canoes) as well as a large assortment of seabirds and landbirds. They began creating terraced gardens on the uplands to grow vegetables and herbs as well.

The island provided them with such a rich lifestyle that they had sufficient time and resources spare to build and erect large statues embodying their gods. These were quarried in the single rock quarry on the island, then dragged miles back to the group's home area (there were perhaps a dozen separate groups on the island) using wooden sleds, ladders and ropes. There they were raised up to stand vertical on enormous platforms. The tribes most likely competed with each other to build the biggest and most impressive statues.

Unfortunately for the easter islanders though, their island wasn't actually as fertile as it first appeared. The lush resources they saw were the result of centuries of growth, and when they cut down the trees they grew back extremely slowly. They quickly ran out of the timber suitable for making canoes, and as a result, tuna and dolphin disappeared from their diet. They also depleted the seabird and landbirds (some to extinction) and had to rely more on agriculture. This was increasingly marginal, as the deforestation contributed to erosion, resulting in the loss of topsoil. Eventually they ran so low on wood that they were forced to use gravel for mulch in their gardens, and to burn leafy shrubs for firewood.

Things eventually reached a crisis point, and the society collapsed, with the islanders retreating into caves and turning cannabalistic in order to get protein in their diet. They toppled all the statues they had spent so much effort in erecting, causing them to fall in such a way that they were broken at the neck.

No friends or foes were a factor in the collapse of easter island - they were too isolated. Once they consumed all the resources of their island, they literally had nowhere to go and nobody to turn to.

One of Jared Diamond's students asked what went through the mind of the easter islander while he was chopping down that last tree. Some of his students had thoughts on that (I'm paraphrasing from memory):

  • "It's my private land and I can do what I want. Government should stay out of people's private business."
  • "We don't know that we necessarily have a deforestation problem. I think we need to do more research on the matter."
  • "Get lost you tree-hugging hippy! Don't you know that loggers need their jobs - we have families to feed!"

One thing that he mentioned was a common feature of societies prior to collapsing was the ability of the leaders to isolate themselves from the problems faced by everyone else. This can mean they don't anticipate the problem, or don't even see it when it arises. They may not even do anything to solve the problem when it occurs because it doesn't affect them personally. However, in the long run, the masses will only take so much before they revolt and overthrow their leaders. By that stage it could very well be too late for the society. He spoke of seeing this happening in America today, with people having gated communities, private security companies, bottled water, private superannuation, education and healthcare, all serving to essentially isolate those people from all the problems faced by society.