Wednesday, July 2, 2008


I just finished reading this book by Jared Diamond. The book goes into such depths to make its point (which wasn't even clear to me until near the end) that I'm not sure I'll be able to hash out even a satisfactory overview here. I'll see what I can do, though.

Diamond takes us on a journey through past failed civilizations, explaining the circumstances surrounding their collapses. Approaching this book, I was expecting there to be some kind of correlation between cultural traditions and the onset of collapse. I had, after all, heard stories that Rome's fall was preceded by and due in large part to a moral degradation of society. What I found instead was initially uninteresting, so I put down the book. For about 8 months (my disinterest, a symptom of my selfish ignorance).

I was going through my audiobooks this summer, trying to rationalize purchasing another, when I came across this yet unfinished book. So I promised I'd finish it before I allowed myself to buy another one. As the book details (and I mean details) the societal climate of these past civilizations, one quickly finds that they all have something in common. It's not the degradation of morals that unprops a society into utter collapse but the degredation of their respective ecosystems. The effects of deforestation, chemical contamination from mining, depletion of our ocean's seafood from overfishing, and irresponsible farming techniques all contributed to these society's downfalls.

Diamond ultimately lists eight factors that were a part of past failed societies and four more factors that might contribute to the weakening and collapse of present and future societies.

1. Deforestation and habitat destruction
2. Soil problems (erosion, salinization, soil fertility loss)
3. Water management problems
4. Overhunting
5. Overfishing
6. Effects of introduced species on native species
7. Human population growth
8. Increased per-capita impact of people

1. Human-caused climate change
2. Buildup of toxic chemicals in the environment
3. Energy shortages
4. Full human utilization of the Earth's photosynthetic capacity

I can unfortunately do for you little more than recommend the book or point you towards one of Diamond's articles in the New York Times. I can give this thought, however: Next time you find yourself in your local bookstore, pick up a copy and read the closing chapter. These growing concerns must be addressed. All one has to do is a simple thought experiment, considering what our society would be like with drastic food and energy shortages, to foresee the impact of a degrading ecosystem. These types of shortages contribute to the war-like conflicts we see throughout parts of Africa and the Middle East, not to mention China, India, and even Japan earlier in the last century (though they addressed their problems as is discussed in the book).

If nothing else, keeping in mind these factors and how our actions either create or support chain-like series of events that lead to them, we could probably do a lot of good just by making some small changes in our habits. In our society our mindset needs to change from the selfish ideals of consumption to that of stewardship and respect for our environment. We must focus on these factors now because even today evidence slowly mounts for a future collapse.


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