- Viking Publishers, 575 pp.
How Past Failures Can Inform the Present
Between 1000 and 1400 A.D., Easter Island held lush land and ample forests, and its culture so flourished that residents were able to erect hundreds of statues weighing as much as 270 tons without the aid of machinery. By the time the first Europeans visited Easter in 1722, the Island was nearly uninhabited, virtually barren except for the statues, and plagued by such a history of violence and cannibalism that in Island oral traditions, the most hostile insult a person could make was: “The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth.”
How Easter Island and societies like it could crash so precipitously is the subject of Jared Diamond’s fascinating new book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Employing comparative historical analysis, Diamond provides rich case studies of ancient and modern national downfalls including the Mayan, Greenland Viking and Easter Island societies that powerfully demonstrate the potentially dramatic role long-term environmental destruction can play in causing human communities to decline.
Through archaeological analysis, we know that Easter Island descended into civil war and cannibalism when food supplies proved insufficient some time in the seventeenth century. But why, Diamond asks, did a nation that thrived for centuries suddenly find itself incapable of producing adequate amounts of food for its residents?
The answer, according to Diamond, is that Easter’s decline was not sudden at all. To obtain materials to make rope to erect their massive stone statues, Islanders logged their previously vast supply of forests at above replacement rates. Islanders additionally harvested the forests for wood to build canoes for aquaculture.
Logging above replacement rates gradually deforested Easter leading to a whole host of problems: fewer trees meant fewer birds and wild crops for consumption, and because Islanders could no longer build canoes, it meant that residents could no longer obtain porpoise meat, formerly the people’s primary meat source. Moreover, deforestation caused soil erosion, further limiting Islanders’ ability to produce food.
In other words, Easter Island did not just descend into civil war one day. After centuries of environmental destruction, Easter Islanders had little choice but to fight for scarce resources.
Of course, societal downfall cannot be attributed to environmental determinism alone. Diamond proposes five sets of factors—environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbor relations, positive trade relations, and response to the environment—that can contribute to the failure, or success, of a society. Because Easter Island was extremely isolated, its downfall resulted almost entirely from environmental damage, and the peoples’ inability to effectively manage environmental resources.
The recent Rwandan genocide, in which approximately 800,000 people, or eleven percent of the country’s population died in six weeks, provides an unsettling example of a more multi-factor collapse. While acknowledging various social factors, primarily ethnic and political tension between Hutu and Tutsi (the two primary ethnic groups in Rwanda who had some history of strive), Diamond convincingly argues that prior to 1994, Rwanda had become “like the gunpowder inside a powder keg” that only needed a spark—in this case, an assassination and political manipulation of racial tension—to explode.
By 1990, Rwanda’s population density had reached 760 people per square mile, a density greater than the United Kingdom’s, leaving Rwandans with less than an acre per person in farm land in a society where virtually everyone farms. In fact, while median farm size declined from a miniscule 0.89 acres in 1988 to 0.72 acres by 1993, median household size in Rwanda actually increased from 4.9 to 5.3 people. As a result, at least forty percent of the nation’s citizens consumed at below famine levels (1,600 calories per day.) Moreover, Diamond notes, these averages conceal the fact that land inequality was increasing. The smallest farm owners, to support their families in the short-term, had been forced to sell off pieces of land to larger owners, meaning the desperate became more desperate in the 1980s while the comparatively rich became richer.
Prior to the genocide, the annual number of land disputes requiring mediators averaged more than one per household per year. When Rwanda’s prime minister was assassinated in April, 1994, it sparked a reaction from Hutu extremists that erupted into mass killings. Diamond rightly notes that at one level, the genocide was horrific ethnic violence. In addition to race, though, Rwanda’s genocide, in which neighbors killed neighbors and students killed teachers, was a fight over resources—food and farmland—a fight between the haves and have-nots. Diamond quotes one survivor who summarized the shocking violence: “The people whose children had to walk barefoot to school killed the people who could buy shoes for theirs.”
Rwanda isn’t the only modern country plagued by environmental and political problems. Perhaps Diamond’s most interesting observation comes when he provides virtually identical lists of modern political and environmental hotspots, including Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan and, yes, Rwanda. “When people are desperate, undernourished, and without hope,” he argues, “they fight each other over land. They kill each other. They start civil wars. They figure they have nothing to lose, so they become terrorists….” As we have come to see in this era of globalization, Afghani unrest hasn’t remained confined to Afghanistan.
In light of increasing global inter-connectedness, Collapse’s most relevant individual case study may be a rapidly industrializing China. With 1.3 billion people, the giant China, with problems ranging from massive air pollution to deforestation, grows its economy at a rate of nearly ten percent per year. Already the largest producer of sulfur oxides and chlorofluorocarbons (the infamous CFCs), China’s pollution results in 300,000 annual deaths at a health care cost of $54 billion. Despite this heavy pollution, China aims to quadruple its auto manufacturing by 2010, which will almost certainly further degrade air quality.
Diamond notes that China, with its strongly centralized government, has shown some success in dealing with environmental problems. In particular, government power has allowed the country to curtail population growth, and this control could be used to further other environmental efforts. Moreover, it has been a regular participant in United Nations environmental conferences since the early 1970s.
At the same time, it seems unlikely that China will sacrifice growth for environmental protection, and in that regard, China’s growth is singularly more important to the rest of the world than that of any other country. If per-capita consumption in China reaches current developed nation levels, it would virtually double global resource utilization all by itself.
Naturally, Diamond cannot render a verdict on how China will handle its growth, except to say that whatever happens, it will profoundly impact the rest of the world. In that sense, a reader can’t help but wish Diamond had offered his insight on the problems and potential global effects of the strong growth other developing nations like Brazil, India, and Vietnam.
It’s hard to fault a 500-page book for being too short, however, and viewed as a panoramic overview of the interplay between environmental and social tension, Collapse succeeds wildly. The book is not without its shortcomings, naturally. Toward the beginning of Collapse, Diamond attempts to illustrate the ways in which individual opinions about the environment differ by “let[ting] four of [his] Montanan friends relate in their own words…their concerns for Montana’s future” in a tortured bit of faux social science.
But where Collapse is good, it is so good that its flaws recede into the background, in large part because the subject is so immediately pertinent. Diamond claims that the bulk of the world’s environmental problems such as overpopulation, increased resource utilization and deforestation will become so pressing within the next few decades that they will need to be resolved either through wise, sustainable environmental management or global disasters ranging from pandemics to genocide. And in that light, Collapse’s primary lesson, that nations make choices and some of those choices make nations collapse, is all the more relevant—and frightening—for the reader concerned with the planet’s future.