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Saturday, January 01, 2005


Why societies collapse

The New Year is a time for reflection. With a general election looming in Britain, it is a good time to consider our long-term prospects and reappraise our political priorities.

Jared Diamond (writing in today's New York Times) examines a fundamental issue that will scare off the politically timid; the historical reasons why some societies have collapsed while others have survived.

"When it comes to historical collapses, five groups of interacting factors have been especially important: the damage that people have inflicted on their environment; climate change; enemies; changes in friendly trading partners; and the society's political, economic and social responses to these shifts."

Diamond examines historically how societies such as the Mayas and various Polynesian settlements collapsed, while others in Japan and Europe were able to overcome adversity.

The lessons? First, we must take the environment seriously. The Mayas and Polynesians could destroy their environments and thus their societies with relatively primitive technology. Modern technology and globalisation have substantially increased our destructive capacity.

Second, we need successful group decision-making.

"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."

Diamond warns,

"Could this happen in the United States? It's a thought that often occurs to me here in Los Angeles, when I drive by gated communities, guarded by private security patrols, and filled with people who drink bottled water, depend on private pensions, and send their children to private schools. By doing these things, they lose the motivation to support the police force, the municipal water supply, Social Security and public schools. If conditions deteriorate too much for poorer people, gates will not keep the rioters out. Rioters eventually burned the palaces of Maya kings and tore down the statues of Easter Island chiefs; they have also already threatened wealthy districts in Los Angeles twice in recent decades."

The threats now also come from abroad but, rather than spend ever more on short-term military responses.

"A genuine reappraisal would require us to recognize that it will be far less expensive and far more effective to address the underlying problems of public health, population and environment that ultimately cause threats to us to emerge in poor countries."

The answer is to recognise and share problems, and learn to adapt to changed circumstances. In other words, if we want to survive and prosper in the long term, we must recognise that our unrestrained consumerism is no longer viable, and democratise our society so that elites cannot escape the consequences of their actions.

Now that's what I call 'tough liberalism', not the macho posturing on law and order by certain Liberal Democrat MPs.

More from Jared Diamond in today's Guardian, with an extract from his new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive (to be published on 17 January). Sobering reading.
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