The good news of Jared Diamond’s Collapse (2011) is that no generation in human history has had more information available to it about how other societies and cultures failed to meet the crises of their days. The bad news is that leaders in societies across time and culture have often sought only to make sure that their elites or family were the last to survive while the broader society faltered and ultimately collapsed. Daimond’s hope, and I assume ours as well, is that contemporary societies will recognize the challenges we face and deal with them in ways that protect us all.
Diamond identified eight factors that placed societies at risk over history; deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems, water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth, and increased per-capita impact of people. The weight of each of these variables has varied across the cultures he analyzed but the pattern of past collapses has generally involved population growth that led to intensified focus on food production, expanded farming that became increasingly unproductive, and continuing pursuit of unsustainable practices that ultimately destroyed the living conditions required to support the population. Some societies dwindled and died where they were while others moved on to another place to begin the cycle all over.
To these eight natural conditions, Diamond added several new factors that he asserts are impacting current societies – human caused climate change, buildup of toxic chemicals in the environment, energy shortages, and full human utilization of all the photosynthetic capacity of the planet. The human complicators include the presence of hostile neighbors, decreased support from previously friendly neighbors, and the response of the society to the problems it has encountered. Diamond noted both societies that have negotiated difficult circumstances and survived as well as other societies that did not.
At the core of most of the societal failures there has been a conflict in values – either conflict among sub-groups within a society or conflict between what was valued and the reality that those values did not work. The latter dynamic has been particularly interesting in the examples of European societies that failed because they did not heed and respect native cultures they encountered as they expanded their reach throughout the world. The ability to recognize the value tension, and adjust as necessary was the key to success. The challenge that has never loomed so ominously before is that previous societies could fail and only their populations suffered the consequence. In today’s world, the potential for failure has moved to a much grander scale – even when one society attempts to shift its own failures to another society, the shifts are only temporary solutions that eventually wreak havoc for all. The other crushing reality is that first-world economies have already overutilized resources and damaged the natural environment and now are trying to push more austere consumption off on developing economies; those in these other places see the hypocrisy of encouraging restraint when they, themselves, were unwilling to change their ways to reduce the negative impact on our shared eco-system.
The bottom line is that the complications we face around the globe require leadership – and a particularly courageous kind. The leadership required to negotiate the conditions that have caused other societies over history to collapse will anticipate growing problems and will take bold steps to address the problems before they reach catastrophic levels. As Diamond says, “Such leaders expose themselves to criticism or ridicule for acting before it becomes obvious to everyone that some action is necessary.” This kind of leadership is essential if we are to avoid the reality that conflicts across contemporary societies may well result in very unpleasant outcomes “such as warfare, genocide, starvation, disease epidemics, and collapses of societies.”