Jared Diamond – Collapse - Seán Kinane


Last night at USF Tampa, scientist and author Jared Diamond spoke to about 1100 students and community members about his new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. WMNF’s Seán Kinane reports.

“Today we are struggling with all of the same problems that bedeviled past societies. So, what can we learn from those past societies to help us?�

That was Jared Diamond. He attempts to answer that question in his book, Collapse. He examined some ancient societies that collapsed due in part to environmental destruction and some that succeeded. He compared them to modern societies that have failed and to some that appear to be succeeding. But, As Diamond points out; it is difficult to find areas that aren’t environmentally stressed.

“Montana’s largest Nat’l Park is Glacier National Park. A jokester said it really ought to be renamed Glacier-less National Park because at the rate that global warming is proceeding and the glaciers are melting, in 14 years by the year 2020 the last glacier in Glacier National Park will have melted. Those are problems in seemingly pristine Montana.�

One societal collapse that Diamond spoke about was Easter Island. When it was first settled it was forested and had the world’s largest palm trees. But over the next 800 years, as the Easter society constructed its famous stone monuments, the island was deforested. The last tree was cut around 1680, which was followed by war, cannibalism, and societal collapse. When he was writing the book, one of his undergraduates at UCLA wondered what the islander who cut down the last tree was thinking. Other students gave three answers that parallel some modern thinking.

Never fear, technology will solve our problems by finding a substitute for wood. And another student said, no, the islander who cut down the last tree was probably saying: This is my land and this tree is my private property. Respect my private property rights and keep big government, the chiefs, off my back. A third student said, I’m sick and tired of you livid green tree-hugging environmentalists exaggerating as always. You care more about trees than you do about the jobs of us loggers. I’m sure there are some other trees in the next valley. What we really need is more research and a ban on logging would be premature.�

Another excuse for not protecting the environment is that the economy will suffer if resources are used for environmental issues. But Diamond explained that the opposite is true and used Hurricane Katrina as an example.

“The strongest reason for taking environmental problems seriously is that failure to do so is utterly disastrous to the economy. Environmental problems are routinely cheap to solve in the early stage and they’re impossible or frightfully expensive to solve in a late stage. And that’s something since Aug 2005 we Americans know very well, because we, at various levels of government, chose not to spend a few hundred million dollars on the dykes of New Orleans. We’ve instead ended up through neglecting that environmental problem, with a bill of about 300 billion dollars for rebuilding the city and repaying insurance claims, not to mention a few thousand dead Americans.�

Another reason why societies fail to respond to dire environmental problems is that the elite of society, those with power to take action, shelter themselves from the effects of societal collapse until it is too late. Mayan society collapsed due in part to environmental problems, but the chiefs, who were supported by food grown by their subjects, were sheltered from the effects until it was too late. Diamond uses his L.A. neighbors as a modern analogy.

“Within the gated communities, rich southern Californians are insulated from these problems because they’ve got their own private security guards and they’re drinking bottled water and they’re sending their kids to private schools, and they have their own private medical insurance and their own private pension plans. So they’re not motivated to solve the bigger problems of American society and they can get away with it in the short run, but in the long run they cannot. The United States as a whole is behaving like a gated community. We’re behaving as if we in the United States can enjoy our standard of living and gate ourselves off from the problems of the rest of the world.�

One way that societies choose to succeed rather than collapse is to reappraise core values when conditions change. Diamond feels that there are two values that Americans may need to reexamine if our society is to survive. One is Isolationism. In the past, oceans have protected us. But with globalization, the world is smaller. The other value that needs to be reexamined is Consumerism, as Diamond explains.

“We’re the richest country in the world, which means we consume the most. And our value of consumerism, you can aspire to be rich, served us well as long as there were a couple of million Americans in a big bountiful continent. But today, sometime this year the 300 millionth American will be born or immigrate. And we are in a world of shrinking resources, so our consumerism that served us so well in the past is not serving us well today. But will we have the courage to reappraise our value of consumerism with which we are starting to struggle?�

A USF student asked about China, which has a population of well over one billion. Diamond pointed out that there are not enough resources on earth for China’s population to consume at the rate that the United States currently does, which is 32 times that of the Third World.

“But it’s equally impossible for the First World to say to the Third World: tough luck for you Chinese, we Americans will go on consuming. The only possible outcome 50 years from now is that consumption rates in the Third World and the First World will be more nearly equal, because if they’re not, the Third World will continue to make us unhappy. And they will equalize not at present American gas-guzzling rates, but at some intermediate rate. We have the misconception that standard of living equals high consumption rates. No, that’s not true. You can enjoy a high standard of living without wasteful consumption.�

An audience member asked how many years it would be until societal collapse occurred if we don’t make the proper choices to solve crucial environmental problems. Jared Diamond responded:

“Problems of climate change, deforestation, fisheries, soil, etc. Most of those problems are time bombs with fuses of between 10, 30, max-50 years. So, it will either all get settled in a benign manner in the next 50 years. Or it will get settled in a non-benign manner as is happening in Haiti and Nepal. That’s how long we have.�

For a list of upcoming lectures at USF, including the Nobel Laureate Wangaari Maathai, visit the web address ctr –dot- usf –dot- edu –slash- uls.

For WMNF News, I’m Seán Kinane


USF University Lecture Series


Jared Diamond


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