Rachel's Democracy & Health News #844  [Printer-friendly version]
March 2, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Some civilizations reach their peak of power
and then suddenly collapse and remain in decline or even disappear.
Others thrive for thousands of years. What accounts for the
difference, and what does it matter to the U.S.?]

By Peter Montague

The year 2005 began with an interesting choice by the editors of the
New York Times -- the first op ed of the year was a long essay by
Jared Diamond called "The ends of the world as we know them."
Diamond won the Pulitzer prize for his non-fiction book, "Guns,
Germs, and Steel" and later in 2005 he published "Collapse; How
Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed."

Diamond's op-ed offers an analysis of why civilizations collapse. It
is an essay obviously intended to make us ask, "Does our civilization
have what it takes to survive?" In the opening paragraph he says, "In
this fresh year, with the United States seemingly at the height of its
power and at the start of a new presidential term, Americans are
increasingly concerned and divided about where we are going. How long
can America remain ascendant? Where will we stand 10 years from now,
or even next year?"

Diamond goes on: "Such questions seem especially appropriate this
year. History warns us that when once-powerful societies collapse,
they tend to do so quickly and unexpectedly. That shouldn't come as
much of a surprise: peak power usually means peak population, peak
needs, and hence peak vulnerability. What can be learned from history
that could help us avoid joining the ranks of those who declined

Diamond tells the stories of a few past civilizations that collapsed
and rapidly disappeared -- the Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula in
Mexico; the Polynesian societies on Henderson and Pitcairn islands
in the tropical Pacific Ocean; the Anasazi in the American
southwest; the ancient societies of the Fertile Crescent; the
Khmer at Angkor Wat; and the Moche society of Peru, among others.

Diamond then offers a long list of other societies that followed a
different trajectory and survived for very long periods in Japan,
Tonga, Tikopia, the New Guinea Highlands, and Central and
Northwest Europe, among others. So collapse is not inevitable.
Collapse is the result of choices.

Diamond asserts that collapse results from 5 inter-woven factors:

1. The damage that people have inflicted on their environment;

2. Climate change;

3. Enemies;

4. Changes in friendly trading partners;

5. Society's political, economic, and social responses to those

After telling the stories of particular societies that collapsed or
prospered, Diamond asks pointedly, "What lessons can we draw from

Take environmental problems seriously

He answers bluntly: "The most straightforward [lesson from history]:
take environmental problems seriously. They destroyed societies in the
past, and they are even more likely to do so now. If 6,000 Polynesians
with stone tools were able to destroy Mangareva Island, consider
what six billion people with metal tools and bulldozers are doing
today. Moreover, while the Maya collapse affected just a few
neighboring societies in Central America, globalization now means that
any society's problems have the potential to affect anyone else. Just
think how crises in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq have shaped
the United States today."

The second reasons for collapse is "failure of group decision-making."

Diamond then offers three kinds of failure of decision-making:

Decision-making failure #1: "One reason involves conflicts of
interest, whereby one group within a society (for instance, the pig
farmers who caused the worst erosion in medieval Greenland and
Iceland) can profit by engaging in practices that damage the rest of
society," Diamond writes.

Examples of this in contemporary society might include

** The petrochemical industry that reaps mountainous profits by
selling products that are heating up the planet, contaminating our
bodies with biologically-active industrial poisons, and leaving tens
of thousands of chemically-contaminated waste sites for taxpayers to
try to deal with.

** Another example might be the tobacco industry that is now hawking
its cancer-causing wares to unsuspecting children world-wide.

This list could be readily extended because the U.S. pays only lip
service to the important principle that "the polluter shall pay."
More often than not, in the U.S. the polluter is subsidized by the
federal government to evade paying.

Decision-making failure #2: "... [T]he pursuit of short-term gains at
the expense of long-term survival, as when fishermen overfish the
stocks on which their livelihoods ultimately depend."

** We might include in this category, unsustainable logging practices;
industrialized agriculture, which depletes topsoil and contaminates
water with fertilizer and pesticides; and waste-treatment plants that
discharge wastes into waters that must then be cleaned for drinking
and other essential purposes.

Decision failure #3: "History also teaches us two deeper lessons about
what separates successful societies from those heading toward

Deep lesson #1: "A society contains a built-in blueprint for failure
if the elite insulates itself from the consequences of its actions."

** With 10% of the U.S. population owning 71% of all private wealth,
we do not have to look far to see this principle at work in the U.S.

-- The Walmartization of the economy is one example -- getting rid
of good, family-sustaining jobs and substituting low-wage jobs with no
benefits and no job security. This does not hurt the 10%, but
ultimately it weakens the social fabric that sustains the other 90% of

-- The privatization of public services is another example --
depleting the ranks of the civil service that provides continuity and
expertise to government from one administration to the next. The firms
that run the private prisons, the privatized public schools, the
private water-supplies, the private highways, the privatized
environmental services -- those firms can make out like bandits but
the rest of us stand by helplessly as the capacity of our governmental
institutions withers and our common wealth disappears.

-- The refusal to provide pensions for workers would be a third
example -- when a Reagan-appointed judge allows United Airlines to
walk away from its pension obligations, it's good for the company's
bottom line, and other firms quickly follow suit. Renouncing pension
responsibilities is now epidemic. Meanwhile, government -- dominated
as it is by the 10% -- is working mightily to cut back Medicare and
Medicaid. The 10% do not have to ask who will care for them in their
old age, but the other 90% of us do and for many the answer is nothing
but an empty question mark.

Deep lesson #2: "The other deep lesson involves a willingness to re-
examine long-held core values, when conditions change and those values
no longer make sense."

Here, Jared Diamond provides his own examples of the U.S. clinging to
dangerously outmoded ideas:

"In this New Year, we Americans have our own painful reappraisals to
face. Historically, we viewed the United States as a land of unlimited
plenty, and so we practiced unrestrained consumerism, but that's no
longer viable in a world of finite resources. We can't continue to
deplete our own resources as well as those of much of the rest of the

"Historically, oceans protected us from external threats; we stepped
back from our isolationism only temporarily during the crises of two
world wars. Now, technology and global interconnectedness have robbed
us of our protection. In recent years, we have responded to foreign
threats largely by seeking short-term military solutions at the last

"But how long can we keep this up? Though we are the richest nation on
earth, there's simply no way we can afford (or muster the troops) to
intervene in the dozens of countries where emerging threats lurk --
particularly when each intervention these days can cost more than $100
billion and require more than 100,000 troops. [The Iraq war has cost
the U.S. $244 billion so far, with no end in sight.--PM]

"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. In the past, we have
regarded foreign aid as either charity or as buying support; now, it's
an act of self-interest to preserve our own economy and protect
American lives."

To me the most important point in Jared Diamond's essay is this one:

"A society contains a built-in blueprint for failure if the elite
insulates itself from the consequences of its actions." This is surely
the case in the United States today.

The remedy for this problem is more democratic decision-making. 
Decisions should be made with real participation by the people who
will be affected.  (For information about how this is working now
in some places, see here and here).

If this simple principle were practised to a greater extent that it is
today, most of the problems that threaten our civilization could be
reversed or considerably diminished. On the other hand, if we continue
to allow a tiny elite to manage the economy and run the government for
their own narrow, selfish purposes, the outlook for long-term success
is dim.


Jared Diamond is the author of The Third Chimpanzee; The Evolution and
the Future of the Human Animal (N.Y. Harper Perennial, 1992; ISBN
0060183071); Guns, Germs and Steel (N.Y.: W.W. Norton, 1999; ISBN
0393317552); and Collapse; How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
(N.Y. Penguin, 2005; ISBN 0670033375).