Category Archives: sustainability

About ecological intelligence and facewash


The Slate headline on July 20 was rather ominous:

Earth’s Most Famous Climate Scientist Issues Bombshell Sea Level Warning 

James Hansen, NASA’s former lead climate scientist, heading a study group of 16 colleagues, now fears that glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica will melt 10 times faster than previous estimates, resulting in sea level rise of at least 10 feet in as little as 50 years. We conclude that continued high emissions will make multi-meter sea level rise practically unavoidable and likely to occur this century. Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea level rise could be devastating. It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.

On August 5 Rolling Stone echoed his warning and summed up several equally worrisome facts: The Point of No Return: Climate Change Nightmares Are Already Here

The worst predicted impacts of climate change are starting to happen — and much faster than climate scientists expected. The article points to record-setting heat waves in Pakistan and India that each killed more than 1,000 people and to the fact that the rain forest in Washington State caught fire for the first time in living memory. In California, suffering from its worst drought in a millennium, a 50-acre brush fire swelled seventy-fold in a matter of hours, jumping across the I-15 freeway during rush-hour traffic. Then, a few days later, the region was pounded by intense, virtually unheard-of summer rains. 

These are certainly all issues of such magnitude that they could make you lose a lot of sleep over them but last week I stumbled upon a news item that scared the living daylight out of me. I really thought I was fully aware that plastic is an environmental disaster of the highest order. Muriel has been on the barricades for two decades fighting the use of plastic bags on Bali and for some five years I have been reading up on the Great Pacific garbage patch. It is estimated that plastic bags and water bottles take up to 400 years to disintegrate.  Then, what caught my eye on was the headline

This Earth Day, Ditch the Microbeads for Wildlife’s Sake

It turns out that a few years ago, major cosmetics and hygiene product manufacturers devised a way to make facial wash products even more refreshing. Tiny plastic microbeads were added to increase abrasion and exfoliation. These microbeads proved to be popular with the consumer public and soon found their way into hand soap and even toothpaste. The problem is in their small size and the long life span of polyethylene or polypropylene plastics. Municipal water treatment facilities are not equipped to filter such small pollutants out of the water and in the end the microbeads flow unimpeded into our streams, lakes and rivers. The beads look like food to fish and amphibians, but because of the chemicals used to manufacture them as well as the pollutants they absorb in the water, including DDT and poly-chlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), they are highly toxic to living organisms. When the smaller creatures that eat the beads get eaten by larger animals, the particles make their way up through the food chain, eventually making their way to humans…I could not help wondering who came up with this madcap idea in the first place.

Although the saying goes that ignorance is bliss and sometimes it is better not to know things, from Muriel’s library I picked up Ecological Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. (Penguin Books 2010) Ecological Intelligence examines the environmental, social, and health consequences of everyday consumer choices and Goleman makes a long plea for what he calls radical transparency

When it comes to the full cost of ecological ignorance in the market place, we endorse the vital lie that what we don’t know or what we don’t see does not matter. In fact our indifference to the sum total of what we buy and do, and our unexamined habits as consumers drive a vast number of threats to the environment and to health….Today’s threats demand that we hone a new sensibility, the capacity to recognize the hidden web of connections between human activity and nature’ systems and the subtle complexities of their intersections…

We face an evolutionary impasse: the ways of thinking that in the ancient past guided our innate ecological intelligence were well suited to the harsh realities of prehistory. It was enough that we had a natural urge to gobble as many sugars and fats as we could find to fatten ourselves against the next famine, sufficient that our olfactory brain would ensure that toxins triggered nausea and disgust in response to spoiled food, and that our neural alarm circuits made us run from predators. That hardwired savvy brought our species to the threshold of civilization.

But ensuing centuries have blunted the survival skills of the billions of individuals who live amid modern technologies….Any of us may excel in a narrow range, but we all depend on the skills of experts –farmers, software engineers, nutritionists, mechanics- to make life work for us…Each one of us needs the help of others to navigate the complexities of ecological intelligence. We need to collaborate.    

Goleman argues that our ‘green’ thinking about hazards, like toxins in toys, threats like global warming, and the impacts of the stuff that we manufacture, distribute, consume, and discard has been one-dimensional, focusing on a single problem in isolation from everything else. He suggests that we make the effort to understand the adverse consequences of the products of modern society in three interlocking realms: the geosphere of soil, air, water and climate, the biosphere of our bodies, those of other species and plant life, and the sociosphere of human concerns such as conditions of workers.

While carbon footprints are relatively easily calculated and satisfy some concerns about climate change, the scope of environmental impacts from a product goes far beyond carbon use. This means assessing a product over the full course of its life cycle, from manufacture (and even before that to the origins of its components and extraction or creation of its ingredients) to disposal. The complexities are indeed staggering. There can be fifty or more ingredients in a bottle of shampoo, and the same goes for the type of plastic in a bottle. The ecosystem within our bodies involves immensely complicated interactions between our genes and the everyday industrial chemicals we take in through what we eat, breathe and touch…


Goleman laments the phenomenon of greenwashing. Take the claims that can’t be supported such as household lamps that trumpet ‘energy efficiency’ on their packaging without the least shred of supporting evidence. Or claims that are simply too vague, like ‘eco-conscious’ shampoo, or poorly defined, like ‘chemical-free’ insecticide. (No product is free of chemicals altogether so what kinds of chemicals does this label refer to?)…Greenwashing pollutes the data available to consumers, gumming up the market place efficiency by pawning off misleading information to get us to buy things that do not deliver on their promise…  

The author then makes the case that by boosting ecological intelligence through this concept of radical transparency’, companies will incrementally shift their practices, moving our society toward sustainability and changing things for the better.

The remedy for a vital lie is always to face the truth it obscures. In our consumer purchases the truth takes the form of the countless hidden impacts that the things we buy have during their manufacture, their use and their disposal. At present we are largely blind to those consequences…Radical transparency offers a way to unleash the latent potential of the free market to drive the changes we must make, by mobilizing consumers and executives to use data to make more virtuous decisions…For companies radical transparency can create a vibrant new competitive playing ground, one where doing the right thing also means doing better…  

Goleman introduces Dara O’ Rourke, the industrial ecologist and founder of GoodGuide as the person who is leading the charge in the arena of radical transparency. is a comprehensive, authoritative resource for information about the health, environmental and social performance of consumer products and companies.  GoodGuide has evaluated 250,000 products and now even offers an iPhone app that enables consumers to retrieve ratings of products and allows them to make informed choices at the point of sale, based on their own preferred filters of social, ecological and/or health concerns.

The subtitle of the book is The Coming Age of Radical Transparency and on the back cover the Financial Times calls it refreshingly optimistic. Personally I am ready to believe things when I see them happen but I am not from the tribe of serious optimists. I remain a pessimist, albeit one with a smile on his face (and in the interest of full disclosure, I use Sensodyne cool gel toothpaste).

The World until Yesterday


In the prologue Jared Diamond comes as usual straight to the point. This is a small book about a big subject: potentially all aspects of human culture, of all peoples around the world, for the last 11,000 years. Yet the subtitle of the book makes perfectly clear what his real purpose was when he set out to write a sequel to ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ and ‘Collapse’: What can we learn from traditional societies?
In eleven chapters Diamond discusses nine topics through which we may find potential lessons both for individuals and for society as a whole.
Traditional societies represent thousands of millennia long natural experiments in organizing human lives. We can’t repeat those experiments by redesigning thousands of societies today in order to wait decades and observe the outcome; we have to learn from the societies that already ran the experiments. When we learn about features of traditional life some of them are ones that we feel relieved to be rid of, and that make us appreciate our own societies better….
When we learn about traditional dispute resolution, child-rearing, treatment of the elderly, alertness to dangers and routine multilingualism, we may also decide that some of those traditional features would be desirable and feasible for us to incorporate.
In part one Diamond discusses the boundaries and concludes that traditional societies of the past behaved like tiny nations. They maintained their own territories, visited and received visitors from the outside and defended and patrolled boundaries as rigorously as do modern nations. However they were far more restricted in their knowledge of the outside world than are citizens of modern nations. Therefore they divided other peoples sharply into friends, enemies and strangers. They intermarried and traded with outsiders but political and social motives played an even larger role in these relationships than they do in ours. Generally speaking in traditional societies the networks of social relationships tend to be more important and longer lasting than in western state societies.
Part two deals with PEACE AND WAR and comprises three chapters on dispute resolution.
In the absence of centralized state governments and their judiciaries, traditional small-scale societies resolve disputes in either one of two ways, one of which is more conciliatory, the other more violent than dispute resolution in state societies….If a dispute in a small scale society is not resolved peacefully between the participants the alternative is violence or war because there is no state justice to intervene.
Justice in traditional societies tends to be the do-it-yourself variety arranged by the disputants themselves and by their respective supporters and focuses on compensation rather than retribution. The re-establishment of the relationship between individuals and their clans is more important than establishing someone’s guilt or negligence. Punishment is not the main issue.
The flip side of that overriding emphasis on social networks in traditional societies is our greater emphasis on the individual in modern state societies, especially in the United States. We not only permit, we actually encourage individuals to advance themselves, to win, and to gain advantage at the expense of others…Even children’s games in the U.S. commonly are contests of winning and losing. That is not so in traditional New Guinea society, where children’s play involves cooperation rather than winning and losing
The overriding goal of modern state justice is to maintain society’s stability by providing an established and mandatory alternative to do-it-yourself justice. Western justice is essentially a system to determine right and wrong according to a state’s laws. Diamond accentuates the difference by quoting Chief Justice Robert Yazzle of the Navajo nation, one of the largest native communities of North America:
Western adjudication is a search for what happened and who did it; Navajo peace –making is about the effect of what happened. Who got hurt? What do they feel about it? What can be done to repair the harm?
Diamond dedicates a short chapter to what he calls a ‘tiny war’, a series of battles and raids between different bands of New Guinea’s Dani people, who live in the densely populated Grand Valley of the Baliem River , as it was actually observed and even filmed by anthropologists from Harvard University in 1961. Among the Dani tribal warfare is a frequent occurrence.
Boys are trained already in childhood to fight, and to expect to be attacked. It is important to enlist allies, but alliances shift frequently…..Warfare involves the whole population rather than just a professional army of adult men…Military efficiency is low by the standards of modern warfare, as a result of the availability of only short-range weapons , weak leadership, simple plans, lack of group military training, and lack of synchronized firing. However because warfare is chronic, it has omnipresent consequences for people’s behavior. Finally absolute death tolls are inevitably low from the small size of the populations involved, compared to the populations of modern nations, but relative death tolls as a proportion of the population are high.
Diamond then dedicates a longer chapter about the many wars that have been and are still being fought by state governments. He discusses the different forms of warfare, the mortality rates, and the difficulties of ending warfare but there is no great lesson to be learned from the Dani in the Papua Highlands, who mainly fight their wars over women and pigs and often personally know their opponents.
The taunts that Dani warriors shouted at each other in the battles included personal insults…Readers of the Iliad will recall how opposing Greek and Trojan leaders addressed each other by name before attempting to kill each other in battle – a famous example the speeches of Hector and Achilles to each other just before Achilles fatally wounded Hector.
This may be a small book about a big subject but while Jared Diamond applies a wonderfully wide-angled view to history he does focus very precisely on the essential elements of our human existence and to me the most important lessons are in part three of this book that deals with YOUNG AND OLD, bringing up children and the treatment of old people. There are so many valuable lessons here that I find it impossible to summarize the substance into a few sentences. I must urge you to buy the book. You may end up to purchase several copies and give them away to your friends.
In the course of a thorough comparison of current child-rearing practices in western countries against those in traditional societies Diamond first discusses the differences in weaning and birth interval, the on-demand nursing and the infant-adult contacts of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
In hunter-gatherer groups in which nursing has been specifically studied it is often “on demand”. That is, the infant has constant access to the mother’s breast, is held in contact with the mother during the day, sleeps with the mother at night, and can nurse at any time it wants, whether or not the mother is awake….Nursing hunter-gatherer mothers usually do not conceive for several years after a child’s birth, even if the mother resumes sexual activity. Evidently something about on-demand nursing acts as a contraceptive….
When moving around, nomadic hunter gatherer mothers had to carry an under-three-year old child, probably a load of wild vegetables, several ponds of water plus some utensils as well, so it was physically impossible to care for more than one child less than two years old simultaneously.
A cross cultural sample of 90 traditional societies identified not a single one with mother and infant sleeping in separate rooms…virtually all infants in human history until the last few thousand years did sleep in the same bed with the mother and usually also with the father…
One of the commonest Western devices for transporting the child is the stroller which provides no physical contact between baby and the care giver. In many strollers the infant is nearly horizontal and sometimes facing backwards. Hence the baby does not see the world as the caregiver sees the world…In contrast, traditional carrying devices such as slings, or holding a child on one’s shoulders, usually place the child vertically upright, facing forward, and seeing the same world that the care giver sees…raising-kids-the-primitive-way
The investment of fathers in caring for their offspring varies greatly among animal species and among human societies there is also much variation in the involvement of fathers, partly related to a society’s subsistence ecology. Paternal involvement is highest in societies in which women spend time obtaining most of the food.
While in modern Western societies a child‘s parents are typically by far its dominant care givers in hunter-gatherer bands others are involved within the first hour after birth.
Newborn Aka and Efe infants are passed from hand to hand around the campfire, from one adult or older child to another, to be kissed, bounced, and sung to and spoken to in words that they cannot possibly understand….Hunter-gatherer mothers share care of infants with fathers and grandparents, aunts, great aunts, other adults and older siblings…Thus a major difference between small-scale societies and large state societies is that responsibility for children becomes widely diffused beyond the child’s parents in the small scale societies.
Philosophies about how to respond to crying infants differ among western countries and differ from generation to generation within the same country but it will come as surprise to most people that observers of children in hunter-gatherer societies commonly report that if an infant begins crying, the parents practice is to respond immediately…
Related to the debates about spoiling a child by promptly responding to its crying are the familiar debates about spoiling a child by avoiding punishing it…
As for variation between contemporary neighboring societies consider Western Europe today. Sweden forbids spankings; a Swedish parent who spanks a child can be charged with the criminal offense of child abuse. In contrast, many of my educated liberal German and British friends and American evangelical Christian friends believe that it is better to spank a child than not to spank….Describing the practices in traditional societies Diamond notes that there does seem to be a broad trend: hunter-gatherer bands do minimal physical punishment of young children, many farming societies do some punishment and herders are especially likely to punish.

A typical hunter-gatherer band numbering around 30 people will on the average contain only about a dozen pre-adolescent kids, of both sexes and various ages. Hence it I impossible to assemble separate age-cohort playgroups, each with many children as is characteristic of large societies. Instead all children in the band form a single multi-age playgroup of both sexes…


In such groups both the older and the younger children gain from being together. The young children gain from being socialized not only by adults but also by older children, while the older children acquire experience in caring for younger children. That experience gained by older children contributes to explaining how hunter-gatherers can become confident parents already as teenagers. While Western societies have plenty of teen-aged parents, especially unwed teenagers, western teenagers are suboptimal parents because of inexperience. However, in a small society, the teenagers who become parents will already have been taking care of children for many years.

In addition Diamond points out that generally speaking people in small time societies spend far more time talking to each other than we do and spend no time at all on passive entertainment such as television, smartphones or books. They are forced to start honing their social skills from an early age and the adolescent identity crises that plague Western teenagers are not an issue for hunter-gatherer children.
In Chapter 6 Diamond discusses the Treatment of Old People and accentuates the choices starkly in three single words: Cherish, Abandon or Kill?
Obviously there is no universal definition of the age at which one becomes ‘old’. It varies among societies and with one’s personal perspective. In most countries that Diamond describes by the acronym WEIRD, (that is: Western, educated, rich and democratic) the government generally defines old age as beginning at age 65 but the author juxtaposes his personal perspective as follows:
When I was in my teens, I looked up to people in their late 20s as being seemingly at their peak of life and wisdom, people in their 30s as already middle aged, and anyone from 60 onward as old. Now that I am 75 years old I regard my 60s and early 70s as the peak of my own life, and old age as likely to start sometime around 85 or 90, depending on my health. In rural New Guinea however, where relatively few people reach the age of 60, even 50 year-olds are regarded as old.
Diamond extensively describes the harsh realities in nomadic hunter-gatherer bands where old people become a serious handicap endangering the whole group’s safety to the point of being neglected, abandoned, or worse. This represents a moral choice that has not entirely disappeared in modern times.
In fact many of you readers of this book have endured or will endure a similar ordeal when you find yourself forced to decide whether to tell the physician caring for palliative care.
Yet even in many traditional societies the elderly do remain useful. One important service they render is babysitting, which frees their children and children-in-law to spend more time foraging or hunting. Usually the elderly are also skilled in making tools, weapons, baskets, pots and woven textiles.
Other areas in which abilities grow with age include medicine, religion, entertainment, relationships, and politics. Traditional medicine men and midwives are often old, as are magicians and priests, prophets and sorcerers, and the leaders of songs, games, dances and initiation rites. Pre-literate societies must rely on human memory so old people are the main repositories of information.
Compared to the status of the elderly in traditional societies older people today enjoy on average longer lives, better health and far less grief from deaths of their children than at
Life expectancy averaged over 26 First World countries is 79 years, with the highest expectancy of 84 years in Japan – approximately double the value in traditional societies…
The problem for society as a whole is to use older people for what they are good at and like to do, rather than requiring them to continue to put in the 60 hour work weeks of ambitious young workers, or else of going to the opposite extreme of stupidly imposing mandatory retirement at some arbitrary age (as remains regrettably widespread in Europe. The challenge for older people themselves I to be introspective, to notice the changes in themselves, and to find work utilizing the talent that they now possess.

Part Four deals with DANGER AND RESPONSE and if you believe that it is a real risk that you would become the victim of a terrorist attack yourself you should definitely read what Diamond has to say about ‘constructive paranoia’.

Part Five deals with RELIGION LANGUAGE AND HEALTH and if you are intrigued about the heading of chapter nine: “What Electric Eels Tell Us About the Evolution of Religion” you should definitely read this book.
The heading of chapter ten is “Speaking in Many Tongues”. If that happens to be your thing, as it is mine, Diamond’s reflections on the multilingualism in traditional societies will cheer you up, as may reading about the reports that life-long bilingualism seems to protect against Alzheimer symptoms.
Chapter eleven deals with “Salt, Sugar, Fat and Sloth”. No good, cut down on the first three and do not indulge in the fourth. This article is already much longer than I intended it to be so I shall not repeat what Diamond says about hypertension and diabetes.

Yet I am pleased to finalize by reporting that I have reverted to a sleeping habit similar to the rhythm of our pre-electricity ancestors. First sleep nine to twelve; second sleep one to five; a good nap in the afternoon. I can recommend this to everyone.

How societies choose to fail or succeed


Whenever someone asks for a suggestion of study material in the realm of sustainability my advice is to read “COLLAPSE” published in 2005 as a follow-up to “Guns, Germs and Steel”. In Guns, Germs and Steel Jared Diamond primarily explores the factors contributing to a society’s rise, but in “Collapse” he focuses on the downfalls. He examines in detail how several civilizations came to an end and he comes to the conclusion that more often than not humans were playing a role by ignoring the realities of their natural environment. In case after case, Diamond describes how a combination of factors, such as deforestation, fragile ecosystems, climatic change, hostile neighbors and, ultimately, bad decision making, led to societies driving themselves over the cliff. The question Diamond asks is: What can be learned from history that could help us avoid joining the ranks of those who declined swiftly?

We must expect the answers to be complex, because historical reality is complex: while some societies did indeed collapse spectacularly, others have managed to thrive for thousands of years without major reversal. 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. That’s not to say that all five causes play a role in every case. Instead, think of this as a useful checklist of factors that should be examined, but whose relative importance varies from case to case. For instance, in the collapse of the Polynesian society on Easter Island three centuries ago, environmental problems were dominant, and climate change, enemies and trade were insignificant; however, the latter three factors played big roles in the disappearance of the medieval Norse colonies on Greenland.

Deforestation was a bigger factor in the breakdown of societies than commonly understood. Because trees take so long to regrow, deforestation has more severe consequences than crop failure, and can trigger disastrous erosion.To illustrate this Diamond devotes an entire chapter to Easter Island as the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by exhausting its own resources.

Easter Island is one of the most remote places on Earth. The nearest land is the coast of Chile 2,300 miles to the East and the nearest island is Pitcairn at 1,300 miles to the West, at the very least a two and a half week journey in a sailing canoe.  At the tail end of the Austronesian and Polynesian migration into the Pacific it was effectively at the end of the world and from the moment the Polynesian sailors had arrived, which is estimated to have been around 900 AD, the colonists probably remained without any contact with outsiders until the island was sighted by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen on Easter Day of 1722 (April 5th). The island that Roggeveen found was a wasteland without a single tree or bush over 10 feet tall and he mentions in his logbook that the islanders’ only watercraft were small and leaky canoes, no more than 10 feet long and capable of carrying only two persons. He found a population of only a couple of thousand people and was baffled by the question how these islanders without any access to long and heavy timbers or any materials to make ropes could have erected the giant statues dotting the shoreline. He mentions there were no domestic animals larger than chickens.

The explanation of this mystery as it has now emerged, includes evidence unearthed by archaeologists and paleontologists that for hundreds of thousands of years before human arrival Easter was not at all a barren wasteland but a subtropical forest of tall trees and woody bushes. Excavations of garbage deposits have yielded evidence about the diet and lifestyle of Easter’s early colonists. The island has a rugged shoreline that drops off steeply without coral reefs so there were few places to catch fish by net or hand line in shallow water. The primary food source was the common dolphin, a porpoise that lives in deeper water out at sea and could only be harpooned offshore in big seaworthy canoes built from tall trees.

There is no indication that the early settlers brought any dogs or pigs but in all likelihood they carried the seeds of several Polynesian crops. However the new environment did pose several challenges. Some tropical crops that are important elsewhere in Polynesia, such as coconuts, grow poorly in the cooler climate and the surrounding ocean is too cold for coral reefs and the associated fish and shell fish. Clearly there were fewer food sources available to the Easter Islanders than to the inhabitants of other Pacific Islands. In addition they found that rainfall on Easter is much lower than elsewhere in Polynesia and the rain that does fall percolates quickly into the volcanic soil so freshwater supplies were limited. It was necessary to create water diversion systems but in the end the colonists did manage to develop intensive agriculture with large scale plantations that produced sufficient food surplus for a rapidly growing populace. The community thrived and it is estimated that at its peak the population of Easter came to about 15,000.

As elsewhere in Polynesia the society was divided into chiefs and commoners. Both oral traditions and archaeological surveys suggest that over the centuries the society divided into twelve clans, each with its own territory and its own chief. Each clan had its own ceremonial platform on which statues were erected. The clans competed by seeking to outdo each other in building larger platforms with bigger statues. In itself that followed an existing Polynesian tradition. Similar platforms with temples, shrines and statues are found elsewhere in Eastern Polynesia and the architecture on Easter Island differs mainly from other islands in the platforms and statues being larger and not supporting a temple. Apparently the exercise became an obsession to the Easter Island chiefs and today, scattered around the quarry where the giant statues were carved, there are still 397 of them, in all stages of completion, mostly between 15 and 20 feet tall, but the largest measures 70 feet and weighs 270 tons. It is self-evident that the scale of the operation to carve these statues in a quarry up in the volcano, transport them to the waterfront and finally erect them on to a platform required a huge work force. Feeding these people was a feat made possible by food surpluses produced in the upland plantations that were controlled by the chiefs.Comparison of early garbage deposits from the days of the first settlers with later ones reveals big changes in those initial bountiful food sources. Apart from porpoises, fish, shellfish, land and sea birds the early settlers had a varied diet including seal and turtle. In the later stages porpoises and open ocean fish like tuna completely disappear from the islanders’ diet. Diamond writes:

All those delicacies were cooked over firewood that can be identified as having come from Easter’s subsequently vanished forests. Charcoal samples from pre-historic ovens prove directly that the giant palm and all other now- extinct trees disappeared because they were burned as firewood. The trees were also being burned to cremate bodies: Easter crematoria contain remains of thousands of bodies and huge amounts of human bone ash, implying massive fuel consumption for the purpose of cremation…..Forest clearance began soon after human arrival, reached its peak around 1400 and was virtually complete by dates that vary locally between the early 1400s and the 1600s…..The overall picture for Easter is the most extreme example of forest destruction in the Pacific, and among the most extreme in the world: the whole forest gone and all of its tree species extinct. Lack of large timber and rope brought an end to the transport and erection of statues, and also to the construction of seagoing canoes.

Once the island was stripped of its trees it allowed the wind to blow off the thin topsoil and the further consequences included starvation, a population crash and eventually a descent into cannibalism…Diamond juxtaposes the history of Easter Island with the 500 year colonization of Greenland by the Norse and in his conclusion the Viking leaders were equally blind to their own ultimate fate. His rundown on the Maya civilization is similarly to the point and in a letter that Diamond wrote to the New York Times he summarizes his conclusions:

Maya Native Americans of the Yucatan Peninsula and adjacent parts of Central America developed the New World’s most advanced civilization before Columbus. They were innovators in writing, astronomy, architecture and art. From local origins around 2,500 years ago, Maya societies rose especially after the year A.D. 250, reaching peaks of population and sophistication in the late 8th century.

Thereafter, societies in the most densely populated areas of the southern Yucatan underwent a steep political and cultural collapse: between 760 and 910, kings were overthrown, large areas were abandoned, and at least 90 percent of the population disappeared, leaving cities to become overgrown by jungle. The last known date recorded on a Maya monument by their so-called Long Count calendar corresponds to the year 909. What happened?

A major factor was environmental degradation by people: deforestation, soil erosion and water management problems, all of which resulted in less food. Those problems were exacerbated by droughts, which may have been partly caused by humans themselves through deforestation. Chronic warfare made matters worse, as more and more people fought over less and less land and resources.

Why weren’t these problems obvious to the Maya kings, who could surely see their forests vanishing and their hills becoming eroded? Part of the reason was that the kings were able to insulate themselves from problems afflicting the rest of society. By extracting wealth from commoners, they could remain well fed while everyone else was slowly starving. What’s more, the kings were preoccupied with their own power struggles. They had to concentrate on fighting one another and keeping up their images through ostentatious displays of wealth. By insulating themselves in the short run from the problems of society, the elite merely bought themselves the privilege of being among the last to starve.

But before we let ourselves get depressed, we should also remember that there is another long list of cultures that have managed to prosper for lengthy periods of time. Societies in Japan, Tonga, the New Guinea Highlands and Central and Northwest Europe, for example, have all found ways to sustain themselves. What separates the lost cultures from those that survived? Why did the Maya fail and the shogun succeed?

Half of the answer involves environmental differences: geography deals worse cards to some societies than to others. Many of the societies that collapsed had the misfortune to occupy dry, cold or otherwise fragile environments, while many of the long-term survivors enjoyed more robust and fertile surroundings. But it’s not the case that a congenial environment guarantees success: some societies (like the Maya) managed to ruin lush environments, while other societies – like the Incas, the Inuit, Icelanders and desert Australian Aborigines – have managed to carry on in some of the earth’s most daunting environments.

The other half of the answer involves differences in a society’s responses to problems. Ninth-century New Guinea Highland villagers, 16th-century German landowners, and the Tokugawa shoguns of 17th-century Japan all recognized the deforestation spreading around them and solved the problem, either by developing scientific reforestation (Japan and Germany) or by transplanting tree seedlings (New Guinea). Conversely, the Maya, Mangarevans and Easter Islanders failed to address their forestry problems and so collapsed.

What lessons can we draw from history? The most straightforward: take environmental problems seriously. They destroyed societies in the past, and they are even more likely to do so now.

History also teaches us two deeper lessons about what separates successful societies from those heading toward failure. 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.

In contrast, the elite in 17th-century Japan, as in modern Scandinavia and the Netherlands, could not ignore or insulate themselves from broad societal problems. For instance, the Dutch upper class for hundreds of years has been unable to insulate itself from the Netherlands’ water management problems for a simple reason: the rich live in the same drained lands below sea level as the poor. If the dikes and pumps keeping out the sea fail, the well-off Dutch know that they will drown along with everybody else.

The other deep lesson involves the need to re-examine long-held core values, when conditions change and those values no longer make sense. The medieval Greenland Norse lacked the willingness to do so; they continued to view themselves as transplanted Norwegian pastoralists, and to despise the Inuit as pagan hunters, even after Norway stopped sending trading ships and the climate had grown too cold for a pastoral existence. They died off as a result, leaving Greenland to the Inuit.

While Guns, Germs and Steel was seen as an affront to political correctness by some historians, Collapse was met by indignant mutterings from several expertologists in the field of anthropology who were disconcerted by the logic and common sense in Diamond’s analyses and criticized him for offering what they denounce as a hugely oversimplified view on mankind and history. I shall return to that in my next post about Diamond’s most recent book “The World Until Yesterday”. Its subtitle: What can we learn from traditional societies?