How societies choose to fail or succeed

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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?  

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