The Spring 2005 issue of New Perspectives Quarterly has an interview with Jared Diamond, author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.
NPQ | You have looked over the history of civilizations and come up with a framework for analyzing why some collapsed while others prevailed. You cite four common challenges of past societies-climate change, self-inflicted environmental damage, changes in trading partners and enemies-and then look at how the response to those challenges led to success or failure.
You point out, for example, how the Maya failed and the 17th-century Tokugawa Shoguns in Japan succeeded. Having overexploited their territory, the Maya collapsed because the ruling caste, which extracted wealth from the commoners, was insulated from the effects of deforestation and soil erosion and thus failed to act.
Conversely, the shoguns of 17th-century Tokugawa Japan recognized the danger of deforestation to the long-term peace and prosperity of their successors and imposed heavy regulations on farmers, managed the harvest of trees and pushed new, lighter and more efficient construction techniques. Today, even though Japan is the most densely populated country of the developed world, it remains 70 percent forested….
DIAMOND | The problem is that all the challenges are interrelated. If we solve problems such as invasive species or toxic pollution, but not the shortage of fresh water, collapse still beckons. All the challenges need to be addressed simultaneously because they add up to an unsustainable course.
But, let’s take just two challenges: deforestation and fresh water.
At the rate at which we are going now, the world’s tropical rainforests–except the largest ones in Congo and Amazon Basin–will be completely felled within the next decade. In the Philippines and the Solomon Islands, they will be gone within the next five years.
Most economies in these areas, of course, are heavily dependent on those forests. In places like Indonesia, which is the world’s fourth most populous country, or in the Philippines with 80 million people tightly connected to the US, there are already civil wars, in part based on environmental factors and fights over resources. China and Japan already get most of their timber from those countries.
Further, this is not to mention places in Africa like Gabon or Cameroon that are similarly on the verge of deforestation.
Historically, deforestation makes people poor and leads to conflict. We are bound to see that again.
Seventy percent of the earth’s fresh water is already being utilized by people for drinking, industry and agriculture. The remaining 30 percent is in places like Iceland and Northwest Australia, which are hard to get to. What happens when we use up even that last 30 percent? Why not desalinization of sea water? Okay, but that requires fossil fuel energy to operate the plants, and that creates other problems.
We’ve already seen countries come close to fighting over water, such as Turkey and Syria or Hungary and the Czech Republic. Water is a time bomb set to go off within decades, not centuries…
NPQ | This suggests that the Communist remnants of central planning in China might be better able to respond to the environmental challenge of unsustainability than consumer democracy.
If Japan had a consumer democracy in the 17th century instead of the Tokugawa Shogunate, perhaps it would not have been able to stem deforestation and collapse?
DIAMOND | Maybe, but I don’t think so. The historical record, at least, shows no general case for either democracy or dictatorship in terms of curbing environmental damage. The Tokugawa Shoguns made a good decision; the ruling kings of the Maya failed to take action.
Several years ago, I heard Jared Diamond talk about protecting bird habitats on the island of New Guinea. He described how easy it was to set up a vast sanctuary on the Indonesian side of the island (West Papua), where a powerful and ruthless government simply decreed that the sanctuary was off-limits and also prohibited villagers from owning firearms that threatened both the bird populations and government control. The weakness of the central government in Papua New Guinea, by contrast, allowed villagers to possess firearms that nearly destroyed bird populations within the radius of many villages. The highly contentiousness nature of local land ownership also prevented the central government from setting aside large nature preserves. At the same time, litigious landlords in PNG forced the oil companies to be very, very careful not to disrupt village land resources, so that big-oil extraction sites in PNG were often the most effective nature preserves in the state. (The same can hardly be said for the mining industry in either PNG or West Papua.)