We all have heard the often-repeated phrase that those who don't know history are destined to repeat it. With regard to environmental issues, Jared Diamond has authored two books that give detailed accounts of past societies and how they responded to environmental challenges as a guide for us today on how we should respond to today's challenges. The first book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, examines why some civilizations of the past developed, flourished and spread throughout the world, while others flourished for a time but ultimately failed, and others have survived for long periods of time without expanding.
The second book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, describes how some societies recognized they were destined to collapse but failed to take action to avoid it while others, seeing their ultimate fate, took preventive action.
We examine these books in the context of the Global Change course because the way in which these past societies interfaced with their environment - their "universe", their "global change" - was the major factor in their demise or survival. Is there a lesson for us in these books?
Diamond earned a Pulitzer Prize for Guns, Germs, and Steel, and Bill Gates, after reviewing it, declared it a "must read" for corporations because the keys to survival outlined by Diamond as relating to societies apply to corporations as well.
Since the books are quite lengthy, I offer two options for gaining an overview of the issues Diamond raises. I recommend you read the transcript of a talk he gave at Princeton University on October 27, 2002, since it gives an excellent overview of the points he makes and message for us today. A more extensive transcript of a talk at the National Council for Science and the Environment and audience questions (along with some nice photos from Easter Island) is available for download.
As a further aid, I have listed below some key recurring themes from the books that will facilitate our class discussion on this topic. I recommend you read the transcript so you will have the context for the items summarized below.
In both books, Diamond points to five factors that lead to societal collapse:
When faced with (known or unknown) challenges for the very survival of societies, there are four
Placed in the context of the global issues we face today, Diamond identifies twelve issues that all
must be faced if we are to avoid repeating the history of past failed societies. These twelve fall
into four categories as itemized below:
You will notice that we have identified and touched on all of these items in this semester of Global Change. When we acknowledge the specific challenges and responses of past societies we have to ask whether we are different. Does our modern technology immunize us from failures of the past?
When asked if he was a pessimist or an optimist, Diamond responded that he is cautiously optimistic
that modern societies can recognize and address their problems in time to avoid repeating the many
lessons of past history. If so, recognition is the important essential step. Hopefully this Global
Change course has exposed you to the issues raised by Diamond and supplied you with some critical
thinking skills to participate in finding solutions that will help us avoid repeating past examples
of societal collapse. References
Diamond, Jared, 1997: Guns, Germs, and Steel, W. W. Norton & Company, New York. 494 pp.
Diamond, Jared, 2005: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, W. W. Norton & Company, New York. 575 pp.