Environmental Lessons for the Past

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:

  1. Not recognizing the level of fragility or limits to resilience of the environment
  2. Having friendly trading partners with whom you can acquire essentials not produced at home
  3. Absence of hostile neighbors that can defeat you militarily
  4. Climate change
  5. Cultural factors that prevent change

When faced with (known or unknown) challenges for the very survival of societies, there are four possible outcomes:

  1. Societies that did not recognize their current or impending circumstances because there was no analog to the future in their past.
  2. Societies that did recognize their current circumstances but didn't change their ways to avoid collapse
  3. Societies that recognized their problems and tried to solve them but couldn't
  4. Societies that recognized their problems and solved them.

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:

  1. Destruction or loss of natural resources
    1. Converting natural habitat to human habitat
    2. Demise of wild food stocks
    3. Loss of species
    4. Wind and water erosion of soils from agricultural land
  2. Limitations of the natural system
    1. Ceiling on energy supplies
    2. Ceiling on fresh water supplies
    3. Ceiling on photosynthetic capacity of earth to supply needs of both humans and the rest of nature
  3. Use and release of harmful substances
    1. Fugitive chemicals and toxins
    2. Alien or invasive species
    3. Production of trace gases due to human activity that degrade the environment
  4. Population-related issues
    1. Global population increase
    2. Impact per person

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.


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.