But here we go.
Jared Diamond's Collapse (2005) is an excellent book and worth reading. That's particularly true because of the subtitle: "How societies choose to fail or survive."
Every day on this blog, I talk about economics and politics. I talk about things that we are choosing to do, not the things that Nature does to us, but what we do once Nature has moved. That makes this book particularly relevant.
The main point is that humans -- in terms of population -- have often overwhelmed their environment, until an end of abundance (get it?) leads to collapse. Well, he doesn't say "end of abundance" (in those words), but that's the jist.
Diamond makes the point that this need not happen. We can change our habits to head off the collapse. My favorite example of voluntary destruction took place in Greenland, where the Norse settlers (vikings!) kept to their sheep and cows, ignoring the fish and seals that were nearby. They starved (turning to cannibalism in the end) while the Inuit nearby just cruised along. Strange that they preferred to die like Norsemen than live, but that's what some people do, when they stick to old habits, like...
- Driving cars everywhere
- Water lawns in the desert
- Eating meat
- Diverting streams
Here's another obvious one. The inhabitants in Chaco Canyon (present day New Mexico) left because of a drought, but they were vulnerable because they pushed the water resources to the limit, to the point where there was no safety margin left. Sound familiar?
Some people killed in the Rwandan genocide were killed for land (Hutu-Hutu killings), and that was because the land resources were too meager for the population.
Australians over-exploited their land because they paid prices that were proportionate to land of a similar productivity in England. The trouble was that their new land was NOT that productive. Given their purchase prices, they had to work the land hard (high sheep density, etc.), which led to it deteriorating rapidly. They should have paid less -- in proportion to real and sustainable productivity -- and they wouldn't have depleted it.
Today, "80 percent of Australian agricultural profits come from 0.8% of Australia's land" (p 413). That number is astonishing. If true (James? James! Tell us!), it implies that 99 percent of Aussie agriculture is losing money. I reckon that if half of that shut down, the other half might make a profit...
"Of the 80 claims of `for every tree felled, two are planted' [by wood companies] 77 were unsubstantiated, 3 could be partially substantiated, and nearly all were withdrawn when challenged" (pp 472-3). That was for wood being marketed in the US. China, Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia? Fuggetaboutit!
Australia (in the chapter is called "mining Australia") has a deforestation problem, but they cut trees, grind them into chips and export those to Japan, which has PLENTY of forests. The Japanaese process Aussie chips into paper that they sell back to Australia at a 2500% markup. I'd call that neo-colonialism, but I'd be wrong. It's Aussie government policy that allows plantation farming. Like this place I saw in western Victoria:
The best way to get change is to hit the company in their PR. Want to end "Blood diamonds"? Boycott DeBeers, not Sierra Leone. Want to stop deforestation? Boycott Ikea, not Indonesia. DeBeers and Ikea have done a LOT more to protect market share than these corrupt governments (of corrupt people) will ever do. Thank god for market power!
We, 7 billion humans, are NOT going to achieve First World living standards. There will NOT be a SUV in every driveway, a flat screen on every-wall and a porterhouse steak on every barbie. The earth's resources (and environment!) are not sufficient. Things will cost more (resources) or run out (environment) before we get to that standard. Time to go for smaller is better in developed countries and population control in developing countries.
Bottom Line: I give this book FIVE STARS. I recommend that anyone interested in sustainability, environment, resources, food, and/or public policy read it. Everyone else should as well. We need to understand patterns of failure and prevent them from happening to us. We're already in the middle of many failures, but it's never too late to stop failing.