Op-Ed Contributor: The Ends of the World as We Know Them
January 1, 2005
By JARED DIAMOND
Los Angeles - NEW Year's weekend traditionally is a time
for us to reflect, and to make resolutions based on our
reflections. In this fresh year, with the United States
seemingly at the height of its power and at the start of a
new presidential term, Americans are increasingly concerned
and divided about where we are going. How long can America
remain ascendant? Where will we stand 10 years from now, or
even next year?
Such questions seem especially appropriate this year.
History warns us that when once-powerful societies
collapse, they tend to do so quickly and unexpectedly. That
shouldn't come as much of a surprise: peak power usually
means peak population, peak needs, and hence peak
vulnerability. 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. Let's consider two examples of declines
stemming from different mixes of causes: the falls of
classic Maya civilization and of Polynesian settlements on
the Pitcairn Islands.
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
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.
Whereas Maya societies were undone by problems of their own
making, Polynesian societies on Pitcairn and Henderson
Islands in the tropical Pacific Ocean were undone largely
by other people's mistakes. Pitcairn, the uninhabited
island settled in 1790 by the H.M.S. Bounty mutineers, had
actually been populated by Polynesians 800 years earlier.
That society, which left behind temple platforms, stone and
shell tools and huge garbage piles of fish and bird and
turtle bones as evidence of its existence, survived for
several centuries and then vanished. Why?
In many respects, Pitcairn and Henderson are tropical
paradises, rich in some food sources and essential raw
materials. Pitcairn is home to Southeast Polynesia's
largest quarry of stone suited for making adzes, while
Henderson has the region's largest breeding seabird colony
and its only nesting beach for sea turtles. Yet the
islanders depended on imports from Mangareva Island,
hundreds of miles away, for canoes, crops, livestock and
oyster shells for making tools.
Unfortunately for the inhabitants of Pitcairn and
Henderson, their Mangarevan trading partner collapsed for
reasons similar to those underlying the Maya decline:
deforestation, erosion and warfare. Deprived of essential
imports in a Polynesian equivalent of the 1973 oil crisis,
the Pitcairn and Henderson societies declined until
everybody had died or fled.
The Maya and the Henderson and Pitcairn Islanders are not
alone, of course. Over the centuries, many other societies
have declined, collapsed or died out. Famous victims
include the Anasazi in the American Southwest, who
abandoned their cities in the 12th century because of
environmental problems and climate change, and the
Greenland Norse, who disappeared in the 15th century
because of all five interacting factors on the checklist.
There were also the ancient Fertile Crescent societies, the
Khmer at Angkor Wat, the Moche society of Peru - the list
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, Tikopia, 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
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.
Consider Japan. In the 1600's, the country faced its own
crisis of deforestation, paradoxically brought on by the
peace and prosperity following the Tokugawa shoguns'
military triumph that ended 150 years of civil war. The
subsequent explosion of Japan's population and economy set
off rampant logging for construction of palaces and cities,
and for fuel and fertilizer.
The shoguns responded with both negative and positive
measures. They reduced wood consumption by turning to
light-timbered construction, to fuel-efficient stoves and
heaters, and to coal as a source of energy. At the same
time, they increased wood production by developing and
carefully managing plantation forests. Both the shoguns and
the Japanese peasants took a long-term view: the former
expected to pass on their power to their children, and the
latter expected to pass on their land. In addition, Japan's
isolation at the time made it obvious that the country
would have to depend on its own resources and couldn't meet
its needs by pillaging other countries. Today, despite
having the highest human population density of any large
developed country, Japan is more than 70 percent forested.
There is a similar story from Iceland. When the island was
first settled by the Norse around 870, its light volcanic
soils presented colonists with unfamiliar challenges. They
proceeded to cut down trees and stock sheep as if they were
still in Norway, with its robust soils. Significant erosion
ensued, carrying half of Iceland's topsoil into the ocean
within a century or two. Icelanders became the poorest
people in Europe. But they gradually learned from their
mistakes, over time instituting stocking limits on sheep
and other strict controls, and establishing an entire
government department charged with landscape management.
Today, Iceland boasts the sixth-highest per-capita income
in the world.
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. If 6,000 Polynesians with stone
tools were able to destroy Mangareva Island, consider what
six billion people with metal tools and bulldozers are
doing today. Moreover, while the Maya collapse affected
just a few neighboring societies in Central America,
globalization now means that any society's problems have
the potential to affect anyone else. Just think how crises
in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq have shaped the United
Other lessons involve failures of group decision-making.
There are many reasons why past societies made bad
decisions, and thereby failed to solve or even to perceive
the problems that would eventually destroy them. One reason
involves conflicts of interest, whereby one group within a
society (for instance, the pig farmers who caused the worst
erosion in medieval Greenland and Iceland) can profit by
engaging in practices that damage the rest of society.
Another is the pursuit of short-term gains at the expense
of long-term survival, as when fishermen overfish the
stocks on which their livelihoods ultimately depend.
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
Could this happen in the United States? It's a thought that
often occurs to me here in Los Angeles, when I drive by
gated communities, guarded by private security patrols, and
filled with people who drink bottled water, depend on
private pensions, and send their children to private
schools. By doing these things, they lose the motivation to
support the police force, the municipal water supply,
Social Security and public schools. If conditions
deteriorate too much for poorer people, gates will not keep
the rioters out. Rioters eventually burned the palaces of
Maya kings and tore down the statues of Easter Island
chiefs; they have also already threatened wealthy districts
in Los Angeles twice in recent decades.
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,
which is precisely what happened during the floods of 1953.
The other deep lesson involves a willingness to re-examine
long-held core values, when conditions change and those
values no longer make sense. The medieval Greenland Norse
lacked such a willingness: 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. On the other hand, the
British in the 1950's faced up to the need for a painful
reappraisal of their former status as rulers of a world
empire set apart from Europe. They are now finding a
different avenue to wealth and power, as part of a united
In this New Year, we Americans have our own painful
reappraisals to face. Historically, we viewed the United
States as a land of unlimited plenty, and so we practiced
unrestrained consumerism, but that's no longer viable in a
world of finite resources. We can't continue to deplete our
own resources as well as those of much of the rest of the
Historically, oceans protected us from external threats; we
stepped back from our isolationism only temporarily during
the crises of two world wars. Now, technology and global
interconnectedness have robbed us of our protection. In
recent years, we have responded to foreign threats largely
by seeking short-term military solutions at the last
But how long can we keep this up? Though we are the richest
nation on earth, there's simply no way we can afford (or
muster the troops) to intervene in the dozens of countries
where emerging threats lurk - particularly when each
intervention these days can cost more than $100 billion and
require more than 100,000 troops.
A genuine reappraisal would require us to recognize that it
will be far less expensive and far more effective to
address the underlying problems of public health,
population and environment that ultimately cause threats to
us to emerge in poor countries. In the past, we have
regarded foreign aid as either charity or as buying
support; now, it's an act of self-interest to preserve our
own economy and protect American lives.
Do we have cause for hope? Many of my friends are
pessimistic when they contemplate the world's growing
population and human demands colliding with shrinking
resources. But I draw hope from the knowledge that
humanity's biggest problems today are ones entirely of our
own making. Asteroids hurtling at us beyond our control
don't figure high on our list of imminent dangers. To save
ourselves, we don't need new technology: we just need the
political will to face up to our problems of population and
I also draw hope from a unique advantage that we enjoy.
Unlike any previous society in history, our global society
today is the first with the opportunity to learn from the
mistakes of societies remote from us in space and in time.
When the Maya and Mangarevans were cutting down their
trees, there were no historians or archaeologists, no
newspapers or television, to warn them of the consequences
of their actions. We, on the other hand, have a detailed
chronicle of human successes and failures at our disposal.
Will we choose to use it?
Jared Diamond, who won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in general
nonfiction for "Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human
Societies," is the author of the forthcoming "Collapse: How
Societies Choose or Fail to Succeed."