Diane Hostetler | Tom Kerns | Brian Saunders

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Op-Ed Contributor: The Ends of the World as We Know Them

January 1, 2005


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

goes on.

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

States today.

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

their landscape.

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

the environment.

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."


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© Diane Hostetler, Tom Kerns, Brian Saunders