Previous Current Older Next Contact

2008-01-27 7:07 p.m.


"What is in the end to be shrunken begins by first being stretched out. What is in the end to be weakened begins by first being made strong. What is in the end to be thrown down begins by first being set on high. What is in the end to be despoiled begins by being first richly endowed." –Tao Te Ching

“It’s not the monuments that teaches us history. It’s the ruins.” –Carl Hammaren

“We learn of history that we haven’t learned anything of history.” –George Bernard Shaw

So, I just finished reading Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond, and I wrote a book report for you, if you're interested. I should have been studying or translating today, but instead I wrote this. I'm going to focus my attention on the last chapter, which deals with the state of the modern world as a whole, but all the preceding chapters serve as vivid illustrations of the kinds of problems he discusses there.

I've never yet encountered such a cogent presentation of the reality that a society's environmental interests are not separate from its economic and social interests. The economic interests of individuals or of groups over the short term may often seem to be weightier than their environmental interests, but in reality, economic and social wealth comes directly from spending environmental capital. If we spend that capital faster than it can renew itself, as we are doing right now, we are headed for big trouble. Historically, environmentally precipitated societal collapses have occurred with great (and frequently completely unforeseen) rapidity, right after those societies reached their peak of wealth and power (and environmental destruction). Even those who are in a position to profit from making the situation worse for everyone else often only gain "the privilege of being the last to starve." (Not to mention the rich and powerful are often the first targets of violence once things start to fall apart.)

As you may know, I tend to focus on energy concerns as the most pressing problem facing us today. But in the last chapter of the book, Diamond makes a very compelling case that that is only one of a dozen problems that all must be solved within the next few decades in order to avoid extreme reductions in the standard of living worldwide. If we fail to solve even one of them, we're in big trouble.

I'll give some specific examples of problems that I didn't really appreciate the magnitude of until reading this book. One is the rapidly decreasing amount of arable land due to erosion, desalinization, overfarming resulting in loss of fertility, and other causes, resulting in less and less farmland at a time when more and more food is needed to support increasing population and increasing consumption. Most of the freshwater readily available for human use worldwide is already being utilized, and aquifers worldwide are being drained faster than they are being replenished. Desalinizing sea water is an option, but I'd like to know where you expect the energy required to do that on a significant scale is going to come from.

Even sunlight as a resource is in danger of being maxed out. The whole Green Revolution doesn't change the fact that there are geometrical and biochemical limits to the amount of solar energy that can be converted into biomass even if the plants could be engineered to capture and use every photon that hits them. Diamond says: "We are projected to be utilizing most of the world's terrestrial photosynthetic capacity by the middle of this century. That is, most energy fixed from sunlight will be used for human purposes, and little will be left over to support the growth of natural plant communities, such as natural forests."

Most of the valuable fisheries worldwide have already collapsed. More than half of the world's forests have been destroyed in the last 8000 years, and more than half of that damage has been done in the last 50 years, and is showing no signs of slowing (quite the opposite, if I'm not mistaken). The funny thing about our forests and fisheries, though, is that it has been calculated that if these resources were managed properly, current consumption rates could be maintained or even increased somewhat. Of course, they are not being managed properly, due to the "tragedy of the commons," which is similar to the prisoner's dilemma. Whenever there is a shared resource, it would be best for everyone if everyone just took a moderate amount. However, if one individual takes significantly more than their fair share, they profit while everyone else suffers. So everyone has an incentive to overexploit the resource, especially if they don't trust the other users of that resource not to overexploit it. This makes sustaining forests and especially fisheries quite difficult.

One problem he spends some time on in the last chapter is one I think we all realize in the back of our minds but are usually unwilling to confront directly. That is the fact that the average First World citizen consumes 32 times the resources and puts out 32 times the wastes of the average Third World citizen. If everyone on the Earth today were to have the same standard of living as we do, the impact on the environment (or, in other words, the depletion of our sources of energy, food, and raw materials) would be twelve times what it is today. If China alone achieved that standard of living while everyone else's stayed the same, the impact would be double. Achieving that standard of living is most definitely the goal of nearly all these people, and there is no way that can work out.

He says: "Even if the human populations of the Third World did not exist, it would be impossible for the First World to maintain its present course, because it is not in a steady state but is depleting its own resources as well as those imported from the Third World. At present, it is untenable politically for First World leaders to propose to their own citizens that they lower their living standards, as measured by lower resource consumption and waste production rates. What will happen when it finally dawns on all those people in the Third World that current First World standards are unreachable for them, and that the First World refuses to abandon those standards for itself?"

He spends some time on the common objections to environmentalism in the last chapter. The ones that I tend to be most sympathetic to (or most hopeful about) are the related ideas that "improved technology will take care of it" and that "we can find an alternate resource once this one runs out." The problem is that new technology has a long and distinguished history of causing at least as many problems (many of them completely unforeseen) as it solves, and there is no reason to think that the newest technology will be any different. Additionally, switching to new resources, assuming they exist and are adequate replacements, generally takes decades, since an entire existing infrastructure has to be overhauled (which in itself requires a large expenditure of resources). Unfortunately, we don't have decades. Preventing an illness in the first place is always cheaper and less painful that waiting till the disease is going full-bore to start treatment, and ultimately the easiest means we will have for dealing with these problems will be to do as much as we can right now to preserve existing resources with existing technology.

Put another way: "The world's environmental problems will get resolved, in one way or another, within the lifetimes of the children and young adults alive today. The only question is whether they will become resolved in pleasant ways of our own choice, or in unpleasant ways not of our choice, such as warfare, starvation, disease epidemics, and collapses of societies. While all of those grim phenomena have been endemic to humanity throughout our history, their frequency increases with environmental degradation, population pressure, and the resulting poverty and political instability."

The reason for hope, according to Diamond, is that these problems are not insoluble. If we start now, we can avert disaster.

The reason for pessimism, according to me, is that I see little sign of the political will or social consciousness that would allow the US, at least, to make the necessary changes in the necessary time frame. I think George Bush the Elder summed up the currently prevailing attitude very well when he told the Earth Summit in 1992: "The American way of life is not negotiable."

The problem is, of course, that the American way of life will have to be negotiated if it is to survive at all. There are some positive signs of changes in opinion, though they are still met with vehement opposition in this country. Certainly nothing meaningful is going to get done during the current administration, which has set us back years in our ability to grapple meaningfully with these problems, or as long as Republicans control Congress. I'm not sure whether the Democrats will be up to doing much even if they do gain control.

Americans seem to be most worried about terrorism and illegal immigration at the moment. These are symptoms of the world's environmental problems, not problems unrelated to environmental concerns and to which environmental concerns are a trivial distraction, and nothing will be gained in treating those symptoms by methods that only serve to exacerbate the actual problems, as we have been doing for the last eight years. Sooner or later the real problems will make themselves abundantly obvious, but I wonder whether people will recognize and take action in time?

I'm doubtful as to whether disaster can be averted without voluntary action to reduce population levels and our standard of living (Diamond doesn't come out and say that, but I don't see how you could come to any other conclusion from the data he presents), among other things, and probably pretty soon. That would probably involve a complete overhaul of our entire socioeconomic system, which is currently based on the assumption that exponential growth in both population and consumption will continue forever. That assumption is obviously absurd, but social security and stock market investing are two examples of key aspects of our system that are based on it. I really find it hard to imagine Americans abandoning these systems and values before they are forced to by a major crisis, but by then it may already be too late.

(This, incidentally, is the biggest reason why I could never possibly vote Republican. Diamond cites the ability to recognize and discard core societal values that are incompatible with survival as a key factor in determining whether societies manage to solve problems such as those we are faced with today. Conservatives by definition are adamantly unwilling to reevaluate their core values, and they have had to be dragged kicking and screaming through essentially every bit of meaningful progress in history. If the United States manages to navigate more or less successfully through the problems of the coming decades, it will certainly not be under the direction of anything like the current Republican Party.)

Though even I dislike the idea of abandoning investment in a stock market that averages 7% growth every year. I've got a lot of money invested in it, and I'm planning to invest even more in the near future. My justification is that I might as well ride the gravy train while it's still in operation, but is that really ethically acceptable considering my world view? By investing in the system, I am propagating the system, becoming psychologically and financially dependent on it, and thereby making it more difficult for the system to be changed. On the other hand, I have a strong incentive to do what I can to ensure a stable future for myself and my potential family in what seems to be an increasingly unstable world, and it seems crazy not to make money in the stock market while there's money to be made there, especially on the off chance that the system turns out to be sustainable for my entire life. I guess this is how the tragedy of the commons plays out in our own lives; the conscious (or unconscious) choice to become a hammer rather than a nail. So you can be the last to starve to death.

(Aside- the chapter on Rwanda really got me thinking. Say you and your family are starving. For example, you're subsistence farmers, but you don't have enough land to produce enough food to feed yourselves, and your attempts to find other work fail. There are just too many people, and not enough land, work, or food ("the Malthusian nightmare"). What lengths are you willing to go to in order to obtain food for you and your family? Steal it? Appropriate the land of your dead neighbor? Refrain from helping your neighbor avoid being killed so that you can get his land afterwards? Kill your neighbor for his land? Do all this as part of a campaign of genocide in which 800,000 people are killed in six weeks? And can you, in the lap of First World luxury, really say what you would or wouldn't do in that situation?)

So, all this does contribute to make the individual feel rather helpless. Sometimes it seems like most people aren't even aware of the magnitude of the problems we face, and most of the rest don't seem to care enough to do anything about it. "Let's not talk about it! Things seem more or less peachy right now, so eat, drink, and be merry!" Other people don't know what there is that they can do. I guess you just do what you can, starting by opening up the discussion with others. I guess that's what I'm doing here. (Incidentally, I've gotten an unofficial go-ahead to work on an alternative energy project for my PhD dissertation, under the condition that I fund myself (by getting a fellowship, working as a T.A. every semester, and/or working simultaneously on a project that is funded). Which is good news, but I am a little dismayed at the apparent lack of interest in the problem.)

Anyway, I think this book should be required reading for all politicians, and that it should be vigorously discussed in classrooms and beyond. (Feel free to vigorously discuss it with me.) Of course I've barely even scratched the surface of all the book covers. If you're not sure whether you want to read it, find a copy at a bookstore or library and read the last chapter, and decide based on that whether you want to read the rest.

Hey, at least we can't say we lived in a boring period of history.

“Life may not be exactly pleasant, but it is at least not dull. Heave yourself into Hell today, and you may miss, tomorrow or the next day, another Scopes trial, or another War to End War, or perchance a rich and buxom widow with all her first husband's clothes. ... I advocate hanging on as long as possible.” -H.L. Mencken

to know enough's enough is enough to know,