HOW CIVILIZATIONS DIE.... by Pulitizer prize winning writer/THINKER Jared Diamond
END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT!
By Jared Diamond
The New York Times
It is 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 starving.
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 environments.
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
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
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 Europe.
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 minute.
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."