Friday, January 28, 2005

Why Civilizations Fail

Portlanders packed First Congregational Church last night -- that's on the park blocks, near PSU. Dave, Darl and I sat together in the balcony. Our speaker was Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Gems and Steel, and now of another book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Note the word "choose" -- there's the notion of free will expressed in it, by author intent.

I've heard Jared a couple of times before, and I'm always blown away by his thick American accent, which I'm not enough of a philologist to pinpoint. Typical of Oregonians, of the Portland variety anyway, we tittered almost inaudably (so as not to be rude) when he said Oregon. People who live here (and new immigrants from out of state quickly learn this), say Oregun, with emphasis on the O.

They fail, civilizations, for a variety of reasons, including when the elite manages to isolate itself from the living conditions experienced by the rank and file. He described gated communities around LA, unaffected by failures of the surrounding infrastructure (including school systems) and therefore less likely to become worked up enough to take appropriate measures. Sometimes the wake up call comes too late in such cases.

Another bad omen is when a society fails to adjust its beliefs. He gives the example of Norse who settled in Greenland awhile back. These were staunch Christians who looked down on the rival Inuit as too outside God's fold to be worthy of respect. This was fine until the supply ships stopped coming, owing to troubles in the homeland. Although self-sufficiency was in principle still attainable, witness the Inuit, these Norse in Jared's view were too proud to sit at the feet of pagans and learn some new ways. And so they all died of starvation.

When he talked about USA military interventions overseas, as in Iraq, he did so minus the tone of moral outrage liberal Portlanders expect. The resulting discomfort was expressed in the Q&A. Jared seized the bull by the horns, and replied that any number of countries were queued up to collapse or implode, and whereas it was in the national self-interest to keep this from happening, because devastation abroad means terrorism and disease back home, tackling these challenges militarily would be unsustainably inefficient and impractical. We'd see these gargantuan price tags over and over, whereas a mere $25 billion would could fuel a globally effective anti-malaria campaign, a cost that would not be borne alone because intelligent policies attract investors. Portlanders were comfortable with this answer and applauded generously.

In Jared's view, Easter Island is a kind of parable. This place was remote, insulated by vast expanses of ocean from other societies, just like humans aboard Spaceship Earth. In the case of Easter Island, the humans failed to plan and deforested their ecosystem, made a number of other blunders. Before long, they were at war with themselves, knocking over enemy head sculptures and resorting to cannibalism -- not pretty. What's different in the case of Spaceship Earth, Jared reassured us, is our access to the historical record and to real time global data. When it comes to ecosystem management, we can learn from the Japanese, who invented sustainable forestry even before the Europeans did, and from oil companies like Chevron, which takes better care of its drilling zones in Papua New Guinea than do many national park systems. Sustainability is profitable, after all.

Of course the Chevron example was again disturbing to Portlanders, but Jared's response was consistent: it's up to us, the consumers, to do our homework and not villify giant corporations simply for being giant. Villify those committing specific crimes, including crimes committed legally. Not all businesses are equally culpable. As consumers, we should reward those that we appreciate, and withhold our business from those we do not. The same goes for politicians: don't write them off as a species; the devil is in the details. Vote with your dollars and vote with your votes. Participate. Make a difference. It's up to you and I to make humanity a success, not some nebulous "them." Again, the applause was sincere.