Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Book Review: Collapse

This post is insanely long, sorry.

Jared Diamond's Collapse reviews archaeological evidence of the collapse of ancient societies and relates the lessons learned to the modern world. You may not believe that the disappearance of the Classic Mayan civilization, Anasazi native Americans, or Greenland Norse have any bearing on present-day life, but this book will change your mind.

The topic is a fascinating one, especially if you like history, but this was slow reading. I can appreciate the depth of knowledge the author displayed, and the time he must have spent researching for this book, but that doesn't mean I need multiple-page explanations of swamp core sampling, acid heap mining, soil salination, and rat nest analysis. Stuff that in the Appendix and reference it, but let's stick to the discoveries in the main chapters, not the process of discovery, ok? For this reason alone, I couldn't recommend Collapse to anyone except as a reference. It took me a couple months to choke it down, when I'll normally tear through a novel over a weekend.

Still, I give a lot of credit to Diamond for presenting the material as scientifically and apolitically as possible. He's obviously got some liberal leanings, but he avoids criminalizing business, even those who have done tremendous environmental harm. He bends over backwards to explain that business is a for-profit enterprise, and that CEOs who fail to maximize profits are replaced by someone who will. He doesn't use the rationale to excuse the damage, but instead hammers home the point that economic incentives are more effective than moral ones. (If that line sounds familiar, I shamelessly repeated it in a previous post.) He never utters the shudder-worthly phrase 'social responsibility'.

Enough with the review stuff, I want to talk about lessons learned.

Collapsed societies follow a familiar arc. As civilizations grow, their demand for resources and economic complexity grow also. (Simple = everyone farming their own land, providing for themselves. Complex = highly specialized, interdependent.) The collapse of a civilization rarely takes the form of a gradual decline, but instead quickly follows the peak of that civilization, ie: the point of the highest resource consumption and economic complexity. High resource consumption and waste generation means a lot of stress on the environment to provide food, wood, metal, etc. When something bad happens during this time of maximum stress and complexity, like a prolonged drought, collapse of a trading partner, or invasion of foreign army... societies must adapt quickly (by agreeing to consume fewer resources) or die in a violent competition for dwindling supplies.

Have you figured out how this might relate to today yet?

The average First World person has an environmental impact (resources consumed + waste generated) 32 times higher than a Third World person. As globalization stimulates the economies of China, India, Brazil, and a host of other countries with a large percentage of Third World living standards, the environmental impact of those nations increases dramatically. If China alone achieves a standard of living similar to that of Europe and the U.S., it will double the demand for resources of the entire world. That number assumes zero population growth and ignores completely the 1 billion residents of India.

Double the environmental impact sounds scary, but it's absolutely terrifying when you consider that we can't sustain our current pace of global consumption, let alone a 100% increase. Our highly specialized world economy has created small zones of land that produce most of the food...places like Punjab in India, the Green Belt in Australia, and of course the Great Plains in America...all of these places are suffering environmental degradation that takes thousands of years to revert naturally. Salination, soil erosion, and overuse of pesticide makes this land less fertile every day while the demand for food only increases. Of course there are, and will continue to be agricultural breakthroughs that increase yields, but if the land isn't managed properly, it will reach a point where it is beyond repair. The birthplace of man, the Fertile Crescent in Iraq, once the richest agricultural soil in the world, is now desert due to deforestation, salination, and erosion.

It's easy for us, for me, to live in a land of plenty, and drive around to different enviornmentally-protected parks, and buy food in the grocery store that is grown without pesticide, and think that these problems are overblown. Because within the borders of First World countries, they largely are. Environmental regulations have slowed down or stopped the pollution of rivers by mining companies and reforested much of America, Japan, and Europe. Sustainabile logging and fishing practices are enforced by governments and in the best interest of long-term corporate health.

But with all this regulation, all this pollution cleanup, all the planning and investment required for sustainable practice, did you ever wonder why the relative cost of resources has remained cheap? Why we still live in a society where it's more cost-effective to buy a new thingy than pay someone to fix your old thingy? Because globalization has allowed us to export the unregulated environmental rape to Third World countries - so that we can have our cake and eat it, too. We get the moral satisfaction of regulation and national parks while maintaining astronomical rates of consumption.

Japan, once almost completely deforested, now has forest cover over 70% of its land. They also import all of their timber from places like Indonesia and Malaysia, which are clear-cutting at a rate that will leave them bare by 2025. Mining regulations are much more relaxed in China, Africa, and Mexico, so the orange rivers of West Virginia have simply been relocated to other places around the globe. Eventually, we will run out of places to exploit, either because the resources themselves have been completely removed, or because those countries will legislate sustainable practices. When we reach that point, supply will shrink dramatically just as demand is reaching new peaks.

That's just the kind of scenario that has caused civilizations to collapse in the past. Strong, vibrant, wealthy, powerful societies filled with intelligent, hard-working, forward-thinking people have vanished because of exactly the same circumstances we're going to face.

I don't want to join the long list of environmental doomsayers. They've been proven wrong time and time again. But it's also foolish to ignore potential problems and expect new technologies to rescue us from an unsustainable path.


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