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A Planner’s Interpretation of Collapse 2009/12/08

Posted by joshuaherndon in Uncategorized.

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond

Reviewed by Joshua Herndon

In his latest book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, attempts to distill a unified theory for why some societies fail and others succeed. He does so by analyzing a mixture of historic and present day societies, some successful, but most not, including Easter Island, Norse Greenland,  the Maya, Australia, and a wide range in between. In the process, he develops a five-point framework for analyzing why societies fail, which includes considering; environmental damage caused by human impacts, climate change (non-anthropogenic), relations with hostile neighbors, relations with friendly trade partners, and lastly, the society’s responses to its environmental problems. Interestingly, he finds that while not every collapse has an environmental origin, environmental damage is often the main catalyst, and additionally, while the other factors may or may not prove significant to a society’s downfall, how a society responds to its environmental issues is always significant.

Diamond then identifies twelve environmental problems that can doom a society (the first eight being prevalent throughout history and the last four being issues that have arisen recently):  deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems (erosion, salinization, and soil fertility loss), water management problems, over-hunting, over-fishing, effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth, increased per capita impact of people, human-caused climate change, build up of toxic chemicals in the environment, energy shortages, and full human utilization of the earth’s photosynthetic capacity. While each of these problems should be familiar to most anyone who follows or is concerned with environmental issues, Diamond argues that the presence of these problems is not nearly as important as how they are addressed by a society.

He goes on to ask why it is that societies fail to solve these environmental problems. How did these societies not see what they were doing? To explain the answer, diamond identifies four kinds of failure: failure to anticipate a problem before it arrives; failure to perceive a problem once it does arrive; failure to act on a problem once it is perceived; and failure to solve a problem once it has been acted upon. He details that a failure to anticipate can occur if a society has no prior experience or knowledge of a problem, the experience with the problem happened long enough ago to have been forgotten, or a society reasons by false analogy. Additionally, a failure to perceive can occur because the origins of some problems are literally imperceivable, distant managers may not recognize an issue, or there could be a slow trend concealed by wide up-and-down fluctuations. Furthermore, a failure to act can occur as a result of numerous rational and irrational behaviors, including “Tragedy of the Commons” situations and the influence of religious beliefs or traditions on decision making. Finally, a failure to solve a problem can occur if a problem is beyond a society’s capacities to solve, a solution exists but is prohibitively expensive, efforts are too little too late, or an attempted solution backfires and exacerbates the situation.

Diamond closes by considering our current situation in light of his findings throughout the book, and concludes that our world society is currently facing each of the twelve environmental problems he identifies and is rapidly advancing along a non-sustainable course. He further predicts that the world’s environmental problems will get resolved, one way or another, in the next 40 years or so; whether they be in pleasant ways of our own choice, or in unpleasant ways not of our choice, such as war fare, genocide, starvation, disease epidemics, and collapse of societies. While he tries to end on a positive note with some “reasons for hope”, the mood has already been set by the rest of the book. Regardless of whether he concludes the book on a positive or negative note, the parallels between past failed societies and ours are obvious, as is the weight of the situation facing us.

It is for this reason that I feel the book is an important read for planners. Environmental problems are too often placed on the backburner when compared with other economic and societal concerns, but environmental issues are inextricable linked to a society’s failure or success. As planners we must understand where past societies have gone wrong, recognize that our society is not exempt from collapsing, and work to ensure those failures are not repeated. Diamond even articulates that he hopes a “better understanding of the potential causes of failure discussed in this [book] may help planners to become aware of those causes, and to avoid them.” However, it is not easy for planners to stand up and insist environmental issues be a top priority, especially since it is often not the planner’s role to make a stand on an issue given many of the power structures in place. In addition, as Diamonds says, “it calls for a leader with a different type of courage to anticipate a growing problem or just a potential one and to take bold steps to solve it before it becomes an explosive crisis.” Hopefully though, planners will realize the impact they can have on solving these problems and take on that leadership role, ensuring that the environmental issues we face are resolved through pleasant ways of our own choice and not by other means.



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