If Past is Prologue . . . What Human Societies of the Past Have to Tell Us
Jun 2, 2009
The main theme of this lengthy and substantial book is that human beings invariably leave too great a footprint and that, given current human population levels, we've now just about infested the entire planet with nowhere else to go (barring substantial advances in space travel and better opportunities out there). As Jared Diamond shows again and again, through a large number of fairly well documented and examined examples, human societies tend to consume the environments in which they are established. While many societies have obviously survived and prospered to date (or we wouldn't now be threatening the entire planet, as Diamond sees it), our societies tend to rapidly consume the more fragile environments in which they take root, bringing on their own collapse. Now, as Diamond notes at this book's end, we've reached the point where we're testing the fragility of the Earth itself.
In an earlier work (The Third Chimpanzee) Diamond focused on the kind of destructive primate that humans are as seen by an imaginary visitor from the stars. We would, he suggested, be looked on, not as a unique species, but as one (and, of course, the most successful) of three chimp species because we're so close in genetic makeup to chimps (of which there are two distinct species in the natural world, making us, of course, the third). In the present book Diamond returns to this earlier theme of human ecological rapaciousness and shows how archaeology and paleontology provide ample evidence of human societies repeatedly bringing about their own collapse through the ages. From modern Montana in the United States to the disasters that befell the Easter Islanders and their Polynesian kinsman on other fairly isolated islands (Pitcairn, Henderson and Mangareva) to the collapse of the southwest Pueblo native Americans to the Mayans, and on to the failed Norse experiment of Greenland and the destruction their Norse kinsmen wreaked on their fragile environment of Iceland. As Diamond demonstrates, the more fragile the environment, the more certain that humans will wreak havoc upon it.
After reading the book through, though, it's hard to see how we could do anything else. Diamond makes a powerful case for the importance of a robust natural environment but everything he presents tells us we humans are devastating to that. When he gets to modern Haiti and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the Dominican Republic (two nations which share the same island of Santo Domingo) the damage that man has done to his habitat is nearly terrifying. If we can do this to a once lush and beautiful island like Santo Domingo, how can we avoid doing it everywhere as our numbers grow?
He dutifully reports the devastation to be found in modern China, too, though offering a few salutary examples of societies which managed to recognize and reverse the process such as Shogunate Japan which, self-isolated from the rest of the world and with a powerful central government, managed to impose strict rules upon its constituent states to halt the stripping of that country's natural forests. Alas, as Diamond reminds us, Japan is less protective when it comes to plundering the planet's resources outside its borders and that is ultimately a problem since we're all on this one hunk of rock together, hurtling through space with no immediate prospects of anywhere else to go.
The problem, unfortunately, is that Diamond's moderate optimism in the final chapter (that we can all do what the Japanese shoguns did in their country and what some New Guinea natives managed to do in theirs to halt the depredations of the entire planet) falters on the realization that his ultimate prescription is for massive change in how we live and in the level of prosperity we have become used to. Diamond is right to note that if the globe is teetering on the precipice of collapse, as Easter Island and the Mayan city states were in their era, then radical rethinking and massive behavioral changes are required. But it may well take a much more imminent disaster than we're currently facing and a much more powerful central state than the old Japanese Shogunate. And there is the problem. In the end, Diamond's argument is for humans to change their values, their preferences, their goals and even their beliefs about themselves a prescription diametrically opposed to the values of individual freedom that have made us successful.
If he's right, then such values are anachronisms just as the competitiveness that drove the Easter Island chiefs to plunder their tiny homeland in vain competition to outshine their fellows was and, ultimately is, disastrous. If he's right, then refusing to change and adapt must inevitably do us in as it did the Norse "chieftains" of Greenland who, he tells us, hoarded resources and refused to change their mode of living in order to continue as "Europeans" in a most non-European environment, an environment that offered survival only to those prepared to live more like the Innuit (Eskimos).
Diamond wants us to go green but, more than that, he wants us to recognize the destruction we humans bring with us everywhere and change it by changing ourselves. Of course, the planet is not Easter Island. It's much, much bigger and more resilient but, as he notes, it's not infinite and a large enough human population will certainly exhaust it. Nor, he reminds us, will we necessarily know when we cross the point of no return as the Easter Islanders did not know on their little homeland which hasn't regenerated itself to this day. Nor, he reminds us, has Iceland, where humans have managed to persist. Our own country, he notes is rapidly losing its forests, clean water and native species, too.
If the Third Chimpanzee is invariably destructive, Diamond wants to tell us we can only change the outcome by altering what we are. We need central controls and plans to save the planet that can be enforced and, most importantly, we need to stop hungering for more and accept a less consumption-oriented global civilization. How "green" must we be? We cannot be "green" enough, he seems to be telling us, and that looks like a problem because people don't change their values easily nor is it always clear to all that they should, even if it seems clear to some. Diamond's prescriptions don't work unless the vast majority of mankind signs on or a strong enough centralized state takes over and forces the issue the way the Chinese government forced massive population control. People in the third world have to voluntarily surrender their potential to live like today's first worlders and those of us in the so-called first world have to set the example by accepting lower living standards than we have become accustomed to. Ouch!
While everything comes to an end, and it's not unrealistic to expect our world to do so as well at some point in the future, Diamond argues that we can stave that off longer than would otherwise be the case and make those salvaged years more rewarding for our posterity by bequeathing them a green world instead of a denuded planet. But aside from the challenge of achieving such change (movement away from fossil fuels, reduction in populations, reduction in the agricultural use of land, etc.), what about the cost of altering our values enough to accept a larger, more powerful, more intrusive state?
On a different front, I was especially interested to see what Diamond had to say about Greenland because, a few years back, I wrote an historical novel partly set there. I wanted to see if the Greenland he depicted matched the country I had envisioned based on the research I had done and, to my pleasant surprise, it did. The reasons Diamond gave for the Norse collapse there largely mirrored the society I had depicted in its formative stage with all the problems already inherent in its system, prompting me to a certain respect for Diamond's assessment, even if I think his thesis overly grim and his proposed solutions nearly unlikely, at least at this stage in human history. And that's pretty depressing because I share with Diamond a passion for the natural world we humans seem bent on washing away under our feet.
Stuart W. Mirsky author of The King of Vinland's Saga
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About the reviewer
Stuart W. Mirsky (swmirsky)
I'm a retired bureaucrat (having served, most recently, as an Assistant Commissioner in amunicipal agency in a major Northeastern American city). In 2002 I took an early retirement to pursue a lifelong … more
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What caused some of the great civilizations of the past to collapse into ruin, and what can we learn from their fates? Diamond weaves an all-encompassing global thesis through a series of historical-cultural narratives. Moving from the prehistoric Polynesian culture of Easter Island to the formerly flourishing Native American civilizations of the Anasazi and the Maya, the doomed medieval Viking colony on Greenland, and finally to the modern world, Diamond traces a pattern of catastrophe, spelling out what happens when we squander our resources, when we ignore the signals our environment gives us.
Table of Contents:
Prologue : a tale of two farms -- Two farms -- Collapses, past and present -- Vanished Edens? -- A five-point framework -- Businesses and the environment -- The comparative method -- Plan of the book -- pt. 1. Modern Montana -- 1. Under Montana's big sky -- Stan Falkow's story -- Montana and me -- Why begin with Montana? -- Montana's economic history -- Mining -- Forests -- Soil -- Water -- Native and non-native species -- Differing visions -- Attitudes towards regulation -- Rick Laible's story -- Chip Pigman's story -- Tim Huls's story -- John Cook's story -- Montana, model of the world -- pt. 2. Past societies -- 2. Twilight at Easter -- The quarry's mysteries -- Easter's geography and history -- People and food -- Chiefs, clans, and commoners -- Platforms and statues -- Carving, transporting, erecting -- The vanished forest -- Consequences for society -- ...