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Old Jul 24th 2011, 09:44 PM
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Default Collapse, by Jared Diamond

I've just finished reading Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, a book by Jared Diamond. Since some interest was expressed when I mentioned this book in another thread, I figured I'd start a thread for it.

It is an excellent book that studies a wide variety of different social and ecological situations (and problems) and how various different groups of people solved, or failed to solve, the problem of social survival. Most interesting (for me) is the in-depth focus on several Pacific island cultures, including Easter Island as a known 'failure', but also a couple others that didn't fail. Likewise with the Norse Atlantic colonies, some of which survived/thrived, some did not. These sources of similar (but slightly different) environmental challenges provide some very good information about how and why some failed and some succeeded.

Towards the end of the book, in one of the concluding chapters, Jared Diamond addresses a very basic question that really goes to the heart of the issue and theme of the book.

Why do some societies make disastrous decisions?

The more one reads about what is known about Easter Island, you have to ask yourself this question. Those huge stone statues were an enormous drain on the economy and required vast amounts of lumber to build them. And the very last ones built were the largest of them all. And then there were no more trees big enough to use for building huge stone statues.

One might think that these people might notice that the island was becoming denuded of trees and forest, but apparently, they just kept on building bigger and more impressive versions of these huge stone statues until the forests were all gone and then the soil erosion and lack of lumber to build fishing boats made them starve to death.

The Easter Islanders were not the only people to wipe themselves out with bad social decision making - they just happen to be some of the most famous ones. There are many other examples in the book.

Anyway, in response to the question, Jared Diamond suggests four possible ways that various societies may fail to deal with catastrophic environmental or resource problems.

1. A group may fail to anticipate a problem before the problem actually arrives.
2. When a problem does arrive, the group may fail to perceive it.
3. When a problem arives and is recognized, the group may fail to even try to solve it.
4. When a problem arives and is recognized, the group may try to solve it but fail.


Most of the known examples do fall clearly into one of these four categories. A few of them fall into more than one as these four possibilities may also represent a progression of social responses over time to the same problem.

In the case of the Easter Islanders and the Greenland Norse, the first three are clearly in evidence.

Of course, the reason this book is so interesting is because of the potential parallels to our own contemporary society. And in this light, I honestly felt that our modern society sure as heck looks a lot like the Easter Islanders right now... we are still trying to build bigger, better, faster vehicles to travel around our designed to be oil-dependent society. It sure does look like we are well on our way to using our last trees to build the biggest stone statue of them all (figuratively speaking).

Any thoughts or comments on this book or this topic?
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Old Jul 24th 2011, 10:29 PM
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Default Re: Collapse, by Jared Diamond

I haven't read the book, but I agree... sure feels like Easter Island. I wonder if they had the equivalent of the Right Wing... the Gods will send us more trees! Trees will wash up on the shore!
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Old Jul 25th 2011, 09:49 AM
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Default Re: Collapse, by Jared Diamond

Quote:
Originally Posted by Michael View Post
I've just finished reading Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, a book by Jared Diamond. Since some interest was expressed when I mentioned this book in another thread, I figured I'd start a thread for it.

It is an excellent book that studies a wide variety of different social and ecological situations (and problems) and how various different groups of people solved, or failed to solve, the problem of social survival. Most interesting (for me) is the in-depth focus on several Pacific island cultures, including Easter Island as a known 'failure', but also a couple others that didn't fail. Likewise with the Norse Atlantic colonies, some of which survived/thrived, some did not. These sources of similar (but slightly different) environmental challenges provide some very good information about how and why some failed and some succeeded.

Towards the end of the book, in one of the concluding chapters, Jared Diamond addresses a very basic question that really goes to the heart of the issue and theme of the book.

Why do some societies make disastrous decisions?

The more one reads about what is known about Easter Island, you have to ask yourself this question. Those huge stone statues were an enormous drain on the economy and required vast amounts of lumber to build them. And the very last ones built were the largest of them all. And then there were no more trees big enough to use for building huge stone statues.

One might think that these people might notice that the island was becoming denuded of trees and forest, but apparently, they just kept on building bigger and more impressive versions of these huge stone statues until the forests were all gone and then the soil erosion and lack of lumber to build fishing boats made them starve to death.

The Easter Islanders were not the only people to wipe themselves out with bad social decision making - they just happen to be some of the most famous ones. There are many other examples in the book.

Anyway, in response to the question, Jared Diamond suggests four possible ways that various societies may fail to deal with catastrophic environmental or resource problems.

1. A group may fail to anticipate a problem before the problem actually arrives.
2. When a problem does arrive, the group may fail to perceive it.
3. When a problem arives and is recognized, the group may fail to even try to solve it.
4. When a problem arives and is recognized, the group may try to solve it but fail.


Most of the known examples do fall clearly into one of these four categories. A few of them fall into more than one as these four possibilities may also represent a progression of social responses over time to the same problem.

In the case of the Easter Islanders and the Greenland Norse, the first three are clearly in evidence.

Of course, the reason this book is so interesting is because of the potential parallels to our own contemporary society. And in this light, I honestly felt that our modern society sure as heck looks a lot like the Easter Islanders right now... we are still trying to build bigger, better, faster vehicles to travel around our designed to be oil-dependent society. It sure does look like we are well on our way to using our last trees to build the biggest stone statue of them all (figuratively speaking).

Any thoughts or comments on this book or this topic?
Easter Islanders inability to produce food is the major parallel I see with other, identified lost civilizations. While that circumstance was unquestionably self-imposed, I'd venture an opinion that contemporary society is moving in the same direction due to rapidly increasing populations exhausting finite resources. Throw in climate change, unsustainable demands on irrigation water and I'd think a major calamity is down the road for much of the future population.
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Old Jul 26th 2011, 11:26 PM
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Default Re: Collapse, by Jared Diamond

hmmm... I have never read the book or anything by Diamond because what he is interested in just doesn't grab my attention. However, my one problem from reading the wikipedia article and reading your synopsis is that his framework seems to give societies to much control over their own circumstances. Those four responses give a lot of power to societies to self determine

Also, the question "why do societies make horrible disastrous decisions" is a question that reveals 20/20 hindsight bias. We can simply cases like Easter Island because we know the end game. However it wasn't just one set of islanders that caused the problem. The problem built up over a long time. I don't think anyone would have been able to see it coming.
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Old Jul 29th 2011, 09:29 PM
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Default Re: Collapse, by Jared Diamond

Why do societies make horrible decisions like building "urban renewal" projects that Rothbard poked fun at, sending drone missiles controlled from Creech Air force base in Nevada to kill people half way around the world, developing Cash for Clunkers, Quantitative Easing, and extravagant "Economic Stimulus Packages", while reneging on Social Security benefits which are not entitlements, but were paid for by payroll taxes and and "put into a special trust account"? Because that is the way expanding imperialist collectives operate. North Americans need to exorcise themselves of their delusional emotional attachment to the metastasizing cancer that is the ethically and financially bankrupt US government, instead of trying to find gimmicks to aid and abet it and prolong its demise.
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Old Jul 30th 2011, 06:31 PM
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Default Re: Collapse, by Jared Diamond

Quote:
Originally Posted by Americano View Post
Easter Islanders inability to produce food is the major parallel I see with other, identified lost civilizations. While that circumstance was unquestionably self-imposed, I'd venture an opinion that contemporary society is moving in the same direction due to rapidly increasing populations exhausting finite resources. Throw in climate change, unsustainable demands on irrigation water and I'd think a major calamity is down the road for much of the future population.
Well yes, the inabillity to produce sufficient food is almost always the immediate cause of any extinct/lost civilization, but I think the key point about the Easter Islanders is that for them, this was an 'unintended consequence' of their passion for big statues and the resulting mass tree-chopping needed to move and erect those big stone statues.

One can't really fault them for not understanding the nature of soil erosion as that's a result of our modern science.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Non Sequitur View Post
hmmm... I have never read the book or anything by Diamond because what he is interested in just doesn't grab my attention. However, my one problem from reading the wikipedia article and reading your synopsis is that his framework seems to give societies to much control over their own circumstances. Those four responses give a lot of power to societies to self determine
Well, looking at the data presented, that seems to be exactly it - these small and isolated societies approached problems in different ways - some succeeded and some failed for various different reasons. That's an interesting topic of study in my opinion.

And Diamond does make a further study of comparision of various 'features' in common for the disasterous decision-making societies. It does seem as if there are several notable features in common in those cases studied (successes and failures) - Diamond studies in detail the North Atlantic Norse settlements where several succeeded (Orkneys, Shetlands and Faroe Islands Iceland) while a couple failed (Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland). Likewise with several Polynesian colonized islands in the South Pacific Ocean - several succeeded despite being very tiny (less than two square mile island in one case, has maintained a population of about 1400 people for over 1000 years).

Btw, Iceland is a bit of a mixed case - the original settlement was a disaster and pretty much denuded the island of trees and vegetation. Iceland's subsequent poverty and eventual survivial seems to have involved substantial new immigrations and major adaptions to the environment.

Diamond points out that 'failures' tend to have geographic areas too large for one person to see and understand the landscape, but too small to produce a centralized government apparatus. This seems to apply to us, by the way.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Non Sequitur View Post
Also, the question "why do societies make horrible disastrous decisions" is a question that reveals 20/20 hindsight bias. We can simply cases like Easter Island because we know the end game. However it wasn't just one set of islanders that caused the problem. The problem built up over a long time. I don't think anyone would have been able to see it coming.
The question is not about assigning 'blame' rather the question seems to be motivated by the desire to prevent our own society from making an equally disasterous decision. That is to say, some societies met challenges and succeeded - others failed in spectacular ways. Asking why is there a difference there might help us prevent our own extinction.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Tom Palven View Post
Why do societies make horrible decisions like building "urban renewal" projects that Rothbard poked fun at, sending drone missiles controlled from Creech Air force base in Nevada to kill people half way around the world, developing Cash for Clunkers, Quantitative Easing, and extravagant "Economic Stimulus Packages", while reneging on Social Security benefits which are not entitlements, but were paid for by payroll taxes and and "put into a special trust account"? Because that is the way expanding imperialist collectives operate. North Americans need to exorcise themselves of their delusional emotional attachment to the metastasizing cancer that is the ethically and financially bankrupt US government, instead of trying to find gimmicks to aid and abet it and prolong its demise.
While I certainly do agree that our present form of government does seem to be horribly corrupted, I can't help but to consider the fact that the only thing worse than the government that we've got, is not having an effective government at all - and with or modern world, that would be havoc and hell. I don't see any viable way out of this problem.
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Old Jul 30th 2011, 08:02 PM
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Default Re: Collapse, by Jared Diamond

Quote:
Originally Posted by Michael View Post
Well yes, the inabillity to produce sufficient food is almost always the immediate cause of any extinct/lost civilization, but I think the key point about the Easter Islanders is that for them, this was an 'unintended consequence' of their passion for big statues and the resulting mass tree-chopping needed to move and erect those big stone statues.
Using that assumption one could state future food shortages due to generically engineered seeds dependent on endless applications of petroleum byproducts of fertilizers and pesticides would have originally been considered an unintended consequence?

I suggest that parallel as soil erosion due to clear cutting is not an immediate consequence. In primitive eras as trees came down crop positions would have been relocated to avoid initial erosion from primary drainage points. There had to be an early on point where those responsible for gathering/fishing noticed decline in available resources as soil became worthless and sea inlets contaminated by fresh water/silt. I'd think they were quickly silenced by leadership using the statues for worship purposes to control the masses, perhaps turning unintended disaster into a known consequence.
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Old Jul 30th 2011, 08:04 PM
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Default Re: Collapse, by Jared Diamond

Quote:
Originally Posted by Michael View Post
Well yes, the inabillity to produce sufficient food is almost always the immediate cause of any extinct/lost civilization, but I think the key point about the Easter Islanders is that for them, this was an 'unintended consequence' of their passion for big statues and the resulting mass tree-chopping needed to move and erect those big stone statues.

One can't really fault them for not understanding the nature of soil erosion as that's a result of our modern science.


Well, looking at the data presented, that seems to be exactly it - these small and isolated societies approached problems in different ways - some succeeded and some failed for various different reasons. That's an interesting topic of study in my opinion.

And Diamond does make a further study of comparision of various 'features' in common for the disasterous decision-making societies. It does seem as if there are several notable features in common in those cases studied (successes and failures) - Diamond studies in detail the North Atlantic Norse settlements where several succeeded (Orkneys, Shetlands and Faroe Islands Iceland) while a couple failed (Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland). Likewise with several Polynesian colonized islands in the South Pacific Ocean - several succeeded despite being very tiny (less than two square mile island in one case, has maintained a population of about 1400 people for over 1000 years).

Btw, Iceland is a bit of a mixed case - the original settlement was a disaster and pretty much denuded the island of trees and vegetation. Iceland's subsequent poverty and eventual survivial seems to have involved substantial new immigrations and major adaptions to the environment.

Diamond points out that 'failures' tend to have geographic areas too large for one person to see and understand the landscape, but too small to produce a centralized government apparatus. This seems to apply to us, by the way.


The question is not about assigning 'blame' rather the question seems to be motivated by the desire to prevent our own society from making an equally disasterous decision. That is to say, some societies met challenges and succeeded - others failed in spectacular ways. Asking why is there a difference there might help us prevent our own extinction.



While I certainly do agree that our present form of government does seem to be horribly corrupted, I can't help but to consider the fact that the only thing worse than the government that we've got, is not having an effective government at all - and with or modern world, that would be havoc and hell. I don't see any viable way out of this problem.
We are brainwashed by well-meaning teachers in government schools to believe that we couldn't exist without layers of bureaucrats and politicians arranged in a pyramidal hierarchy with a Decider-In-Chief at the the top to bully and/or protect us, just as we are brainwashed in Sunday school or in Temple to believe that we can't exist in in a happy, rational, and ethical state without a strong belief in an Almighty God at the top of a pyramid of deacons, priests, archbishops, and so on.
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Old Jul 30th 2011, 08:22 PM
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Default Re: Collapse, by Jared Diamond

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Originally Posted by Tom Palven View Post
We are brainwashed by well-meaning teachers in government schools to believe that we couldn't exist without layers of bureaucrats and politicians arranged in a pyramidal hierarchy with a Decider-In-Chief at the the top to bully and/or protect us, just as we are brainwashed in Sunday school or in Temple to believe that we can't exist in in a happy, rational, and ethical state without a strong belief in an Almighty God at the top of a pyramid of deacons, priests, archbishops, and so on.
You might be overlooking the fact that a majority of any citizenry are followers who require structure and direction to function in a productive manner. Which system short of utopia works best is always the issue generating discussion and controversy.

I have to fall back on Winston Churchill's quote:

"It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."
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Old Jul 30th 2011, 09:49 PM
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Default Re: Collapse, by Jared Diamond

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Originally Posted by Americano View Post
You might be overlooking the fact that a majority of any citizenry are followers who require structure and direction to function in a productive manner. Which system short of utopia works best is always the issue generating discussion and controversy.
I have to fall back on Winston Churchill's quote:
"It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."
Even if all people require structure and direction, it doesn't neccesarily follow that these foundations and boundaries must be provided through a coercive pyramidal system with a Decider-in-Chief on top. Imagine there are no countries. Law Professor Butler Shaffer, among others, has done this, and has proposed a horozontally-arranged, non-coercive, stateless system, where, for instance, people could drive through the Americas without harrassment at "borders", which unlike borders in Europe that have have been eliminated, have become increasingly time-consuming and intrusive.
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