Can our society avoid collapse?
March 5, 2014
"Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed".
A couple months ago I received a copy of the book by that name by Jared Diamond, also the author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning book, "Guns, Germs and Steel — The Fate of Human Societies". Published in 2005, "Collapse" is a study of a number of failed societies, including Easter Island, the Anasazi, the Maya, the Greenland Vikings, and Haiti, and the reasons for their collapse. The reasons he has identified are (1) environmental damage, (2) climate change, (3) rapid population change, (4) unstable trade partners, and (5) pressure from enemies, which either alone, or more often in some combination, led to the demise of these societies — but for which other societies worked out solutions and survived.
Environmental damage, which can be limited to strictly aesthetic issues, in its more serious form involves depletion of resources on which the survival of a society depends.
Mineral resources, such as metals, minerals, and fossil fuels, are finite and therefore will ultimately be depleted by what we refer to as "mining". "Renewable" resources, on the other hand, such as forests, fisheries, and water, can be exploited indefinitely provided they are not removed at a rate greater than the rate at which they are regenerated, and that is where we are currently failing.
Examples are rampant deforestation, especially of the world's rainforests, over-fishing and trawling the world's oceans, over-pumping aquifers, and soil erosion. The demand for wood products is stripping the world of its forests, which at current unsustainable harvesting rates could be gone by the end of this century, also depriving the world of a critical carbon-dioxide sink. Over-fishing has resulted in the collapse of one formerly productive ocean fishery after another, and trawling is effectively like bull-dozing the ocean floor, destroying its capacity to support life. Over-pumping (or mining) water from the Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies most of Nebraska and parts of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming, is gradually depleting the source of water that now sustains the enormous grain-crop productivity of the High Plains. And finally, soil erosion is proceeding at rates 10-40 times the rate of formation; Iowa, for example, has lost 8 feet (half) of its topsoil in the last 150 years.
In his book "Collapse", Diamond lists ten excuses (or fantasies) for inaction which are being used to justify not making the sacrifices needed to prevent the collapse of our society:
1. The cost of environmental preservation has to be balanced against the economy.
2. Technology will solve our problems.
3. If we exhaust one resource, we can switch to another one that will fill the same need.
4. There really isn't a world food problem — it's just a transportation problem.
5. As gauged by our lifespan, health and wealth, things have been improving for decades.
6. Past gloom and doom predictions have proven wrong.
7. Environmental concerns are a luxury affordable only by the wealthy.
8. Population growth is solving itself because the rate of increase is declining.
9. The world can accommodate population growth indefinitely.
10. If environmental problems become desperate, it will be only after I die, so why should I worry? (He saves the best one for last.)
But ignoring our problems will not make them go away. The current situation is entirely different from the examples of failed societies highlighted by Diamond. In most cases they were isolated societies of which the rest of the world was unaware even of their existence, and none of them had any real impact outside their own borders. But today the world is an integrated society, and the issues — environmental damage, climate change, population growth, unstable trade partners (the Middle East), and pressure from enemies, like North Korea and again the Middle East, affect the entire world. (Or perhaps Pogo was right, and the enemy is us.) Like it or not, we are all in this together, and consequently our society will fail or succeed as a whole.
How can our world best avoid destroying itself? Our problems will not be solved until we begin to take them seriously and take the necessary corrective actions when those problems become perceptible, regardless of how inconvenient that may be, instead of waiting until they reach crisis proportions.
— "As I See It" appears on the first and third Thursdays of the month. Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. Contact him at email@example.com.