Monday, February 1, 2010

Book of the Month: Collapse

The February book of the month is Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.  For anyone who is concerned about sustainability or simply wants to know why we should care about the health of the environment, this book is a perfect starting point.

Collapse comes in four main parts, starting with the changing situation in modern Montana.  Though traditionally individualist in culture, Montana's increasing population is forcing the need for proper land management.  This provides an easy to relate to example for why some cultures resist change even in the face of obvious problems.  More than anything, people do not like change or it may be in their short term interest to resist doing so.

The next part is an in depth analysis of several societies throughout history, both successful and otherwise, that draws on the lessons from Montana.  Diamond starts with several ancient societies that have collapsed, including the Easter Island culture, the Chaco Canyon culture, the Mayans, and the Greenland Norse.  Throughout, Diamond demonstrates how deforestation and the resulting soil erosion caused each society's population to collapse due to lack of a fuel source and severely decreased crop yields.  Then Diamond points out the societies who have staved off ecological disaster, including Tokugawa Japan and the peoples of the New Guinea highlands.  In contrast to the failed societies, these ones recognized the impending danger of deforestation and took drastic measures to stop it in their lands.  Japan, for instance, is now the most heavily forested country in the world thanks to these measures.

Part three is a survey of several modern societies threatened with collapse.  Most frightening was the discussion of China, which could be looking at a major ecological disaster in the not too distant future.  With its massive and still growing population, China needs ever more agricultural land to support itself.  However, rapid deforestation is accelerating desertification, which destroys large swaths of China's farmland every year.  In addition are China's dwindling sources of fresh water and pollution from its rapid industrial growth.  For China to avoid disaster, it must face these problems sooner rather than later.  And if you think it's just China's problem, consider the pollution runoff that enters the oceans, not to mention the danger of over one billion people starving in a collapsing state that possesses nuclear weapons.

Part Four is a slight change of pace and looks at the economic realities that either enhance or diminish a modern society's tendency to adopt sustainable practices.  In a clear, nonpolitical manner, Diamond points out that businesses exist to make money, and will only accept sustainable practices if it is advantageous for them to do so.  More importantly, people need a source of income, and corporations are the primary income providers for the world.  Their existence allows us to enjoy a higher standard of living.  However, that doesn't mean they should not be regulated.  Otherwise, they can become a far greater harm than they are worth.

This brings us to Diamond's final point: the public is ultimately responsible for how the businesses of their society operate.  Sure, corporations can utilize incredibly unethical practices, but if the public is apathetic towards these transgressions, then their businesses will be too.  However, the public can demand government regulation against unsustainable practices and can prefer to buy products that exhibit responsible stewardship, making environmentally-friendly business the more profitable choice for corporations.  At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what your political ideology is.  If we don't take effective action that acknowledges economic realities, then we could find ourselves in the same position as the Easter Islander who cut down the last tree on his island, wondering why his crops no longer grew fast enough to sustain him.  Unlike the Easter Islander, there are no other human societies beyond Earth to carry on our species.  If we want to survive, then we must learn to live within what our planet can provide.

However, this only touches the surface of the wealth of information conveyed within Collapse.  If this topic interests you, pick up a copy to get a better idea of the ecological challenges facing our society and how others have successfully solved them.

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