It's not severe drought or epic floods, some of them lasting months or years. It's not severe storm events of ever increasing frequency, duration and intensity. It's not sea level rise. The real danger is in your mind, our minds, how we receive and process information, how we choose our fate.
When societies or civilizations collapse, one of the proximate causes is choices that either the entire community or some powerful segment of it has made. Sometimes those decisions are taken knowing that they mean eventual collapse. We are quite capable of acting in ways today that will imperil future generations. We're doing it now and we're doing it on a scale never before imagined or possible.
Jared Diamond's book "Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," is a lengthy tome running to some 525 pages. To me, the essence of it is found in the 14th chapter, "Why do some societies make disastrous decisions?"
Diamond focuses on how groups make disastrous decisions and identifies four categories of situations.
"First of all, a group may fail to anticipate a problem before the problem actually arrives. Second, when the problem does arrive, the group may fail to perceive it. Then, after they perceive it, they may fail even to try to solve it. Finally, they may try to solve it but may not succeed."
1. Failure to Anticipate
The author says there are several reasons for failing to anticipate a problem before it arrives. One is having no prior experience with what could go wrong. And, here, he cites the example of early Brits colonizing Australia and thinking it would be great to import rabbits and then foxes.
"Even prior experience is not a guarantee that a society will anticipate a problem, if the experience happened so long ago as to have been forgotten.
"...In modern literate societies whose writing does discuss subjects besides kings and planets, that doesn't necessarily mean that we draw on prior experience committed to writing. We, too, tend to forget things."
Here Diamond uses the example of the 1973 Arab oil embargo and how Americans flocked to fuel efficient compact cars only to slowly return to fuel guzzling SUVs.
Next up is "reasoning by false analogy." We assume the present mirrors something from the past. He uses the example of generals who go into wars prepared to fight the last war and get caught unawares. Here he cites the French experience with the Maginot Line.
2. Failure to Perceive
The second situation is failing to perceive a problem that has actually arrived and for this he gives three categories.
"First, the origins of some problems are literally imperceptible. For example, the nutrients responsible for soil fertility are invisible to the eye, and only in modern times did they become measurable by chemical analysis. [In many areas of the world] most of the nutrients had already been leached out of the soil by rain before human settlement. When people arrived and began growing crops, those crops quickly exhausted the remaining nutrients, with the result that agriculture failed. Yet such nutrient-poor soils often bear lush-appearing vegetation; it's just that most of the nutrients in the ecosystem are contained in the vegetation rather than in the soil, and are removed if one cuts down the vegetation."
Another category is "distant managers" for which he gives the example of a Montana timber company operated by managers in Seattle who failed to see the degradation of their forest ecology.
The most dangerous situation, one that effects almost all of us today, is creeping change known as "creeping normalcy" or "landscape amnesia."
"The prime example in modern times is global warming. We now realize that temperatures around the world have been slowly rising in recent decades, due in large part of atmospheric changes caused by humans. ...As for the time that I write these lines, President Bush of the U.S. is still not convinced of its reality, and he thinks that we need more research. The medieval Greenlanders had similar difficulties recognizing that their climate was gradually becoming colder, andthe Maya and Anasazi had trouble discerning that theirs was becoming drier."
"Politicians use the term 'creeping normalcy' to refer to such slow trends concealed within noisy fluctuations. If the economy, schools, traffic congestion, or anything else is deteriorating only slowly, it's difficult to recognize that e4ach successive year is on he average slightly worse than the year before, so one's baseline standard for what constitutes 'normalcy' shifts gradually and imperceptibly. It may take a few decades of a long sequence of such slight year-to-year changes before people realize, with a jolt, that conditions used to be much better several decades ago, and that what is accepted as normalcy has crept downwards."
Diamond then explores the companion dilemma of "landscape amnesia." He uses the example of a glacier that he and his friends regularly climbed in his youth. Decades later he went back to climb it again only to find it greatly receded. His friends, who had remained in the area, had observed the decline gradually and through this had largely lost sight of what had occurred.
3. Perceiving a Problem but Failing to Try to Solve It.
"Many of the reasons for such failure fall under the heading of what economists and other social scientists term 'rational behavior,' arising from clashes of interest between people. That is, some people may reason correctly that they can advance their own interests by behavior harmful to other people. Scientists term such behavior 'rational' precisely because it employs correct reasoning, even though it may be morally reprehensible. The perpetrators know that they will often get away with it or if the law isn't effectively enforced. They feel safe because the perpetrators are typically concentrated (few in number) and highly motivated by the prospect of reaping big, certain and immediate profits, while the losses are spread over large numbers of individuals. That gives the losers little motivation to go to the hassle of fighting back, because each loser loses only a little and would receive only small, uncertain, distant profits even from successfully undoing the minority's grab."
"A frequent type of rational bad behavior is 'good for me, bad for you and for everybody else' - to put it bluntly, 'selfish.' As a simple example, most Montana fishermen fish for trout. A few fishermen who prefer to fish for pike, a larger fish0-eating fish not native to western Montana, surreptitiously and illegally introduced pike to some western Montana lakes and rivers where they proceeded to destroy trout fishing by eating the trout. That was good for the few pike fishermen and bad for the far greater number of trout fishermen."
"An example producing more losers and higher dollar losses is that, until 1971, mining companies in Montana on closing down a mine just left it with its copper, arsenic, and acid leaking out into rivers, because the state of Montana had no law requiring companies to clean up after mine closure. In 1971 the state of Montana did pass such a law, but companies discovered that they could extract the valuable ore and then just declare bankruptcy before going to the expense of cleaning up. The result has been about $500,000,000 of cleanup costs to be borne by the citizens of Montana and the U.S. Mining company CEOs had correctly perceived that the law permitted them to save money for their companies, and to advance their own interests through bonuses and high salaries, by making messes and leaving the burden to society."
The author then explores the "tragedy of the commons" so instrumental in environmental disasters such as the collapse of fish stocks. There the mentality is "if I don't catch that fish, somebody else will come along and take it, so it makes no sense for me to refrain from overfishing." The obvious solution, anathema to free market fundamentalism, is regulation and meaningful enforcement. In most cases to date, one of the other has been neglected.
Worsening the situation is when commercial harvesters have no long-term stake in preserving the resource. This is commerce by plunder. Hit an area, clean it out, and move on to somewhere else. Diamond chronicles how forestry companies pillaged the once lush rainforests by purchasing leases, clear cutting, and then leaving. He contrasts this with the behaviour of timber companies that actually purchase the land, anticipate repeated harvests and implement proper land and resource management policies.
Then there's the class factor in which the interests of the elite are pursued at the expense of the rest of society.
"Especially if the elite can insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions, they are likely to do things that profit themselves, regardless of whether those actions hurt everybody else. Such clashes... are becoming increasingly frequent in the modern U.S., where rich people tend to live within their gated compounds and to drink bottled water. For example, Enron's executives correctly calculated that they could gain huge sums of money for themselves by looting the company coffers and thereby harming all the stockholders, and that they were likely to get away with their gamble."
In other words, the way we think, the ways in which we perceive and process information, and human nature itself are mankind's ultimate Achilles' Heel.
That's about enough for now. I'll come back (I hope) to address Diamond's thoughts on how we may perceive a problem, try to solve it, yet fail no matter how good our efforts.
One thing I want to focus on is his chilling observation, directly applicable to our species today, that there are some problems that are so inter-connected that it is futile to try to solve any of them because success hinges on solving all of them.
There are three existential threats facing humanity today - climate change, overpopulation and excessive consumption of resources. You have to solve all three of them or else you will ultimately fail on all three. These are the common threads that run through every major calamity that besets us today.
We're becoming increasingly active on dealing with climate change but we're failing to address the other two. Yet it's only when you consider them collectively that the common solutions and the daunting change that portends emerge clearly.