Sunday :: Jan 2, 2005

Successful Societies

by Mary

Jared Diamond, the author of Guns, Germs and Steel provides some thoughts on human societies today in the NY Times. Diamond is one of the world's best forensic scientists in why certain societies collapse and also why some societies seem to survive where others die out.

Diamond says that there are five factors that lead to the decay of societies:

  1. damage that people have inflicted on their environment;
  2. climate change;
  3. enemies;
  4. changes in friendly trading partners;
  5. and the society's political, economic and social responses to these shifts.

Diamond then discusses some of the reasons that some societies are very successful for a long period of time and others collapse. As he says, some societies have a better hand dealt to them, but even then, some play the hand poorly which leads to their collapse and other societies are capable of reacting to the circumstances in ways that address the problems and allow a society to adjust and thus survive.

Societies where the rulers and the elite do not have to live with the consequences of bad choices eventually reaches the elite are setting themselves up for eventual collapse. When the elite shares the fate of the commoners, they are motivated to fix problems that affect the society.

What lessons can we draw from history? The most straightforward: take environmental problems seriously. They destroyed societies in the past, and they are even more likely to do so now. If 6,000 Polynesians with stone tools were able to destroy Mangareva Island, consider what six billion people with metal tools and bulldozers are doing today. Moreover, while the Maya collapse affected just a few neighboring societies in Central America, globalization now means that any society's problems have the potential to affect anyone else. Just think how crises in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq have shaped the United States today.

Other lessons involve failures of group decision-making. There are many reasons why past societies made bad decisions, and thereby failed to solve or even to perceive the problems that would eventually destroy them. One reason involves conflicts of interest, whereby one group within a society (for instance, the pig farmers who caused the worst erosion in medieval Greenland and Iceland) can profit by engaging in practices that damage the rest of society. Another is the pursuit of short-term gains at the expense of long-term survival, as when fishermen overfish the stocks on which their livelihoods ultimately depend.

History also teaches us two deeper lessons about what separates successful societies from those heading toward failure. A society contains a built-in blueprint for failure if the elite insulates itself from the consequences of its actions. That's why Maya kings, Norse Greenlanders and Easter Island chiefs made choices that eventually undermined their societies. They themselves did not begin to feel deprived until they had irreversibly destroyed their landscape.

...The other deep lesson involves a willingness to re-examine long-held core values, when conditions change and those values no longer make sense. The medieval Greenland Norse lacked such a willingness: they continued to view themselves as transplanted Norwegian pastoralists, and to despise the Inuit as pagan hunters, even after Norway stopped sending trading ships and the climate had grown too cold for a pastoral existence. They died off as a result, leaving Greenland to the Inuit. On the other hand, the British in the 1950's faced up to the need for a painful reappraisal of their former status as rulers of a world empire set apart from Europe. They are now finding a different avenue to wealth and power, as part of a united Europe.

Can we in the United States avoid the failures that cause societies to collapse? As Diamond said, we have much to assess as a society as our current path does not bode well as we are prone to overconsumption. Yet, Diamond believes that we have one advantage that other societies did not. We have the lessons of the past and can use them to help shape our future.

Updated: fixed title of Diamond's book.

Mary :: 2:35 AM :: Comments (17) :: Digg It!