Collapse by Jared Diamond

"The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth."
-- page 109

Diamond follows up on GunsGermsSteel with a continuation of his resource-based analysis. I.e. given that differences in resource availability explain much of the variance in societies' developments, what impact does resource availability have on societies' undevelopment?

He finds five general factors for undevelopment:

  1. Environmental damage
  2. Climate change
  3. Hostile neighbors
  4. Loss of friendly neighbors
  5. Societies' response to the previous four threats
Societies essentially expand during good times, consuming available resources; at some point, they extract resources faster than replacement occurs (deforestation, zeroing fishing stocks, etc.). They then collapse if they do not adapt to the new circumstances. Sometimes weather change reduces the amount of resources available (droughts, floods, etc.), and if the weather cycle lasts longer than resource stockpiles, the society needs the aid of other societies. Of course, those other societies can refuse aid and instead declare war.

An insidious effect of societal expansion lies in people arriving in good times, and assuming that those good times that fostered their society's development will always persist. However, weather patterns change, continents move abruptly, big things fall from the sky, etc. It seems that we tend to ignore those things because they happened a really long time ago.

After establishing his rationale, Diamond then wonders why societies choose to fail (i.e. if you're about to cut down the last tree on your island, what's going through your head?). He lists several reasons, but I found two most persuasive:

  1. Humans don't see small changes over time
  2. Preventing the Tragedy of the Commons requires coordinated resource management

To combat small changes over time, a firm understanding of history goes a long ways. Even better would be Google Maps allowing you to select satellite views by date taken. You could then watch deforestation and other undevelopments in action. For example, Diamond mentions the differences between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which you can view on google maps, i.e. the forest in the Dominican Republic stops at the border with Haiti.

Coordinating resource management poses a huge problem. We either get that one right in time, or as history shows, humans will get nasty when resources get scarce.

What do you mean by "coordinating resource management"? It seems like the problem is not that we aren't able to coordinate resource management, but rather that we choose not to. -- David W
What I wonder most is how do you give the people aware of coming disasters the power to help avoid them? In democracies you have to convince the masses. That seems next to impossible. With more authoritarian forms of government you have to convince the authorities, but their power to force people to act to avoid the disaster may be limited, and of course there is no guarantee that some idiot won't wrestle control from the authorities you manage to convince. -- David W
As far as I can tell, the Tragedy of the Commons gets resolved when 1) [someone|some group] has power over all parties involved and uses it to prevent abuse, or 2) every party agrees to not abuse. Both answers have issues. Best solution seems to make people aware of the issue, and then move out of harm's way if possible. -- Patrick.
"move out of harm's way if possible" That sounds like the best plan, which pacific island do you recommend? --Scott.
That depends on what harms you perceive. ;) Besides, small islands have lots of drawbacks in terms of resources and defensibility. -- Patrick.
Personally, I intend to pull a captain Nemo. -- David W
Install a bunch of seismographs on and around your island base. ;) -- Patrick.