Over-Population and Disaster

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Over-Population and Disaster Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed Jared Diamond New York, Penguin Books, 2005

In this book, a well-known scholar deals with the fundamental question of what caused all known past civilizations to collapse. In doing so he discovers that the most common cause involves the relationship between a society and the environmental conditions necessary for its survival. He starts with a survey of the collapse of civilizations such as the Mayan in the Americas and ancient Rome in Europe. Such collapses, it seems, can result from environmental changes too great or too sudden for the society to handle, from conquest by rival peoples and cultures, or simply from genetic decline. Diamond, who has not historically been a friend of eugenics, in this book comes to stress the problem of over-population and environmental change, and implicitly acknowledges that civilizations can collapse when an original civilization-building population is replaced by immigrants of less constructive ability.

Diamond goes so far as to ask whether the fall of ancient Rome is being repeated in the West today, as the technologically advanced nations of the West absorb masses of immigrants from less developed countries. Disparate birth rates are also a factor. While the advanced nations are in many cases failing to replace themselves generation after generation, the population of many if not most underdeveloped countries is doubling every 18 years. He notes that few people worry about overpopulation because they are not familiar with the concept of exponential growth. He explains that a continued growth rate of 3% per annum would result in a mass of human beings that would exceed the mass of the planet in just another 2,000 years. Since this is impossible, disaster looms, and Diamond has chosen his subject aptly: how and why do human civilizations collapse?

Looking back at past civilizations for historical examples, Diamond recounts the history of Easter Island, famous for its massive stone statues. Around A.D. 900, Polynesians reached Easter Island after crossing the South Pacific in small canoes, and established a colony there which continued to grow in numbers until the demand for food led to the total depletion of the island's natural resources. It is believed that they used their intelligence to erect these stone sculptures, presumably to placate supernatural beings and solicit their help, after having cut down all the trees for timber and eaten all their pigs and chickens. Damond compares this situation with our own, and points to the parallel between the isolation of Easter Island, set apart by the vast wastes of the Pacific Ocean, with the isolation of the Earth in space. Easter Island's collapse is presented as a metaphor, a worst case scenario for what may lie ahead for an overpopulated Earth in our own future.

Diamond also draws attention to the fate of the Mayans, who developed a remarkably complex culture noted for its skilled building techniques. But the Mayan population increased dramatically over the centuries, and had no solution to the problem of an increasing dearth of water. Ground water is very deep below the surface in the Yucatan peninsula, and is difficult to reach because of the sandy and porous soil. This made dry spells all the more dangerous, especially when population densities increased to thousands per square mile - which is high even when compared to densely populated areas today, such as Burundi and Rwanda, which have 540 and 750 people, respectively, per square mile. The result was a vast depopulation and the collapse of the Mayan culture.

While we praise the impressive structures built by the Mayans, we should not forget that their inscriptions provide detailed evidence of their brutality, including the yanking of fingers out of their sockets, the cutting off of lips, and sometimes even of the whole lower jaw. And yet it is today fashionable to condemn the Spanish conquistadores for having suppressed the Mayan cannibal culture that confronted them on their arrival in the New World. …