Books: The Easter Islanders Cut Down Their Forests - and Look What Befell Them ; HISTORY: Can This Absorbing Study of Lost Societies Help Us to Save the Planet? A C Grayling on a Writer Who Finds Some Hope for the Future in the Lessons of the Past
Grayling, A C, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
Collapse: How societies choose to fail or survive
By Jared Diamond
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What brought about the collapse of societies such as those that built Great Zimbabwe, Angkor Wat, the imposing Mayan temples, and the majestic statues of Easter Island? Each of these societies lasted for many centuries and invested vast resources in their material culture, yet each vanished, leaving behind little more than haunting remains of lost greatness. For Jared Diamond these collapsed societies are far more than a romantic mystery. They are an intellectual problem, and moreover one that has urgent relevance for today because the evidence tells us, he argues, that each is the result of environmental problems identical to those we now face.
The problems in question are formidable: deforestation, over- fishing, soil erosion and salinisation, climate change, pressure on fresh water supplies, depletion of energy reserves, pollution, and population increase, especially in regions where all these other problems are most acute.
Similar difficulties were responsible, says Diamond, for the demise of past societies. To make his case, he explores two examples of environmental problems: the Bitterroot Valley in Montana, and the Greenland of the Viking era. He also discusses a number of others at less length (but still in fascinating detail): Easter Island and its south-east Polynesian neighbours; the Anasazi culture of the south- western United States; and the Maya civilisation. But Diamond does not restrict himself to the past. Contemporary Rwanda, Haiti, China and Australia come under scrutiny too, as does the global situation, the effect of big business on the environment, and the solutions that offer themselves on the basis of the past experiences described.
Diamond believes that we have a real chance to save the planet if we will only attend carefully to that experience. His account is crammed with absorbing facts drawn from ecology, history and anthropology in characteristic Diamond fashion - which is to say, highly readable, highly persuasive, and richly informative.
But the question that presses is: has he chosen evidence suited to his case and failed to consider alternative examples of social decline and failure? Consider the Egyptian, Persian, Roman, Byzantine, Mughal, Ottoman, Chinese and British Empires. All were once great, rich and flourishing, now all are vanished as empires, and, in the first five cases, leaving magnificent ruins behind them. They seem to invite much more complicated stories in which environmental problems play rather little part, if any. One cannot say that deforestation or soil salinisation precipitated the fall of the Byzantine or British empires. The ruins of the Roman Forum are no less dramatic than those of Angkor Wat, but cannot be attributed to soil erosion. Is Diamond stretching a point in implying that environmental problems, and especially deforestation, which occupies a key position in most of the stories he chooses to tell, is the pivotal reason in all social collapse? …