Thursday, September 13, 2012



I finally finished the weighty (both in mass and subject!) book Collapse by Dr. Jared Diamond. I was lucky enough to take his course "Past Societies and Their Lessons for Our Own Future" while a student at UCLA and had long wanted to read this book. Its daunting 525 pages of amazingly detailed research, narrative, and analysis was well worth the time and I highly recommend it, even if you choose to skim the specific data and technical details and just focus on the larger analyses and conclusions. At the very least, read Part 4, "Practical Lessons," which is the most salient to informing our current course of action.

If you decide that those 525 pages are not in your future, here I highlight and briefly comment on what I consider the critical points Dr. Diamond underscores in Collapse.

By Jpatokal (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 ( 
or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

The broad introductory understanding we must start with to truly grasp how complex and interconnected is our world:
"Thanks to globalization, international trade, jet planes, and the Internet, all countries on Earth today share resources and affect each other [...]." (p. 119)

Diamond found that five factors played a role in the collapses or successes of past as well as more modern societies. Four vary in their significance among cases, but the one that proves a significant factor in every case is "the society's response to its environmental problems".  This makes perfect sense to me considering we, like any living thing on Earth, are part of a finely tuned natural system upon which we rely for our survival.

"The remaining solution to the tragedy of the commons is for the consumers to recognize their common interest and to design, obey, and enforce prudent harvesting quotas themselves. That is likely to happen only if a whole series of conditions is met: the consumers form a homogenous group; they have learned to trust and communicate with each other; they expect to share a common future and to pass on the resource to their heirs; they are capable of and permitted to organize and police themselves; and the boundaries of the resource and of its pool of consumers are well defined." (p. 429)

This list of conditions is surely reflected in the Holigent philosophy and would be part of the guidelines in forming Holigent communities.


"It appears to me that much of the rigid opposition to environmental concerns in the First World nowadays involves values acquired early in life and never again reexamined [...]" (p. 433)

"It is painfully difficult to decide whether to abandon some of one's core values when they seem to be becoming incompatible with survival. At what point do we as individuals prefer to die than to compromise and live?" (p. 433)

"Perhaps a crux of success or failure as a society is to know which core values to hold on to, and which ones to discard and replace with new values, when times change." (p. 433, emphasis added)

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Former Vice-President, Al Gore giving his presentation "An Inconvenient Truth" about
global warming, and who, although brought great attention to the growing problem,
was unable to spur the unprecendented political efforts required to solve it.

"[...] it calls for a leader with a different type of courage to anticipate a growing problem or just a potential one, and to take bold steps to solve it before it becomes an explosive crisis. Such leaders expose themselves to criticism or ridicule for acting before it becomes obvious to everyone that some action is necessary. But there have been many such courageous, insightful, strong leaders who deserve our admiration." (p. 439)

In our current social, economic, and political realms, who will those next leaders be who are wise enough to keep an eye on our future? And will we support them thereby aiding our own well being, or will we hold them back to our own detriment?

Rally for the Right2Know About GMOs March 26, 2011
Photo by Alexis Baden-Mayer

"To me, the conclusion that the public has the ultimate responsibility for the behavior of even the biggest businesses is empowering and hopeful, rather than disappointing. My conclusion is not a moralistic one about who is right or wrong, admirable or selfish, a good guy or a bad guy. My conclusion is instead a prediction, based on what I have seen happening in the past. Businesses have changed when the public came to expect and require different behavior, to reward businesses for behavior that the public wanted, and to make things difficult for businesses practicing behaviors that the public didn't want. I predict that in the future, just as in the past, changes in public attitudes will be essential for changes in businesses' environmental practices." (p. 485)

This chapter was about "Big Businesses and the Environment" but I think the assertion Diamond makes applies to businesses' social, economic, and political practices as well. So strong expressions of public attitudes such as The Occupy Movement and The Zeitgeist Movement should not be discounted as ripples in the pond but taken seriously and supported as the primary way individuals can create enough public pressure to make big businesses, politicians, and social groups change their ways for the good of society.

Dr. Diamond places into 12 groups the most critical environmental problems that impacted past societies and that intensely challenge us today:

(1-4) We are destroying or losing: natural habitats; wild food sources, especially fish; biological diversity; and soil and soil health.

(5-10) We are approaching the finite limits of: easily and cheaply accessible fuel sources; freshwater; Earth's photosynthetic capacity; the levels of toxic chemicals our environment and bodies can tolerate; the stress tolerable to ecosystems caused by introduced nonnative species; and the effects of global warming our planet can handle.

(11-12) Human population growth and increased individual and collective human impact on the environment.

In regard to those dozen categories of problems, Diamond asserts:
"Our world society is presently on a non-sustainable course, and any of our 12 problems of non-sustainability that we have just summarized would suffice to limit our lifestyle within the next several decades. They are like time bombs with fuses of less than 50 years." (p. 498, emphasis added)

"People often ask, 'What is the single most important environmental/population problem facing the world today?' A flip answer would be, 'The single most important problem is our misguided focus on identifying the single most important problem!' [...] because any of the dozen problems if unsolved would do us grave harm, and because they all interact with each other." (p. 498, emphasis added)

"At current rates, most or all of the dozen [...] will become acute within the lifetime of young adults now alive." (p. 513).  Diamond argues, and I agree, that it is nonsensical for people who make all sorts of efforts to ensure a good life for their children would continue doing things that increasingly harm the world in which their children will be living 50 years from now.

2006 homeless at mcdonalds
By David Dennis [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

"The prosperity that the First World enjoys at present is based on spending down its environmental capital in the bank [...]. [...] It makes no sense to be content with our present comfort when it is clear that we are currently on a non-sustainable course." (p.509, emphasis added)

"In fact, one of the main lessons to be learned from the collapses of [...] past societies (as well as from the recent collapse of the Soviet Union) is that a society's steep decline may begin only a decade or two after the society reaches its peak numbers, wealth, and power." (p. 509)

Hmmm, perhaps some stage of this decline is what we have been experiencing here in the U.S., which we insist on calling a "recession" to pacify ourselves, and is what is going on in the EU and most other countries as well...

"Today the world no longer faces the circumscribed risk of an Easter Island society or Maya homeland collapsing in isolation, without affecting the rest of the world. Instead, societies today are so interconnected that the risk we face is of a worldwide decline." (p. 519, emphasis added)

Diamond retains reason for hope in part because since we humans are the cause of our problems, it is in our control to stop causing them and find solutions. He asserts that the answers lie not in new technologies, but in social and political will to apply solutions already within our reach (pp. 521-522).

Money for nothing - - 877223
michael ely [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
An advertisement in the UK photographed shortly before the recession hit.

In terms of those past societies explored in the book that avoided collapse, Diamond identifies two choices that seem essential in their successes, which involve "[...] the courage to practice long-term thinking, and to make bold, courageous, anticipatory decisions at a time when problems have become perceptible but before they have reached crisis proportions." And a serious reappraisal of values keeping only those that aid the society in its changing conditions and giving up those that impede or harm its ability to adapt.

"They may inspire modern First World citizens with the courage to make the most fundamental reappraisal now facing us: how much of our traditional consumer values and First World living standard can we afford to retain?" (p. 524).

Parents with child Statue Hrobakova street Bratislava

Pages 556-560 of the Further Readings section, details specific ways in which individuals can help tackle the critical problems detailed in the book, starting right now.