In last week's issue of the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell has a review of Jared Diamond's new book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Diamond's thesis is that, more often than not, civilizations end not because of cataclysmic events but because of their own doing, specifically the destruction of the resources they depend on for their very existence. It's particularly fitting at a time when the President and his cohorts on the Senate and Congress have shown their utter disregard for the environment in favor of economics and cultural "rights."
Don't have a lot of time to write comments, but here are some key excerpts from the article. While describing how the Norse came to disappear from Greenland in the 14th and 15th centuries:
In the summer, when the Norse should have been sending ships on lumber-gathering missions to Labrador, in order to relieve the pressure on their own forestlands, they instead sent boats and men to the coast to hunt for walrus. Walrus tusks, after all, had great trade value. In return for those tusks, the Norse were able to acquire, among other things, church bells, stained-glass windows, bronze candlesticks, Communion wine, linen, silk, silver, churchmens robes, and jewelry to adorn their massive cathedral at Gardar, with its three-ton sandstone building blocks and eighty-foot bell tower. In the end, the Norse starved to death.
On mankind's rational tendency to destroy itself:
The Easter Islanders chopped their trees down, one by one, until they were all gone. "I have often asked myself, 'What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?'" Diamond writes, and that, of course, is what is so troubling about the conclusions of "Collapse." Those trees were felled by rational actors - who must have suspected that the destruction of this resource would result in the destruction of their civilization. The lesson of Collapse is that societies, as often as not, aren't murdered. They commit suicide: they slit their wrists and then, in the course of many decades, stand by passively and watch themselves bleed to death.
Summing up the importance of the environment and ecological factors in society's survival:
Rivers and streams and forests and soil are a biological resource. They are a tangible, finite thing, and societies collapse when they get so consumed with addressing the fine points of their history and culture and deeply held beliefs - with making sure that Thorstein Olafsson and Sigrid Bjornsdotter are married before the right number of witnesses following the announcement of wedding banns on the right number of Sundays - that they forget that the pastureland is shrinking and the forest cover is gone.
Read the full article. It's worth it.
UPDATE: Here's another review from Matthew Yglesias.