How Societies Choose to Fail or Suceed

April 7, 2015

When civilizations collapse from environmental degradation, it's often because they're unable to reconcile their values with those required for adaptation.

How on earth could a society make such an obviously disastrous decision as to cut down all the trees on which it depended?

After a lecture on the Easter Island civilization, which drove itself to extinction by deforesting their island home, one of Jared Diamond’s students asked him what he though the islander who cut down the last palm tree thought as he was doing it. I immediately wondered the same about someone driving a Hummer today in Florida or California, as greenhouse gasses flood the former and scorch the latter. Then again, what am I thinking as I get on a plane or eat a steak? The airline and meat industries contribute just as dramatically to climate change as someone’s choice of automobile. At its heart, Collapse seeks to answer this question through history: why have societies continued down paths that lead, ever more obviously with time, to their destruction? Diamond hopes (as do I) that our society can learn from the past, if it’s not too late.

Failures of Group Decision-Making

Of course, the Easter Islander cutting down the last palm tree almost certainly had no idea of the symbolic significance of the act. And the significance was purely that: symbolic. The island’s inhabitants were well past the point of no return for years before that last tree was felled. The deforestation happened over generations, slowly enough for no one to notice, especially without writing and thus no record of how lush the island used to be. This inability to perceive a crisis in progress is one of the four types of “failures of group decision-making” that Diamond identifies as driving forced behind societal collapse.

1. Failing to Anticipate a Problem Before It Arrives

This has happened for several basic reasons:

  • Having no prior experience: e.g. British colonists introducing foxes in Australia, which grew to become an invasive species—the foxes, not the British, although technically…
  • Forgetting prior experience: e.g. the Chaco Canyon Anasazi survived several droughts before the major one that ended their society, but lacking writing, they didn’t have records which might have let them predict and prepare for the big one one. We might also consider vaccination in the United States today: most of us have forgotten what it was like for children to die regularly from now-preventable diseases, so some parents are unfortunately choosing to take that risk (and as a result, impose it on their communities).
  • Reasoning by false analogy: i.e we think we’re in a situation we’ve seen before, but it’s different in a fundamental way. For example, the Greenland Norse saw similar landscape and vegetation to their native Norway and assumed that Greenland would be great for farming, but the soil quality was very different, with disastrous effects.

2. Failing to Perceive a Problem Already In Progress

  • Some problems are literally imperceptible: e.g. premodern people not knowing about germs or soil nutrients, which are of course invisible.
  • Distant managers: i.e. when the people with the power to fix a problem aren’t present to experience it, and thus neither know nor care about it. For example, the largest logging company in Montana is based in Seattle and can (perhaps choose to) ignore the invasive weed species growing on their properties.
  • Slow, noisy trends: also called “creeping normalcy,” the clearest example is climate change today. Temperatures fluctuate each year by, say, +2, +3, -1, +1, -2, +4 degrees, making it difficult for people not deliberately keeping track of them to perceive the consistent rise in average temperature. This also describes the ”landscape amnesia“ of the Easter Islanders.

3. Failing Even to Attempt to Solve a Problem Once It’s Obvious

Of the four failures, this is both the most common yet also the most pathetic. Its causes fall into two camps: first, rational behavior such as:

  • Conflicts of interest: as Diamond puts it, “some people may reason correctly that they can advance their own interests by behavior harmful to other people”. While immoral, such behavior is logical, at least in the short term. It’s often fixable by realigning incentives, but rarely fixed when there’s one big winner and lots of small losers. While the individual losers have little incentive to fight the situation, the winner has a significant incentive to perpetuate it. A common example is with perverse subsidies such as with sugar growing in the U.S. Growing sugar cane isn’t economically viable here, but growers lobby hard for billions in subsidies to sustain the practice. Yet an individual taxpayer loses just a small amount each year, so few are willing to fight it.
  • The tragedy of the commons: i.e. situations in which the interests of each individual runs counter to the interests of the group as a whole. For example, consider a limited resource like a pool of fish. Everyone is incentivized to catch more fish than they need, because if they don’t, someone else will. But if everyone behaves that way, the resource collapses from overfishing. Two solutions have emerged: regulation, which doesn’t work outside of governed boundaries such as in the open ocean; and privatization, which doesn’t work for non-ownable resources such as animal species or the earth’s breathable air. Privatization also fails when those consuming a resource have no interest in its sustained existence, such as multinational logging companies pillaging rainforests and moving on. I wonder if a solution might be to charter companies for gathering resources from a limited plot of land: then they’d have an existential interest in sustainable harvesting.
  • When the interests of those in power clash with those of the majority: this is especially common when the elite are isolated. Papua New Guinea has survived so well in part because its chiefs or “big men” live and work among those they lead. Contrast this with Mayan kings who were far above those they ruled and who never experienced the consequences of their resource mismanagement until it was too late.
  • When some benefit from the maintenance of a problem: in which case, they’ll rationally oppose solving it. Case in point: the healthcare system in the United States.

Of course, when “rational” behaviors like those listed above threaten the continued survival of a civilization, they cease to be rational. But history also gives us examples of purely irrational behavior which has ended societies.

  • Clinging to obsolete values: e.g. the Greenland Norse were so obsessed with being “European” that they farmed in a land inhospitable to it, refused to eat fish as the locals did (foregoing the most abundant source of nutrition), and wasted limited resources building and maintaining churches while wanting sorely for iron tools and more food. Ultimately, their conservatism in this regard was their ruin. The Easter Islanders suffered likewise from a cultural and religious mandate to build elaborate statues, destroying in the process the forests on which they depended. Cultural change is extremely difficult, but history shows us it is possible. For example, Japan abandoned its military tradition after World War II, after which its focus on domestic development made it a world-class economy. Consider also Russia (and increasingly China) abandoning communism, Britain abandoning a globe-spanning empire, the U.S. retreating from its long-held values of legalized discrimination by race and sex, all to the economic advantage of those societies.
  • The sunk cost fallacy: i.e. resistance to changing course for fear of losing earlier investment, even when it would cost us more than we’ve lost already.
  • Clashes between short-term and long-term motives: for example, poor fisherman overfishing and destroying reefs in order to feed their children today, in full knowledge that their actions will bring starvation to their grandchildren. Most democratic governments suffer in this way as well, letting the short-term expediencies of winning the next election overshadow long-term goals of sustaining the nation.

4. Failure to Solve a Problem Even Once the Will Exists to Do So

These final cases are most rare in history, which makes the previous cases so tragic. Societies can usually solve their problems once they recognize and take measures to address them. But in cases where they can’t:

  • It may be beyond present capacities to solve: i.e. the technology doesn’t exist. For a current example, many invasive species are simply impossible to eradicate with our present means. I shudder to think what it’ll be like then that’s no longer the case. Will we release Terminator robots on the foxes of Australia? And we’re just beginning to experiment with the biological horror of polluting the mosquito gene pool with genetically engineered specimens that give birth to unviable babies. Which leads to…
  • Solutions may back-fire, or give rise to graver problems: It’s worth considering whether some of today’s “solutions” may become the future civilization-threatening problems of tomorrow.
  • The solution may be prohibitively expensive: for example, the conditions giving rise to forest fires in the American West can be ameliorated, but at unfeasible public expense.

How We Can Avoid These Failures

Diamond perceives that the greatest threat to our civilization —as with most of the civilizations whose collapses feature into the book—is the destruction of the environment. And he perceives, rightly I think, that the greatest challenge we face in meeting this threat is the the alignment of powerful private interests against the public good.

In brief, environmental practices of big businesses are shaped by a fundamental fact that for many of us offends our sense of justice. Depending on the circumstances, a business really may maximize its profits, at least in the short term, by damaging the environment and hurting people. That is still the case today for fishermen in an unmanaged fishery without quotas, and for international logging companies with short-term leases on tropical rainforest land in countries with corrupt government officials and unsophisticated landowners. It was also the case for oil companies before the Santa Barbara Channel oil spill disaster of 1969, and for Montana mining companies before recent cleanup laws. When government regulation is effective, and when the public is environmentally aware, environmentally clean big businesses may outcompete dirty ones, but the reverse is likely to be true if government regulation is ineffective and if the public doesn’t care.

But unlike many environmentalists, Diamond makes clear that we the people, not corporations, are ultimately responsible for changing this situation.

It is easy and cheap for the rest of us to blame a business for helping itself by hurting other people. But that blaming alone is unlikely to produce change. It ignores the fact that businesses are not non-profit charities but profit-making companies, and that publicly owned companies with shareholders are under obligation to those shareholders to maximize profits, provided that they do so by legal means. Our laws make a company’s directors legally liable for something termed “breach of fiduciary responsibility” if they knowingly manage a company in a way that reduces profits.The car manufacturer Henry Ford was in fact successfully sued by stockholders in 1919 for raising the minimum wage of his workers to $5 per day: the courts declared that, while Ford’s humanitarian sentiments about his employees were nice, his business existed to make profits for its stockholders.

I find myself reluctantly sympathetic to this view. The easy thing about blaming corporations for their bad behavior is that it absolves us of any responsibility, and who wants to bear the burden of saving our civilization from extinction? But this laxity is also fatal. There’s a part of me still hoping that once things get bad enough, once we teeter further over the precipice, the world will come to its senses and abandon its unsustainable practices. But history tells us otherwise. Collapse is full of examples of civilizations like ours at the peak of their power, unknowingly sacrificing themselves on the altar of unsustainable consumption. Ultimately, corporations will not change unless laws change, and laws will not change unless we the people make them. And Diamond finds reason to be optimistic about this state of affairs:

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.

Changes in public attitudes are they key here, and they don’t happen easily or quickly. They’re driven by changes in values, changes as momentous as they are hard-won. The Greenland Norse chose to starve to death because adaption ran counter to their values. Will we?