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:

2. Failing to Perceive a Problem Already In Progress

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:

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.

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:

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?