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The Why Files Book Club presents: Dave & Megan 'Nerd's the Word'

POSTED 6 OCTOBER 2005
Seeing the future in the past
Book cover with large, copper-colored title and photo of Mayan temples.If you want the big picture, Jared Diamond of UCLA is your man. In the 1990s, his "Guns, Germs and Steel" explained why civilization rose in some places, but not in others, in terms of the impact of accidents of geography on technology and disease transmission.

Now he's done it again, but this time by looking at the fall, not rise, of civilization. "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" (see bibliography) seeks to understand why some prosperous societies collapse while others stand. Diamond, an ornithologist who has long worked in New Guinea, scarcely mentions birds, although he does present the New Guinea highlands as one example of sustainability.

We will solve the 12 key environmental problems, or they will solve themselves, through war, disease, and famine.Diamond explains the success or failure of a dozen-odd societies by five key factors: inadvertent human damage to the environment; climate change, including global warming and other shifts in temperature and rainfall; presence of hostile neighbors, and therefore war; presence of friendly neighbors, and thus helpful trading relationships; and finally the society's response to its challenges.

Easter Island, in the remote eastern Pacific, is a classic case of social and economic collapse: The islanders were prosperous enough to carve 887 giant stone statues (average weight: 10 tons). But from a high point of social organization and agricultural productivity, it quickly descended into an environmental nightmare. A key cause was deforestation. Trees were cut for charcoal, firewood, and plain ol' wood (for buildings and for tracks to move those giant statues), until the tallest surviving plant was a seven-foot shrub. With the trees gone, the islanders could not build sea-faring canoes, and had to quit fishing and hunting dolphins, two major sources of protein.

Today, Easter Island is a remote island with a decimated population. About the only source of cash is tourists, who fly in from Chile to see those evocative statues -- symbols of a prosperous, but long dead, past.

Carved stone giants eerily loom over grassy plain.
The stone statues of Easter Island speak of a bygone era of social cohesion, surplus food, and a large population. After the collapse, Easter's environment is denuded and its population down to a few hundred. Photo NASA

It's cool on Iceland
In a counter-example, Diamond describes an island that overcame environmental challenges. After Iceland was settled by Vikings in the 800s, it suffered enormous degradation and eventually became, Diamond writes, "...ecologically the most heavily damaged country in Europe."

One key to the destruction was Iceland's thick, fertile but the highly erodible volcanic soil. After loggers, farmers and grazing animals stripped off the protective vegetation, the soil blew away or washed away; new vegetation returned slowly in the cold climate. Even the natural environment was rambunctious: volcanic eruptions poisoned the vegetation and the livestock. The eruption of 1783 starved one-fifth of the population to death.

So why does Iceland have one of the highest standards of living in the world? Because the Icelanders recognized the damage they were causing, and acted to reverse it. Today, Diamond writes, "An entire government department has as its charge to attempt to retain soil, regrow the woodlands, re-vegetate the interior, and regulate sheep stocking rates." In Iceland's moon-like highlands, Diamond saw efforts to halt erosion by planting grass. These "thin green lines on a brown panorama" struck him as a "pathetic attempt to cope with an overwhelming problem. But Icelanders are making some progress."

For better or worse, Icelanders have became conservatives as well as conservationists: The numerous environmental challenges made them averse to innovation. It may sound contradictory, but avoiding change proved an adaptive response: "Icelanders became conditioned by their long history of experience to conclude that, whatever change they tried to make, it was much more likely to make things worse than better."

Snow-covered street runs through city to distant mountainsSome societies have persisted for 1,000 years or more without destroying their environment. But Iceland went through a close call. Notice the denuded mountains behind the capital, Reykjavik. Iceland is one of the most advanced nations in the world -- and one of the most eroded. Photo: City of Seattle

As Icelanders moved to the city (half the population lives in the capital, Reykjavik), fishing superceded farming in economic importance, Diamond writes. "Today, thanks to its abundance of fish, geothermal power [from the many volcanoes], and hydroelectric power from all its rivers ... Europe's former poorest country has become one of the world's richest countries on a per-capita basis, a great success story to balance the stories of societal collapse" in Easter Island, the Mayan empire and elsewhere.

Iceland does have good stats: Life expectancy at birth is 80 years, infant mortality is 3.3 per 1,000 live births, and per capita income is $31,900 -- compared to 77 years, 6.5 deaths, and $40,100 for the United States, according to the ever-helpful CIA.

Should we care about history?
After examining collapses endured and crashes avoided, Diamond isolated 12 factors that could darken next 50 years, including overexploitation of resources, global warming caused by burning too much fossil fuel, overpopulation and destruction of the soil where our food grows.

We will solve these problems, he says, or they will solve themselves, through war, disease, and famine.

If that's true, why does Diamond conclude with "cautious optimism"? Because, he writes, we are not dealing with an uncontrollable event like an asteroid, but rather with our own problems. Iceland, he notes, managed to reverse course at the brink of the abyss, and that offers hope. "Because we are the cause of our environmental problems, we are the ones in control of them, and we can choose or not choose to stop causing them and start solving them. The future is up for grabs, lying in our hands."

When species collapse, we call it extinction.

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Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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