Winter 2009: Of Note
Missing the Forest for the Trees
Jared Diamond on the collapse of societies
By Paige P. Parvin 96G
In successful societies, there is but a narrow gap between rich and poor, and the elite suffer the same consequences for their actions as the common people. On the other hand, societies are vulnerable to failure when the privileged manage to insulate themselves from the ill effects of developments such as waste, poverty, and environmental destruction.
This is one of the central lessons of Collapse, the most recent book by popular author and evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond, who spoke at Emory last fall as the Goodrich C. White lecturer. Other indicators of a society’s chances for long-term survival include human impact on the environment, climate change, societal enemies, friendly neighbors, and effective social and political institutions.
Diamond studied communities such as the Mayans and Vikings to illustrate why societies rise or fall. Collapse, he said, is not inevitable, but almost always a result of human behavior, and takes place slowly and with insidious subtlety. On Easter Island, for instance, it appears that the inhabitants simply chopped down trees for various uses until they were all gone, resulting in an epidemic of civil war and hunger. “There are deep lessons to be learned from the success and failure of other societies,” Diamond said. “One is that we need to take our environmental problems seriously. The line ‘Balance the environment against the economy’ has it exactly backwards—it implies worrying about the environment is a luxury.”