Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Wired 13.01: Will We Ever Learn? Jared Diamond says society's future depends on what we take from the past.

Wired 13.01: Will We Ever Learn? Jared Diamond says society's future depends on what we take from the past.: "Jared Diamond's follow-up to his landmark 1999 book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, abounds in specifics. He is a field biologist looking at history and prehistory, deducing pattern from detail, much in the mode of Charles Darwin. His subject this time is the demise of whole societies, especially where collapse is sudden and total, contrasted with the ingenious survival of other societies that faced the same dangers. Diamond's Collapse is about how to avoid the repetition of cataclysmic mistakes. What we learn from those mistakes, he shows, will determine the length of our future.
Diamond identifies five major causes of societal collapse: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, loss of trade partners, and stupidity. Any one or two plus stupidity will do. Diamond devotes most of the book to environmental damage - humanity's persistent drive to exceed biological carrying capacity. Bog iron was available in Greenland, but it took charcoal from local trees to produce, and once the Norse deforested the land, they could no longer make metal tools. The stub-bladed knife was the result. (While the Norse were busy dying out, their neighbors the Inuit were prospering with elegant solutions to arctic problems. The Norse were careful never to learn a thing from them.) Easter Island once had a rainforest that provided ocean-going canoes along with the rollers and rope for moving and raising the huge statues. When the islanders cut down the last tree, the last statue remained unfinished, and the population crashed permanently. The island is barren to this day."
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