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Downfall and its natural causes

Wed, 10/14/2009

A golden rule of investment is that ‘results from the past don’t guarantee success in the future’. This inevitably comes to mind when one reads Jared Diamond's acclaimed study ‘Collapse’. In this book Mr. Diamond describes how once thriving civilisations met their end. The questions thereby are: what are the real reasons behind their downfall? Would it have been possible to avoid them?

Cultural factor
Mr. Diamond isn’t so sure about the second question. However, he doesn’t seem to defend the position that the calamities that wiped the Maya’s, the Vikings on Greenland, and the inhabitants of Easter Island (amongst others) from the face of the world are the result of natural causes. On the contrary, for Mr. Diamond humans are the decisive factors in the end. The way people think about, and treat their biological environment, led to disaster. The Vikings on Greenland, for example, disappeared because they saw themselves as superior to the indigenous Intuit, refusing to adopt some of the Intuits survival-techniques, thus digging their own graves.

Easter Island
More exemplary is the history of the inhabitants of Easter Island. The Dutch seafarer Roggeveen visited the island in 1772 and was astonished by what he found there: a barren island, with nearly no vegetation of any importance where huge statues were raised… but by whom? Some speculations claimed that extraterrestrial visitors had put these enormous statues in place. The thought that inhabitants of a rather primitive island could have built, transported, and raised these statues was incomprehensible. Nevertheless, archaeological research revealed an astonishing course of affairs. Once, the island housed a sophisticated civilisation, which disappeared as a result of ecological mismanagement and internal wars. The inhabitants cut down the woods for farmland, heating and canoes, which they needed for their hunt on tuna and sea-turtles. Last but not least, large numbers of trees were used for the transport of the huge statues they cut out of the mountains. In its heydays Easter Island housed approx. 10.000 people. Mr. Diamond describes how the elite sacrificed the trees on the island because of their political, religious and social obsession: that the bigger the statue, the higher the social status of the founder. So, a cultural idea prevailed over the social-economic position of the islanders. Once all the trees were cut down, there wasn’t any firewood left, and no material for canoes. In the end the people of Easter Island turned to cannibalism, which is exactly how this society found its end. The conclusion of Mr. Diamond is that societies don’t always take the best and most logical measures, even when the consequences of certain behaviour are disastrous in the long run.

The way out?
Mr. Diamond distinguishes five factors that can lead to the collapse of a civilisation to the extent of that of Easter Island:
1. Ecological damage
2. Climate change
3. (Civil-)War
4. Radical breach in trading-relations
5. An inadequate response to these four.

It is impossible to predict the future based on the past. However, present-day society shows striking similarities with the Easter Island example. In an interview Mr. Diamond said: “The present ecological situation is disastrous. The standard of living in the richest countries is 32 times that of the poorest. If the third world would aspire to the same material wealth as the West, consumption would rise 11 times. As if we would live with 70 billion people on this one planet. That’s impossible”. This statement is true, assuming we don’t respond adequately to the threats we’re facing (see factor no. 5, above). Birth-control is absolutely vital, next to technological, economical, social change and environmental change. But the one thing that should be more at centre stage than anything else is the way we’re thinking.

The battle
According to the prominent economists Lans Bovenberg and Herman Wijffels¹ there is a struggle going on between two powers. On the one hand there are the conservative powers, which are comfortable with the way society is organized. They see the present (financial) crisis as an incident and ecological problems as exaggerated and temporary. On the other hand are the forces, which think that only a radical (‘out of the box’) way of thinking can lead us out of the trouble we’re in. Bovenberg and Wijffels end their article with the following heart cry: “Let us say goodbye to the old ways of thinking and doing. They have had their best. We can do better. The crisis is an opportunity for social and environmental renewal, based upon the hope of a healthier economy and society. If we have the courage to new paths, there is much to be gained in the field of social cohesion and sustainable prosperity.”

¹ Financieel Dagblad, 10-09-09

Jos van Assendelft, The Forest Enterprise