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July 27, 2005

Taking the Long View

Tim O'Reilly writes:

O'Reilly Radar > On Failing to Think Long Term: Stewart Brand gave me permission to post his email summary of Jared Diamond's talk last night. Over to Stewart...

To an overflow house (our apologies to those who couldn't make it in!), Jared Diamond articulately spelled out how his best-selling book, COLLAPSE, took shape.

At first it was going to be a book of 18 chapters chronicling 18 collapses of once-powerful societies--- the Mayans with the most advanced culture in the Americas, the Anasazi who built six-story skyscrapers at Chaco, the Norse who occupied Greenland for 500 years. But he wanted to contrast those with success stories like Tokugawa-era Japan, which wholly reversed its lethal deforestation, and Iceland, which learned to finesse a highly fragile and subtle environment.

Diamond also wanted to study modern situations with clear connections to the ancient collapses. Rwanda losing millions in warfare caused by ecological overpressure. China-- "because of its size, China's problems are the world's problems." Australia, with its ambitions to overcome a horrible environmental history. And Diamond's beloved Montana, so seemingly pristine, so self-endangered on multiple fronts.

He elaborated a bit on his book's account of the Easter Island collapse, where a society that could build 80-ton statues 33 feet high and drag them 12 miles, and who could navigate the Pacific Ocean to and from the most remote islands in the world, could also cut down their rich rain forest and doom themselves utterly. With no trees left for fishing canoes, the Easter Islanders turned to devouring each other. The appropriate insult to madden a member of a rival clan was, "The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth!" The population fell by 90% in a few years, and neither the society nor the island ecology have recovered in the 300 years since.

Diamond reported that his students at UCLA tried to imagine how the guy who cut down the LAST tree in 1680 justified his actions. What did he say? Their candidate quotes: "Fear not. Our advancing technology will solve this problem." "This is MY tree, MY property! I can do what I want with it." "Your environmentalist concerns are exaggerated. We need more research." "Just have faith. God will provide."

The question everyone asks, Diamond said, is, How can people be so dumb? It's a crucial question, with a complex answer. He said that sometimes it's a failure to perceive a problem, especially if it comes on very slowly, like climate change. Often it's a matter of conflicting interests with no resolution at a higher level than the interests-- warring clans, greedy industries. Or there may be a failure to examine and understand the past.

Overall, it's a failure to think long term. That itself has many causes. One common one is that elites become insulated from the consequences of their actions. Thus the Mayan kings could ignore the soil erosion that was destroying their crops....

One good sharp question came from Mark Hertzgaard, who asked the speaker if he agreed "with Stewart Brand's view that the threat of climate change justifies adopting more nuclear power." To my surprise, Diamond said that he was persuaded by last year's "Bipartisan Strategy to Meet America's Energy Challenges" to treat nuclear as one important way to reduce the production of greenhouse gases....

Posted by DeLong at July 27, 2005 09:20 AM