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Meditations on Collapse
(Richard Heinberg, MuseLetter number 154, February 2005)
Civilizations collapse. That is the rule that we learn from history, and it is a rule whose implications deserve careful thought given the fact that our own civilization-despite its global extent and unsurpassed technological prowess-is busily severing its own ecological underpinnings. . . . the process of collapse in several ancient societies (including the Easter Islanders, the Maya, the Anasazi, and the Greenland Norse colony) and show parallels with trends in several modern nations (Rwanda, Haiti, and Australia). . . . One theme quickly emerges: the environment plays a crucial role in each instance. Resource depletion, habitat destruction, and population pressure combine in different ways in different circumstances; but when their mutually reinforcing impacts become critical, societies are sometimes challenged beyond their ability to respond and consequently disintegrate. . . . Regarding the Anasazi of the American Southwest, who left behind stone ceremonial centers that had been integrated into a far-flung empire, I can do no better than to quote Diamond's own summary: Despite these varying proximate causes of abandonments, all were ultimately due to the same fundamental challenge: people living in fragile and difficult environments, adopting solutions that were brilliantly successful and understandable in the short run, but that failed or else created fatal problems in the long run, when people became confronted with external environmental changes or human-caused environmental changes that cities without written histories and without archaeologists could not have anticipated. . . . A second important theme in the book is that human choice can make the difference between prosperity and ruin. Diamond is quick to point out that he is not an "environmental determinist": while the leaders of the Maya and Easter Islanders made disastrous decisions that plunged their societies into collapse, others did better. He describes how the Inuit in the Arctic and Polynesians on Tikopia managed to create ways of life that were indefinitely sustainable, and why the Dominican Republic has had a more peaceful and economically stable history than its neighbor, Haiti. . . . Diamond argues that our modern global industrial society is creating some of the very same sorts of environmental problems that caused ancient societies to fail, plus four new ones: "human-caused climate change, buildup of toxic chemicals in the environment, energy shortages and full human utilization of the earth's photosynthetic capacity." . . . Diamond notes that many of these problems are likely to "become globally critical within the next few decades." . . . Diamond's subtitle, "How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," implies that, for modern industrial societies, success is still an option. Yet if "success" implies the ability to maintain current population levels and current per-capita rates of consumption, then we may already have exhausted our choices. We cannot replace dwindling non-renewable resources, we cannot make industrial wastes disappear, we cannot quickly restabilize the global climate, and we cannot revive species that have become extinct. . . . What, then, are Diamond's "reasons for hope"? He offers only two: first, that our problems are, in principle at least, solvable; and second, that environmental thinking has become more common in recent years. . . . What Diamond doesn't mention is that the single instance of long-term planning that might have made all the difference to the survival of our civilization -- a sustained choice by the US to wean itself from fossil fuels, beginning in the 1970s at the time of the first oil shocks -- was not followed through; as a result, economic crises and resource wars are now virtually assured. . . . Perhaps the message of Collapse would have had more of a cutting-edge quality if the book had appeared in the early 1970s, when mere warnings were appropriate. . . . Today, however, we are living in a different era. Collapse has, in effect, already begun, even though we have seen only the first of the trigger events that will eventually rivet public attention on the cascading process of disintegration taking place around us. The question is no longer that of avoiding collapse, but rather of making the best of it. . . . In our own instance, efforts to manage the collapse might take several forms. Initial work along these lines might be indistinguishable from actions taken to try to prevent collapse-the sorts of things many people have been doing at least since the 1970s: the active protest of war, the protection of ecosystems and species, the defense of indigenous and traditional cultures, and the adoption of lifestyles of voluntary simplicity. . . . Then, as fossil-fuel-based support infrastructures began to disintegrate, other strategies might come to the fore: efforts to re-localize economies, to build intentional communities, and to regain forgotten handcraft skills. Like the European monks of the Middle Ages, forward-thinking groups with useful knowledge and abilities could build cultural lifeboats-communities of preservation and service that help surrounding regions cope with change and stress. . . . It would be foolish to assert that such a program could avert all of the potholes on the road down to a sustainable level of societal complexity; however, if we do not make efforts to manage the process of economic and societal contraction, it is easy to imagine collapse scenarios that would be hellish indeed. . . . Diamond is right: we always have some control over events, or at least our response to events. The choice we have now is not as to whether our society will collapse, but how. . . . Ladies and gentleman, the ship is sinking. I suggest that we set aside our immediate plans and consider how best to proceed, given the facts.
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posted by Lorenzo 3:05 PM

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