Friday, March 2, 2007

Preliminary Thoughts: Jared Diamond's "Collapse"

Normally I would wait until the end of a book to review it, but I can't resist sharing some preliminary thoughts at the half-way point of Jared Diamond's book Collapse. By telling the fascinating histories of the environmental collapses of many great civilizations, Diamond hopes to reveal the fragility of our own society, and his analysis proves as thorough as it is terrifying. I basically find myself constantly thinking about this book. For the traveler, the book provides stunning descriptions of amazing and remote places. As a human in the world today, it provides valuable lessons in our own fallibility and will hopefully force people to change the way they live.

So far, I have read Diamond's analysis of the Maya, Anasazi, Easter Island, and other Pacific Island civilizations. Each of these societies reached a peak of greatness and complexity noted by construction of monuments honoring an elite class. These booms in architectural sophistication and population came at the expense of the natural environment, and many of these societies soon encountered a lack of building materials due to deforestation and a deterioration in food quality due to high population and soil depletion. With such human-caused devastation of the natural environment, small outside factors like drought or other temporary climate changes could exacerbate the situation and lead to societal collapse. The ruling elite in the societies often relied on supply chains that suddenly stopped functioning, and the populations dwindled to non-existence in some cases.

When I first started reading the book, I assumed that the parallels between these past societies and our own would be too tenuous for me to believe that a collapse would be possible. I had visions of Mad Max movies and laughed those off as fiction. Obviously we use our environment to support an enormous population, and obviously we reveal the magnitude of our resources through monumental architecture and countless luxuries. It is quite difficult to imagine centuries of modern society being brought to its knees by environmental destruction . . . until, of course, you consider that the Mayan civilization developed for over 800 prosperous years before collapsing over the period of roughly a century. Our modern history is a blip on time line, and we are cocky to assume we are invincible.

Environmental skeptic? Let's talk flu

But my readers are thinking that I'm a paranoid environmentalist anyway. Yesterday, I started thinking about Collapse in a much different and much shorter term context, pandemic flu.

Megan and I spent yesterday morning at a fascinating conference called the "Conference of the Professions," an event designed to unite lawyers, physicians and clergy to discuss ethical issues facing all three professions. The topic of this particular conference was pandemic flu planning. I was surprised by the number of unknowns in the process. Some epidemiological evidence suggests that we are already in some sort of influenza pandemic based on the historically high number of annual deaths from influenza in recent years; however, I was presented no evidence as to whether these numbers are just tied to the fact that the population is so much larger.

What really interested me were the descriptions of food supply. In the societies Diamond talks about, the elimination of the food supply is often the trigger for widespread chaos and even cannibalism. Apparently the city of Dallas has roughly 48 hours of food on the shelves at any given moment. If influenza disrupted the supply chain (as it likely would), one can quickly imagine the repercussions. Arguably most homes will have longer stockpiles, but perhaps not much more. In a society that loves to refrigerate and eat at restaurants, the end of the grocery store would create severe problems. Moreover, relief would likely not come from other locations since most models of a flu pandemic show a national and global impact. During Hurricane Katrina, other areas could provide support (however slowly)--a pandemic flu would preclude such relief.

This Stuff is Scary

Diamond says he concludes his book with some examples of societies addressing environmental problems to save their societies from collapse. I'm ready to get to those chapters. I'm assuming the solution is not to depopulate and live in isolated farming communities with individuals self-sufficient on their own agricultural production. We have to remember that life on the earth is actually life from the earth, and I think Diamond's book will provoke individuals to discover that principal more fully.

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