Ecological Collapse, Technology, and the History (and Future) of Human Civilizations

April 15th, 2004

"Will our children and grandchildren
have a world worth living in?
We’ll know, all too soon,
the ultimate fate of human societies."

Dr. Jared
University of California
at Los Angeles
Jared Diamond is Professor of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. Until recently he was Professor of Physiology at the UCLA School of Medicine. He is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the widely acclaimed Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies.

Dr. Diamond is also the author of two other books: The Third Chimpanzee, which won The Los Angeles Times Book award for the best science book of 1992 and Britain’s 1992 Rhone-Opulence Science Book Prize; and Why is Sex Fun?
Dr. Diamond is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (“Genius Award”); research prizes of the American Physiological Society, National Geographic Society, and Zoological Society of San Diego.
Dr. Diamond is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and American Philosophical Society.

Dr. Jared Diamond applies what he’s learned about the past to humanity’s future. He’s certain that his question is the world’s question: How are we going to cope with our current human population explosion which we must consider in combination with today’s enormously destructive technology? We can ignore what’s going on, struggle through a terrible time when scarce resources fuel monumental conflicts made all the more horrific by advanced technology and, in the end, survive as we did 50,000 years ago. Or we can learn from our mistakes and survive as civilized society. The answer, according to Dr. Diamond, is up for grabs. And we’ll know in 40 to 80 years.

Human societies and smaller groups may make disastrous decisions for a whole sequence of reasons: failure to anticipate a problem, failure to perceive it once it has arisen, failure to attempt to solve it after it has been perceived, and failure to succeed in attempts to solve it. All this may sound pessimistic, as if failure is the rule in human decision-making. In fact, of course that is not the case, in the environmental area as in business, academia, and other groups. Many human societies have anticipated, perceived, tried to solve, or succeeded in solving their environmental problems. For example, the Inca Empire, New Guinea Highlanders, 18th-century Japan, 19th-century Germany, and the paramount chiefdom of Tonga all recognized the risks that they faced from deforestation, and all adopted successful reforestation or forest management policies.

The reason for discussing failures of human decision-making is not a desire to depress you. Instead, Dr. Diamond hopes that, by recognizing the sign posts of failed decision making, we may become more consciously aware of how others have failed, and of what we need to do in order to get it right.