ISIS Commentary 29/07/09
Why Civilisations Collapse
A Lesson for Climate Change
Modern society is technologically far superior to any that has gone before,
we have all the means to head off the worst effects of climate change and adapt
to those we cannot avoid. History tells us however that the most common
reason societies collapse is not inadequate science or technology but failure
to take the difficult decisions necessary for survival Prof.
world faces the challenge of climate change, it is instructive to recall that
this is by no means the first time humans have had to cope with similar problems.
Many societies have found themselves in serious trouble because of an unwelcome
change in their environment. It may have been something
over which they had no control, like the onset of the Little Ice Age in the
15th century, or they may have brought
it upon themselves, all too often by clearing forests, or perhaps a combination of the two. Some societies
survived, others did not.
the Spanish arrived, the Mayans of Central America had already abandoned their
magnificent cities because of drought. Deforestation destroyed the Easter
society that erected the famous statues, though a very much reduced population
continued to live on the island. Others, like the Norwegian settlers in Greenland, and
the original inhabitants of Pitcairn Island, died
other hand, the Inuit who arrived in Greenland while
the Norse settlements were flourishing are still there. The 18th
century Tokugawa Japanese reversed the deforestation that had threatened their
way of life. The inhabitants of Tikopia, a tiny island in the Pacific, have
adopted a whole series of measures that allow them to survive in a difficult
environment; one of the most striking 400 years ago was
to kill all their pigs - high status
animals in Melanesia and at one time a major source of protein on Tikopia - because they were
too inefficient for feeding humans.
Societies collapse through failing to take decisive action
fascinating book Collapse  Jared Diamond describes and analyses
these and other examples and looks for common features that would help explain
why some civilisations survived environmental challenges and others did not.
There are many reasons why societies have failed to cope. They may
not have anticipated the problem,
and so neither tried to head it off, nor made sure they were ready when it
came. The Mayans might have been better able to deal with the great drought
of the 9th century if they had known such things could happen
in their part of the world. Unfortunately, the last great drought was in the
3rd century, and had been forgotten.
The Mayans did keep careful records, but only of things they considered important
such as the exploits of their kings, not trivia like climate data.
A society may not even be aware of a serious problem when it is actually
upon them, especially if the effect is slow. An increase in mean temperature
of a degree or two per century can easily be masked by annual fluctuations
or dismissed as part of some cycle.
also be that the problem is just too difficult.
If you live an already marginal existence on an isolated island in
the South Pacific and the rainfall decreases even further, there is not much
you can do.
Diamond found that in the many societies he studied,
the most common reason for their collapse was none of the above, but the failure
to take decisive action that could have saved them. Surprisingly,
even when it had become obvious that there was a serious problem, little or
nothing was done to address it.
Why do societies fail to save themselves?
Why would a society that knows it is in danger not do all it can
to survive? There are a number of possible reasons, most of which arise from the
fact that a society is not an individual but a collection of human beings.
There can be significant conflicts of interests, and these often lead
to decisions that suit one faction but are not in the best interests of the
society as a whole.
The most obvious source of conflict is that the interests
of the ruler or the elite are not always the same as those of the rest. It
is easy to think of examples, from the chiefs who devoted
so much of Easter Island’s resources to building the famous statues (squandering
large amounts on prestige projects is a common failing of rulers) to the owners
of the companies that are clearing the rain forests and the politicians who
are allowing that to happen. Even a group that does not have much intrinsic
power may be given what it wants because it is more determined to get it than
the majority are to refuse it. That is essentially why we continue to subsidise
fishermen when the seas are already overfished.
There is also the “tragedy of the commons”: a fisherman lands more fish than
he knows he ought to because he fears that if he holds back in the hope of
preserving stocks, others will take them instead. .
Societies also have deeply held values and find it very difficult to take
any action that conflicts with them. The obvious example is religious taboos,
but values do not have to be expressed in terms of a religion. The Greenland
Norse, for example, reduced their chances of survival by keeping as close
as they could to Norwegian customs and farming practices , and refusing
to learn from the Inuit.
Will we survive climate change?
were usually due to one of the first three reasons that Diamond identifies
- failure to anticipate the problem, failure to be aware of it when it materialises,
and lack of the technology to cope - we could be quite confident about our
prospects. It is more than a century since Arrhenius showed that if we burned
too much fossil fuel the Earth would get warmer, so this isn’t coming as a
complete surprise. Meteorologists and climatologists have been measuring the
upward trend in the mean temperature and comparing it with the greenhouse
gas concentration, so we know the scale of the problem.
We already have the technologies to limit climate change and mitigate its
effects (see Which Energy?
 and Food Futures Now:
*Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free ), and more are being developed (see SiS 31-43).
The crucial question is whether we have the ability
to take the right decisions; and it is not
at all obvious that we are any better placed to do that than earlier societies.
The problem that faces us is planet-wide, and to solve
it we need cooperation at an unprecedented global level. Any agreement to limit climate change will have
to take into account the quite different interests of the developed countries
and developing countries. The tragedy of the commons operates in the same
way whether we are talking about individual fishermen or national fishing
fleets. Worse, it can act at both levels simultaneously.
There are two serious obstacles in trying to resolve
such conflicts. First, any society has some form of government,
from an autocratic ruler to an informal congress of the entire
community, or something in between. The form of government obviously
affects the decision-making. Diamond argues
that those near one end of the spectrum of government or the other are more
able to cope with environmental challenges than those in the middle. As there
is no world government of any kind, formal or informal, we find ourselves having to make difficult choices
with no framework for reaching decisions and no means of enforcing the decisions
that are taken.
Second, attempts to overcome conflicts of interests among states have to take
account at the same time of those within states. Because the consequences
of any agreement will impact differently on different groups, a country may be unable to make a concession to which an influential
minority is strongly opposed. Most of the 44 Democrats in the US House of
Representatives who almost defeated the recent climate change bill
were from states that either produce coal or are
heavily dependent on it . It is too soon to know how much the struggle
to get the bill through Congress will affect the US negotiating
position, but it shows there can be a multiplier effect. A small but determined
group within one society can have a significant effect on the whole world,
even though on that scale they are very small indeed.
Thus what Diamond identified as the greatest obstacle to success has become
double layered and even more difficult to overcome. We must not give in to
pessimism, but neither should we underestimate the size of the challenge that
How we can save ourselves
easy to delude ourselves into thinking either that climate change will not
happen or that if it does, those of us who live in the developed world will
be immune from its consequences.
change is happening, and the consequences will be global; if we don’t do something
soon they will be much worse. And if we do not act quickly and effectively,
our society may well collapse. The human species
will probably not go extinct, but we may suffer the same fate as the
Mayans: reduced to a much smaller, marginal agrarian
population. If you find that an ultimately attractive
prospect, think of the social unrest, wars, famines
and other disasters that would happen along the way.
We have all the science and technology we need to avert the
catastrophe. What is more, as the Stern Report  has shown (The Economics
of Climate Change, SiS 33 ), we can do it at a price we can
easily afford. The
question is whether we have the will, and an early test of this will be whether
we can preserve the world’s remaining forests.
Deforestation has been a key factor in many collapses
because trees serve many vital purposes, such as holding the soil in place
on slopes, providing timber for housing and boats,
sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and above all helping to
stabilise the climate. Unfortunately
they grow very slowly. Once a forest has
been cleared it takes a long time to replace, if it can be replaced
at all. Our society, like so many before us, is squandering this resource.
We seem unable to stop the destruction of the Amazonian and Indonesian rain
forests even though the Stern Report has shown that this would be by far the
most cost effective contribution we can make towards mitigating climate change.
The second most effective is reforesting areas already cleared (see also Saving
and Restoring Forests Saves Far More Carbon Emissions than Biofuels, SiS
37 ). It needs international cooperation because the forests that have
to be preserved lie largely in developing countries, those in the developed world having been
cleared long ago (Old Growth Forests
Are Carbon Sinks and Must Be Protected, SiS 40 ).
If we cannot find a way of working together even on this, it is hard to see
how we can cooperate on the more difficult problems like reducing the use
of fossil fuels while allowing developing countries to raise their standards
The danger is not that we won’t do anything about climate
change, especially now that the USA and China are on board. It is that what we do will be too little and too late.
The effects are cumulative, and the longer we delay, the harder our task will
be. It is already too late to begin with symbolic acts and good intentions.
We need to make real changes, and we need to start making them now.
J. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Viking Penguin,
G. The tragedy of the commons. Science, 162, 1243-1248, 1968.
century examples of a society refusing to learn how to live in a different
environment are provided by Noel Coward in his song Mad Dogs and Englishmen,
e.g., “In the Malay States there are hats like plates, which the Britishers
4. Ho MW,
Bunyard P, Saunders PT, Bravo E and Gala R. Which Energy? Institute of Science in Society,
London, 2006, http://www.i-sis.org.uk/which_energy.php
5. Ho MW,
Burcher S, Lim LC et al. Food Futures Now: *Organic, *Sustainable, *Fossil
Fuel Free. Institute of Science in Society,
London, 2008, ISBN 0-954-44923-4-X, http://www.i-sis.org.uk/foodFutures.php
passes bill to address threat of climate change”, Jim Broder, New York
Times, 26 June, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/27/us/politics/27climate.html
N. The Economics of Climate Change. Cambridge University Press,
ISBN 0-521-70080-9. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/independent_reviews/stern_review_economics_climate_change/stern_review_report.cfm
PT The economics of climate change. Science in Society 33, 20-23,
9. Ho MW.
Saving and restoring forests saves far more carbon emissions that biofuels.
Science in Society 37, 17,
10. Ho MW.
Old growth forests are carbon sinks and must be protected. Science in Society 40, 29-30,