Easter Island, C'est Moi

What caused some of the great civilizations of the past to collapse into ruin, and what can we learn from their fates? Jared Diamond explains how we can avert catastrophe.
In his Pulitzer-prize winning book, "Guns, Germs, and Steel," Jared Diamond examined how and why Western civilizations developed the technologies and immunities that allowed them to dominate much of the world. Now in "Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed," Diamond probes the other side of the equation: What caused some of the great civilizations of the past to collapse into ruin, and what can we learn from their fates? From the Polynesian cultures on Easter Island to the flourishing American civilizations of the Anasazi and the Maya, and finally to the doomed Viking colony on Greenland, "Collapse" traces the fundamental patterns of catastrophe.

TERRENCE MCNALLY: What called to you about the new book, "Collapse"?

JARED DIAMOND: What called to me was a romantic interest going back to when I was in my 20s and began reading Thor Heyerdahl's books about the settlement of Easter Island and the great stone statues and how they were erected and why they were overthrown. It's a question that's been on my mind for a long time.

Twenty years ago we really didn't know why the islanders ended up in this barren landscape overthrowing their statues. It also wasn't clear why the Maya had abandoned their great cities. But thanks to recent archeological excavations we now have better understanding of these collapses. It's now possible to write a unified book on collapses.

You put forth a five-point framework of factors that tend to contribute to collapse. Could you tell us what they are, in terms of one of the actual cases in the book?

Let's take a full five-factor collapse that involves a European society (collapses happen not just to exotic people like Polynesians or Native Americans, they happen to blue-eyed, blonde-haired Europeans like Norwegians). The Vikings settled Greenland around C.E. 1000. They built cathedrals and stone churches. They were literate, they wrote Latin and they wrote in runes. But after about 500 years they were all dead. Still, the Norse lasted longer in Greenland than Europeans have lasted in North America today.

Number one: human environmental impacts. Many societies unwittingly destroy the environmental resources on which they depend. The Greenland Norse chopped down their forests in order to clear land for pastures and to have firewood and construction timber, but that resulted in erosion that gradually removed land that could have been used for productive pastures.

Number two: climate change. Today we're causing climate change, but in the past the climate has naturally gotten colder or hotter or rainy or drier. In the case of the Greenland Norse, it got colder. If it's colder, you grow less hay to get your cattle through the winter and your cattle start dying.

The third factor was enemies. Most societies have enemies, and can fight off their enemies until the society gets weakened for whatever reason. The Roman Empire weakened and then was overrun by barbarians. In the case of the Greenland Norse, as they weakened, their enemies, the Inuit or Eskimos, probably played a role in exterminating them.

Factor number four: friends. The Greenland Norse depended upon Norway for essential resources, particularly iron and timber, and for cultural identity. Norway began to decline, and the trade from Norway to Greenland was impeded by sea ice.

And number five: every society responds or fails to respond to its problems. The Greenland Norse failed to respond successfully.

I find their failure very instructive. What happened?

It's a very interesting question, why a society doesn't even notice or doesn't successfully respond to problems that look obvious. You would think, not a good idea to chop down all the trees and cause soil erosion. They needed timber and pastures, how could they be so dumb?

But let's just suppose that 50 years from now there's still a complex society left on earth. What do you think they're going to say when they look back on the United States in 2005, with its well-known energy problems, continuing to waste energy? Not dealing with its population problems or its water problems, how obvious. Soil problems, how obvious. Climate change problems, how utterly obvious.

The Norse were unwilling to learn from the Inuit who preceded and outlasted them.

That's right, the Inuit are still alive today. It's like a controlled laboratory experiment. The red test tube and the blue test tube: the Inuit and the Greenland Norse. The Inuit hunt whales and seals. The Greenland Norse grow sheep and goats and cows, but refuse to hunt whales and seals. It seems obvious if you're short of food during the winter, it's a good idea to hunt whales and seals. How could the Norse be so stupid?

Well, the Greenland Norse were medieval Christians. They despised the pagan Inuit. Modern Americans have also been known to despise other people. The Greenland Norse refused to learn from the Inuit and they all ended up dead as a result.

There were no fish bones found in their remains, right?

My first night in Greenland, a blonde Danish tourist walks into the kitchen of the youth hostel with two big chard weighing about two pounds. She saw these fish trapped in a pool in a river and grabbed them with her hands. It doesn't take high technology to catch big fish in Greenland, but the Norse didn't eat fish.

On the other hand, Americans don't eat goats, as Mexicans do. We don't eat frogs as the French do. We don't eat spiders and rats as my New Guinea friends do. We don't eat horses as the Irish used to do. We're not starving as a result, but someday who knows.

The Anasazi lasted quite a long time in a very inhospitable environment, in what is now the American Southwest. Is there something to learn from their success as well as their failure?

From their success we learn that societies who master difficult environments for a long time have no guarantee they'll last forever. The Anasazi built great cities--the tallest skyscrapers in North America until Chicago of the 1870s. They thrived in parts of New Mexico and Arizona where nobody is making a living by agriculture today. That was quite a success story.

Eventually, they and other Native American societies in the same area succumbed to climate change and human environmental impacts. The Pueblo Indians, however, came up with a solution that worked. They developed a mixed economy in large settlements a little above the flood plain. The Pueblo Indians have been carrying on successfully in this difficult environment for something like 600 years.

Pueblo Indians today say about Europeans, particularly when the wonders of modern technology are pointed out, "We were here long before you came and we expect still to be here long after you are gone."

It seems to me that in the good times people eat well, populations grow, societies become more complex. The resulting larger, more complex, more comfortable society is less able to respond when bad times come.

In the case of the Anasazi, the Maya and the Easter Islanders: when times were good and there was plenty of rainfall, they occupied marginal lands that previously had been too dry. Then, when it got dry again, they found themselves with a large population they could no longer support.

Take the world today. We've got 6.5 billion people, and there are many who say our population will build up to only 9.5 billion, so the world is in the process of solving its population problems. But with the climate turning against us -- with global warming and with many parts of the world getting drier -- there are 2 billion today who are close to starvation. What are we going to do a few decades from now when we've got another 3 billion people?

Let's turn to the Maya. I was surprised to learn of their enormous population: estimates from 5 to 50 million people, perhaps the current population of California. I'd always thought of them as a quaint civilization with a few pyramids. Was their enormous population a factor in their demise?

One hundred years from now modern California may look like that quaint population no bigger than the Maya who made a few skyscrapers but didn't pay attention to the problems they were getting into.

The Maya suffered from problems of climate change. When there was enough rain for them to grow corn to feed 15 or maybe 50 million, their population grew. They also chopped down their forests like the Anasazi and the Easter Islanders, causing soil erosion. Then came a drought.

The Maya population shrank by something like 90 percent through some combination of starvation, fighting each other, and not reproducing in numbers comparable to the death rate. By the time it was all over, the great Maya cities had been abandoned. In the 1500s when Cortez marched through the Yucatan peninsula, he didn't know that he was only two miles from what had been the great city of Tikal. It was completely overgrown by jungle.

What's going to happen 70 years from now when some extraterrestrials march past what had once been Los Angeles?

Easter Island is such a romantic and tragic case. What happened there?

Easter Island is the most remote habitable scrap of land in the world -- an island in the Pacific Ocean about 2,000 miles off the coast of Chile to the west and about 1,500 miles east of the nearest Polynesian island. It's known for gigantic stone statues up to 70 feet tall and weighing up to 270 tons.

They didn't have any machines or wheels or draft animals. Using just human muscle, they dragged these statues up to 12 miles and tilted them upright. How did they do it? You can be sure that whatever they did required trees for sleds or for sledges and levers. Yet when Europeans arrived on Easter Island in 1722, there were no trees.

Over the last 20 years archeologists and paleontologists discovered that when Polynesians first arrived in C.E. 800, Easter Island had been covered by a subtropical forest -- including the world's biggest palm tree. The Polynesians chopped down trees to clear land for gardens, for wood for canoes to go fishing and harpooning tuna and dolphins, for houses, and for the sleds and levers used in erecting statues.

Around the year 1670, they chopped down the last tree on the island. Without forests to protect the soil, they ran into problems of soil erosion. Once they couldn't construct canoes to go fishing, the only large animal left on Easter Island as a source of meat was each other. Easter Island society collapsed in an epidemic of cannibalism. The worst insult that an Easter Islander could say in those days: the flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth. Easter Island society collapsed ultimately due to deforestation.

I've heard that you were originally going to open "Collapse" with Easter Island, but the book now starts in Montana. Why did you make that choice?

I realized if I begin the book with Easter Island and then go to the Maya and Anasazi, my readers will get the idea this is about past societies: dumb Polynesians and Native Americans doing stupid things that we smart Americans with our technology would never do.

Montana is considered the most pristine state in the lower 48. It's got a low population and half the area is national and state forest. So you would think that Montana is the state with the fewest ecological and environmental problems. But scratch the surface of Montana and you find a very different story.

Because of global warming, the snow pack that provides the water for the irrigation agriculture of Montana is melting. In 20 years Glacier National Park will have no glaciers, and Montana won't have irrigation agriculture. Montana has problems of soil erosion and salinization, destruction of soil by too much salt. The state now spends a couple of hundred million dollars every year trying to control introduced weeds. Montana has increasing problems of population in certain parts of the state. Eastern Montana has probably the worst toxic waste problems in the United States because Montana was the copper mining state.

So I began my book with what seems to be the most pristine part of the richest country in the world, but you look carefully at Montana and you find all of the problems that bother these remote romantic people of the past.

One of the things I noticed in several of the cases is that during good times when everybody has plenty to eat, the political and religious elites fatten up, but when hard times hit, people seem less willing to indulge the ruling class's power trips. Where do you think we are today?

As I came toward the end of work on my book, I asked myself what are the deep lessons? I realized that in successful societies the governing elite could not or did not insulate themselves from the problems of the rest of society. They suffered along with everybody else, and so were motivated to solve the problems.

You can then ask yourself, in the United States today, are our elites suffering the problems of the rest of society? Within the last 10 years we've had an increasing phenomena of what's called the "gated community" in which rich people do their very best to insulate themselves. Instead of worrying about the water supply, they drink bottled water. Instead of worrying about the public police force they've got their private security guards. Their children don't go to public schools. They're not worried about the social security system because they've got private pensions. They're not worried about Medicare because they've got private health insurance. That is a blueprint for trouble.

The notion of democracy is that all people who vote have equal power. Yet especially over the last few years we've seen the elite passing laws like the recent bankruptcy law that protects corporations and the very rich, while making it tougher and tougher on working people. At the same time, you point out in the book that China has stopped deforestation, and my flip answer is that it helps to be a dictatorship. It's tough to pass that law here. Lobbyists don't have much sway over there.

There are successful and unsuccessful democracies, successful and unsuccessful dictatorships.

When you've got a dictatorship, you can take potent actions fast -- potent bad actions as well as potent good actions. In 1998, 240 million Chinese, one-fifth of the population, were affected or uprooted by floods caused by deforestation on the slopes. So the Chinese government, which is, let's put it frankly, something of a dictatorship, passed the law, bang, right there. There will be no more deforestation of old growth forest in China. That's what a dictatorship can do.

The subtitle of the book is "how societies choose to fail or succeed" -- what are the choices we need to make?

For the United States the two overarching things would be for our elite not to think that they can save themselves while everybody else goes down the tubes. The elite have to think long term about the rest of American society and they have to think long term about the other societies in the world.

The United States can't insulate itself from the problems of remote, ravaged countries like Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq, because nowadays remote countries have ways of creating problems for us. They can send terrorists, they can unconsciously send emerging diseases, they can send unstoppable waves of immigration.

The other broad issue is reappraising deeply set values. Among past societies the ones that succeeded were ones that were willing to undertake painful reappraisals as Japan did with the Maji restoration, and as Europe has in the past 50 years in getting away from nationalistic states that have caused so much misery.

You write: "We need the courage to make painful decisions about values. Which of the values that formerly served a society well can continue to be maintained under new changed circumstances?" Whether it's the fundamentalist Muslims attacking on 9/11 or the kinds of morality fights that are going on in America right now, it seems that there's a digging in of the heels around "don't touch my values."

Yes, but there are also powerful forces working towards changing values. Within the United States an encouraging development is the environmental movement, which didn't exist 50 years ago. And there are plenty of people in the United States who are beginning to take seriously the problems of the rest of the world.

When I was born in 1937, the United States was isolationist and we could afford to be isolationist. We didn't even enter World War II until Pearl Harbor. After World War II we did not relapse into isolationism, but for the last couple of decades we've had the fantasy, that what happens out there in Nepal and Indonesia and the Philippines is sad for them, but what does it mean for the United States?

Well, every country has its crazy terrorists. The United States had its Theodore Kaczynski and Timothy McVeigh, but United States citizens are not desperate enough to support them. But when it happens in poor and environmentally ravaged Afghanistan, the people have a way of communicating their unhappiness to the United States.

I'm a cautious optimist, and the media is my main source for hope. We've got an enormous advantage that those Easter Islanders and the Maya did not have. We turn on our television sets in the morning and we see what happened today in Somalia or Nepal. We have the possibility to learn. Easter Islanders, when they were chopping down their last tree in 1670, couldn't turn on the TV set and see Japan in 1670 solving its deforestation problems.

Our other great advantage is our archeologists. Easter Islanders didn't have archeologists to tell them that the Maya had messed up 850 years earlier or that the New Guinea Highlanders had succeeded 700 years ago.

You say long-term thinking is a critical value. If you could place yourself in the future and look back, did humanity turn things around and if we did, how did we do it?

I'm now 67 and my twin sons are about to be 18, so I was nearly 50 when they were born. Let me fast-forward 50 years to the year 2055 when they will be the age that I am today. The worst-case scenario is a whole world like Rwanda, but let's ask what's the best-case scenario. Looking back from 2055, my sons would say that around the year 2005, enough people finally began to be concerned and the balance tipped towards solving problems instead of ignoring them.

Not just Americans but people around the world concluded: We have to halt the world's population growth. We have to halt global warning. We can't go on mining the world's topsoil and forests. We have to reduce our energy consumption and switch away from fossil fuels towards wind and solar and nuclear and cleaner fossil fuels. We've got to do it fast. We've got to deal with the world's water problems, not by having wars between Syria and Turkey but by conserving water.

My sons will look back in the year 2055 and say there was some kicking and screaming, there were people who didn't want to do it, and there were setbacks, but we finally did it. We've essentially solved our population problems, we have rational energy policies, and we've halted the increase of global warming.
Interviewer Terrence McNally hosts Free Forum on KPFK 90.7FM, Los Angeles (streaming at kpfk.org), where he interviews people he believes can help create 'a world that just might work.'
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