Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

by Jared Diamond
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For Jared Diamond, geography may not be destiny in the sense of inevitable outcomes, but it is certainly a major force in his explanations of how societies have developed and become differentiated along the course of human history. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, he studied how environmental factors affected the development of civilization in different regions of the world and how various societies grew rich and dominant while others remained comparatively poor and/or were subordinated by the powerful ones. In Collapse, he relates how specific societies ran into major difficulties and in some cases even disappeared because of environmental crises. In our own situation today, it is widely recognized that we face serious environmental problems that threaten the way of life that we have grown accustomed to in an advanced industrial society—if not our very existence, given the global scale of some of those problems and their causes.It is also the case, however, that some societies facing environmental crises in the past have successfully surmounted them through technological innovations and changes in their social organization and developmental strategies. Clearly we are at an important moment today not just in confronting those challenges in our own society, but in a growing competition among societies to establish new industries that are directed toward a more sustainable development model.  Which societies are more likely to come out ahead during the next decades? For our next online discussion, let’s focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the United States as a society confronting these environmental challenges. What does the US have going for it and what, if anything, needs to change?

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This is, of course, a matter of personal opinion.  Different people will see different strengths and weaknesses on the part of the United States.  The following are my views, but they are not objectively provable facts.

The biggest weakness, in my view, is that a large percentage of people in the United States do not even believe that we are facing any significant environmental challenges.  The US is a democracy, and that means that a large percentage of people can derail even the best of policy proposals.  When we add this to the fact that our politics are so toxic and polarized today, it is hard to imagine that people who do not believe in environmental challenges can be persuaded.

A second weakness is that we are feeling like we are falling behind economically.  We feel that countries like China are overtaking us.  This will make us much less likely to be willing to take any steps to fix our environmental problems if those steps involve spending large amounts of money.

On the other hand, the US does have at least one major advantage.  This is the fact that we are technologically innovative and dynamic.  The US tends to be able to come up with new technologies for a variety of purposes.  It seems likely that, if technology can provide a solution, Americans will be able to find that solution.

What the US has going for it, then, is its creativity and innovation.  What needs to change is our resistance to the idea that we face environmental challenges and that we need to make sacrifices to combat them.  

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