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. 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 will be the consequences of getting ahead or falling behind in this race? Or should we even think about it as a race?

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In one sense, we really should not think about this as a race at all.  This is because it is not completely a zero-sum game.  Something that helps one society can actually help all societies.  For example, if any country in the world manages to create a hydrogen cell vehicle that can be affordable and still deliver the performance that will be needed, all societies will benefit.  Widespread use of such a car would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, helping everyone on the planet.  From this point of view, we should not be thinking about this as a race between countries, but rather as a race against time in which we all win or we all lose.

However, the economic reality is that this will be seen as something of a race.  If one country were to invent the hydrogen cell vehicle I mention above, that country’s manufacturers would benefit more than those of any other country.  They would be the first to bring the technology out and would make a lot of money until other firms were able to figure out how to make their own equivalent cars.

If we fall behind in this race, there will be some consequences.  We might see our international prestige plummet and we might no longer be seen as a world leader in technology.  Other countries might continue to eat into our lead as the world’s dominant economy.  We might lose our national confidence, which could cause us to lose even more of our ability to innovate.

Thus, while we probably should not see this as a race, there are ways in which it is a race.  If we lose the race, there will be economic consequences for our country.

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