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. And for the United States. how should we move forward?  What are the responsibilities, limitations, or opportunities for our government? For businesses? For other organizations and social groups? For individual citizens?

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As with your earlier question, this is a matter of personal opinion.  Some people will think, for example, that the government has the most responsibility.  Others will think that individuals have more responsibility.  Still others will feel that there is no real crisis and there is no need to do much of anything. 

My own view is that the biggest responsibility (and opportunity) is with the individuals who make up our country.  Americans believe in the ability of individuals to make important changes.  This spirit can potentially allow us to face our environmental challenges.  Individuals need to be willing to do relatively little things like using LED light bulbs, buying more fuel-efficient cars and driving them less, and lowering their thermostats in the winter.  If Americans will do these things, they can greatly reduce the amount of fossil fuels that we use.  The major obstacles to this are in the minds of the people.  As long as we do not believe that we face an environmental challenge, the people will not make changes.

I would say that the government also has a major responsibility.  The government needs to push for programs and policies that will reduce the impact that we have on the environment.  It needs to do this in market-friendly ways, but it does need to do something.  We need the government because it can change things on a large scale in ways that individuals cannot.  The main obstacle to this is that many people hate the government and are particularly unhappy about the idea of the government imposing regulations to help the environment.

In my view, businesses have little responsibility in this regard.  Businesses’ main goal has to be making money.  We cannot ask businesses to sacrifice profits and, therefore, potentially go broke for the sake of the environment.  Instead, we need to change laws (so all businesses have to do certain things) and/or change our own tastes and desires (so businesses can make money by producing “green” things.

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