In light of Diamond's work in Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse, what are the environmental strengths and weaknesses of the United States?

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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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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?

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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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?

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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