Stubborn, Short-Term Thinking: A Recipe for Colossal Failure

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond. Viking, 576 pages, $29.95.

In the summer of 2003, when shells killed 20 people sheltering in the U.S. Embassy compound in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital city, and fighting so bad it was called World Wars I, II and III had been raging for weeks, Liberians piled up 20 dead corpses in front of the embassy gate with a note attached: “America, what else do you want to SEE?”

The message was clear: Liberia was collapsing, and Americans should see it, and-more importantly and more unlikely-they should care about it. Today in Liberia, 80 percent of the population are unemployed. Half live on 50 cents a day; 63 percent are illiterate. There are at least 20,000 former child soldiers, and up to 80,000 ex-combatants. When I visited in January 2004, there were only 28 doctors and no psychiatrists, and rape and trauma rates were through the roof. Yet 20 years earlier, Liberia had been a relatively wealthy country with rubber and timber resources, a friendly ally in the U.S. and the U.S. dollar for currency. Some Liberians commuted to Washington, D.C. Today, Africa’s first republic is a failed state. How come?

That’s a question Jared Diamond might have answered in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed-if he hadn’t been busy exploring, exhuming and exhaustively examining the collapses and successes of at least a dozen other societies. Like Rwanda, one of his chosen collapsed states, Liberia’s failure is usually attributed to chaos or warlords (a New York Times Magazine story on Liberia was headlined “a war without purpose in a country without identity”). Like Rwanda-whose genocide is usually reductively ascribed to “ancestral hatreds”-and like every other society, the causes of rise or fall are greater, wider, older. In Liberia’s case, resource conflicts were as damaging as the military kind. Greed, or the dominance of short-term concerns-the plundering of rubber, logs and diamonds-took precedence over, and destroyed, long-term goals of stability and success.

Like Mr. Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Guns, Germs and Steel (1997), Collapse has no pretensions to simplicity or brevity. Why some leaders pursue paths to failure, writes Mr. Diamond with understatement, “is a large subject.” Five hundred pages and a few thousand years large, in fact-large enough for a sedately paced tour through societies that have fallen (Easter Island, the Greenland Norse, classical Mayans, Rwanda) and those that have stayed afloat. Why societies collapse is a simple question, and the answer is simple, too: plenty of reasons. Soil erosion and deforestation are usually involved, because they lead to a loss of building material and fuel, crop disasters, the death of animal food sources, then starvation, conflict, cannibalism and collapse.

But Mr. Diamond pleads not guilty to charges of environmental determinism-hence the book’s subtitle. Collapse is about what nature does to humans, but also how humans choose to deal with it. Take the Greenland Norse, whose settlements on an inhospitable island endured for four centuries: a difficult environment, but not insuperable-until human folly intervened. The Greenland Norse, in choosing to waste manpower on the annual Nordsreta hunt to buy iron and luxury goods from Norway; in refusing to eat seals; and, most of all, in refusing to learn from the Inuit, chose “to die as Christian farmers rather than live as Inuit.” And die they did.

The disappearance of the Norse is usually classified as a “mysterious collapse” or a single-factor disaster (in the words of archeologist Thomas McGovern, “it got too cold and they died”). It’s neither, now that we have enough research-thanks to a kindly army of paleoecologists, zooarcheologists, palynologists and others, whose esoteric career choices Mr. Diamond manages to make sound urgent and necessary-to fill in the process of collapse, to find out why classical Mayan cities fell (too much population on too little land with too little water), or why Australia is heading for trouble (an outdated colonial-era obsession with sheep, bad soil and a plague of rabbits).

As for the Easter Islanders, treated by history as reckless environmental vandals for deliberately deforesting their island, they were living with the third-worst soil quality of the 69 Pacific islands surveyed by Mr. Diamond, which means trees grow back slowly and badly (the bottom two-Necker and Nihoa-are treeless). It’s to Mr. Diamond’s credit that while writing about a 600-year-old societal collapse in a far-off Pacific island that shouldn’t matter to us, he manages to convey a potboiler dread of impending doom, with Easter’s chiefs building more ostentatious statues not just for ostentation, but to make “more urgent appeals to ancestors necessitated by the growing environmental crisis.” But Easter Island matters, because Easter Island is us: An isolated society (an island, a planet) heading for disaster with no recourse to outside help, thanks to reckless environmental policies. To use a phrase from hard-rock mining, we are all on a “rape-and-run” course-though once the resources are raped, there’s nowhere to run.

Collapse is supposed to be didactic. It was written, Mr. Diamond tells us, to induce change. We have a lot to learn. Overfishing, overpopulation and overlogging, along with other unsustainable activities, give us a sell-by date of 50 years hence, Mr. Diamond calculates.

But don’t we have advantages over Easter Island and the Norse, in that they had “foolish leaders who didn’t have books and so couldn’t learn from history”? That we have leaders who can read books and still won’t learn from history is a concept left unexplored. Equally odd is Mr. Diamond’s relatively unchallenging treatment of the reckless and dangerous activities of the oil and mining industries. Chevron’s strict environmental policies in New Guinea-one of Mr. Diamond’s stomping grounds during years of field research-get justifiable praise, but there’s little evidence of Chevron’s behavior being adopted by the majority. Instead, blaming a business “for helping itself by hurting other people,” we are instructed, is “easy and cheap,” because that “blaming alone is unlikely to produce change.” Businesses are off the hook because of their legal obligation to their shareholders to maximize profits (Henry Ford being sued by his shareholders for raising wages gets two mentions), and on the hook is the buying, boycotting consumer.

Boycotts can “make destructive environmental policies unprofitable, …” and businesses can be sued for harm already done, “as happened after the Exxon Valdez, Piper Alpha and Bhopal disasters.” But Bhopal’s poisoned people have yet to be properly compensated by Union Carbide, 20 years on, and it’s hard to boycott when you don’t have a choice. Businesses don’t need to work to moral imperatives, then, but governments will because of globalization (“Coca-Cola and the Internet”). The U.S. should care about environmental problems in the Dominican Republic because of its million-strong Dominican population. It should, but will it?

The modern world’s willful isolationism doesn’t get much attention from Mr. Diamond. After 50 years of close ties to Liberia-the biggest C.I.A. listening station in sub-Saharan Africa is located there-the U.S. still chose to sit and watch as the country imploded.

The stubbornly held values of the Bush administration leave Mr. Diamond strangely mute. If Easter Island is our bad future, then let’s compare the building of giant statues not to the real-estate ambitions of Hollywood film moguls, as Mr. Diamond does, but to the coddling of creationists and their sacred cows. The foresight of the Tikopians, who exterminated their island’s precious pigs because they were an inefficient food source and bad for the long-term good, is hard to spot in an administration that snubs Kyoto and covets Alaska. Until a long-range vision emerges, even the cerebral riches of Collapse can’t shift me from the ranks of cautious pessimists.

Rose George is a freelance journalist and foreign correspondent. She lives in London.