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Very Bad News

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire,

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To know that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

—Robert Frost (1920)

Have you heard, it’s in the stars,

Next July we collide with Mars?

—Cole Porter (1939)


The recent tsunami in southern Asia, in which perhaps a quarter-million people of all ages and conditions were swept indifferently away by a blind cataclysm, has, at least for the moment—perhaps only for the moment—concentrated our minds. Fatality on such a scale, the destruction not only of individual lives but of whole populations of them, threatens the conviction that perhaps most reconciles many of us, insofar as anything this-worldly does, to our own mortality: that, though we ourselves may perish, the community into which we were born, and the sort of life it supports, will somehow live on. The suggestion that this may not be true, that calamity if great enough, or fecklessness if chronic enough, may put an end to the foundations of our collective existence, that beyond its separate members society itself is mortal, is hardly a new idea. Ancient history collects instances, science fiction constructs narratives; the myths of all nations parade warning examples. But the empirical study of how societies die, the comparative examination of cases and the systematic calculation of possibilities, has barely begun. There are not, as yet, any life expectancy tables for civilizations, and the autopsies, partial and archaeological, are inconclusive about the cause of death.

Jared Diamond is a biogeographer and evolutionary psychologist at UCLA, and the author of a sweeping, relentlessly environmentalist account of the reasons for the emergence of the modern West to political and economic predominance, which sold a million copies and won a Pulitzer Prize. Richard Posner is a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit who, between opinions, has published dozens of free-fire polemics on everything from aging and public intellectuals to the rational organization of sex and the economic analysis of law. They have, as one would expect, rather different approaches to the question of social fatality.1 For Diamond, it is a gradual, cumulative affair, accelerating only toward the end when some hard-to-fix tipping point is mindlessly passed. There is a progressive misuse of the natural resources upon which the society is based to the point where collective life collapses into a self-consuming Hobbesean state of nature. For Posner, “catastrophe” is a distant, extrapolated culmination of present trends, an annihilating accident, implicit and unnoticed, waiting to happen—“a momentous tragic usually sudden event [producing] utter overthrow or ruin.”

Whether societies waste away in ecological neglect or are destroyed by foreseeable disasters they have failed to prevent, for both writers vigilance and resolve are the price of survival. Awareness is all. However much they may differ in style and method (and they occupy the poles of the social sciences—dogged, fact-thick empiricism on the one side, model-and-calculate political arithmetic on the other), these are consciousness-raising books, tracts for the time. It is later than we think. Later even than we have thought to think.


Jared Diamond formulates the problem as he sees it in the simplest and most straightforward of terms: “Why,” as his book jacket puts it, “do some societies, but not others, blunder into self-destruction?” “Why do some societies make disastrous decisions?” “What does it all mean to us today?” And he addresses it equally directly, with the most elemental, describe-and-classify sort of comparative method: the kind of approach he took in earlier works to chart the bird populations of highland New Guinea or trace the evolution of primate sexuality. Look at this, look at that; note the similarities, note the differences; find the thread, tell the story—a natural history of societal failure.

Accordingly, he sets out, in differing degrees and depth of detail and in no particular order of importance, a wide variety of particular cases, opportunistically chosen: archaic societies like Easter Island, the ancient Maya, and the Greenland Vikings, which long ago collapsed into self-produced ecological disaster; third-world emergent states like Rwanda, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic that, disorganized, mismanaged, backward, and overpopulated, are well along toward producing such an outcome for themselves; modern or modernizing civilizations, like China, Australia, and the United States, that appear at the moment to be dynamic and flourishing, but in whom the first premonitory signs of overreach, waste, decline, and ruin are beginning to appear. Then, from the evidence of these cases, he constructs a short and miscellaneous checklist of factors that together and separately “contribute” to a society’s fate: the inherent fragility of its habitat, the stability of its climate, the friendliness or hostility of its neighbors and trading partners, and, most important of all, the conclusive and decisive determinate force, “the society’s responses to its environmental problems.” Within the bounds of chance and circumstance, peoples, like individuals, make their own destiny. Choosing well or badly among policies and possibilities, they determine themselves what ultimately becomes of them.

Take Easter Island, at once the most mysterious and the most dramatic (“no other site that I have visited made such a ghostly impression on me”) of the once thriving and creative human communities that have simply died and disappeared, vanished whole and entire from the face of the earth. “The most remote habitable scrap of land in the world,” 1,300 miles away from its nearest neighbor, sixty-six square miles in area, it was, for nearly eight hundred years, about 900 to 1700 AD, home to a population, at its peak (the estimates, being based on archaeological surveys and explorers’ reports, vary widely), of anywhere from six to thirty thousand neolithic yam and taro growers.

Outliers of the great canoe-borne Polynesian civilization that spread across the southern Pacific from New Zealand to Hawaii during the first millennium of the Christian era and essentially cut off, once they had arrived and settled in, from anyone else in the world, they nevertheless managed somehow to carve hundreds of enormous stone statues, fifteen to seventy feet tall, between ten and 270 tons, and raise them to the top of great displaying platforms scattered across the whole island. Images, apparently, of ancestors, gods, or deified chiefs, these now lie toppled and broken, like so many gravestones, across a despoiled and ruined landscape—“the most extreme example of forest destruction in the Pacific…among the most extreme in the world…the whole forest gone …all of its tree species extinct.”

Just how, and by what steps, this ingenious people descended, over seven or eight centuries, into generalized disorder and, when they had cut down the last of the forest and destroyed the whole of the island’s animal life, into murder, suicide, starvation, and cannibalism is far from clear. There is only archaeological evidence—settlement sites, kitchen middens, hillside quarries, vast crematoria containing thousands of bodies and huge amounts of bone ash—to go by. Rivalry among competing chieftains (the statues get bigger and bigger over time), natural fluctuations in food resources, and epidemic disease probably all played a part, as did increasingly popular rebellion:

Easter Islanders’ toppling of their ancestral moai reminds me of Russians and Romanians toppling the statues of Stalin and Ceaus˛escu…. The islanders must have been filled with pent-up anger at their leaders for a long time…. I wonder how many of the statues were thrown down one by one at intervals, by particular enemies of a statue’s owner,…how many were instead destroyed in a quickly spreading paroxysm of anger and disillusionment, as took place at the end of communism.

In any case, the destruction was mindless, total, protracted, and self-inflicted, a lesson and a warning to the way we live now:

Easter’s isolation makes it the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources…. The parallels between [the island] and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious. Thanks to globalization, international trade, jet planes, and the Internet, all countries on earth today share resources and affect each other, just as did Easter’s dozen clans. [The island] was as isolated in the Pacific Ocean as the earth is today in space. When the Easter Islanders got into difficulties, there was nowhere to which they could flee, nor to which they could turn for help; nor shall we modern Earthlings have recourse elsewhere if our troubles increase…. [The] collapse of Easter Island society [is] a metaphor, a worst-case scenario, for what may lie ahead of us in our own future.

Diamond describes his other fallen civilizations in similarly monitory tones: so many societal memento mori, death-head reminders to the live and prospering. The pre–Puebloan Indians of the American Southwest, the fabled Anasazi “ancient ones,” built large apartment complexes, entrepôt towns, and intricate irrigation systems, but succumbed to small-scale climate shifts, land struggles, and overcrowding. The great Mayan cities of the Yucatán were strangled by declining crop yields, runaway deforestation, and a primitive transport system. And the Greenland Vikings, to whom he gives a hundred deliberate pages, disappeared, after four and a half centuries of hardscrabble persistence, in the face of narrowing habitats, disrupted trade connections, and a stubborn unwillingness to adopt Eskimo technologies. Everywhere and every time, when societies have perished they have done so through their own neglect and self-delusion. It was not their environments, however severe, that did them in; or anyway not their environments alone. It was their failure to rise to the challenges those environments posed.

With this moral in hand, Diamond then proceeds in a similarly fact-upon-fact, dogged-does-it manner to examine a miscellaneous collection of contemporary societies in adaptionist terms. The Rwanda genocide, generally attributed to “ancient hatred” tribal conflicts, is blamed instead on a Malthusian crisis: a headlong population increase that produced lethal intrafamilial tensions. Young men could not acquire farms, adult children could not leave home, farm size declined precipitously, gross inequalities engendered internecine jealousy. On the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, two scarred and impoverished third-world societies, Franco-African Haiti and Spanish-Indian Dominica, offer, side by side, a study in contrasts: the first “the poorest country in the New World, and one of the poorest in the world outside of Africa,” ruined, resourceless, a development basket case; the second still bearing the marks of a caudillo state, with a dependent, top-down economy, politicized forestry, and an artificial construction boom complete with urban traffic jams.

Australia suffers from overgrazing, “land mining,” and man-made desiccation, leading “those of us inclined to pessimism or even just to realistic sober thinking” to wonder whether the country is “doomed to a declining standard of living in a steadily deteriorating environment.” China, a “lurching giant,” big and fast-growing, and ecologically heedless, is ravaged by pollution, waste, and “the world’s largest development projects”—dams, floodings, water diversions—“all expected to cause severe environmental problems…the disruption of major ecosystem[s]…[the] uprooting [of] millions of people.”

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    Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (Norton, 1997). Richard Posner, Aging and Old Age (University of Chicago Press, 1995); Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline (Harvard University Press, 2001); Sex and Reason (Harvard University Press, 1992), The Economics of Justice (Harvard University Press, 1981).

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