Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Learning from our mistakes: a review of Jared Diamond’s book Collapse

I am getting towards the end of a fantastic book: ‘Collapse,’ by Jared Diamond (who is also the author of one of my all-time favourite books, ‘Guns, Germs and Steel.’) 

Collapse is both a historical discussion of past societies that have collapsed due to the environmental damage they caused, and a forward-looking discussion of how to utilise what we know about the past to prevent similar things happening in the future. Like ‘Guns, Germs’, Collapse draws upon Diamond’s wealth of knowledge across a wide range of disciplines as diverse as ornithology, anthropology, social psychology and marine biology. It is written with the wise perspective of someone who ‘sits outside of time’ and is able to place today’s problems in the context of what has happened in the past and may happen in the long-term future.

Collapse is primarily concerned with environmental problems. It recounts how the once thriving population of remote Easter Island continued to fell their trees until there were none left. The knock-on effects were devastating for their society, as agriculture failed and the population shrank to a fraction of its former size through starvation and violence. The Anasazi Indians and Greenland Norse perished in a similar way because they failed to anticipate the effects of their mining and farming on the environment. But it is not all bleak tales of failure. Diamond describes several positive stories of proactive response. For example, the Tokugawa shoguns of Japan realised that land was being used unsustainably and instituted wide-ranging laws which successfully reversed the damage.

Diamond analyses the reasons why some societies failed and others survived, and how the decision-making apparatus of various societies proved disastrous or essential for their prosperity. He goes on to relate this analysis to environmental problems today, in a discussion that every government today should make note of.

His writing reminded me of the disastrous way we as a society seem to fail to learn from our mistakes, not just ecological ones but in many walks of life. This year is the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic – and yet we still manage to have an unthinkable maritime tragedy, the sinking of the Costa Concordia, caused by navigational error combined with failure to evacuate a ship safely. 2008 saw the collapse of Lehman Brothers, which was directly related to the use of ‘off-balance sheet’ finance mechanisms that should have been prevented following the failure of Enron (for structurally similar reasons) in 2001.

A failure to learn from the past seems to be an all-too-common feature of both historic and modern societies, but in Jared Diamond’s book we have an excellent tool to help us adopt thought-processes and decision-making processes that are more robust and less prone to failure. If every decision-maker was as keen to learn from historical mistakes as Diamond is, the world would be considerably better off.

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