Jared Diamond’s Talk on "Collapse"

I had planned to attend Jared Diamond’s lecture at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) on Saturday, but unfortunately it was sold out — not a problem that I had anticipated. I tried, but I couldn’t wangle a ticket, which is rare for me; I normally can work something out, even in tough situations.

I have watched a number of Diamond’s talks on YouTube as to how and why societies collapse, as his thinking is so relevant to the state of our civilization. Here’s a short presentation he gave in 2003 as part of the TED Talks. I highly recommend investing the required 20 minutes.

Diamond has conducted numerous detailed examinations of civilizations that have met their doom and concludes a few things, notably that there is no single cause common to them all. “Anyone who tells you that they’ve identified a uniform factor for societies’ collapsing is an idiot,” he states bluntly.

There are, however, five themes that persist through all his investigations. I won’t give away the punch-line, nor will I provide my opinion as to how near or far the U.S. in the 21st Century is from breakdown; I’ll let you judge that for yourself from the content of the talk.

OK, I’ll give you a hint. The first one is people’s destroying their environment, i.e., inadvertently destroying the resource base on which they depend. The second is climate change; over the period of the past few thousand years on which Diamond has focused, societies’ local climate has gotten colder, hotter, wetter, drier, etc. Think about those first two for a moment: Is there any sense in which we’ve wrenched ourselves into a corner here?

I will, however, tell you that he (and I, for what that’s worth) do not conclude that despair is in order. Our problems, though they are many, are of our own making, and we’re capable of undoing what we’ve done. Diamond says, and I paraphrase, “The world will not end by being hit by a gigantic asteroid, or from some other cause over which we have no control. Though there are pessimists, I draw the opposite conclusion; we ourselves have caused the threats we face, and we have the power, if we are able to muster it, to make them go away.”

OK, we have the capability to reverse the past and unwind the mess we’ve made. No argument there; there is no doubt that we can solve the problems we’ve created. And yes, the issue is a matter of will and whether or not we can muster it. But how safe does that make you feel?

Again, please check out this marvelous talk.

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