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The Collapse of Societies

By Neil Turner, 12/01/2019

By now, the entire world is aware of the historic and unprecedented events occurring in the United States.  It seems trite to characterize these events as an aberration that will soon pass over. Even more striking, it seems these events will have far-reaching, long-term, damaging effects on not only the Constitution of the United States but the fundamental institutions that uphold the structure of democracy in the U.S. While in South America, the countries of Bolivia, Chile, Venezuela, and Ecuador are literally on fire – people are revolting in the streets. In some of these countries, a war against right-wing authoritarian political leadership is taking place while in others famine and starvation are ravishing the country, society, and people. Many people think this is normal for Latin American countries but at this point, we also see political clashes, riots and anti-government protests in Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Ukraine, and Greece as well.

For some time now, both European and American scholars have been sounding the alarm about how capitalistic societies are reaching the limits of their functionality and that a certain type of decline has set in leaving societies dysfunctional and deteriorating. One such intellectual is Professor Jared Diamond of UCLA who developed a framework for analyzing the trajectory of societies and the factors that contribute to their decline and extinction. Now, this is not some sort of conspiracy theory but based on scientific research, archeological proof, and historical fact. Apparently, Professor Diamond developed a hierarchical table based on the research of several societies such as the Mayan, Easter Islanders, the Fertile Crescent and several other ancient and modern societies in which he describes and analyzes the impacts of certain factors.

Some readers may be wondering why this is important? The answer, time is much shorter than we may think. Therefore, according to Professor Diamond, within a few decades, we will have to decide between two courses of action: 1) to resolve these non-sustainable issues in ways of our own choosing by taking action; or 2) these issues will resolve themselves in devastating ways not of our own choice but by war, disease or starvation. What is certain is the resolution of some of these societal problems will occur within a short period of less than five decades.

In describing this process, Professor Diamond states five characteristics influence a society’s decline. For example, there are human impacts on the environment, climate change, relations with friendly neighboring societies, relations with hostile societies, and political, economic, social and cultural attitudes. Further, he argues that some societies develop without any major signs of collapse while others are more fragile. In the context of discussing his theory, he states all societies have different details but they also have common “threads.” Perhaps, the most notable common thread is societies collapse after they reach their peaks and that some societies do not decline gradually but build up to a peak and then suddenly crash within a few short decades. One such example is the old Soviet Union. In addition, he concludes that rapid collapses occur by a mismatch between available resources and resource consumption or a mismatch between economic outlays and economic potential. There are also environmental factors that make some societies more fragile than others such as deterioration of the environment due to pollution or toxic waste.

The foregoing clarifications go some way toward proving his theories but there is one overarching question that seems to follow his work. Basically, the question has to do with why societies fail to resolve their problems. In other words, why do societies fail to perceive their problems; or if they perceive them why they fail to tackle them; and if they tackle them, why they fail to succeed in solving them? There are a number of more specific reasons but one principle area is a conflict of interests between the short-term interests of decision-making elites and the long-term interests of the society as a whole especially if the elites are able to insulate themselves against the consequences of their actions. In the U.S., for example, elites are able to insulate themselves through a bevy of privileges that the majority of the society can not access. More directly, they create economic situations that are good for them in the short run but bad for society as a whole such as the 2008 economic crash of Wall Street that drained trillions of dollars out of the U.S. economy.

A second clarificatory point introduces the difficulty for a society to make good decisions when there is a general conflict involving strongly held values that are good in some circumstances but poor for other circumstances. Such an example would be strong religious commitments or strongly held concepts of societal cohesion. Some characteristics make it difficult for some societies to change with the times and adapt to new situations. The basic premise is how difficult it is to change course when the things that get a society in trouble are the things that are also the source of their strength.

For Professor Diamond, the present course is a non-sustainable course and resolution is not one single thing but a series of things that all must be resolved. The issues concerning water, soil, climate change, invasive species, the photo-synthetic ceiling, population problems, toxins and etc., are problems the most of which have a fuse of not more than fifty years while a few have fuses of just a couple of decades. The good news is all of these problems are of our own making and since we made the problems, we should also be able to solve them.

Jared Diamond. (2003).TED Talks.

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