Jared Diamond, author of Collapse, gives an interesting talk in TED regarding the reasons why societies collapse. In this talk he describes the story of the Norse society in Greenland which went extinct. He describes a 5 point framework he uses to examine the collapse of human societies:
- Human Impact On The Environment
- Climate Change
- Relationships With Neighboring Friendly Societies
- Relationships With Hostile Societies
- Political/Economic/Cultural/Social Factors
One of Professor Diamond’s controversial statements in the talk relates to the tendency for societies to collapse in a rapid fashion:
7:47 One interesting common thread has to do with, in many cases, the rapidity of collapse after a society has reached its peak. There are many societies that don’t wind down gradually but they build up, get rich and more powerful, and then within a short time within a few decades after they have peaked, they collapse.
Professor Diamond’s talk is a timely one especially in light of the economic crisis gripping the globe now and the troubles hitting First World societies in the United States and Europe.
An ecologist, evolutionary biologist and professor of geography and physiology at UCLA, Diamond takes an approach that goes beyond culture and into the impact it has on the environment. As Malcolm Gladwell observes, “Diamond’s distinction between social and biological survival is a critical one, because too often we blur the two.” Diamond’s ability to tackle daunting questions (and pose unsettling answers) in a straightforward voice may be reason enough to share his optimism that recognizing a problem paves the way for solving it.
Going back to his talk, at one point Professor Diamond makes an excellent point about the relationship of values and the consequent collapse of society:
13:37 The other generalization that I want to mention is that it’s particularly hard for a society to make ‘good decisions’ when there is a conflict involving strongly held values that are held good in many circumstances, but are poor in other circumstances.
For example, the Greenland Norse in this difficult environment were held together by for four and half centuries by their sheer commitment to religion and by their strong social cohesion. But those two things: commitment to religion and strong social cohesion also made it difficult for them to change at the end.
Although religion continues its influence in the present time, the best analog to the Norse situation in the present societies in the U.S. and Europe is the strongly held but conflicting beliefs relating to Capitalism and Free Markets–undeniably the locus of today’s crisis. Whether governments should be more active or less active in market dynamics is the strongly debated belief. Understanding this belief in the context of Diamond’s framework might be helpful in seeing a solution to the societal collapse being predicted (as we featured recently by Schiff, Rogers, and co.).
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