Last night, the Long Now Foundation hosted Jared Diamond to speak about his new book Collapse. In OCD fashion, i convinced two of my friends to leave at 5:15 for the 7:30 talk and i’m glad i did because only a very small fraction of those who showed up got in.
The talk was fantastic – he discussed how societies collapsed in the past, using a set of case studies to analyze different factors. The emphasis of the talk was on how societies who use up all of their resources fail. He spoke of Easter Island (which deforested itself to cannibalism and eventually extinction) and the natural experiment of Haiti vs. Dominican Republic. Amidst all of the stories of failed societies, he discussed how Japan saved itself from deforestation and extinction.
Throughout it, he kept making jabs at our current political state and how we are (globally) headed to a very very bad place. At one point, he rattled off a set of possible statements that the Easter Islanders might have said when they cut down the last tree. I can’t recap them perfectly, but they were hysterical… something like “well, there might be tree elsewhere that we don’t know about yet” and “science will find an alternate to trees shortly” and “God gave us these trees for our own use” and “this is my property, i have the right to do what i want with my own trees.” We all giggled nervously.
One bit of data really got to me. He said that there is a dreadful drought going on in Australia right now and Sydney is rapidly using up its water reserves. He argued that Australia has 12-20 months to figure out its water solution or things are going to get really bad. I don’t know how true this is, but it really hit home. And why do Southern Californians water their lawns?
There were lots of interesting questions, but on the way home, my friend Aaron proposed a question that i really wish i knew the answer to. How did people react to the warning of a collapse? Were there situations in which scientists knew it was coming and no one would listen? [This is the fundamentally the Flatland question.]
Anyhow, the lecture was really stimulating and it was sooo fantastic to see so many familiar faces out even though most of my friends were turned away. Unfortunately, while Diamond identifies as a cautious optimist, suggesting that we can learn from this situation and right it, i don’t have that faith in systems of power. I think that we are more likely to self-destruct than to wake up and rid ourselves of our blind faith that everything will be fixed. But then again, i always did believe that man is basically evil, much to the chagrin of my 9th grade English teacher.