My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Jared Diamond on Collapse

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.

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10 comments to Jared Diamond on Collapse

  • Jim

    Yes. The water situation is Sydney is that drastic and the situation is similar in many other parts of the Australian continent. At the moment there is the world’s largest desalination plant being organized for Kurnell, a coastal suburb in Sydney. Many of the residents do not want it near their houses but the state government representative says the issue is “beyond public debate”.

    “The proposed plant has been declared “critical infrastructure”, allowing it to bypass the normal approval process, so that the Government can fast-track its construction.” (Sydney Morning Herald)

    Maybe that’s what they also said on Easter Island.

    A great book on the subject of how humans manage to waste their environment over and over again is “The Future Eaters” (1994) by Dr. Tim Flannery-

    “We are all Future Eaters. Together we’ve so upset the balance of life here that we threaten the very land that support us and through that our own survival.”

  • when I used to live in parts where there were lots of aussi’s and kiwi’s, I was always impressed by their tenacity for water-conservation. My friends would wash dishes just so, use the dishwasher only on economy and only when it’s chock full of dishes, insist on making sure all the taps were off, pester me to turn off my water tap while i am brushing my teeth and glare at me for very long showers (if you are gonna spend half an hour in the shower, take a bath instead! one of them told me once). It was both amusing and a little instructive – they have grown up in an area of the world where water was not a given and, at some point not too long, experienced a drought. In the US, they conserved both out of habit and belief even though we were renting and none of us actually paid for the amount of water used (besides, there were 6-ft tall snow banks outside).

  • Professor Diamond’s work is truly amazing. I’m waiting for the soft cover version of Collapse (I’m running out of book space). I tore through his Guns Germs and Steel and it had a direct impact on some of the work I’m involved in at the moment, forwarding the concept of structural racism in progressive justice philanthropy. Basically SR is a systemic analysis of racism moving away from the tired notion of individual racial animus and race relations and looking at the relationships of institutions and structures that are at the root of and perpetuate inequality. Diamond’s view of history is one of a wave of “natural ordering” in which white Western Europeans got the luck of the draw by virtue of favorable geography, and natural resources, etc. that gave them the advantage and allowed them to colonize the world. I would add that it doesn’t stop there, that just as the world has “ordered” us we continue to order the world (eachother) within racial, ethnic, and cultural hierarchies. The answer to Yali’s question is also the answer to why we have large swathes of concentrated poverty in the U.S. That its not a matter of individual responisbility or innate ability but the result of a mass, spatial ordering of people. I initailly made this comment at the Applied Research Center’s Race and Public Policy Conference at UC Berkeley to noted civil rights scholar john powell (he also spells his name in lower case) Professor powell is the director of the Kirwan Institute for Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. He is also an admirer of Diamond’s work as it is not just a recounting of our pre-history but a reflection of our current global situtation. He’s one of the leading thinkers on structural and spatial racism and I’m thrilled to be working with him on these issues.

    Anyway, I caught your wonderful essay on The Best Software Writing vol.I and stumbled upon your blog. I’m a librarian/grantmaker for the Open Society Institute working on social justice and civil rights philanthropy and proselytizing the need for our progressive justice movment to embrace the social life of information!

    ‘Nuff Respect!
    -Noel Pinero

  • If you’re interested in water, you should talk to Antonia Hirsch and ask her about her maps.

  • Australia chapter is the most worrisome in the book. I have reviewed it at length about a month ago on my blog.

  • Thanks for blogging the talk! I thought about coming up from Palo Alto but saw that it was admission-fee-optional and it would probably be full very early.

  • Murray

    Australia does have a water problems but Jared Diamond is exagerating it. Australia is a dry country that has regular droughts. Sometimes long, sometimes short. At the moment Melbourne’s water reservoirs are 52% full and water restrictions are in place. This means that you cant wash your driveway or water your lawn between 10am and 6pm. However there is still plenty of water for farming, drinking, pools etc.

    There is no crisis.

  • Gringo Goiano

    Mr. Jared Diamond (author of that interesting “Collapse” book) suffers from a lack of imagination. He should be wildly optimistic about the future of humanity.

    Mr. Diamond shows in his book that the Norwegians in Greenland never ate fish even though they were plentiful. Had they maintained this cultural habit from the homeland, or re-learned it from the competing Inuit, they might have survived a few hundred more years till the Little Ice Age retreated and then I’d be writing this in some Norwegian dialect. Their stupid taboo has doomed me to write this in English instead.

    Mr. Diamond also talks about the current drought in Australia, and the continuing devastation wrought by those pesky wabbits the colonists introduced hundreds of years ago that take the precious pasture from that most favorite of all Australian animals, the sheep. When full-time drought and famine strike Australia and the rest of the world, and the Americans, Chinese, Australians, Indians, and sheep all eat each other
    and die, the aboriginal population will survive on those wonderful rabbits and come in time to dominate the world. They’ll spread out from their current base of Australia and the highlands of New Guinea, reclaim Southeast Asia, spread west and
    north into Eurasia, Africa, make it to the New New World, and dominate.

    In the mean time, the last copy of Mr. Diamond’s book will burn along with many others in a Parisian library in some riot over confiscated cheese, and much of Western Thought and Civilization will then be lost forever.

    … and so it goes, the chasing after the wind, nothingness in newness under the sun. Introduced foreign species have a role, and kudzu and rabbits will be pivotal in the next surge of civilization. Count on it. The future belongs to the aborigines , New Guineans, and the East Timorese.

  • I would recommend to read that book. It deserves an excellent mark.

  • Alex

    I really enjoyed Jared Diamonds book, we only had to read part II for my upper level history class. I dont really agree with him that the world will suffer the same fate as easter island or the mayans or anasazi but i still think its a great book. One thing that should be on peoples mind is that we all need to take care of our world, we are all brothers and sisters.

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