Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’’ Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous poem, Ozymandius, could well describe Easter Island’s huge stone statues lining the coast of an isolated Pacific island, the sole remains of what was once one of the most ancient civilisations on earth.
Now a grassland without a plant over 3 metres high, the island used to be a lush forest of giant palm trees with a population of up to 20,000. Findings of big fish bones suggest they were harpooned far offshore using bulky canoes built from extinct trees. But grandscale deforestation, followed by soil erosion, decline of crop yields and starvation prompted mass unrest — and the end of a centralised regime headed by hereditary chiefs. The question is ‘‘What were the Easter Islanders thinking as they were cutting down the last trees?’’
This question was raised in Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, now translated into Thai by Orawan Koohacharoen Nawayuth, who also introduced his previous best-seller and Pulitzer Prize winner, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, to the Thai public a few years ago. With calamities, both natural and man-made, surrounding us on all sides, the multiple examples of societies that failed or succeeded in this hefty volume should provide plenty of food for thought. Can we curb our disasters in time or will we be sucked into a vicious cycle like those folks on Easter Island?
A professor in geography and physiology at the University of California, Los Angeles, Diamond is widely respected for his multidisciplinary breadth of knowledge. In Collapse, he deliberately broke away from conventional theories, which espouse cultural historical factors, by focusing on the repercussions of environmental elements— and the varying human responses that can make or break a society. In almost novelistic prose, Diamond gives a dizzying ride through various ancient and modern civilisations — from the Mayans to Greenlanders, to Japan, China, Rwanda, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, among others. Basically, he proposes five ‘‘sets of factors’’ that may decide the survival or downfall of a society: Environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbours, loss of trading partners and the society’s own responses to its environmental problems.
Adaptability seems to be a keyword. And the comparative case studies of the Norse and the Inuits on Greenland clearly support Diamond’s point. Despite the fragile ecosystem of Greenland, the world’s biggest island snuggled between the Arctic and Atlantic oceans and enclosed by a large ice sheet, the Norse built a predominantly northern European culture that required excessive plundering of resources. In contrast, the so-called uncivilised Inuits lived simply in temporary snow-made shelters called igloo, burned seal fat for heat and light, ate fish and ringed seal meat, which were the most reliable food sources (which the Norse refused to partake in). Four and a half centuries after their settlements, the Norse have long since vanished while the Inuit continue to thrive there.
A professed Malthusian, Diamond contends overpopulation is a root cause that can lead to the collapse of a whole society. He cites genocide in Rwanda (between the Hutu and Tutsi as well as tragic stories of intra-family killings) as stemming largely from contests over limited land resources. Intriguingly, Diamond praises the Chinese government for its population control policies, but urges them to be prepared for imminent environmental problems that he argues will be more threatening than the overpopulation issue.
Diamond also raises a challenging question: why do some societies make disastrous decisions at their own expense? One example is the importation by British immigrants of alien species like foxes and rabbits to Australia which was held responsible for subsequent massive devastation of indigenous plants and mammals on the continental island. Diamond points to the failure by human agencies to anticipate the possible impact and thus put precautionary measures into place.
Such myopic views become particularly poignant when it comes to the issue of global warming, still deemed a ‘‘myth’’ by a number of environmental sceptics. Even after the US based National Academy of Sciences reaffirmed the conclusion of the international scientific community about its possibility, a number of politicians, with support from large oil companies, continue to deny the existence, or magnitude, of the problem. Diamond explains this as a conflict between the shortterm interests of the few elite and the longterm interest of the larger public. He cites another example from Montana, US, where some mining companies shrewdly declared bankruptcy (after having bankrolled a handsome profit for their shareholders and executives), and passed on the costs of the environmental clean-up to the authorities and US taxpayers. Diamond calls this a kind of ‘‘rational bad behaviour’’ ... or, to put it bluntly, ‘‘selfishness’’.
Albeit a seemingly depressing message— it appears a lot of societies including Thailand are relentlessly marching towards self-suicide —Collapse is fundamentally optimistic in its undertone. Diamond proclaims every problem has its own solution and we can still choose between constructive alternatives and letting wars, starvation or diseases take over. In the context of globalisation and communications technologies, humans can pool their knowledge to seek solutions together. He also stresses how individual members of a society need to consider which core values are worth maintaining and which are self-destructive and should be discarded.
Diamond’s admiration for a ‘‘green tyrant’’ in the Dominican Republic sounds a bit offhand. His reflections on historical and cultural factors appear irrelevant to understanding why a dictator chooses to be pro-environment, and how forest preservation should have an impact on economical growth.
At almost 800-plus pages, the Thai version of Collapse is certainly a heavy meal, but not overtly difficult to digest. I read through the volume over a long weekend. Diamond deftly weaves a mountain of information — on history, archaeology, ecology and economy of past and present societies—into fascinating prose. And the reader-friendly price of 480 baht (with a free downloadable digital version on the publisher’s website,www.ohmygodbooks
. com) makes this book a rare gem. Hopefully, such a bold and generous move will spread the important message of Collapse to as large a circle as possible. Lest we have to face many more disasters — soon.
Writer: Cholnapa ANUKUL
Editor: Vasana Chinvarakorn
ป้ายกำกับ: collapse, disaster, jared diamond