No time for blogging this week but, if you don’t mind, I’m recycling some thoughts that are as depressingly topical as they were when I posted this almost exactly 3 years ago. Deja bloody vu.
They ate all the fish in the sea and all the birds in the sky. They cut down all the trees and when there was nothing left growing they possibly started eating each other. At any rate pretty soon they disappeared off the face of the earth. There is something eerie about reading Collapse by Jared Diamond as banks implode across the planet. Societies fail when they consume more than the environment can supply. Sound familiar at all?
I couldn’t face watching another episode of financial disaster last night so I went to bed before Newsnight and tucked up with a comforting tale of social catastrophes through the ages. So far I am only a third of the way through this remarkable chronicle of human folly, mismanagement and sheer bad luck but although different societies fail in their own ways they all seem to share common causes. Environmental damage resulting from over-consumption is the strongest link in the chain.
Easter Island is the most dramatic: those huge stone statues built at such great cost to the environment are all that is left of a complex society. The weaker the social structure became, the bigger the statues grew, the more the people consumed of the world around them.
As Diamond says: “The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious. Thanks to globalization, international trade, jet planes, and the Internet, all countries on Earth today share resources and affect each other, just as did Easter’s dozen clans…..if mere thousands of Easter Islanders with just stone tools and their own muscle power sufficed to destroy their environment and thereby destroyed their society, how can billions of people with metal tools and machine power now fail to do worse?”
The morning paper brings more echoes and ironies. Is the banking crisis the edge of the abyss or the jolt we need to start living within our means? The front pages are devoted to tumbling share prices. Inside there is a small story about the threatened extinction of the UK’s fish and fishing industry. We have pretty much eaten all the fish in the sea. What next?
The sub-title to Diamond’s book is How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. It’s up to us.
I’m off to cheer myself up watching Question Time.
[First posted 16 October 2008 – could have been yesterday]