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On The Collapse of Complex Societies 461

Posted by Hemos
from the this-the-way-the-world-ends dept.
One of the mailing lists that I'm on had a great short essay about the disastrous decision that societies can make - and their consequences. The author is Jared Diamond, who also wrote Guns, Germs and Steel (First Slashdot book review was that book), and is still one of the most interesting books I've read in a while.
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On The Collapse of Complex Societies

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 28, 2003 @01:52PM (#5826285)
    One butterfly flapping its wings cannot lead to the destruction of the sun. Nature has built in redundancy. So do human societies. Diamond's book (Guns Germ and Steel) is a hodgepodge of deterministic gibberish.
    • by Dyolf Knip (165446) on Monday April 28, 2003 @02:38PM (#5826877) Homepage
      The probability that a butterfly's actions could cause critical damage to a star is so low as to be totally impossible (i.e., a trllion stars could last a trillion years without it ever happnening once), but that probability is still non-zero. You familiar with the notion that the air in a room might evacuate itself under no force other than a freak concerted motion of the constituent molecules? Same principle. I find it just _slightly_ unlikely that butterfly wings could precipitate a storm that would blow half the atmosphere towards the sun at relativistic speeds, but there's no reason why it couldn't happen.
    • Weather does appear to be chaotic. Weather influences when people make love. Even a small change in position, much less timing, will alter what sperm gets to the egg first. A small change, therefore, can and will lead to an entirely different generation being born later. If that doesn't affect a society, I don't know what will.

      Climate is what we expect; weather is what we get. A butterfly flapping its wings doesn't change spring into fall, but it can change sun into rain and vice versa - changes take plac

    • Yeah, the guy definitely has a leftist axe to grind. "Failure of group decision-making" my ass. The man has definitely never held down a Real Job like the rest of us do (think Office Space here). Biological organisms simply grow to the limit of their resources and then die off. Ever seen a petri dish?
    • One butterfly flapping its wings cannot lead to the destruction of the sun. Nature has built in redundancy. So do human societies. Diamond's book (Guns Germ and Steel) is a hodgepodge of deterministic gibberish.

      The butterfly doesn't CAUSE the destruction of the sun. The conditions exist that it is possible and the butterfly is the proverbial straw (or first domino).
    • by blamanj (253811) on Monday April 28, 2003 @02:52PM (#5827105)
      I don't recall butterflies being mentioned in "Guns, Germs, & Steel." Perhaps I missed it.

      The point of the book, in case you missed it, is that the classic argument (they're savages, we're civilized) is not a scientific approach to the question of why certain achievements occurred in Eurasia rather than Africa, the Americas, or Oceania.

      In fact, the arguments are not deterministic. The advantages that peoples had on a particular continent did not a priori determine their success, but does provide an explanation for why some societies could "advance" more rapidly than others.
      • One other interesting point that the book discusses: why were Indians so affected by European diseases, but not vice versa? The book provides a clear, rational reason. It's truly an excellent read (or listen if you are into BOT).
    • by coyote-san (38515) on Monday April 28, 2003 @02:55PM (#5827142)
      If you actually study attractors in nonlinear dynamic systems, what's popularly called "chaos theory," you'll see that what you actually have are quasi-stable attractors surrounded by regions of long-term unpredictability.

      If you're near an attractor, it will take a lot to dislodge you from near that attractor. A butterfly flapping its wings won't cause a hurricane, but a volcano erupting on the other side of the plant might.

      But what people usually forget is that there can be multiple attractors, and if you're not that close to one attractor it may not take much to push you over the edge to another attractor.

      That's what happened at Easter Island. Cutting down the first tree caused no harm. Saving the last tree wouldn't have prevented the massive population crash. The details would have been changed in each case, but in a century you would still have ended up with a heavily forested island or a stripped one.

      But during a long period in the middle they could have changed the outcome *in either direction* by seemingly small changes. That's the chaotic realm - it was impossible to where any simple change would lead. What's the consequences of cutting down a single tree? What if it's used to shore up the ground in the forest it came from?

      What does that mean to us today? That we need to be careful since we're clearly in a chaotic realm and we can't predict the long term consequences of our actions. Some of this is due to natural variability (e.g., did you realize that it's been an unusually long time since a massive volcanic eruption, and that alone has driven global warming to a large extent?), some of it is due to human neglect (overfishing, agricultural monoculturism). Some of our problems are due to prior solutions - our artificial fertilizers prevented global starvation in the late 19th century but has now spread throughout the entire biosphere, resulting in plant growth and algae blooms even far from human activities.

      N.B., that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to change policies that will push us back to a desirable attractor. It means that there's no "final answer"... and that the consequences if we fail can be disasterous. It's not like we haven't had clear warnings (Easter Island, the Irish potato famine, smallpox ripping through the new world or syphillis (IIRC) through the old one.)
      • Cutting down the first tree caused no harm. Saving the last tree wouldn't have prevented the massive population crash. The details would have been changed in each case, but in a century you would still have ended up with a heavily forested island or a stripped one.

        But during a long period in the middle they could have changed the outcome *in either direction* by seemingly small changes. That's the chaotic realm - it was impossible to where any simple change would lead.


        I disagree that this is chaotic. I
    • Sure it can.

      1) Butterfly flaps wings leads to a very bad rainstorm three years later where there would have been nicer weather.
      2) Rainstorm keeps scientist indoors. (His office is on a marshy area which floods easily.)
      3) Scientist, frustrated with not being able to get to his lab, decides to try and work on a form of controlling his lab remotely.
      4) After he decides to stick with it, the idea, once implemented, becomes a key idea and is used heavily in gravity technology.
      5) The gravity technology is used to
    • by 2RockStars (81005) on Monday April 28, 2003 @03:03PM (#5827259) Homepage

      I read the book, and I didn't find any "butterfly effect"-style determinism in it. Diamond's explanations for why civilizations rise and fall seem perfectly sensible to me. Would you seriously suggest that a civilization that was lucky enough to rise in an area blessed with an order of magnitude greater arable land (Eurasia) than another (Australia) would have a harder time developing a leisure class, with its concomitant art and science? What might explain it, then? Racial superiority? Manifest destiny?

      Guns, Germs, and Steel doesn't nitpick particular instances in history and say, "This is where everything else inevitably sprang from." Diamond's book simply says: People tend to go where food is. If there's enough food, they stay, forming a mass. Masses of people tend to interact in interesting ways, producing culture. Positive feedback loops tend to develop. Cultures that miss out on the effects of the feedback tend to be dominated in the future. That's a powerful enough set of axioms to explain a great deal of history, without being mechanistic enough that it claims to determine how history will unroll into the future. Note the emphasis on large-scale aggregations of humans, long time scales, large land areas, etc. in the book. No butterflies required. Plenty of room for free humans to try and leave their mark in history.

  • by mao che minh (611166) on Monday April 28, 2003 @01:52PM (#5826288) Journal
    Slashdot: On The Collapse of Complex Web Servers
    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 28, 2003 @01:59PM (#5826354)

      WHY DO SOME SOCIETIES MAKE DISASTROUS DECISIONS?: JARED DIAMOND

      Education is supposed to be about teachers imparting knowledge to students. As every teacher knows, though, if you have a good group of students, education is also about students imparting knowledge to their supposed teachers and challenging their assumptions. That's an experience that I've been through in the last couple of months, when for the first time in my academic career I gave a course to undergraduates, highly motivated UCLA undergraduates, on collapses of societies. Why is it that some societies in the past have collapsed while others have not? I was discussing famous collapses such as those of the Anasazi in the U.S. Southwest, Classic Maya civilization in the Yucatan, Easter Island society in the Pacific, Angkor Wat in southeast Asia, Great Zimbabwe in Africa, Fertile Crescent societies, and Harappan Indus Valley societies. These are all societies that we've realized, from archaeological discoveries in the last 20 years, hammered away at their own environments and destroyed themselves in part by undermining the environmental resources on which they depended.

      For example, the Easter Islanders, Polynesian people, settled an island that was originally forested, and whose forests included the world's largest palm tree. The Easter Islanders gradually chopped down that forest to use the wood for canoes, firewood, transporting statues, raising statues, and carving and also to protect against soil erosion. Eventually they chopped down all the forests to the point where all the tree species were extinct, which meant that they ran out of canoes, they could no longer erect statues, there were no longer trees to protect the topsoil against erosion, and their society collapsed in an epidemic of cannibalism that left 90 percent of the islanders dead. The question that most intrigued my UCLA students was one that hadn't registered on me: how on Earth could a society make such an obviously disastrous decision as to cut down all the trees on which they depended? For example, my students wondered, what did the Easter Islanders say as they were cutting down the last palm tree? Were they saying, think of our jobs as loggers, not these trees? Were they saying, respect my private property rights? Surely the Easter Islanders, of all people, must have realized the consequences to them of destroying their own forest. It wasn't a subtle mistake. One wonders whether -- if there are still people left alive a hundred years from now -- people in the next century will be equally astonished about our blindness today as we are today about the blindness of the Easter Islanders.

      This question, why societies make disastrous decisions and destroy themselves, is one that not only surprised my UCLA undergraduates, but also astonishes professional historians studying collapses of past societies. The most cited book on the subject of the collapse of societies is by the historian, Joseph Tainter. It's entitled The Collapse of Complex Societies. Joseph Tainter, in discussing ancient collapses, rejected the possibility that those collapses might be due to environmental management because it seemed so unlikely to him. Here's what Joseph Tainter said: "As it becomes apparent to the members or administrators of a complex society that a resource base is deteriorating, it seems most reasonable to assume that some rational steps are taken towards a resolution. With their administrative structure and their capacity to allocate labor and resources, dealing with adverse environmental conditions may be one of the things that complex societies do best. It is curious that they would collapse when faced with precisely those conditions that they are equipped to circumvent." Joseph Tainter concluded that the collapses of all these ancient societies couldn't possibly be due to environmental mismanagement, because they would never make these bad mistakes. Yet it's now clear that they did make these bad mistakes.

      My UCLA undergraduates, and Joseph Tainter as well, ha
      • Whenever somebody posts the content then the article is available. However when there is no "mirror", then the site is not available, is this bad luck or just a natural consequence of having the mirror?

        Go calculate [webcalc.net] something

        • If you do not post the content, then EVERYONE on slashdot attempts to go to the website. This crashes their server, so the site becomes unavailable.

          It is a known effect - if you want to tremondously increase your web site hits, post an article about it on slashdot.

  • Jared Diamond (Score:3, Interesting)

    by killerfocus (413472) on Monday April 28, 2003 @01:55PM (#5826307) Homepage Journal
    I go to UCLA and had the unique opportunity to study Guns, Germs, and Steel among other books with Jeffery Miller, pre-eminent microbiologist. A highlight was a guest discussion with Jared. The depth and breadth of his knowledge is amazing, and he is, in my professors words "a national treasure."
    • by Anonymous Coward
      he is, in my professors words "a national treasure."


      Quick! Harvest him before someone else does.
  • Damn... (Score:4, Funny)

    by asparagus (29121) <koonce@NospaM.gmail.com> on Monday April 28, 2003 @01:55PM (#5826317) Homepage Journal
    The adage popular then was that students who got A's did the technical work, while people who managed only C's wound up running things.

    That this adage may no longer hold true seems like progress.


    After all those years of hard work, getting ready to rule the world, they switch the rules of the game just as I leave!
    • Re:Damn... (Score:3, Funny)

      by mcmonkey (96054)
      Nope, now folks who got As run things, while people who managed only Cs get to wave at the cameras and say things like, "I think anybody who doesn't think I'm smart enough to handle the job is underestimating"

      God bless America!
    • by hey (83763)
      Er, look at the guy in the Whitehouse.
      And at the helm of Microsoft.
  • Stupid decisions? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by sulli (195030) *
    Like guarding the Oil Ministry while letting the National Museum, Library, and more fall to looters? [nytimes.com] If that isn't dumbass, not to mention tragic in its disregard for the whole world's cultural heritage, I don't know what is.
    • The National Musem never fed anyone; it was a luxury item. Oil Fields can feed all of Iraq; it's the company's meal ticket.

      • Re:Stupid decisions? (Score:4, Interesting)

        by JoeBuck (7947) on Monday April 28, 2003 @02:22PM (#5826600) Homepage

        Wrong: the National Museum drew scholars from all around the world, and in a free society, would be a major tourist attraction. All that money coming in feeds people.

        Studies have shown, for example, that New York's art museums contribute far more to New York's economy than all its sports teams combined.

        • Studies have shown, for example, that New York's art museums contribute far more to New York's economy than all its sports teams combined.>

          That just means they aren't charging enough for Yankees games.
      • The National Musem never fed anyone; it was a luxury item.

        Wow. I suppose you know for a fact that there were no ancient manuscripts describing a cure for cancer or some other technological advance (witness scientists discovering wireless transmission of electricity that Nicolai Tesla documented) in that library?

        And how did you know it never fed or would never feed anyone? Do you mean to say that there would be no researchers who would pay good money to live in Baghdad studying those treasures? How abo

      • by pmz (462998)
        Oil Fields can feed all of Iraq; it's the company's meal ticket.

        Halliburton's?

  • Hmmmmm..... (Score:3, Funny)

    by airrage (514164) on Monday April 28, 2003 @01:56PM (#5826323) Homepage Journal
    First of all, a group may fail to anticipate a problem before the problem actually arrives.
    -- My girlfriend and I will be together forever.
    Secondly, when the problem arrives, the group may fail to perceive the problem.
    -- She is not interested in other guys, we are simply growing closer.
    Then, after they perceive the problem, they may fail even to try to solve the problem.
    -- Her dating other guys is simply a cry for more attention.
    Finally, they may try to solve it but may fail in their attempts to do so.
    -- I will win her back with chocolates and poetry.
    • by travdaddy (527149) <travoNO@SPAMlinuxmail.org> on Monday April 28, 2003 @02:05PM (#5826404)
      First of all, a group may fail to anticipate a problem before the problem actually arrives.
      -- My girlfriend and I will be together forever.


      If you were trying to make an example that other Slashdotters would understand through their own experience... you failed. :)
    • First of all, a group may fail to anticipate a problem before the problem actually arrives.
      -- My girlfriend and I will be together forever.
      Secondly, when the problem arrives, the group may fail to perceive the problem.
      -- She is not interested in other guys, we are simply growing closer.
      Then, after they perceive the problem, they may fail even to try to solve the problem.
      -- Her dating other guys is simply a cry for more attention.
      Finally, they may try to solve it but may fail in their attempts to do so
  • Individuals do.

    Society is the aggregation of the decisions we make as individuals.

    • by Jerf (17166) on Monday April 28, 2003 @02:19PM (#5826554) Journal
      Society is the aggregation of the decisions we make as individuals.

      That's more true now than it has been for most of our history. On some level that's always true, but I doubt keeping Saddam in power was truly the will of the Iraqi people.

      A lot of factors, not least of which is governmental power being vested in a few or even one person, bend the decisions the "society" would make if it was in some hypothetical "pure" state. (I personally interpret Arrow's Theorum to imply that there is no such thing as one clear "voice of the society" no matter how you slice it. YMMV, but it's not an unreasonable corrolary.)

      But even now it's not completely true. The closest thing to a pure "society is the aggregation of decisions we make as individuals" would be a pure democracy, which breaks down and forms a tyranny of the majority.

      The aggregations of decisions we make as individuals has an impact, but in the final analysis if Jack T. Ass, owner of a large logging interest, decides to clear cut a county in Montana and does it before the law (i.e., "the rest of us") even notices, then the environmental damage has occurred, regardless of how the rest of the individuals feel about it.
    • by Beryllium Sphere(tm) (193358) on Monday April 28, 2003 @02:46PM (#5827026) Homepage Journal
      Groups have emergent properties that you can't predict by looking at individuals.

      A mob doesn't act like an individual multiplied by a thousand. Any single person who acted like one one-thousandth of a mob would be institutionalized.

      One generality about large organizations is that they're inflexible. They're like computer programs -- they may perform well or poorly at the problem they're designed for, but give them unexpected input or a novel situation and they crash.

      William Livingston wrote an interesting book about this in 1988, called "Have Fun At Work". He points out that when you toss a complex problem at a system that doesn't know how to deal with it, some predictable malfunctions happen. One is that the real problem becomes taboo for discussion. Another is that all proposed actions make the problem worse. Want examples? Consider the "War on Drugs", or your workplace.

      The cure he proposes is to implement tightly coupled feedback cycles. For example, one software company bills its business units for the tech support calls that come in about the software they produce.

      I'd also suggest keeping organizations small enough that it's tolerable for them to die. One of the advantages of real capitalism would be that when (not if) a company fails to adapt to change, it ceases to exist. An extreme version of this point of view was Jefferson's idea that there should be a revolution every twenty years.
    • of course, they do (Score:3, Insightful)

      by g4dget (579145)
      Computers make decisions. Ants make decisions. People make decisions. Each of them is a complex system that takes actions based on input data. Societies are no different.

      When Bush was elected, or when Bush attacked Iraq, or when the health care plan was shot down, or when more money got allocated to prisons than crime prevention, those were "decisions that society made".

      By your reasoning, we should say that "people don't make decisions, neurons do". But that's an unnecessarily narrow definition of

  • was telling one girl that another had sex with her football star boyfriend...
  • It's simple (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Sabalon (1684)
    People are basically selfish assholes. As time goes on, they think more and more about themselves and less about how their actions impact others. As society gets more complex and has more technology, this is amplified - now instead of being an asshole in my own little area, I can be a much bigger asshole and affect more people. ("Gee...I don't see a problem with speakers that'll rattle a whole city block.")

    Raises stress, causes more tension and then boom.

    At least that's my take...think I may be a bit t
    • Re:It's simple (Score:3, Interesting)

      by sigep_ohio (115364)
      I think that points to the conclusion that Humans are social and selfish in nature. We need a social environment or we all kinda go crazy, yet individually we are extremely selfish looking only at what is good for ourselves and not anyone else.

      Personally I don't think it is necesarily technology that has amplified this, but the increased number of people. We are much more crowded today than in years past, and in many areas it isn't going to get any better. People need space from each other, but more and
    • Yes, people are assholes, but what did you expect when you woke up this morning? That six billion people with distinct socio-economic situations and egos were waiting anxiously to find out what Sabalon wanted from them?

      This is what makes being human so frickin' cool. We have these traits that have been given to us by way of evolution. We're self-centered, because nature has taught us that no one else is going to look out for #1 quite like ourselves. But paradoxically, we expect everyone around us to yield

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 28, 2003 @02:01PM (#5826375)
    The Easter Islanders gradually chopped down that forest to use the wood for canoes, firewood, transporting statues, raising statues, and carving and also to protect against soil erosion. Eventually they chopped down all the forests to the point where all the tree species were extinct, which meant that they ran out of canoes, they could no longer erect statues, there were no longer trees to protect the topsoil against erosion, and their society collapsed in an epidemic of cannibalism that left 90 percent of the islanders dead.

    But for the 10% of slacker, cannibalistic, sun worshipping Easter Islanders this was a golden age.
  • Fisheries. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Lemmy Caution (8378) on Monday April 28, 2003 @02:01PM (#5826379) Homepage
    Fisheries are being depleted around the planet. In each case that the problem is identified ahead of time, the local fishing industry mobilizes to prevent restrictions on their own fishing. They always find some other cause to blame for the loss of fish populations - in Japan, they blame it on whale protection laws; in the Maritime Provinces of Canada, they blamed it on environmental policies. In no case did they accept overfishing as responsible, until it was too late.

    Now, the North Sea fisheries are facing the same threat. And predictably, the fishing industries their are in deep denial, insisting that quotas on fishing "threaten their way of life." A group of former fishers from New Brunswick actually travelled to the UK to testify that, in fact, it was quite conceivable that overfishing was responsible, and to beg the British fishing industry to not be as stupid as they had been.

    I think this is the key to poor decision making in groups - it's group-delusion, strengthened by fear of challenging group consensus, and fed by short-term self-interest.
    • Re:Fisheries. (Score:3, Interesting)

      i am adding this because you made specific reference to the Maritime Provinces of Canada.

      to be factual, the resident inshore fishery had identified the problem and made moves to restrict THEIR fishing patterns.

      however, our federal gov't. did not see fit (or maybe they simply couldn't) to impose the same restrictions on foreign factory vessels, sitting just outside canadian waters, but still on the Grand Banks.

      the effect of this was to make any efforts by the residents to manage their resource of no con
      • I have a radical solution to that whole sitting outside your water boundries problem.
        Tell the fishers off your waters to leave or you will destroy their boat. If they do not leave, destroy the boat or atleast severely damage it. The next boat that comes and tries the same shit will get the same consequences until they learn to play by your rules.

        This may seem a bit over reactive, but obviously the consequences of doing nothing can be seen in the loss of fishing in the area. Until these industries learn
    • Ugh. As I understand it, this is similar to the problem with mountaintop removal strip mining [ems.org]. In this case, mining companies remove entire mountaintops to mine the coal deposits under them. Not surprisingly, many environmental (and other) groups are trying to get this practice to stop.

      One of the best arguments I've heard against this type of mining is that, eventually, the mining companies are going to have to find alternatives. Eventually, they will run out of mountains they can mine. So, they might as w
    • I agree, most people actually seem to be happy deceiving themselves. In fact, denial and self-deception might be a part of human nature.

      There is a psychological disorder called anosognosia [psychlaws.org]. People with this disorder refuse to admit anything is wrong with them and come up with ridiculous explanations for their deficiencies, despite obvious facts to the contrary, e.g. a man's arm is amputated, he says it isn't, and when the doctor asks why he is missing an arm then, he says his wife put it away. The patient

  • Collapses (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gnarly (133072) on Monday April 28, 2003 @02:03PM (#5826389) Homepage
    Jared Diamond was the speaker at my graduation & I've heard a few of his talks at UCLA. He pointed out that the factor that caused the collapse of both the Easter Island civilization and (probably) the Mayan civilization is now thought to be the same: Logging. Both civilizations overlogged the surrounding forest ecosystems which sustained them, resulting ultimately in a collapse of agriculture. Diamond wondered what might have been going through the mind of the Easter Islander who felled the last tree on the island. He guessed that it might just have been thoughts that would resonate today: "Hey, keeping my job is more important than preserving the environment".
    • Diamond wondered what might have been going through the mind of the Easter Islander who felled the last tree on the island. He guessed that it might just have been thoughts that would resonate today: "Hey, keeping my job is more important than preserving the environment". Bah. The guy probably hadn't eaten in 3 days and was thinking "If I don't cut down this tree for a fishing boat, I'll surely die."
      • Bah. The guy probably hadn't eaten in 3 days and was thinking "If I don't cut down this tree for a fishing boat, I'll surely die."

        Nah, more likely it was "Lets cut this last tree to build a canoe and get the fuck out of here, so we can bring our precious way of life to a new island."
    • but if I came across the last tree on an island which is quickly converting to cannabalism, my thought would be closer to "building a boat and getting my ass off this island is more important than preserving the environment."
  • by pen (7191)
    It's my opinion that the absence of individual property rights is the exact reason all of these disasters occur.

    The essay presents one example of the civilization that wiped out all of the trees it depended on. If that civilization allowed for the ownership of pieces of land, the individuals with a little more foresight could conserve the trees on their plots of land. On the other hand, if every tree belongs to the person who cut it down, then even if the majority of the society is conscious of the problem

    • The problems with this are twofold. One is profitability: without regulation, any privately owned property could well be used more profitably by turning it into strip malls or developments. If there is already a commitment to manage the land as a natural resource, then it could be argued that a private concern, should they find a way to make a profit from would would be optimal policy, would be more effective than public administration (although the characterization of public incompetence is just that - a c

    • This is the typical libertarian response, and it's true enough for things that can be owned. Although not entirely true, in that nothing can be entirely subdivided - it may make you happy to remove your trees from your mountain because you later plan to mine it, but when my valley land gets covered with mud, I'm not too thrilled anyway.

      But further, what do you say to things that fundamentally cannot be subdivided and owned, like air?
    • by Zathrus (232140) on Monday April 28, 2003 @02:37PM (#5826865) Homepage
      The problem with any kind of "public" resource is that it doesn't belong to everyone -- it belongs to noone. Noone cares enough about it to protect or conserve it. Everyone just wants to grab as big a piece as possible.

      What an... interesting view of things.

      So, I presume that you'd like to argue that Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, etc. should be privatized - because obviously them being National Parks (which are de facto public property managed by the National Park Service) means that nobody cares about them.

      Frankly, when it comes to individuals they generally act in the most self improving way possible. If I owned a few hundred acres of trees I may be tempted to sell the rights to log them to someone for a few million. After all, they're my trees, and I can do what I want with them.

      On the otherhand, there's some very large swaths of land near my house that won't ever be logged... they're part of the Chatahoochee National Park system. While other greenspace all around is being cut down to put in new subdivisions, this land (which was either purchased by the Federal government, or by local interest groups and then donated to the government) isn't going to sprout McMansions anytime soon.

      I'm not a fan of big government, but claiming that individual rights would solve everything is a load of crap. I can choose to pollute my bit of land afterall, and then say that I was within my rights to do so since it was my land. Funny thing though, eco systems don't respect legal borders.
      • National Parks are not public property. They are owned by the US Government, which tightly controls all logging (and other) activity inside of the parks. You may have heard of Forest Rangers, these are the people the US Government employs to insure (among other things) that no private companies can come in and steal the resources from the park.

        The original poster's point was that as long as there is somebody responsible for land, and that responsability is spread across many people, then it is very diff
      • Nobody claimed that "individual rights would solve everything". You made that up yourself, pulling the words out of your ass with no regard to what the original poster said.

        Very deceptive of you. Perhaps you should run for office....

        Ironically enough, the federally-owned land in the state of Oregon, where I live, is leased to logging firms in rotation. This means that there are now exactly three tiny patches of old-growth forest left in the entire state; the rest has been logged by private companies wh
    • Those that were wise and saved their trees would have been the first to have been eaten. Individual property rights mean diddly when the mob says so.

      "These are my trees go away 100's of people you can't have them."

      mob - "Oh, we didn't realize, they're not yours if you're dead right?"

      "No I guess not...."

      (awkward silence)

  • 2 Key Elements (Score:3, Interesting)

    by 4of12 (97621) on Monday April 28, 2003 @02:18PM (#5826542) Homepage Journal

    An intriguing essay and one that most of us ought to ponder as we sit in the here and now, as groups, making decisions, watching things happen, recogizing or ignoring problems.

    One thing is that many members of a group don't like to confront problems or issues. Frankly, it's too damn uncomfortable for many people to come face problems whose evident solution may well demand of them that they endure change or discomfort. We're creatures of habit and we don't like change (shoot, some people won't make a change for the better even if you lead them to water), even if events suggest that change might be in our better long-term interest.

    Second, groups are composed of individuals with greater and lesser abilities to influence group decision making. For example, decisions by one typical homeless person are less likely to impact the group's overall decisions than are decisions by a large stockholder of Exxon-Mobil, just to take an illustrative example. It turns out that decision makers at EXOM may well perceive threats and benefits differently than the average homeless person, and even differently than an average cross-section of individuals in the group we call society.

    From an environmental perspective, beneficiaries of extractive industries don't necessarily feel a balanced level of pain for their actions: some of the consequences won't be felt for a lifetime. (Same deferred consequence problems applies to political decisions in general).

    Easter Island's environmental demise probably wasn't accelerated due a few powerful individuals benefitting out of proportion to the changes made to their environment.

    But it's certain in our modern industrialized society that some points of view are going to be affected because some individuals will perceive current benefits to outweigh possible long-term adverse consequences. Those individuals have more influence than an average person. They may even be right sometimes in their views. But it's important to know the frame of mind where those views are born.

  • I don't know (Score:3, Insightful)

    by khendron (225184) on Monday April 28, 2003 @02:28PM (#5826700) Homepage
    I believe the opposite. If societies acted as a group, probably very few stupid decisions would be made. But societies don't act as groups. The members of societies act as individuals.

    It comes down to greed and human nature. Most people are extremely selfish and hypocritical, and this is be basis of most "stupid" decisions.

    We, as a species, are polluting our planet. Take a poll and you will probably find that a majority of people believe the SUVs create a lot of pollution. Yet, everybody and their dog wants one. A majority of people probably think that the world is or is becoming over-populated. Yet we, continue to crank out children at an enourmous rate.

    As a group, we recognize problems and can even see solutions. But as individuals we are not willing to do anything about it.
    • Re:I don't know (Score:5, Insightful)

      by kawika (87069) on Monday April 28, 2003 @02:50PM (#5827076)
      Take a poll and you will probably find that a majority of people believe the SUVs create a lot of pollution. Yet, everybody and their dog wants one.
      Automakers promote SUVs because they are more profitable than econoboxes. The government cooperates, keeping oil prices low. Individuals buy what they are led to believe they need, and what they can afford.

      A majority of people probably think that the world is or is becoming over-populated. Yet we, continue to crank out children at an enourmous rate.
      Western countries are barely cranking out children at a break-even rate. Only countries where cheap labor is beneficial have a high birth rate.

      As a group, we recognize problems and can even see solutions. But as individuals we are not willing to do anything about it.
      Many groups can easily see the problems of other groups, and want to do something about it. When they do, it's called "war". :-)
      • Generally insightful comments. However,

        "Automakers promote SUVs because they are more profitable than econoboxes. The government cooperates, keeping oil prices low. Individuals buy what they are led to believe they need, and what they can afford."

        The US government "cooperates" mostly by not taxing the hell out of oil and gas, like in Europe. However many people feel that we should highly tax them because they cause pollution. Maybe "the government" doesn't do this because of "big corporations" or whatever
    • If societies acted as a group, probably very few stupid decisions would be made.

      Perhaps. But this would NEVER happen and I am extremely skeptical that we as a species should take this route even if it were possible to organize society in this way (the old centralization vs decentralization debate).

      Regardless, the reality is that self-interest is the dominant factor in every person's decisions, and economics is thus the way to predict trends and avoid disasters.
    • Re:I don't know (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Bowling Moses (591924) on Monday April 28, 2003 @03:30PM (#5827710) Journal
      " I believe the opposite. If societies acted as a group, probably very few stupid decisions would be made. But societies don't act as groups. The members of societies act as individuals."

      Except when societies make those mistakes, they tend to be doozies. Take for instance communism or fascism. Both had their ringleaders, but really the people collectively brought it upon themselves and then suffered the consequences. Also you're forgetting the biggest problem with group-think: it inevitably descends down to the lowest common denominator.
    • Re:I don't know (Score:3, Insightful)

      The problem I see is that people want to live a lifestyle that is incompatible with reality. Related to this discussion is that people are flocking to Las Vegas and Phoenix in alarming numbers, in spite of the naturally inhospitable conditions. The short term solution? Purchase water and food from elsewhere and offer it at a relatively low cost (relative to not having the resources at all, in this case). The problem there is that the costs for getting the things they need aren't enough to offset the inf
  • The goals of a limited liability corporation are expressly to make profit for a group of shielded remote elite executives.

    Hmmm. What effects of this do we now see?

    And these are the most powerful organizations in the world today...
  • Networking (Score:3, Funny)

    by xyote (598794) on Monday April 28, 2003 @02:32PM (#5826778)
    Maybe when the Easter Islanders ran out of trees, they tried networking to find new trees. Now everyone knows networking can't find you trees (or jobs) when there are none, but it does help you meet new food. So the next time you meet some smug employed geek, ask him if he knows what "long pig" means. And give him your best toothy grin.
  • Poor Jared (Score:4, Funny)

    by michaelhood (667393) on Monday April 28, 2003 @02:32PM (#5826781)
    I'm sure the collapse of the Amish [800padutch.com] society must have devastated him, and lead to Jared's [edge.org] writing of this column.
  • by ianscot (591483) on Monday April 28, 2003 @02:37PM (#5826862)

    FTA: ...famous collapses such as those of the Anasazi in the U.S. Southwest, Classic Maya civilization in the Yucatan, Easter Island society in the Pacific, Angkor Wat in southeast Asia, Great Zimbabwe in Africa, Fertile Crescent societies, and Harappan Indus Valley societies.

    The Easter Islanders' chopping down their forests is the sort of problem that happens across many generations, and "DISASTROUS DECISIONS" (in the essay title) doesn't quite seem to fit. Did they "decide" to do that, in any conscious way? More like a blind spot. (If we overrely on fossil fuels and the world economy collapses by stages in a prolonged, strangling energy crisis, well, we knew we were doing it; that's not the same.)

    Same thing with the Norsemen in Iceland: they farmed the way they knew how, not because they made a disastrous "choice" but because they didn't know any better. That one's on a different scale, too; Norse culture as a whole didn't collapse.

    Foreign policies are easy to look for decisive short-term blunders in, aren't they? Alcibiades and his generation of Athenian aristocrats basically made two decisions, intended to aggressively assert and expand the Athenian empire, that doomed that empire instead. Their aligning with rebellious Persian satraps caused the Persian king to throw money Sparta's way, and their expeditionary force in eastern Sicily against Syracuse basically cost them their confidence in empire along with the flower of their armed forces. Disastrous choices, made by a few ambitious men.

    Or how about the Soviet Union's inability to escape the ruinous arms race with the U.S.? Calamitous decisions, made by a few individuals over a narrow span of years. (Not that I'm exempting Truman from his share of the blame, but still.)

    "The past may not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme."
    -- Mark Twain

  • by Kakurenbo Shogun (64436) on Monday April 28, 2003 @02:37PM (#5826863) Homepage
    Holy bad website formatting, Batman! When you first arrive, you see the headline for the article: "WHY DO SOME SOCIETIES MAKE DISASTROUS DECISIONS?: JARED DIAMOND" with a brief synopsis of the what the article is about under it. But don't expect the article to begin yet. As you scroll down and prepare to be enlightened, what do you see? First, somebody's comment about Dolly, the cloned sheep. Uh, this must not be the article. Scroll down a little farther.

    Next you find an unrelated editorial. Is the article anywhere on the page or not? Scroll down a little farther.

    Ah! Here it is: "WHY DO SOME SOCIETIES MAKE DISASTROUS DECISIONS?: JARED DIAMOND". You start to read, and then realize that what you're reading is an introduction to the article. I thought I already read an introduction up above!? Oh, wait, that was a synopsis. Is the article anywhere on this page or not? Scroll down a little farther.

    Next, you see a little section titled "further reading on Edge" with some links. I can't believe it! Huh, I must have missed the link to the actual article above. Scroll around a little, but find no link.

    Just by chance, you scroll a little farther down and see it again: "WHY DO SOME SOCIETIES MAKE DISASTROUS DECISIONS?: JARED DIAMOND". By this time, you're a little wary. But to your delight, you finally find the article!

    It's about 1/3 the way down the page under the THIRD copy of it's title. My best guess is that the guy who designed the page had a 6 foot tall monitor that showed the whole thing all at once, so he didn't know how confusing that was. Come on, guys! The least you can do is provide a TOC of what's on the page with links to scroll you to each section!

  • Artic Oil (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Camel Pilot (78781) on Monday April 28, 2003 @02:42PM (#5826958) Homepage Journal
    Failure to solve perceived problems because of conflicts of interest between the elite and the rest of society are much less likely in societies where the elite cannot insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions.

    His above comment has particular relevance concerning the North Slope Artic oil fields. The elite (ie those driving suv's in the lower 48) will feel no effect of developing those fields.

  • by Animats (122034) on Monday April 28, 2003 @02:44PM (#5826988) Homepage
    First, the article is basically a flame. A well-written flame, but a flame. That's not unusual in what passes for the literary community.

    The author complains that history isn't treated as a science, but offers nothing more than anecdotes. What he's groping for is a theory of economic externalities. But he doesn't have one.

    Externalities involve unloading some of your costs onto someone else. Pollution is the classic example, as is spam. Windows bugs are another; the costs are borne by users, not Microsoft. A major social question is the extent to which externalities should be accounted for and billed back to the source. Most of the political arguments over "litigation reform" and "deregulation" involve this issue.

    Classically, the problem with externalities was that accounting for them was technically difficult and expensive, more expensive than the value of tracking them. In the computer era, this is less of an issue than it used to be. Measuring and tracking things is now a cheap operation. We're seeing some of this, in the form of "road-usage fees". It's still possible for tracking to cost more than the value of the thing being tracked; long-distance phone billing costs more than long-distance call transmission, for example. There's a legitimate economic tradeoff argument.

    But mostly, externality issues are resolved by power, not accounting. Understanding this gives one insight into how societies function.

    • by enkidu (13673) on Monday April 28, 2003 @04:40PM (#5828574) Homepage Journal
      I beg to disagree. To reduce Diamond's insights to a rehasing of economic externalities is like saying that game theory is just another way to talk about market equilibrium. Diamond's point is that market externalities are not sufficient to explain and understand how such externalities effect the futures of societies and how these futures are shaped by the societies themselves.

      Simply stating that assigning artificial costs to compensate for market externalities is not sufficient to solving the problems associated with long-term ecological and environmental change. Diamond is pointing out that recognizing the costs and properly assessing and the potential costs, are hampered by the psychological and sociological structures embedded within society. He's pointing out that economics alone cannot solve the problem. Because the root systemic causes of the problems don't lie only in the economic realm, but also in the psychological and sociological realm.


  • We can study the U.S. society for clues to why societies become self-destructive:

    History surrounding the U.S. war with Iraq: Four short stories [futurepower.net]

    In the case of the U.S. government, the self-destruction seems to be due to government secrecy and to the availability of easy money by fostering corruption.

    Question: Shouldn't U.S. vice president Dick Cheney be investigated for using his government influence to make money? Pre-arranged no-bid contracts were given to his former company, Halliburton. In the past such conflict of interest would have resulted in a prison term.
  • by MythoBeast (54294) on Monday April 28, 2003 @02:58PM (#5827184) Homepage Journal
    "Those examples illustrate situations in which a society fails to solve perceived problems because the maintenance of the problem is good for some people. In contrast to that so-called rational behavior, there are also failures to attempt to solve perceived problems that economists consider "irrational behavior": that is, the behavior is harmful for everybody. Such irrational behavior often arises when all of us are torn by clashes of values within each person. We may be strongly attached to a bad status quo because it is favored by some deeply held value that we admire. "

    Finally, I understand why we continue the drug war...
  • by Anonymous Coward
    It was a good read, but I noticed his examples did not touch on many of the more taboo subjects the US faces. For instance I think society should start to think about population control. But that would upset a lot of religious groups, and it will be a huge hurdle to coax society to turn around a system that is currently very skewed towards pro-creation (tax cuts, free schooling, most corporate health plans are by law forced to charge the same for 1 child vs 10 children, etc).

    I can think of a bunch of stuff
  • The Easter Islanders didn't have the Lorax speaking for the trees? I guess we're lucky.
  • Blah ideas. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by gurps_npc (621217) on Monday April 28, 2003 @03:16PM (#5827476) Homepage
    The ideas expressed here are reasonable, but not valuable.

    Basically, all they said was that there are a class of problems that indivualhumans are not good at solving, and that governements are nor perfect.

    It would be more interesting if he at least discusssed possible ways to fix the problem.

    Take the simple case of lawsuits. The class action lawsuit was designed to solve the specific kinds of problems mentioned by the author. The author should have discussed the value/flaws.

  • by miletus (552448) on Monday April 28, 2003 @04:32PM (#5828466)
    as a social historian. The late James Blaut's book "Eight Eurocentric Historians" (link to Amazon [amazon.com]) has an excellent short critique of Diamond, ironic since Blaut was a geographer and Diamond uses almost purely geographical arguments to explain world history.

    For example, I recently saw Diamond on CSPAN talking about his ideas. As an example of societies that failed/didn't fail to develop, he compared Paraguay to Switzerland. The irony is, Paraguay, under the 19th century dictator Francisco Lopez, was on its way to developing when it lost the devastating War of the Triple Alliance against Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. Behind this war was the manipulation of British diplomacy, horrified by Paraguay's opposition to free trade and use of tarrifs against British good to stimulate local economic development; Paraguay was crushed by war, the same way Egypt's efforts to develop under Mohammed Ali were crushed by war with England three decades earlier.

    Historians like Diamond will always find cultural or geographical explanations for development and underdevelopment, but they will never examine too closely the role of colonialism, war and politics. That might be hitting too close to home.

    • Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" is more about why Europe could colonize and crush the rest of world, instead of say Paraguay colonizing England.

      Sure, once a society has advanced technology and economy, it can do all kinds of things. The question is, how did those civilizations get to that point?
  • by j_f_chamblee (253315) on Monday April 28, 2003 @07:21PM (#5830024) Homepage Journal
    There are those of us in the archaeology profession who dedicate their entire careers to studying the processes behind the collapse of civilizations. The critical thing that Diamond fails to recognize is his own hidebound ethnocentric assumption about what collapse actually is. The examples he uses in his discussions (the Easter Islanders, the Anasazi, the Maya) have one major thing in common: the fact that commonplace Euro-American historical accounts treat these societies as if they "disappeared."

    Diamond seems to accept such a premise in spite of strong archaeological evidence that it is nonsense. The descendants of the Classic Period Maya, the Anasazi, and all his other examples are all very much alive today and most still live on or near the ancestral lands from which they supposedly "vanished" centuries ago.

    Folks who have thought about this issue for a little longer than Diamond recognize continuity between groups that may have undergone major socio-economic changes resulting from systemic conflicts between they way people made their living and the stresses that the natural or cultural environment could handle. So, instead of collapse, what we are really talking about is *reorganization.* Seen in this light, the Civil War could be viewed as a major period of such reorganization...in which the Federalist system "collapsed" and was replaced by the National system. This example points out another omission of Diamond's, namely that some societies, such as the Mississippian Chiefdoms of the southeastern US, shifted organization in the presence of abundant natural resources and collapsed sheerly as the result of conflicting social forces.

    In sum, I would take any of Diamond's work with an entire shaker of salt grains, recognizing his tendency toward ethnocentrism and environmental determinism.

    Instead, here are a few sometimes thick, but much more cogent resources on collapse and reorganization.

    Culbert, T. Patrick (editor)
    1972 The Classic Maya Collapse. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

    Yoffee, Norman and George L. Cowgill
    1988 The Collapse of Ancient States and Civilizations, edited by N. Yoffee and G. L. Cowgill, University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

    Weiss, H., M. -A. Courty, W. Wetterstrom, F. Guichard, L. Senior, R. Meadow and A. Curnow
    1993 The Genesis and Collapse of Third Millenium North Mesopotamian Civilization. Science 261:995-1004.

    Blanton, Richard E., Stephen A. Kowalewski, Gary M. Feinman and Laura M. Finsten
    1993 Ancient Mesoamerica. Second ed. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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