Saturday, November 8, 2008

Jared Diamond on why societies collapse

Jared Diamond gave this TED talk back in 2003, but it was only just publicly posted in October this year. He gives a brief overview of his thesis from Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed.

Though the discussion is facilitated by a wide variety of examples, clearly Diamond is concerned about the sustainability of our current global society. Sustainability is also an important issue for those of us engaged in development activities, or have concerns about the regional and global impacts of fragile states' collapse.

I summarize the talk below, but it's worth listening to the entire thing.

Principally Diamond speaks about the Norse in Greenland, the Easter Islanders, and most interestingly the state of Montana (at risk). He touches on many other collapsed societies though.

His framework for analyzing why societies collapse:

1. What is the human impact on the environment and the resources that society depends on (endogenous environmental change)?
2. How does climate change affect the environment and resources that society depends on (~exogenous environmental change)?
3. How does the society's relations' with neighboring friendly and unfriendly societies impact their sustainability?
4. How does the society's political-economic-cultural characteristics impact its ability to recognize and respond to environmental challenges?

What characteristics make a society and problem set make it more or less apt to recognize and respond to the threat of collapse? A variety of collective action problems.

1. Conflict between the short-term interest of elites and the long-term interests of society as a whole.
2. Conflict between traditional sources of strength and the innovations necessary for survival.


1. Rapid collapses may occur immediately after a society reaches its peak of wealth.
2. Our society will have either succeeded or failed in addressing our own challenges within about forty years from now.

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