Pulitzer Prize Winner Jared Diamond Speaks on Environment, Population, and Health

Jan 30, 2004

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Are environmental degradation and state failure explicitly linked? Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Center for the first time, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond argued that population growth and overusing natural resources lead to societal collapse.

History is Full of Globalizations

Defining globalization as the "increased interconnectedness of the modern world," Diamond began his talk by outlining its consequences: languages disappear, U.S. consumer products spread across the world, and nations become economically interdependent. Although globalization can provoke emotional reactions, Diamond asserted:

The fundamental cause of all this—more efficient communications and transport—is not going to change. But we can try to anticipate and control the consequences. These facets of globalization seem new and unprecedented in history and it may at first seem that we have nothing to learn from history to prepare us. But in fact, history has been full of slower and spatially more limited globalizations.
To illustrate his theory, Diamond chose two isolated island societies—Easter Island and the Pitcairn group (consisting of Pitcairn, Henderson, and Mangareva Islands in the South Pacific)—that were once flourishing communities before problems of population, environment, and health led to their destruction.

Easter Island: All Fall Down

"The most isolated habited scrap of land in the world," Easter Island presented a great mystery to the Dutch sailors who set foot on it in 1722. Giant stone statues lay scattered around the deforested island. How had the islanders erected them without trees, without rope?

According to Diamond, pollen studies show that Easter Island had been covered with a sub-tropical forest, which the inhabitants harvested for fruit, carved into fishing canoes, burned as firewood, and used to transport and erect the 90-ton statues that symbolize the island. However, following a gradual increase in population to 15,000, by 1620 "there were no more trees left on the island." Without trees, the islanders lost the means to fish and fertilize agriculture; without food:

Islanders for protein turned to the biggest animal left on the island for food, namely humans. The island society collapsed in an epidemic of cannibalism….The worst insult that an Easter Islander could say to another Easter Islander was "the flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth."
The island's 11 clans, which had originally traded amongst themselves in what Diamond called "mini-globalization" to obtain the materials for the statues, went to war:

People began throwing down statues from other clans, and by 1840, all of these statues that the islanders had erected at great effort had been overthrown, the government had been overthrown, the religion had collapsed, and 90% of people were dead, and by the 1870s, this island that had originally supported 15,000 people now had 111 inhabitants left.
Due to its isolation, Easter Island is a pure case of ecological collapse; the clans, drawing on the same resources, all fell together, without any interference from outsiders.

We see Easter Island as a metaphor for the modern world: when the Easter Islanders got into trouble, there was no place to which they could flee for help, and no people they could summon for help, because Easter Island was isolated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. And similarly today, if our modern society gets into trouble, there is no other planet from which we can seek help, and there is no other planet to which we are realistically going to be able to flee. We are like Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean.

The Last Canoe

Moving 1300 miles west, Diamond turned to his other historical example, Pitcairn (best known as the home of the HMS Bounty's mutineers), Henderson, and Mangareva Islands. These three islands developed an interdependent triangle trade: Mangareva, which had the largest trees and the largest population, traded its canoes and marriage partners for Pitcairn's volcanic stone tools and Henderson's luxurious feathers.

This little globalized trade network…carried on for about 600 years in the canoes from Mangareva Island until the Mangarevans did what the Easter Islanders did; namely, Mangareva got deforested.
Mangareva's society broke down in an epidemic of cannibalism and warfare, and 150 years after the last canoes sailed from Mangareva, all the inhabitants of Pitcairn and Henderson died out:

This illustrates the collapse of a society, not so much due to its own environmental problems, but due to the environmental problems of the trade partners on which they depended, which is something that we can appreciate today.

Fifty-Year Fuse

Diamond listed the environmental problems we face today, some of which we share with past societies—deforestation, overpopulation, over-fishing, biodiversity loss, freshwater scarcity—and some of which are new: greenhouse gas, toxic releases, alien species, and fossil energy shortage. "These dozen environmental problems are time bombs with fuses of about 50 years…and will get resolved one way or another—pleasantly or unpleasantly—within the next 50 years," warned Diamond.

However, these environmental problems can blow up sooner: countries that are overwhelmed by environmental problems tend to develop political and economic problems, as desperate people turn to drastic measures like civil war and terrorism.

Take an ecologist who is politically naïve…and ask that ecologist to name the countries in the world today that have the worst environmental problems or problems of overpopulation or both, and the environmentalist would say…the countries include Afghanistan, Burundi, Haiti, Indonesia, Iraq, Madagascar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Rwanda, the Solomon Islands….Then ask a first world politician who doesn't care about the environment or dismisses the importance of environmental problems just to name the world's trouble spots…and your politician would say…those trouble spots include: Afghanistan, Burundi, Haiti, Indonesia, Iraq, Madagascar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Rwanda, the Solomon Islands.

Antibiotics are Cheaper than Band-Aids

Despite this dreary outlook, Diamond is hopeful: since humans created environmental problems, humans can solve them: "We caused the problems and we can choose to stop causing them." Comparing the cost of a public health campaign to fight AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis to the price tag for the Afghan and Iraq intervention, Diamond is cheered by the economics:

It is relatively cheap to solve the world's public health problems. But remember that these problems of public health are the ultimate problems that cause the explosions that result in our sending in troops. The band-aids cost us $80-$100 billion, but the basic cure, the antibiotics, would be much cheaper. That gives me hope.
Diamond outlined a number of strategies and individual steps that people can take to help extinguish the fuse: vote in elections, join effective groups that pool resources, give money to highly-leveraged organizations, and exercise consumer choice. He particularly focused on the role that business can play:

There are quite a few big businesses that have realized that, in the long run, it is in their own self-interest, and much cheaper, to solve environmental problems at the outset rather than to wait for a $4.5 million disaster.
He described some of the World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) collaborations with corporations: together with major logging companies, the WWF set up a labeling system for forest products, and Unilever and WWF established the Marine Stewardship Council to set standards for sustainable fishing. Diamond himself has worked with Chevron/Texaco in their Papua New Guinea oil fields for the last five years.

Finally, Diamond is most hopeful because we are the first society in history that has the opportunity to learn from distant countries and the remote past:

We know of these past environmental disasters and remote environmental disasters in the world today and we have the opportunity of choosing to learn from them….We have the opportunity to learn; the Easter Islanders did not.


Jared Diamond is professor of Geography and Physiology at UCLA and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies.

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