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Collapse: How Societies Choose to fail or succeed.

Errors | Problems | Ceilings | Remedies | Recommendations

Jared Diamond argues that the choice is ours to avoid five errors in dealing with a dozen of "the most serious environmental problems facing past and present societies...." Society either learns to plan ahead or...

Five errors

  1. Failure to anticipate
  2. Failure to perceive
  3. Rational bad behavior
  4. Disastrous values
  5. Irrational failures

New Orleans, lower Ninth Ward, levee collapse.

In August 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, the levees in New Orleans broke killing and flooding residents of the Lower Ninth Ward pictured here in March of 2006 as an example of multiple failures to assist homeowners.

Environmental problems

1, 2, 3 | 4 | 5-6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12

“I have described 12 sets of problems as separate from each other, in fact, they are linked: one problem exacerbates another or makes its solutions more difficult.”

p. 496

The most serious problems:

1. loss of ecologically significant space
At an accelerating rate, we are destroying the natural habitats or else conserving them to human-made habitats, such as cities and villages, farmlands and pastures, roads and golf courses. The natural habitats whose losses have provoked the most discussion are forests, wetlands, coral reefs, and the ocean bottom.

p. 487.

2. Wild foods especially fish and to a lesser extent shellfish….in effect, this is protein we obtain for free….

3. A significant fraction of wild species, populations, and genetic diversity has already been lost….

p. 488.

4. Soils of Farmlands used for growing crops are being carried away by water and wind erosion, at rates between 10 and 40 times the rates of soil formation, and between 500 and 10,000 times soil erosion rates on forested land.

Land loss of soil and related concepts.

p. 489.

“Ceilings” or the critical limitations imposed upon societies by: “energy freshwater, and photosynthetic capacity.”

p. 490.

5. Energy
The World’s major energy sources especially for industrial societies are fossil fuels: oil, natural gas, and coal. While there has been much discussion, about how many big oil and gas fields remain to be discovered…

6. Water
"Most of the world’s freshwater in rivers and lakes is already being utilized for irrigation, domestic and industrial water, and in situ uses such as boat transportation corridors, fisheries and recreation.

Throughout the world, freshwater underground aquifers are being depleted at rates faster than they are being naturally replenished, so that they will eventually dwindle….while today over a billion people lack access to reliable safe drinking water."

p. 490.

7. Sunlight
"Within the last twenty years, it has been appreciated that….the amount of solar energy fixed per acre by plant photosynthesis, hence plant growth per acre, depends on temperature and rainfall. At any given temperature and rainfall the plant growth that can be supported by sunlight falling on acre is limited by the geometry and biochemistry of plants.” (Humans already by 1986 were using half of the available solar irradiance or sunlight falling on the earth for crops, orchards, timber, etc.)

p. 490-491.

8. POPs

“The chemical industry and many other industries manufacture or release in to the air, soils, oceans, lakes and rivers many toxic chemicals, some of them ‘unnatural’ and synthesized. It has been appreciated that the toxic effects of even greater significance for us humans are those on ourselves (mercury, hormones)…[by] temporary and permanent damage to our immune and reproductive systems.”

“…Deaths in the United States from air pollution alone are conservatively estimated at over 130,000 per year.”

pp. 491-492

9. Exotic species

The term ‘alien species’ refers to species that we transfer…from a place where they are native to another place where they are not native.”


10. Greenhouse gas emissions
Human activities produce gases that escape into the atmosphere, where they either damage the protective ozone layer or else act as greenhouse gases that absorb sunlight and thereby lead to global warming.


11. Population growth
 “human population is growing. More people require more food, space, water, energy and other resources. Rates and even the direction of human population change vary greatly around the world….There is long built-in momentum to human population growth because of what is termed the ‘demographic bulge’ or ‘population momentum,’…as a result of recent population growth.”


12. Population’s Per capita consumption
“What really counts is not the number of people alone, but their impact on the environment….Our numbers pose a problem insofar as we consume resources and generate wastes. That per-capita impact—the resources consumed, and the wastes put out, by each person—varies greatly around the world.”

pp. 494-495.

“Because we are the cause of our environmental problems, we are the ones in control of them, and we can chooses to stop causing them and start solving them. The future is up for grabs, lying in our own hands. We don’t need new technologies to solve our problems,…for the most part we ‘just’ need the political will to apply solutions already available” to us.

p. 522

For Diamond's criticism of the tragedy of the commons.

And a detailed discussion Diamond's remedies suggested in Collapse go here.

Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. (New York:Penguin Group, 2005).


Errors | Problems | Ceilings | Remedies

1, 2, 3 | 4 | 5-6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11

Related readings that focus on solutions:

October 22, 2006


Science Index | Site Analysis | Population Index | Global Warming Index | Nature