10 Questions for Jared Diamond on Global Collapse

10 Questions for Jared Diamond on Global Collapse

For the documentary, Professor Diamond visited the site of massive cave dwellings in Chaco Canyon, N.M. The builders, the Anasazi Indians, are one of the collapsed civilizations featured in his bestselling book. Photo courtesy of National Geographic.

Diamond's 2005 book and now a National Geographic documentary, "Collapse" juxtaposes America's future with the demise of the Roman Empire and other failed civilizations as a warning that we are hurtling down the same path.

By Judy Lin for UCLA Today

The year is 2210. Archaeologists are exploring the ruins of a civilization that, just two centuries before, had been the most powerful in the world — the United States, now a landscape of crumbling skyscrapers and the skeletal remains of cars, gas pumps and laptop computers. This is the opening scene of a National Geographic Television documentary, to air Saturday, Sept. 18, based on the New York Times bestseller, "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" (Penguin Books, 2005), written by Jared Diamond, professor of physiology and geography. A Pulitzer Prize–winning author, he is an eclectic explorer of topics ranging from the birds of New Guinea to societies' treatment of the elderly worldwide. Senior writer Judy Lin sat down with Diamond recently to talk about America's possible collapse.
You say there's a real possibility that the most advanced countries — what you call the First World — are going to collapse within the next several decades, depending on the decisions we make. Do we really have so little time?
We only have somewhere between 20 and 50 years because we're consuming things so quickly. We'll run out of the last of our major tropical rainforests in the Amazon and the Congo in less than 20 years. In a few decades, we'll run out of relatively inexpensive, environmentally benign hydrocarbons — not that we'll completely run out of oil, but it will be more expensive and environmentally dirtier to dig out. In a few decades we'll be using all of the world's water — the First World is using 70 to 80 percent of the world's freshwater today. There are a dozen factors occurring all at once, all of them time bombs with fuses set to go off not far in the future — during the lifetimes of my 23-year-old twins.

That's very sobering, this legacy we may be leaving to the next generation.

Our children are looking at a broad spectrum of possibilities in their futures, depending on how we approach these problems today. The best-case scenario is that they could enjoy a First-World lifestyle that is even more comfortable than what we enjoy today, with better health, longer lives and more opportunities.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, they could end up in a world like Somalia or Haiti — impoverished, violent, with a government in a state of collapse. It could happen to us. It all depends on the choices that are made.

Couldn't one argue that the ancient Romans, the Maya, the Anasazi Indians and others whose declines were dramatized in "Collapse" weren't as knowledgeable and sophisticated as we are today?

Solving problems should be easier for us. But consider the things that make it actually worse for us. The population of the world today — nearly 7 billion — is enormously greater than it was in the days of Rome. We've got more potent destructive technology, from bulldozers that can knock down entire forests to nuclear bombs. And we're shipping this stuff around the world, whereas the Romans, at best, shipped stuff around the Mediterranean. So today there are tremendously more people in possession of much more destructive technology — which means that we are making a mess much faster than the Romans ever could.

Americans have felt much more vulnerable since the 2008 economic crisis and the fall of financial and real estate markets, banking and some industries. How does that fit into your thinking about our problems?
Our 2008 economic crisis was a global crisis. The fall of the Mayan Empire, which was once the most advanced civilization in the New World, had zero affect in Europe or anywhere else. Whereas nowadays, when American real estate gets into trouble, it triggers economic setbacks around the world.
In the past, civilizations could collapse one by one. Today, the risk we face is that of global collapse. Think about Somalia, one of the poorest countries in the world with a government in shambles. Twenty years ago you would have said that Somalia was of no consequence to the United States. But today, Somalian pirates desperately travel the seas attacking freighters and cruise ships, tying up 20 percent of international shipping and travel. We're interconnected today, so if there's a mess in one place, there's a mess in another.
China is a pursuing rapid expansion, as are India and other countries. What is the significance of this for us? 
China is the world's most populous country with the most rapidly growing major economy and rapidly increasing rate of per capita consumption. One way to appreciate the significance of China is to note the fact that the First World is currently operating unsustainably. Even if tomorrow morning everybody in China, Africa and South America were to die, and the only people left alive in the world were those in the First World, the fact would remain that the First World is operating unsustainably, running out of resources very quickly. But China is very much here, pursuing its goal of catching up to First World standards. At present, the Chinese consume things like water, metal and electricity at much lower per capita rates. However, if this country of 1.4 billion people catches up, the world will run out of resources even faster. At present, the First World will run out of resources in about 50 years, but it would be only five years if China, India, Africa and South America were all to catch up.
It won't work, incidentally, for Americans to tell these countries that their ambitions are going to cause problems and that they should lower their aspirations. Because their aspirations are our aspirations — which are now our accomplishments.
Closer to home, you wrote in your 2005 book that Southern California was doing relatively well on a number of measures — wealth, mild environmental problems — and that the area was not at imminent risk of collapse despite its growing population and terrible traffic. What do you make of Southern California today?
To everybody, things in Southern California look worse than today because they really are worse today. Look at any of the measures. The University of California. The state budget and the gridlock it has created in California politics. As far as traffic is concerned, in L.A. we're in the process of building a new light rail line. But let's put that in perspective: At least 50 cities in China are now building subway systems. Europe has invested heavily in a rapid transit network. Obviously, building subways is expensive, costing billions of dollars. But so do our freeways and cars cost billions. There are consequences, among them, America's foreign policy, which is being held hostage by our demand for petrol.
Also problematic for Southern California is our water policy. At least half of our water comes from the Colorado River running through Northern California and several other states. It's not as if those places don't have people who also need water. So we're competing with others for water.
In the documentary you note that L.A. has gotten tougher on water consumption with a city ordinance that limits the days of the week when residents can water their lawns and gardens. So are some of our problems being addressed?
Sure. It's not that everything is terrible, that California and the United States have made no good decisions. In the 1950s, Los Angeles was notorious for having the worst smog in the country. I was in college in Boston when a student I met from Los Angeles told me that the city was in the process of solving its air problem. That seemed ridiculous to me.
But the reality is that over the last several decades, the federal government has taken air problems seriously, mandating air quality, getting lead out of gasoline, requiring smog checks on your car. Today, even though Los Angeles has lots more people with far more cars than in the 1950s, the air quality is much better. The message I draw from this is that if we can solve a complicated, messy problem like air quality, we can solve other complicated, messy problems.
So where do we begin?
We already know what we need to do. We need to reduce our oil and energy consumption, and more of our energy has to come from renewable sources. We need to reduce our water consumption and our production of greenhouse gases and global warming. We need to reduce overfishing and manage our fisheries and forests sustainably. We already know all that. All we need is to do it. It's simple.

Yet we're not doing it. Why do you believe we make such bad decisions?
Humans make bad decisions for a whole series of reasons. To start with, the first opportunity to make a good decision is to anticipate a problem before it arrives. But if you've never had that problem before, you're not going to think of it. For example, 30 years ago, why didn't we anticipate global warming? Because back then, the very idea that humans could heat up the entire globe was ridiculous. Global warming was unprecedented.
Then, when a problem emerges you have another opportunity to solve it — if you see it. When global warming started, we didn't see it because in the early stages the evidence was equivocal: There was a warming year, then a cooling year, then a warming year — it took awhile before the signal became clear.
Finally, even when a problem is recognized, it's in some people's interest not to solve it but to maintain it. There are people — many in industry and some in politics — ­who make money by continuing to burn petroleum and who therefore are opposed to measures that would reduce global warming.
Do you remain hopeful that all these problems can be solved in time to avoid collapse?
The biggest grounds for hope is exemplified by the production and broadcast of this documentary, offering people an opportunity to learn from what happened to the Romans, the Maya, the Anasazi and others. Whereas when the Maya were cutting down their last tree sometime around A.D. 850 — leading to a devastating drought — they did not have the National Geographic Channel to offer a lesson from the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. They never had the chance to learn from experience. Today, we have that opportunity. We have archaeologists and historians, documentaries and books. We have information — and with information, we now have choice.
Find more information about the "Collapse" documentary and view a trailer here.

Published: Thursday, September 16, 2010