How much time is left to civilization?

What was going through that Easter Islander’s mind when he cut down the last palm tree, sealing his people’s doom? Was the last Viking to die in Greenland a wealthy man or a peasant who stormed his farm to butcher his last cow?

Jared Diamond excels at putting human flesh on the archaeological bones left behind at the scene of ancient societal collapses — things like trash heaps and fossilized pooh. His book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail, lists several factors at play in the typical societal implosion. But the common denominators to all were resource depletion and slow-footed decision-making. I couldn’t help but think of today’s global warming deniers and drill-baby-drill chanters when reading of society after society that methodically drove themselves off cliffs.

Diamond notes that in nearly all the collapsed societies, the end came quickly — within a few decades of the point where consumption outstripped the environment’s capacity. He doesn’t put an expiration date on our civilization, but he worries about the future of his children. These things worry him: global warming, fossil fuel depletion, deforestation, soil erosion, and hunger. This week the official tally of the world’s hunger exceeded 1 billion for the first time. When the people in Third World giants of China and India reach First World consumption levels, will more go hungry elsewhere or will First World consumption fall? If the latter, will that be voluntary or the result of strife and boycotts?

A modern collapse may unfold country by country. It may already have begun with the collapse of Afghanistan, Somalia and the Solomon Islands. Are North Korea and Pakistan next? We could sit back and hope it doesn’t overtake us. That’s what the last rich Greenland Viking did.

(NOT advisable for Kindle users — lots of maps and photos you can’t see).

UPDATE 10/24/09

Watch Yale Environment 360 video on West Virginia coal mining. We haven’t leveled the last Apalachian mountaintop, but the moral/value questions are being raised. A  government   says it isn’t the government’s job to decide what people do on their land. Isn’t it?

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  1. By A Tale of Two Industries « CLEAN & GREEN? on October 16, 2009 at 10:28 pm

    [...] How much time is left to civilization? – Tropes [...]

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