How America Has Chosen to Fail

The new book, “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jared Diamond, has rocketed to #2 on the New York Times non-fiction Bestseller List. Readers’ fascination with this lengthy look at past and present societies clearly has less to do with secondary – “Wow, isn’t it interesting what happened to them?” than of the primary – “Wow, could this happen to us?” interest.

To help us understand the likelihood of a society’s success or failure, Diamond gives us a five-factor checklist of risk indicators. They are:

Changes in their environment

Changes in their climate

Changes in their enemies

Changes in their relationships with trading partners

Their responses to these changes

Further, Diamond asserts that societies create “blueprints for failure” if the society’s elites insulate themselves from the common man.

So how are we doing? Let’s take our society’s vital signs.

ENVIRONMENT. While the modern environmental movement had its beginning in the Republican Party with the pioneering efforts of Teddy Roosevelt and continued to Richard Nixon’s signing of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, our current administration is busily eviscerating 100 years of environmental policy, transferring the responsibility of protecting our resources to those corporate strongmen least motivated to do so. During President Bush’s first term, Vice President Dick Cheney worked closely with the energy lobby in developing a policy devoid of any preservation element. The Administration’s efforts continue by softening the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. It works to relax pollution limits for ozone, tailpipe emissions, efficiency standards for vehicles, reclamation requirements for mining (including the horrendously destructive practice of mountaintop removal) and weaken emission requirements for new power plants.

All this is being done with the intrinsic knowledge that there has never been an instance of pollution that wasn’t ultimately easier to prevent than to remediate or mitigate. We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking our technological prowess and global reach insulate us from the effects of a deteriorating environment. It is monumental hubris to believe we can sustain our existence without the benefit of the earth’s bounty.

CLIMATE. While the Bush Administration continues to assert that human-influenced global warming is unproven, 98% of the scientific community accepts it as established fact. The Kyoto Protocol took effect on February 16 and we sat it out. Our snub is an act of supreme arrogance and engenders widespread scorn. Momentarily lucky for us, our country enjoys a wide spectrum of climates so as the world warms we’ll have localized winners and losers. But when distant coastal cities are rendered uninhabitable by rising seas, our insensitivity will be deeply resented.

ENEMIES. Similarly, our almost unilateral, pre-emptive war against a regime which never threatened us strengthened the enmity of current enemies and spawned several new ones. Clearly a power-play to ensure U.S. dominance of the Middle East and access to their reserves of oil we consider vital and almost by birthright to be ours, Mr. Bush’s War in Iraq infuriates the Arab world and puts the emerging powerhouses of China and India at a defensive, forcing them to jockey for their own pieces of the resource pie.

TRADING PARTNERS. Speaking of China, our trading situation with them has turned the U.S. from the world’s largest lending nation into the largest borrowing. Our trade deficit is the greatest in history and our national debt is an astounding $40,000 per person. Wal-Mart has almost single-handedly eliminated both small retailing and small manufacturing in America and is a conduit for American cash to China in return for cheap manufactured products. Shipping containers by the thousands are stacked like Dominos at our ports, having traveled here loaded with stuff while we have nothing of value to send back. When China decides we’re no longer a good credit risk and calls our loans, we’re in for a literal world of hurt.

RESPONSES. Fifth on Diamond’s checklist is how we are responding to these changes. This evaluation is probably left as an exercise for the reader, but belligerent statements belching from Washington like “The American way of life is not negotiable,” don’t build bridges. Forcing the rest of the world to accept the consequences of our impertinence is no recipe for sustainability.

And our elite? Today, while one in ten Americans lives under the poverty line, 1% of our citizens own 50% of our nation’s wealth, a gap between rich and poor that continues to widen; a situation which can only be described as medieval. Our nation’s poor live in our most polluted places, lack the basics of health care, and send their offspring to war while the rich live in gated, guarded communities, drink bottled water, and drive SUVs to the gym for workouts. Skilled labor jobs in manufacturing and other sectors of our economy which once gave hope for a better life for our middle-class have been systematically outsourced overseas. Diamond, “The rich are not immune to environmental problems.” And, they “do not secure their own interests and those of their children if they rule over a collapsing society; they merely buy themselves the privilege of being the last to starve or die.”

A smattering of optimism would be great about now, but Diamond’s critics believe he gave only a passing comment to what may become the fuse to our worldwide powder keg. Richard Heinberg is the author of “The Party’s Over,” which details why, very soon, the world’s need for oil will outstrip the earth’s ability to provide it. He notes that “Diamond does not even hint at the phenomenon of the imminent global oil production peak.” And, “There is no discussion of the fact that oil production capacity is declining rapidly in nearly two dozen countries, while the world's reliance on oil for its essential energy needs continues to grow with each passing year. This is not a minor oversight. At least four independent studies now forecast that the global oil peak is likely to occur as soon as 2005 and probably before 2010 (i.e. any day now), which means that there will not be enough time to invest in replacement energy sources before the decline begins; nor can we be assured that adequate replacement energy sources exist. In the estimation of a growing chorus of informed observers, the oil peak is likely to be a trigger for global economic crisis and the outbreak of a series of devastating resource wars.”

Yikes! It would seem that only the most enlightened, cooperative global efforts of international leaders and everyday citizens can avert the worst, yet worldwide leaders are every bit as befuddled, domineering, and insular as the chiefs who wrought ruin on past societies and First World citizens show few signs of curtailing their consumptive lifestyles or sharing their wealth.

Diamond, by his book’s subtitle, believes that societies can choose success or failure. But like individuals who make poor health choices for themselves (smoking, obesity), societies often, for reasons of religion, inertia, morality, or ignorance make self-destructive decisions. How else to explain the seemingly arbitrary mores of a society that condemns the destruction of a fetus but places no ignominy on those who would destroy a watershed, a wetland, a fishery, or a mountaintop?

Parenthetically, note that contrary to oft-expressed lament, at no instance did Diamond find a society whose downfall was hastened by licentiousness, public depravity, sex and/or violence in the media, nor anything having to do with reproductive freedoms.

One final thought. Diamond found that when societies collapsed, they often did so with surprising suddenness. Buckle your seat belt; we’re in for a wild ride!