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How your garden might change the world

Sam Bauman
Appeal Staff Writer

The next time you bend over your tomato plants, you might want to think about a book, “Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail of Succeed,” by Jared Diamond. A bit far afield from the usual guide to gardening, but reading the book might give you energy to plant that extra potato or build a better flower bed dam to conserve water. Or even plant a tree.

In “Collapse,” it quickly becomes clear (if quickly is the right word for a 576-page book) that erosion and deforestation are two major causes for the collapse of several civilizations. Easter Island with its towering statues is a case in point: Islanders cut down the last tree and then they died.

So when you act to keep your soil in place or plant a tree, you might want to think of yourself as holding back the barbarians at the gates.

“Collapse” is not a book to take to the beach for light reading. It offers many pages of details about which societies did or didn’t fail, from Easter Island to Haiti, from Montana’s Bitterroot Valley to Rwanda.

Diamond lists the 12 environmental problems that are portents of doom: Destruction of natural habitats (mainly through deforestation); reduction of wild foods; loss of biodiversity; erosion of soil; depletion of natural resources; pollution of freshwater; maximizing of natural photosynthetic resources; introduction by humans of toxins and alien species; artificially induced climate change; and, finally, overpopulation and its impact.

He selects 13 societies and examines them with the 12 factors in mind – modern Montana, Easter Island, Pitcairn and Handerson islands, the Anasazi, the Maya nation, the Vikings on Greenland, the New Guinea highlands, Tikopia, the Tokugawa era in Japan, Rwanda, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, China and Australia.

Put them all together and you have the book. (Almost forgot, Nevada comes in for a bit of criticism for its lax treatment of the extraction industry; along with Arizona, the Silver State had next to no laws demanding and enforcing restoration of problem mines’).

Diamond’s distinction between social and biological survival is a critical one, because too often we blur the two, or assume that biological survival is contingent on the strength of our civilization values. That was the lesson taken from the two world wars and the nuclear age that followed: We would survive as a species only if we learned to get along and resolve our disputes peacefully. The fact is, though, that we can be law-abiding and peace-loving and tolerant and inventive and committed to freedom and true to our own values, and still behave in ways that are biologically suicidal. The two kinds of survival are separate.

The first of these factors is environmental damage, inadvertent damage to the environment through deforestation, soil erosion, salinization, over-hunting etc. From Lake Tahoe’s loss of clarity to the west side of Carson City, we see evidence of environmental damage.

The second item on the checklist is climate change, such as cooling or increased aridity. People can hammer away at their environment and get away with it as long as the climate is benign, warm, wet; and the people are likely to get in trouble when the climate turns against them, getting colder or drier as historically it has always done. So climate change and human environmental impact interact, not surprisingly.

Still a third consideration is that one has to look at a society’s relations with hostile neighbors. Most societies have chronic hostile relations with some of their neighbors and societies may succeed in fending off those hostile neighbors for a long time. They’re most likely to fail to hold off the hostile neighbors when the society itself gets weakened for environmental or any other reasons. That’s given rise for example, to the long-standing debate about the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Was the conquest by Barbarians really a fundamental cause, or was it just that Barbarians were at the frontiers of the Roman Empire for many centuries? Rome succeeded in holding them off as long as Rome was strong, and then when Rome got weakened by other things, Rome failed, and fell to the Barbarians. And similarly, we know that there were military factors in the fall of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. So relations with hostiles interacts with environmental damage and climate change.

“If one of those friendly societies itself runs into environmental problems and collapses for environmental reasons, that collapse may then drag down their trade partners,” Diamond writes.

Relations with friendly societies interact similarly. Almost all societies depend, in part, upon trade with neighboring friendly societies, and if one of those friendly societies itself runs into environmental problems and collapses for environmental reasons, that collapse may then drag down their trade partners. It’s something that interests us today, given that we are dependent for oil upon imports from countries that lack political stability in a fragile environment.

And finally, in addition to those four factors on the checklist, one always has to ask about peoples’ cultural response. Why is it that people failed to perceive the problems developing around them, or if they perceived them, why did they fail to solve the problems that would eventually do them in? Why did some peoples perceive and recognize their problems and others not?

“In much of the rest of the world, rich people live in gated communities and drink bottled water. That’s increasingly the case in Los Angeles where I come from. So that wealthy people in much of the world are insulated from the consequences of their actions,” notes Diamond.

Tell our senators about that sometime and be prepared for blank looks.

The best examples in “Collapse” are those that avoid this apples-and-oranges problem by comparing two societies at the same moment in time and in the same place, such as the chapters on the Greenland Norse and on Hispaniola. In the case of the Vikings, as one historian said, they came to Greenland, “it got cold, and then they died.” But somehow, Diamond rejoins, the Greenland Inuit came, stayed and survived – right up until this day.

The point? Cold or not, the Greenland Norse didn’t have to die. Diamond elucidates how they mistreated their environment (without even realizing it in some cases) and refused to adapt to its variations. The Vikings, Diamond notes in his customary casual style, had a “bad attitude” and thought the Inuit were “gross weirdos.” As a result, they didn’t adapt to the Greenland environment as the Inuit did, and, eventually, starved to death.

That’s just a brief look at a book that could have meaningful affects on the United States. Deforestation, weak trading partners, soil erosion – they’re are all with us right now.

So remember them all and keep that garden green, those trees towering and be ready for a changing climate.

n Contact reporter Sam Bauman at sbauman@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1236.