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By Nathan Bierma


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SUICIDAL SOCIETIES

Jared Diamond's view of the demise of human civilizations "stands in sharp contrast to the conventional explanations for a society's collapse," writes Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker. "Usually, we look for some kind of cataclysmic event. The aboriginal civilization of the Americas was decimated by the sudden arrival of smallpox. … The disappearance of the Norse settlements [in southwestern Greenland] is usually blamed on the Little Ice Age"—according to "the 'It got too cold, and they died' argument."

But Diamond's new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, the sequel to his Pulitzer-winning Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, rejects the blame-the-catastrophe reflex and continues his argument that a civilization's fate depends mostly on how it adapts to its climate and uses its natural resources. (Guns looked at triumphant civilizations; Collapse looks at doomed ones.)

Diamond uses the Norse settlements in Greenland as one of his case studies. The Norse staked out a grassy (in the summer) parcel off the North Atlantic coast and established a thriving society of a few thousand people from the 1000s to the 1400s. But the Norse, says Diamond, abused their ecosystem. They cleared out too many trees for space and lumber, depleting the forests faster than they could be replenished. They built homes out of huge slabs of earth, devastating the topsoil, which was delicate to begin with in the Arctic climate. They spent too much time hunting walruses for ivory and too little time hunting seals for blubber and other practical uses. So the Norse gradually starved themselves to death. By the early 1400s, they had vanished. The same thing happened at Easter Island, a once lush landscape that, in the hands of the people that built those towering stone heads, too quickly became "a barren and largely empty outcropping of volcanic rock," Gladwell says.

I wish Gladwell had mentioned Edward Gibbon, perhaps the most famous historian to perform an autopsy on a civilization with his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (which I'll get around to reading one of these days, or years.) I don't know if Diamond deals with Gibbon; I wonder what he would make of Gibbon's diagnosis. Meanwhile, I'm wary of Diamond's perspective on religion as a fatal flaw; religion, he says (as I gather from Gladwell), makes societies do irrational things like waste precious resources on elaborate cathedrals, as the Norse did in Greenland. But could not religion also be the basis of a harmonious relationship with nature, if it induces an awe for the Creator that enhances our regard for, and relationship with, creation?

Related:
Andaman aborigines survive tsunami, shoot arrows at relief choppers, from the Associated Press
Smithsonian on the Aztecs and settlements in Pike County, Illinois

PLACES & CULTURE

From the New York Times :

TRIPOLI, Libya* - Tucked away in a whitewashed, Italian-colonial building set in a quiet compound on the edge of Tripoli, the largely forgotten World Center for Green Book Studies is looking for a little respect. The center was established more than two decades ago to propagate the ideas of the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, which are contained in a slim volume bound in green, the color of Islam and of Colonel Qaddafi's 35-year-old revolution. The center has turned out more than 140 serious studies on the book's 21,000 words. But few people outside the country - and a dwindling number in Libya itself - take the book seriously anymore, so, like many other things here, the center is trying to change. The book, still heralded on billboards here like the latest best seller, lays out Colonel Qaddafi's "Third Universal Theory," covering governance, economics and society. It is padded with observations that vary from the obvious … [to] the incoherent.

DELTONA, Fla.* - It is a safe guess that all of Florida was ready to relegate 2004, with its freakishly active hurricane season, to the history books. But Deltona was especially eager. The town, a sprawling bedroom community between Orlando and Daytona Beach, suffered through three of the state's four hurricanes and still has plenty of blue-tarped roofs and disfigured trees to prove it. A week before the first storm, six teenagers and young adults were bludgeoned to death with baseball bats in a quiet neighborhood here, a crime that was provoked, investigators said, by the disappearance of a video game system. Then, on Dec. 13, a sinkhole began opening along a busy thoroughfare, possibly an aftereffect of the hurricanes and their pounding rain. This sinkhole, a quintessentially Florida phenomenon that is now 225 feet wide and 50 feet deep, brought sightseers, traffic nightmares, more unwanted publicity ("Next up: A plague of locusts, frogs, hail and lice," a columnist for The Orlando Sentinel quipped) and new longing for a fresh start.

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