Collapse and Sustainability

Just finished Collapse, by Jared Diamond. It takes a geographic perspective on why societies either run out of resources or manage to adapt their practices for sustainability. Looking at Polynesia, Easter Island was completely deforested. 2,000 years ago it had some of the largest palm trees in the world, but wasteful practices led to a competition between chiefs for the largest and most elaborate moai the famed, brooding statues that gaze out to sea. Increasing hunger led to the decline of the chiefs, who could no longer provide for their followers, and were overthrown.

Similarly, in Greenland, Norse settlers didn't adapt sufficiently, pursuing a European lifestyle that eventually led to deforestation, coupled with the onset of the Medieval Ice Age around the year 1400. The Inuit, by contrast, moved in and were able to survive due their flexible hunting skills and ingenuity. In Iceland, however, the Norse adapted sufficiently to make the settlement a success, perhaps because of the greater fertility of the land derived from renewed ash deposits.

Japan appeared to be headed for disaster, but the Tokogawa shogunate enacted a system for forest management that preserved and renewed a scare resource. As a result, up to 75% of Japan's land is today forested, despite having 5,000 people per square mile - an extremely dense population.

One wonders if practices in the U.S. will stand up over a millennium, such as the drawing of water from precious acquifers in Nevada, the assimilation of the Colorado River, and the dependence on the Sierra/Cascade snowpack for all of California's water needs. One or two snowless years (in contrast to this year) will lead to unknown consequences. Perhaps California will have to look at desalination plants as have been deployed in the Gulf (Arabian) States.

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