In his book, Collapse, Jared Diamond, a professor of geography at University of California, Los Angeles, examines a number of cultures, from ancient to modern, and how a number of these societies collapsed under various pressures, often ecological and environmental, and also because of political and economic tribulations.
Diamond’s main focus is on ecology and the environment, and how problems in these areas can result in social devastation. Most importantly, these difficulties stem from population growth and unsustainable agricultural practices, which often result in deforested areas, habitat destruction, soil problems, water management problems, excessive urbanization and overhunting and fishing. Ultimately, such practices result in food shortages, starvation, conflicts among groups and even overthrows of governments. Climate change also comes into play here.
Another area is hostile neighbors — a reality that Taiwan can certainly understand. Trade relations, often with friendly neighbors, also comes into play.
In the end, it is the local social and governmental response under different strains that will decide whether a society collapses.
“Institutions and values affect whether the society solves [or even tries to solve] its problems,” Diamond writes.
With this introduction, I am compelled to ask: Is Taiwan in any danger of imminent collapse? This might seem over-stated, for on the whole it seems unlikely that this modern republic, with its robust economy (a per capita GDP ranking of about 30th out of 187 countries, according to IMF statistics) and remarkable technological prowess would be in much danger.
Yes, global environmental threats are a concern — not the least climate change and rising ocean levels — but such threats do not seem looming.
However, there is more at work here, as not only storied ancient cultures, such as the Easter Island or Mayan peoples, but also modern cultures are in danger of bringing their own demise through unwise and untenable systems and processes.
Diamond examines several modern cultures that might be under threat from both environmental and social or political factors, including societies in Africa, the Caribbean, China and even the US and Australia.
Being a modern nation, with extensive help and technology networks for all people, might not ensure complete protection from a potential collapse.
So again: What is Taiwan’s situation?
Taiwan has faced a collapse-like situation in its politics and culture: It has lost four diplomatic allies in two years — Burkina Faso, Dominican Republic, Panama, Sao Tome and Principe. Some people dismiss the developments as less than important, but this is not so.
What would be the case if Taiwan lost all of its diplomatic allies? Who would think that would be a favorable outcome? To be sure, it seems likely that something like this, or very near this, will one day eventuate in Taiwan, meaning the nation is faced with the “collapse” of its diplomatic unity and presence in the world.
Whether this would result in some greater social and political upheaval remains to be seen, but its severity cannot be dismissed. At worst, this could result in the overthrow of the government, with all of the disorder and turmoil it would bring. There is danger afoot, it seems.
The other major threat to Taiwan could be environmental changes and decline — at the very least this is a cause of concern for the nation. More than likely there might be internal problems resulting from environmental mismanagement, such as mishandling of farming, overdevelopment, and simply the exhaustion of the environment through pollution and waste.
Mishandled and exhaustive farming can result in soil degradation, deforestation, the misuse of water resources and clearing of natural habitats. It is said that agriculture in Taiwan has been so intense that soil degradation is an ongoing problem. A fair amount of farming is on slope lands, where soil erosion is a problem.
It could be said that Taiwan is an overfarmed nation, as it is necessary for the populace to feed itself to the extent possible, rather than having to import foodstuffs. Additionally, the forests, including ancient forests, have been cut back a fair degree.
Overdevelopment is certainly a problem in Taiwan, and although population growth has largely leveled off, the nation’s population of almost 24 million people, with a population density of 669 per square kilometer, is somewhat extreme.
Feeding this large population is already a major challenge, and the pressures on farmlands are great. Whether this will outstrip local resources is a concern.
The major urban areas in Taiwan are gobbling up the landscape, and one can almost imagine Taiwan becoming a wholly urbanized island. A situation like this could result in a type of collapse, at least of the more pastoral, agrarian life. Very broadly, this might represent a spiritual collapse, a loss of a sylvan homeland.
Finally, the straightforward destruction of the environment by pollution and waste have been problems for many years. The nation has somewhat of a bad reputation in this area. It is true that Taiwan has made some progress in these areas, such as reduced plastic bag and utensil use, recycling and the use of bags for household garbage.
However, other developments, such as offshore wind power generation, denuclearization and solar power, have been delayed.
The threat of hostile neighbors is one of Diamond’s foci, and an attack by China could result in true devastation and possibly a collapse of Taiwanese life and identity.
Whether China can and will do this remains an open question. It seems unlikely in the near term, but the overall possibility of this is far from remote, and the outcome, as far as warfare, would be horrific.
Connected to this is that an ostensibly friendly neighbor — China — can at the same time be hostile, especially if it suffers setbacks that turn the relationship around.
China is itself a threatened society, according to Diamond, and it is likely that it would withdraw economic and some measure of political support from Taiwan, which for better or worse is important here.
In all of these considerations, Diamond says that societies might fail due to four reasons: They fail to anticipate problems; they fail to perceive the problems as they take shape; they fail to try to resolve the problems; and they try to resolve the problems, but fail.
Such considerations should be looked at in Taiwan.
In terms of the environment and farming, the nation might be failing to anticipate the true problem — the same could be said of global warming.
Connected to this, the nation might be failing to try to resolve problems as they arise — look at how Taiwan has changed so little in terms of urbanization and ongoing environmental problems — and issues, such as nuclear power and the development of green energy, have not been fully addressed.
When Taiwan does try to tackle a problem, on the whole it is reasonably successful, as technologically advanced as it is.
In terms of trying, but failing, it is uncertain whether Taiwan-China relations does fall into this category. The government has for too long relied on tried-and-true “status quo” solutions to cross-strait difficulties, and this is in essence an ineffective non-solution.
The result is very few dexterous, pragmatic political ends are being sought and promoted. There have been steps to improve relations with China, and these might be commended, but the state of war and a general enmity that exists between Taiwan and China has far from reached any true solution at all.
This might be the time for Taiwan to revise certain core values, and adopt new approaches, difficult though this might be.
Nations have done this in the past: Britain and France have ceded their colonial empires, Japan has retreated from militarism, the Soviet Union abandoned communism and the US in some senses has improved in areas that it once held close to its heart: racial and social discrimination of various stripes.
Taiwan should take a new stand vis-a-vis China — a more cooperative, symbiotic approach that might indeed treat all Chinese-speaking people as one big family.
The comments of Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) aside, that sounds agreeable, and could prevent a devastating conflict.
The US and Britain have generated such a feeling, and it has been for the better.
Taiwan needs to face some hard realities that appear to be on the horizon. Courageous leaders and a plucky public are called for.
Improvements in technology have drawn the world closer, and people are much more aware of all that surrounds us, as opposed to any society in the past.
There is an opportunity to learn from others and problems of the past, Diamond writes.
Ultimately, “a society’s responses depend on its political, economic, and social institutions and on its cultural values,” he says.
Taiwan might have an advantage in these respects, so let us see what it can do. The problems the nation faces will not be easy to resolve, but they are arising and must be dealt with, and now.
David Pendery is an associate professor at National Taipei University of Business.
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