Sun, May 15, 2005 - Page 18 News List

Facing the ecological facts and learning a lesson from history

Jared Diamond is a scientific popularizer and his new book "Collapse" is stirring ecological debate

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

It's arguable that an ecologically responsible Taiwan government would put in place a law that no one could buy a new car without trading in an old one for destruction in its place. That no such law exists, either here or (probably) anywhere else in the world, is something Jared Diamond, the author of this excellent and timely book on the world's ecological folly, can be guaranteed to agree with me in lamenting.

Diamond (author of Why is Sex Fun?) is a scientific popularizer, and his new book is currently making considerable waves in the international media. In an age of global warming, environmental despoliation, ever-increasing urbanization and rapidly rising populations (and soon sealevels), few books could be more relevant to what is in reality everybody's most pressing problem.

The book's subtitle is "How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive" and the crucial word is "choose." All around the world stand the ruins of former civilizations. Why did they fail, Diamond asks, and how can we avoid their fate? Will creeping plants one day adorn the ruins of New York's sky-scrapers? Are we hurtling towards inevitable self-destruction, or can we in some way save ourselves? Of course we can, he answers. Whether we will is another matter.

Ecology is not just some perspective we adopt on a weekend in the country -- it's vital, central, and the most important problem confronting us all, the author argues. We all depend on air, water, food supplies and fuel, and the careful management of these things should be the most important job of our leaders. How many of them, though, put such things first?

Probably none. But the time will come when they will have to, because the reasons civilizations have collapsed in the past, Diamond argues, were not invasion, disease or asteroids from outer space, but almost always the failure to manage successfully the basic natural resources on which all life depend.

Yet this is not a depressing book. In fact, it's a feast for the mind, and almost everywhere stimulating and refreshing. It ranges from examinations as to why the Anasazi, who were able to construct four-story buildings in what is now New Mexico, disappeared -- to how China is today contributing to global pollution, as well as being on the receiving end of other people's.

Taiwan only merits the occasional mention. The author lives in Los Angeles, a hideous polluter that puts the not inconsiderable pollution Taiwan's cities can offer in the shade. But he has a holiday home in idyllic Montana which provides useful examples of conservation at certain key points.

Born in New England in 1937, he declares the only foreign countries he's ever considered living in are Australia and Britain (he worked in the latter from 1958 to 1962).

Diamond sees Australians as a well-educated people who nowadays understand their Asian identity, and are coming to terms with their country's special ecology, notably low-yield soils, by slowly discarding their earlier British-style assumptions. Sheep, he says, aren't really suited to Australian conditions at all, but are there because the British in the late 18th century needed a new source of wool. Coming to terms with your true ecological situation, whatever the inherited culture may dictate, is a major key to success, Diamond argues.

In this, China gets credit for limiting its population growth, Taiwan for allocating large sums to health care, and the states of the European Union for putting aside past differences for the common good.

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