Only after the last tree has been cut down.  Only after the last river has been poisoned.  Only after the last fish has been caught.  Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.

"When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof." - Wingspread Statement of the Precautionary Principle.

Below is a very good report by Dick Beames of Vancouver, BC on two recently published books: 

 “A Short History of Progress” by Ronald Wright  and  “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”   by Jared Diamond & Thoughts on “A Short History of Progress” by Ronald Wright and  “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”   by Jared Diamond  

By  Dick Beames    March 11, 2005

Over the last few months, I have read  A Short History of Progress (2004) by Ronald Wright, a Canadian living in Vancouver, and Collapse (2005) by Jared Diamond, an American living in Los Angeles.  Both authors have a Ph.D.  Wright added skills as a historian, essayist and novelist to his degree in archaeology.  Diamond expanded from his degree in geography into evolutionary biology and biogeography. Both are outstanding authors who have won many prizes for their publications.  Both of the above books are about societies throughout the ages and how their interactions with their habitats have resulted in failure or in success.  In some cases, the books overlap,  but they are markedly different in many ways.

Both discuss Easter Island in considerable detail, largely because it was a civilization that was isolated, and thus had to depend only on what the island had to offer.  It failed for a variety of reasons, including warfare and an obsession with the building of monuments.  The coup de grace occurred when the last tree was cut down. Deforestation was a common feature in the decline of many other civilizations also.  Abuses of water usage or a lack of an understanding of how the water can change in the amount available or in quality were major components in so many of the failures.  These included falling water tables, salting out from the misuse of irrigation and deforestation, erosion, and silting up of dams.  In all cases of failure, the reasons include the lack of respect for (or ignorance of) the environment, such as the decimation of forests to grow small crops, and in one case (Easter Island) the complete removal of trees.  Wright states at one point "The lesson I read in the past is this: that the health of land and water - and of woods, which are the keepers of water - can be the only lasting basis for any civilization's survival and success."  A stark example of this is the comparison between Haiti and the Dominican Republic discussed by Diamond.  In Haiti, virtually all of the trees have been removed, while in the Dominican Republic, the trees and most of the rest of the environment have been looked after, in spite of the country having been controlled for much of its existence by ruthless dictators.  

Other similarities among failed states were the problems that resulted from settlers in a new land not adapting to the prevailing conditions.  Part of this is understandable because of unfamiliarity with the new conditions, but part was because of stubbornness or stupidity.  Examples were the settlements of the Vikings in Greenland. Over the centuries to the present time, the unwillingness or the inability of societies to organize a balance between population size and carrying capacity of the land has been a major factor in the ability of that society to manage.  Present examples of overcrowded states, as discussed by Diamond, are Rwanda and Haiti, where the densities are greater than anywhere else in the world.  Voluntary control methods for population growth have covered the whole spectrum (abstinence, coitus interruptus, lactation amenorrhoea, abortion, barriers and infanticide).

 Diamond discusses another great example of problems with management of the environment – Australia. This, at least for me, having been born and educated in Australia, is the most disturbing part of his book.  Australia has (or had) an outstanding record in agricultural research by CSIRO and the various state government departments of agriculture, yet, at the present time, there is so much wrong.  The problems are largely, but not all, as a result of the land being so dry and much of the soil being so poor.  Also there is not any regeneration from volcanic action.  I have to assume that most of the folly at the present time results from poor and partisan political action, and not from scientific ignorance.  However, Australia is not alone in this regard.  The U.S., at least with the present administration, is just as bad, where there seems to be an absolute disregard for the environment.  To return to Australia.  Irrigated areas (e.g. the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area) is salting up, as are the wheatlands in Western Australia, the latter because of tree clearing and the absence of the roots to recycle water.  Deforestation goes on apace, even to the extent of chipping the felled trees and sending the chips to Japan for paper production.  In the grazing lands in the dry interior, there is extensive over-grazing and land degradation, and this is at a time when the value of wool has sunk to an unprofitably low level. It has been suggested that kangaroos replace sheep as the grazing animal of choice.  At least kangaroos have adapted to the dry environment to the extent that implantation of the fertilized ovum can be delayed in a drought until the drought is broken.  But the ability of the kangaroo to clear the standard 4ft. fence with ease and the problems with mustering would make this idea rather impractical.  Cotton growing is an ecological disaster, not only in Australia, but also in many other countries, with the pollution of rivers with fertilizers and pesticides.  The question this raises is “No matter how much we know, will political opportunism and greed be what eventually ruins the world for all of us?”  I think the answer is “Yes”.  That is, unless the people of the world make their concerns heard so effectively that elected politicians dare not ignore the voices of a public that is rapidly becoming increasingly aware of the dire, and in many ways irreversible, consequences of ignoring the environment.

A major difference between the books is the length.  Diamond’s book is approximately 10 times as long.  It also has much more detail, but I found a lot of it rather heavy reading, with my being neither an evolutionary biologist nor an archaeologist. However, each book is a masterpiece.  A Short History of Progress is a literary experience in its discussion of civilizations rising and falling for various reasons, including warfare, religion, population growth out of balance with the capacity of the managed environment, and mistakes with regard to the management of the environment.  The incorporation in the text of references to many of the world’s great writers is impressive.  The message is simple yet profound.  This book, as suggested by one reviewer, should be compulsory reading for all of our youth.  It would provide an excellent base for further reading on the measures that need to be taken for the protection of the environment and the saving of the world for the future of mankind and other forms of life. Why do I think A Short History of Progress is so brilliant?  I will present some sections from the final chapter to illustrate how well Wright is able to compose his thoughts and tie them in with those of outstanding authors and thinkers of the past (see underlined below).

 “The Victorian scientific romances had two modern descendants: mainstream science fiction and profound social satire set in nightmare futures.  The latter include several of the last century’s most important books: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, and Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians.

Incorporating Marx’s opinion of capitalism, he states that “Both Communism and Capitalism are materialist Utopias offering rival versions of an earthly paradise” “In the past it was only the poor who lost the game; now it is the planet”

“Now in a report unsuccessfully hushed up by the Bush administration, the Pentagon predicts worldwide famine, anarchy and warfare “within a generation” should climate change fulfil the more severe projections.”

“In his 1872 novel Erehwon (an anagram of nowhere), Samuel Butler created a remote civilization that had industrialized long before Europe, but where the effects of progress had sparked a Luddite revolution “.  “The clanking monsters of Erehwon have taken subtler forms that threaten the whole biosphere: climate disruption, toxic waste, new pathogens, nanotechnology, cybernetics, genetic engineering.”

He then quotes from Atwood’s Oryx and Crake with one of the characters asking “As a species we’re doomed by hope, then?” and then gives some examples such as “Hope elects the politician with the biggest empty promise.”

By contrast, Collapse contains much more detail but not as much philosophical thought.  What is most interesting in Collapse are the examples of where societies were intelligent enough to reason and adapt to the environment, with the dominant aim of retaining sustainability.   

One may well ask “What can we do?”  If everything were working as it should be, the governments in both Canada and the U.S. would do the obvious, such as introduce regulations on automobile fuel economy and encourage the building of hybrid cars (with reduced taxes?).  In addition, there could be heavy funding of public transit and  clean energy research and installations,  a reduction in the use of coal, particularly the high sulphur type, and the introduction of more stringent forest management practices.  And the list goes on.  In Canada we are not doing nearly enough, but at least we are signed on to the Kyoto Accord.  In the U.S., it would seem that the Bush administration is not only doing little to improve the environment, it is actually relaxing many of the regulations that were in place. Rather than taking measures to reduce the use of fossil fuels, the administration is following a course to gain control of world supplies of oil by the implementation of aggressive measures. Gilles Kepel, a French expert on the Muslim religion and the Middle East, states in his 2004 book The War for Muslim Minds  “The Bush administration planned to erect the two pillars of a grand structure for the region: security for Israel and protection of the world's oil supply.  The war against terror, from its inception, was in many ways a hostage to this larger aim." In It's the Crude, Dude, Linda McQuaig spells this out in detail, complete with a map of western Iraq, showing areas that the U.S. government had allocated to U.S. companies for oil exploration even before the recent war in Iraq commenced.  To make matters worse in the U.S., according to Jared Diamond, there is a law that it is an offence for a company to do anything that is not in the best interests of the shareholders (i.e. to maximize profits).  This makes it difficult for a company to implement environmentally-friendly measures if these measures will adversely affect profits.  However, one has to wonder how effective this law is with the difficulties encountered with the laying of blame in companies such as WorldCom and Enron.  

However, some progressive companies have seen the light.  An example used by Diamond is Chevron in its oil-drilling in Papua New Guinea.  By reducing the width of roads, and extensively using helicopters, and introducing many other progressive practices, it has actually increased profits and has had a markedly lower impact on the environment.  Just as Chevron gets complimented, Exxon\Mobil comes in for severe criticism.  It would be of value for environmentalists to check these stories and get the word out for citizens to support the ‘good’ companies and shun the ‘bad’.

There are some other nice stories.  One is regarding the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).  This sets standards for management of forests.  Various forest companies have adopted these standards as have various retail outlets.  The lumber is stamped with the FSC brand.  Home Depot and Ikea use this lumber exclusively (as do many other companies).  In 1997 Unilever and the WWF teamed up to establish the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).  Other companies and foundations, plus international agencies, have now joined in funding the MSC.  

After reading these two books, and taking into account the recently established connection between the production of greenhouse gases and global warming, I am rather pessimistic about the future of the world, at least for humans and for the plants and animals.  I draw attention again to a quotation from A Short History of Progress,  “The lesson I read in the past is this: that the health of land and water - and of woods, which are the keepers of water - can be the only lasting basis for any civilization's survival and success."  Yet, the precious and scarce fresh water reserves continue to be abused, and not to receive the respect they deserve.  Rivers are increasingly being polluted and the levels in many of the world’s aquifers are being lowered at alarming rates. Vast areas of virgin forest, particularly in the Amazon and South-east Asia, are still disappearing each year.  Neither the U.S. nor China, that collectively produce perhaps half of the world’s greenhouse gases, are signed on to the Kyoto Accord, the former because of either an unwillingness or an inability to understand its importance, the latter because of its desire to rapidly become a member of the “developed” world.  

Yet there is some hope.  The activity at the grassroots level is rapidly expanding through the use of the Internet. The constant pressure from activist groups, both environmental and political, has forced governments and business leaders to listen to their messages.  Many of the businesses that have chosen to incorporate environment-friendly policies have been rewarded with increased profitability.  But is it all too little too late?

Dick Beames
Vancouver, BC


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