C14 of Collapse - Disastrous Decisions

Diamond’s college students always ask how could societies make the disastrous decisions that allow a collapse to happen?

In other words...
  1. Why don’t societies anticipate problems (are the people just stupid)?
  2. Why don’t societies recognize problems even after the situation becomes obvious?
  3. Whey, even after the situation becomes obvious, do some societies, (or the people who could do something) not even attempt a solution?
  4. And why do some solutions fail (again, are the people stupid)?
Note: The people generally aren’t stupid – maybe venal, maybe short sighted, maybe besotted by religion or tradition – but not stupid .

Problem Not Anticipated

Sometimes people just don’t see a problem coming. There is a failure of imagination. British colonists in Australia did not imagine what would happen when they introduced foxes and rabbits. The foxes killed off smaller native animals and birds (none of whom had genetically coded experience with these foreign predators). Rabbits ate everything and even though the foxes ate the rabbits they couldn’t keep up. Another example is kudzu –which was introduced in the southern U.S. to control erosion and ended up covering a lot of landscape.

Sometimes societies don’t remember past problems. Non-literate societies can lose information from generation to generation. Literate societies can simply forget what has been written. For example just after the 1973 oil crisis Americans briefly switched to more economical cars. After a few years they returned to gas guzzlers.

Sometimes people draw false analogies to past problems. Remembering apparent lessons of WWI, the French developed the Maginot line – a series of fortifications positioned to repel likely German infantry attacks. Unfortunately the Germans bypassed the Maginot line with masses of tanks – which had only been used individually in previous war. The French generals were stuck in the past and failed to anticipate the future. They learned the wrong lessons.

Problem Not Recognized

Sometimes people don’t see a problem even after it arrives.

There are at least three reasons for such failures of perception…


The problem is literally invisible to the naked eye. For example, a region’s soil nutrients – invisible to the eye – might be missing. Native plants growing in such soil can appear lush, disguising the fact that all the nutrients are locked in the plants. When settlers, not knowing any better, cut the plants down the nutrients go away. Crops planted by the settlers won’t grow.

Or, consider greenhouses gases. They are generally invisible. So are pathogens.

Distant Managers

Decision-makers might be somewhere else. They don’t know when things go bad. Diamond notes that Tikopian and the New Guinea highland societies were successful – at least in part - because everyone involved was there. The bosses knew what was going on.

Slow Trends

Slow trends can be hidden in up and down fluctuations. Noise obscures signals. Consider global warming. One year the temperature is up; another year it is down. Much data had to be collected before scientists agreed that global warming is real.

(Weathers’ aside: Even after long-term temperature increases were accepted, a few scientists argued - and still argue - that the increase is due to natural climate fluctuation and not human activity. Only recently have most scientists concluded that the rapid – geologically speaking – increases of recent decades are not likely natural trends. Natural trends typically don’t work that fast.)

Creeping normalcy (landscape amnesia) can hide trends. When things happen slowly enough we might not see the changes. Over the years an untended field becomes overgrown and nobody notices until one day somebody says didn’t that used to be a field? Or a slum happens. Or a town becomes gentrified. Or a stream gradually becomes filled with silt from runoff. Or gradually all the trees in a forest are cut down and only the old people remember back when.

Solution Not Attempted

Sometimes solutions might not even be attempted - for various rational and irrational reasons.

Rational Reasons for Not Attempting Solutions

People or groups often don’t do anything because rationally (ignoring any moral issues) it is not in their interest to do so. Diamond cites the polluting company who leaves an area before the damage affects them. They take the money and run.

This type of issue is sometimes referred to as the “tragedy of the commons”, “the prisoner’s dilemma”, and “the logic of collective action”. Generally it means (again ignoring any moral issues) that when people can – with little penalty - gain an advantage by behaving badly it makes no sense for individuals to behave well.

For example…

If everyone is waiting in a line (vehicular, pedestrian) and you have an opportunity to cut in then why not do it before other people get the same idea? (You might be especially inclined to cut in if you don’t feel anything for the other people – or, better yet, if you resent them because of social difference – in that case cutting in provides positive satisfaction.)

Or if everybody shoplifts, maybe you should as well – before the store packs up and moves out of your neighborhood.

Or if your local economy depends on an ecologically damaging industry (logging, mining, etc.) why should your town pay the price for a national concern?

There are two obvious answers to such problems.

One is to force people and groups to do the right thing by regulating their behavior. Such regulations are typically backed by people with guns.

The other answer is for people to police themselves. Diamond says that this can only happen in homogeneous populations where people share common community values. One class cannot feel especially estranged from the class above it. And it helps if people care about something larger than themselves.

(Weathers aside: This is the top-down versus bottom-up approach to government that divides liberals and conservatives. Top-down advocates accept that many people will not do the right thing, either because they have no free-will – they are basically animals, idiots, whatever – or because they are selfish and don’t care. Bottom-up advocates argue that might be true, but everybody should be free to do the right thing and government should get in the way. People should look after themselves.)

Irrational Reasons for Not Attempting Solutions

In previous examples, no solutions were attempted because inaction made rational sense at least to some people. Irrational inaction happens when there is no rational reason for anybody to maintain the status quo but they do it anyway.

Religious convictions sometimes prompt irrational behavior. Diamond offers as an example the Easter Islanders who cut down all their trees to get logs to transport statues – objects of religious veneration. He also mentions the Greenland Norse whose shared Christian values helped them survive for centuries then prevented them from adopting new lifestyles needed for continued survival.

Secular beliefs (often held in conjunction with religious beliefs) can also get in the way of survival. Sometimes these beliefs start as a rational behavior and over the years became irrational. Sometimes it is not clear when or if there has been such a shift. The self-reliant, go-it-alone pioneer spirit which helped found the U.S. might not make sense in a complex urban society where people must live and work in close proximity. Many people – especially the people who believe in bottom-up control and free will would disagree. Top-down people – many of them – would regretfully agree.

Irrational reluctance to solve problems can also result from a focus on short-term issues at the expense of long-term views. The current willingness in Washington to sacrifice environmental regulations for a possible short-term bump in employment might be an example.

A final example cited by Diamond of irrational reluctance to solve problems is psychological denial. People just don’t want to face issues. It is too painful. He notes a study of the attitudes of people who live below dams. People who live farther away from the dam were more concerned about dam failure than people who lived closer. Diamond contends that those people – looking up at the dam every day – professed that they were in no danger in order to stay sane (by being irrational).

When The Solution Doesn’t Work

Sometimes people try to do something but the solution fails - for various reasons.

The solution might too complex at the present time. People might not be smart enough – may never be smart enough. For example we may never eradicate kudzu. Or maybe science can never get to the very moment of the Big Bang (our Big Bang anyway) or find the God Particle or figure out Dark Matter.

The solution might be perceived as being too expensive. For example all kudzu could pulled up by a huge labor force. But that would be very expensive. (Some environmental problems viewed today as being too expensive might later be viewed differently.)

Some solutions might be too little to late (or just too late or too little).

Some solutions might be just wrong, the result of ignorance. Forest service policies that allow undergrowth to build up result in more and hotter fires. (This solution was once the result of ignorance, now it is more likely economic – clearing out undergrowth is too expensive.) Dunking and burning purported witches is generally wrong and ineffective.


Like other writers on this subject, Diamond does not want to say societal success or failure is random - or determined by environmental or other factors. He prefers to cite courageous and/or farsighted leaders and courageous and/or farsighted people – leaders and people who can learn from history and face the future.
Maybe so.

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