Herron: Environmentalism through Diamond glasses

By Mason Herron

If environmentalists ever wish to find a new spokesman, they should look among the rolling hills… If environmentalists ever wish to find a new spokesman, they should look among the rolling hills of southern California, where, cradled within the City of Angels, rests the University of California, Los Angeles — the institution that currently employs Jared Diamond, an environmentalist of staggering intellect.

Diamond serves as a professor of geography and physiology. Yet, his specialty fields also include ornithology, ecology, evolutionary biology and anthropology. Those unable to grasp the value of environmentalism — or believe it to be silly — should read two of his books: “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” and “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.”

Once, when talking with a New Guinean politician, he was asked, “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” That question motivated Diamond to write “Guns, Germs, and Steel” — published in 1997 — a book that profoundly outlined the value of a surrounding environment upon a civilization’s development.

Throughout the book, Diamond identifies the numerous geographical advantages that allowed certain civilizations to flourish far quicker than others. For example, Diamond points to the Fertile Crescent — present day Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean coast — as an area significantly more conducive to farming and animal domestication, two factors that have been integral in allowing for population growth. More importantly, they allow specialization, which made it possible for ancient people to cultivate other skills while farmers took on the burden of providing food.

Domesticated animals, meanwhile, allowed civilizations to build up immunities to certain diseases that, once transported across oceans, could wipe out other civilizations. One merely needs to remember the painful example of smallpox in North America to understand how animal domestication became such a distinct advantage.

In 2005, Diamond sought to discover not how societies develop, but how they often fail. In “Collapse,” he points to numerous factors that have contributed to the downfall of societies and civilizations. Deforestation, soil erosion, overhunting, overfishing, overpopulation and other factors have all led to the collapse of societies throughout history.

One of Diamond’s studies provides us with an example of environmental neglect that is still a problem today. In 1925, Haiti retained more than 60 percent of its original forest cover. Today, that number is less than 1 percent.

Haiti derives most of its energy from charcoal — a fuel made from wood. Such widespread deforestation removed root systems that were integral to healthy soil. As Haitians removed trees and their roots, the soil began to erode, which has made the country susceptible to flooding and often prohibits farming and crop development.

Today, Haiti is the most impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere and lacks economic development and political stability. The Dominican Republic — the nation bordering Haiti on the island of Hispaniola — has managed its environment much more responsibly and has seen much greater successes relative to Haiti.

Diamond does not wish to illustrate that ecological mismanagement is always the cause of a civilization’s collapse. “It’s obviously true,” he writes, “that military or economic factors alone may suffice.” Yet many societies overrun by more powerful civilizations fell victim to their conquerors only after neglecting their environment, thus corroding their own power.

Currently, the United States faces its own environmental challenges. Many will point to global warming as a direct example of people’s inability to act environmentally responsible. However, even if one is skeptical of climate change, we still face other daunting environmental challenges that in a few generations might become our own society’s test. One of Diamond’s factors that present-day societies must avoid is an energy shortage — a crisis the United States might face far sooner than we would prefer.

William Rees, professor of ecological planning at the University of British Columbia, wrote, “The most important lesson to be drawn from ‘Collapse’ is that resilient societies are nimble ones, capable of long-term planning and of abandoning deeply entrenched but ultimately destructive core values and beliefs.”

Tackling the inevitable problems caused by our tremendous consumption will be difficult over the next few decades. Our most difficult challenge will be altering our perspective on our own environment and displaying flexibility and willingness to not only accept change but to accommodate it.

E-mail Mason at [email protected]