I'm always a sucker for the synthesis of Malcolm Gladwell. This week, he reviews Jared Diamonds Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" for The New Yorker. An excerpt:
"... But look, Diamond says, at Easter Island. Once, it was home to a thriving culture that produced the enormous stone statues that continue to inspire awe. It was home to dozens of species of trees, which created and protected an ecosystem fertile enough to support as many as thirty thousand people.
Today, its a barren and largely empty outcropping of volcanic rock. What happened? Did a rare plant virus wipe out the islands forest cover? Not at all. The Easter Islanders chopped their trees down, one by one, until they were all gone. I have often asked myself, What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it? Diamond writes, and that, of course, is what is so troubling about the conclusions of Collapse.
Those trees were felled by rational actorswho must have suspected that the destruction of this resource would result in the destruction of their civilization.
The lesson of Collapse is that societies, as often as not, arent murdered. They commit suicide: they slit their wrists and then, in the course of many decades, stand by passively and watch themselves bleed to death.
This doesnt mean that acts of God dont play a role. It did get colder in Greenland in the early fourteen-hundreds. But it didnt get so cold that the island became uninhabitable. The Inuit survived long after the Norse died out, and the Norse had all kinds of advantages, including a more diverse food supply, iron tools, and ready access to Europe. The problem was that the Norse simply couldnt adapt to the countrys changing environmental conditions. Diamond writes, for instance, of the fact that nobody can find fish remains in Norse archeological sites."