When Societies Collapse

One great benefit from traveling for an extended period is you get time to actually read. As in for hours on end sometimes. Some of this reading time is voluntary, as when you are kicked back in a hammock by a beach, but other times it’s what you do while waiting or riding. The actual “travel” part of traveling can mean a lot of riding something and waiting to ride something.

I’ve had this book Collapse on my nightstand for at least a year at home and something else always had to be read first, for Perceptive Travel book reviews or something else I was working on. Now that I finally got a chance to read it, I am kicking myself because it has shed light on so many things I’ve wondered about and so many places I’ve been.

In short, it’s a book about how and why some specific societies failed and mostly disappeared: Easter Island, the Maya empires, the Greenland Norse, and others. It’s complicated and there are multiple factors in every case, but a big factor is that the people outconsumed the resources available to them. When the food, water, and forests are gone, then what?

It’s more than a little scary when you apply its findings to modern times, especially with a population that continues to grow (mostly in the poorest and least fertile parts of the world too) and development that is ravaging much of the environment. Interestly though, the two countries cited as being in the most danger are very different: Australia and China.

Australia’s main problem is that it’s a barren land without much decent soil. Australia is like a big potted plant. In order to support agriculture or even productive fisheries, outside nutrients must be added, over and over again. (Now you know why most Australian Chardonay tastes the same.)

“While 60% of Australian land area and 80% of its human water use are dedicated to agriculture, the value of agriculture relative to other sectors of the Australian economy has been shrinking to the point where it now contributes less than 3% of the gross national product. It turns out that 80% of Australia’s agricultural profits are derived from less than 0.8% of its agricultural land…”

Plus it has the second man-made problem of being full of introduced foreign pests—especially rabbits. More species have been eliminated there than on any other continent in modern times. “Australia could be the first First World country to fail due to environmental degradation.”

Almost every statistic you read on China is mind-boggling, both the good and the bad. Here are a few winners:

Average blood lead levels in Chinese city dwellers are nearly double the level considered dangerously high elsewhere. About 300,000 deaths a year and 8% of GDP are attributed to air pollution. (1,800 cigarettes per year per person doesn’t help either.)

Until 1950, dust storms used to afflict northwestern China on the average once every 31 years. From 1950 until 1990, once every 20 months. Since 1990, the storms have occurred almost every year.

Apart from a tendency to trash the environment at every turn, China’s main “problem” is its rapid growth in wealth. By 2015 China will add 126 million NEW households, more than the total number of U.S. households now.

“If China’s per-capita consumption do rise to First World levels, and even in nothing about the rest of the world changed…then that production/consumption rate increase alone would translate ( as multiplied by China’s population) into an increase in total World production or consumption of 94% of industrial metals.”

“In other words, China’s achievement of First World standards will approximately double the the entire world’s resource use and environmental impact.”

How long will it take to reverse the bad habits and the environmental declines? This stat is not encouraging: “With 20% of the world’s population, China accounts for only 1% of the world’s outlay in education.”

  1. Anil

    Sounds like an interesting read. I’ll add it to my wish list on Amazon.

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