Saturday, May 22, 2010

Alternative Futures

A couple of years ago, I read Jared Diamond's book "Collapse: How Society Chooses to Succeed of Fail." It was sort of a companion book to another book of his I'd read, "Guns, Germs and Steel."

In "Guns, Germs and Steel," he examined what the factors were that made Western societies so dominant economically, politically and of course militarily over the last couple of hundred years. In "Collapse," he looked at why some societies succeeded and others failed in those regards in the last few hundred years ago. In it, he looked at a question one of his students had asked: "I wonder what the Easter Islander who cut down the last tree on the island was thinking?"

Let me elaborate.

When the first Western explorers arrived on Easter Island, in the Pacific, they were confronted with a huge-- literally-- mystery. The island, with only a tiny population and little vegetation, nevertheless had huge statues carved in the likenesses of faces all over the island. The statues would have been challenging to create and move even with modern-day equipment.

There were all kinds of explanations originally, some of them just downright silly, such as the idea that ancient aliens had created them, using their advanced technology. Sometime in the last 15 years or so, a more plausible explanation-- one that carries ramifications for our times-- emerged.

Archaeologists ascertained that the tiny island broke down into tribes, who came to believe that their well-being, prestige and power was contingent on erecting enormous statues representing their deities. The scientists actually figured out which part of the island the stone came from. It was far from where the statues were from.

It appeared that the islanders cut down the trees on the island to move the giant statues. This was unfortunate. The trees were part of an ecological succession process that had taken many thousands of years, starting with dust blowing thousands of miles from other lands, over the Pacific, to Easter Island, being deposited in infinitesimal amounts, speck by speck over the millenia. Eventually lower plant forms established themselves in this dust, slowly creating the thin layer of soil that eventually supported the growth of trees.

In a few decades, the islanders squandered this heirloom trying to satisfy the gods they'd created. Hence the question. When they whacked down the last tree on Easter Island, dooming their advanced civilization, what thoughts were going through their heads?

The ramifications to our time are pretty easy to see. I sometimes wonder how future generations will view us-- if there are future generations. We're a society that uses petroleum, a resource that took many millions of years for geological processes to create, to make plastic to wrap candy with, move two tons of automobile to drive to buy fast food with and create useless crap that will be thrown away in a week. We have an agricultural system that uses huge amounts of fossil fuels-- the actual energy use to create it actually exceeds the caloric count of the food grown-- and non-renewable water resources to create food products that are killing us by degrees. We have created incredible medical tools-- instruments, medicines, etc. and yet until the Health Reform, we were increasingly restricting access to it for our citizens.

And our course, we are drowning in the garbage and poisons created by all of this.

My late friend Mark Evans once said, in one of his many thoughtful moments, that he believed that future societies will judge us not by the transient wealth we created, but how we took care of our infirm, elderly and less privileged. I tend to agree with him.

I recently changed my blog, for now, at least, letting my old blog lie fallow. I want to change not only the format, but the focus. I've long been interesting in sustainable societies-- I first became interested in it when I was in high school in the late seventies and the first "energy crisis" emerged out of OPEC's petroleum embargo on the West. There was a temporary interest in sustainable living-- renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, energy-efficient transportation, etc. When Reagan became President in 1981, the US federal government dropped interest in this like a hot rock. Still, over the last three decades, there have been people and projects dedicated to these things, who looked to the long-term rather than short. I intend to feature some of these things in my blog.

Over the years, I've come to the conclusion that there will be no "magic bullet" that will make society wise up and head toward a better, more livable future. It'll take little steps, persuasion, and dialogue. It's my hope that this blog can be a little part of that (along with my usual political, historical, cultural,musical and of course personal posts). I've come to the conclusion that the alternative is to sit and passively watch our society hurtling off a cliff like the Easter Islanders. And I like people way to much to sit while that happens.


Pat Tillett said...

Hi there, I saw your comment at "why are all the good blog names taken" and came to check you out. I really like what I've read so far. If you don't mind, I'm going to tag along.

mi said...

one of the things i've always like about your writing and your blog(s) is that although i might have a differing point of view, you are always thoughtful and sincere in what you write.
i truly respect that.

SkylersDad said...

I hope that things can be turned around, but I fear we may have passed some sort of a tipping point that we don't even realize yet.

Churlita said...

It's scary to think about. I guess, all we can do is try not to be part of the problem ourselves. I can't wait to see what direction your blog moves.

Johnny Rojo said...

Welcome aboard!

Coming from you, that's high praise. Thank you!

A lot of scientists are afraid of this with global warming-- a cascade of events that will be unstoppable. Let's hope we haven't gotten there yet.

I like your philosophy. I try to be an optimist-- like you, I'm a parent, and hope to leave something behind for my kids.

Pat Tillett said...

Thanks Johnny! Also thanks for commenting and signing on at my place!