Climate Crisis: lessons from a favourite book
Updated: Aug 25
Climate emergencies in the Northern Hemisphere are reminding me of one of my favourite books, Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. His 2005 work explored the historical collapse of societies that failed to respond and adjust to severe climate shocks, pollution, and over-exploitation of resources. Delving into the past, Diamond identified three pivotal factors that foreshadowed societal collapse. When I read his book eighteen years ago, I thought Diamond's analysis was a warning of a possible future for my grandchildren. But now, with the world crashing head first into a fossil-fuelled climate crisis, his analysis is real.
The first factor Diamond identified was environmental degradation, emerging when societies unsustainably harvest and ultimately exhaust their natural resources. Today's climate crisis aligns almost too neatly with this. Greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation are driving temperatures to unprecedented levels. Plastic pollution has reached a scale where micro plastics are even found inside our own human hearts. Yet despite decades of scientific advice and growing awareness on the unfolding environmental catastrophe, governments worldwide continue to subsidise and develop the fossil fuel industry, allow plastic pollution to go largely unabated and fund and support forest destruction. Ecological damage is accelerating. Last year the world's richest countries spent $1.4 trillion on fossil fuel subsidies.
Comparisons with historical collapses are striking. Just as the Mayans depleted their resources through deforestation and soil degradation, the world is depleting its natural capital by heedlessly extracting fossil fuels and pumping out CO2. Signs of environmental devastation are all around us, from extreme heatwaves, raging wildfires, rising sea levels and other extreme weather events. This environmental damage, when coupled with a wilful refusal to shift course, mirrors the path that past societies took toward ruin.
Climate Change and Scarce Resources
Diamond's second factor identified climate change and resource scarcity. A rapidly destabilising and dangerous climate now threatens essential resources like freshwater, agricultural land, and biodiversity. At a societal level, climate change is having a domino effect. It's causing conflicts and displacement. This eerie parallel resonates with the experiences of past civilisations, like the Viking settlers in Greenland, who faced shifting climates that strained their ability to survive.
As temperatures rise and the world approaches 1.5 degrees of warming, droughts and storms have intensified and ecosystems are faltering beyond the point of return. Parallels to historical collapses are inescapable. Millions of people are facing food shortages due to drought and heatwaves. Challenges that have historically led to isolated societies' downfall are being amplified. Now it's happening at a global level.
Societal Response and Adaptability
For his third factor, Diamond referred to societal response and adaptability, particularly the role of governments, community and collective decisions in determining a society's resilience. Diamond highlighted how societies that resisted change, even when faced with undeniable evidence, eventually crumbled. Our current world is following this pattern.
Just as the ruling elites of past civilisations clung to traditional ways even in the face of impending doom, we are witnessing reluctance for change in the corridors of power today. Politicians and company CEOs are ignoring the scientific evidence, or at best paying lip service to it with greenwashing. Their failure to prioritise long-term sustainability over short-term political or monetary gain echoes historical collapses where leaders made choices that hastened societies' downfalls.
The Urgent Call to Action
To me it is clear that the world is on a global trajectory towards societal collapse if we don't learn from history. Diamond's observations from the past apply all too well to the behaviours and events we are witnessing today. The world stands at a crossroads. The decisions we make will shape our fate.
I'd like to think our story does not have to end in tragedy. The lessons of history offer a roadmap for avoiding that. The world still has an opportunity to change course. Listening to and acting on the science, transitioning rapidly to renewable energy, embracing sustainability, and demanding accountability from political and corporate leaders can stop us destroying ourselves.
How many times do we have to hear this message before we act? We don't have any more time to waste.
A more detailed exploration of the link between today's events and Jared Diamond's Collapse is currently in The Nation.