Over 400,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to learn how to make better decisions, create new ideas, and avoid stupid errors. With more than 100,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub. To learn more about what we do, start here.

Society and the Ability to Survive

Jared Diamond is the guru of collapse. Collapse is the title of one of the books that have made him a world-famous academic. It is a theme that captures the Zeitgeist: markets have collapsed, banks have collapsed and confidence, even in the capitalist system itself, has collapsed.

Humans' ability to destroy the basis of their own livelihood is a recurring Diamond theme.

“There is a parallel based on the same fundamental mechanisms of the economic collapse that we're seeing now and the collapse of past civilisations such as the Maya,” he continues. “The message is that when you have a large society that consumes lots of resources, that society is likely to collapse once it hits its peak.”

“The Maya collapse began in the late 700s, and then simply the most advanced society in the New World collapsed over the course of several decades. They were mostly gone a century later,” he says wistfully. “When a complex structure like that starts collapsing, you are pulling out dominoes in the whole structure.”

Much of Diamond's writing suggests that only those societies able to stamp out unsustainable habits – over-logging, overspending, over-extension – have the ability to survive.

“The average per-person consumption rate in the first world of metal and oil and natural resources is 32 times that of the developing world,” says Diamond. “That means that one American is consuming like 32 Kenyans.” The problem is not the number of Kenyans, the problem is when Kenyans or, more pressingly, big developing countries such as China, gain the ability to consume like Americans.


Can't humans simply increase the supply of resources as they have done before? “We can change the supply of some things if there is only one limiting resource. If it is food, then we can have a green revolution and produce more crops,” he says. “Unfortunately, we need lots of resources. We need food, we need water. We are already using something like 70 or 80 per cent of the world's fresh water. So you say, ‘Alright, we'll get around water by desalinating sea water.' But then there's the energy ceiling, and so on.”

Full article.

Still curious? Diamond is the author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed and Guns, Germs, And Steel.