Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, January 21, 2005

Reasons to be cheerful

by Jared Diamond

In our second extract from his new book, Jared Diamond reveals why he is cautiously optimistic for the future of the planet and outlines the choices we have to make to protect our environment.

The Guardian (January 13 2005)

People often ask me, "Jared, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the world's future?" I answer, "I'm a cautious optimist". I mean that, on the one hand, I acknowledge the seriousness of the problems facing us. If we don't make a determined effort to solve them, and if we don't succeed at that effort, the world as a whole within the next few decades will face a declining standard of living, or perhaps something worse.

That's the reason why I decided to devote most of my career efforts at this stage of my life to convincing people that our problems have to be taken seriously and won't go away otherwise. On the other hand, we shall be able to solve our problems - if we choose to do so. That's why my wife and I did decide to have children seventeen years ago: because we saw grounds for hope.

One basis for hope is that, realistically, we are not beset by insoluble problems. While we do face big risks, the most serious ones are not beyond our control, like a possible collision with an asteroid of a size that hits the Earth every hundred million years or the horrific tsunamis that struck in the Indian ocean. Instead, they are ones that we are generating ourselves.

Because we are the cause of our environmental problems, we are the ones in control of them, and we can choose or not choose to stop causing them and start solving them. The future is up for grabs. We don't need new technologies to solve our problems; while new technologies can make some contribution, for the most part we just need the political will to apply solutions already available.

Of course, that's a big "just". But many societies did find the necessary political will in the past. Our modern societies have already found the will to solve some of our problems, and to achieve partial solutions to others.

Another basis for hope is the increasing diffusion of environmental thinking among the public around the world. While such thinking has been with us for a long time, its spread has accelerated, especially since the 1962 publication of Silent Spring. The environmental movement has been gaining adherents at an increasing rate and they act through a growing diversity of increasingly effective organisations, not only in the US and Europe but also in the Dominican Republic and other developing countries. At the same time as the environmental movement is gaining strength at an increasing rate, so too are the threats to our environment.

What are the choices that we must make if we are now to succeed, and not to fail? Two types of choices seem to me to be crucial.

One of those choices has depended on the courage to practise long term thinking, and to make bold, courageous, anticipatory decisions at a time when problems have become perceptible but before they have reached crisis proportions. This type of decision making is the opposite of the short term, reactive decision making that too often characterises our elected politicians - "ninety-day thinking".

Set against the many depressing bad examples of such short term decision making are the encouraging examples of courageous long term thinking in the past, and in the contemporary world of NGOs, business and government. Among past societies faced with the prospect of ruinous deforestation, Easter Island and Mangareva chiefs succumbed to their immediate concerns, but Tokugawa shoguns, Inca emperors, New Guinea highlanders and 16th century German landowners adopted a long view and reafforested. China's leaders similarly promoted reafforestation in recent decades and banned logging of native forests in 1998. In business, the American corporations that remain successful (for example Procter & Gamble) don't wait for a crisis before re-examining their policies.

Courageous, successful, long term planning also characterises some governments and some leaders, some of the time. Over the last thirty years a sustained effort by the US government has reduced levels of the six main air pollutants nationally by 25%, even while energy consumption and population increased by 40% and vehicle miles driven by 150%.

The other crucial choice illuminated by the past involves the courage to make painful decisions about values. Which of the values that formerly served a society well can continue to be maintained under new changed circumstances? Which of those treasured values must instead be jettisoned and replaced with different approaches? Australia is reappraising its identity as a British agricultural society. The Icelanders and many traditional caste societies of India in the past, and Montana ranchers dependent on irrigation in recent times, did reach agreement to subordinate their individual rights to group interests.

All of these were achieved despite being agonisingly difficult. Hence they also contribute to my hope. They may inspire modern first world citizens with the courage to make the most fundamental reappraisal now facing us: how much of our traditional consumer values and first world living standards can we afford to retain? I already mentioned the seeming political impossibility of inducing first world citizens to lower their impact on the world.

The alternative, of continuing our current impact, is more impossible. This dilemma reminds me of Winston Churchill's response to criticisms of democracy: "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time". In that spirit, a lower-impact society is the most impossible scenario for our future - except for all other conceivable scenarios.

Actually, while it won't be easier to reduce our impact, it won't be impossible, either. Remember that impact is the product of two factors: population, multiplied times impact per person. As for the first of those two factors, population growth has recently declined drastically in all first world countries, and in many third world countries as well - including China, Indonesia, and Bangladesh, with the world's largest, fourth largest and ninth largest populations respectively.

Intrinsic population growth in Japan and Italy is already below the replacement rate, such that their existing populations (that is, not counting immigrants) will soon begin shrinking.

As for impact per person, the world would not even have to decrease its current consumption rates of timber products or of seafood: those rates could be sustained or even increased, if the world's forests and fisheries were properly managed.

My remaining cause for hope is another consequence of the globalised modern world's interconnectedness. Past societies lacked archaeologists and television. Today, though, we turn on our televisions or radios or pick up our newspapers, and we see, hear, or read about what happened in Somalia or Afghanistan a few hours earlier.

We have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of distant peoples and past peoples. That's an opportunity that no past society enjoyed to such a degree. My hope is that enough people will choose to profit from that opportunity to make a difference.

Is Jared right?

The author of Collapse and Guns, Germs and Steel will be talking live online on Thursday January 20 at 3 pm. Post your questions and messages for Jared Diamond now here.

Extracted from Collapse: How societies choose to fail or survive by Jared Diamond, published by Allen Lane on January 17 at £20. c Jared Diamond. To obtain a copy at the offer price of £18.40 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875 or go to,13026,1388503,00.html

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Bill Totten