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What can we learn from Tikopia, whose residents decided in 1600 to curb their excessive lifestyle?

How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
by Jared Diamond
Viking, 576 pp., $29.95

reviewed by Bill McKibben

We all know that the genocide in Rwanda was the result of politicians' fanning ethnic rivalries between Hutus and Tutsis. The evidence is pretty clear that such manipulation led to the holocaust that claimed 14 percent of the country's population, the overwhelming majority of them Tutsis. Oddly, though, social scientists working after the horrors subsided in northwestern Rwanda found that at least 5 percent of the residents there had been massacred -- even though there were no Tutsis. Why were the Hutus slaughtering each other? Probably, says Jared Diamond, because the area contained 2,040 people per square mile, twice the population density even of famously crowded places like the Netherlands. The average "farmer" worked a parcel 0.07 acre in size; by 1990, 40 percent of the population was living on less than 1,600 calories a day, which is otherwise known as famine. A pair of Belgian economists whom Diamond quotes say the outbreak of fighting "provided a unique opportunity to settle scores, or to reshuffle land properties, even among Hutu villagers.…It is not rare, even today, to hear Rwandans argue that a war is necessary to wipe out an excess of population and to bring numbers into line with the available land resources." In other words, a classic Malthusian trap.

But we all know that Malthus was wrong, don't we? The gloomy Victorian economist reckoned that population growth would outrun food supply, and hence crisis would ensue. In fact, so far just the opposite has happened. Even as populations have soared, total food production has grown even faster. With the exception of misgoverned, horribly crowded places like Rwanda, famine has become less common, not more.

In a larger sense, however, what one might call the Malthusian idea -- that humans demand more of the planet than it can provide -- has been at the unspoken core of environmental thinking for many years. Each decade that passes without catastrophe seems to undermine the idea; we appear to be so smart that we can invent our way out of whatever box canyon we stumble into. On the other hand, each decade sees us climb farther out on what just might be a limb; the stakes keep going up as we build the human enterprise larger and larger. From simply running out of water and oil, to complications such as global warming that arise when we use those resources that remain, to the furor over technologies such as genetic engineering, it's the question behind all the other questions: How exactly will we keep this up? Or, more precisely, can we?

And it's the question that Jared Diamond engages with wide-ranging erudition in this huge new book. Having won a Pulitzer in 1998 for Guns, Germs, and Steel, which explained why some civilizations rose to greater heights than others, he now takes on the equally interesting question of why some civilizations collapsed. Though he is careful, even in the case of Rwanda, to avoid environmental determinism, he nonetheless lays out a matrix of 12 key problems that he thinks can threaten entire civilizations, markers that indicate societal sustainability.

Some of these deadly dozen have been with us for millennia. Citing examples from the Maya to the island South Pacific, Diamond writes that societies may go under because they destroy forests, wild food sources, wetlands, or soil. In fact, deforestation and soil erosion were factors in almost every collapse he describes. There is, for instance, the story of the Greenland Norse, who cut their grasslands for turf to build homes, only to watch strong winds blow away the underlying soil, reducing the carrying capacity for cattle below what the settlers needed to survive. It is not comforting, then, to read that the spread of deserts in China has been so rapid in recent years that as many as 20,000 villages have been abandoned.

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Reviewed in this Issue
Yann Arthus-Bertrand: Being a Photographer
It's My Party Too
Nature's Strongholds

Hold it Right There...

Photo of a French farmer and her 3,600-pound bull

While flying over a flock of two million flamingos in Kenya, French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand instructed the pilot to cut the engine to avoid scaring the birds. The picture is stunning: a shot of the tiny plane's shadow cast across a cloud of pink. Unfortunately, the pilot couldn't restart the engine and had to crash-land on a nearby beach. (Both men survived.) The image is part of Arthus-Bertrand's renowned Earth From Above series, which began as a free sidewalk exhibit in Paris in 2000 and has since been shown at London's Natural History Museum, at the New York Public Library, and in galleries from Lisbon to Taipei. Arthus-Bertrand's newest volume includes a witty series of animal portraits, such as this one of a French farmer, crisply dressed and posed with her towering, 3,600-pound bull. Among the book's 220 images are selections from earlier studies of lions in Kenya and Masai ceremonies, paired with richly informative captions. Although Yann Arthus-Bertrand: Being a Photographer (Harry N. Abrams, $45) serves as a biography, the text is not nearly as inspired as the man's photos.

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Bill McKibben, a scholar in residence at Middlebury College, is the author of The End of Nature (Random House) and Wandering Home, forthcoming from Crown in April 2005.

OnEarth. Spring 2005
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council