Today's date:
Fall 2013

Tokugawa Shoguns vs. Consumer Democracy

Jared Diamond, author of “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” is professor of geography at UCLA. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his previous book, “Guns, Germs and Steel,” and is a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. He spoke with NPQ in 2005.

NPQ | You have looked over the history of civilizations and come up with a framework for analyzing why some collapsed while others prevailed. You cite four common challenges of past societies—climate change, self-inflicted environmental damage, changes in trading partners and enemies—and then look at how the response to those challenges led to success or failure.

You point out, for example, how the Maya failed and the 17th-century Tokugawa Shoguns in Japan succeeded. Having overexploited their territory, the Maya collapsed because the ruling caste, which extracted wealth from the commoners, was insulated from the effects of deforestation and soil erosion and thus failed to act.

Conversely, the shoguns of 17th-century Tokugawa Japan recognized the danger of deforestation to the long-term peace and prosperity of their successors and imposed heavy regulations on farmers, managed the harvest of trees and pushed new, lighter and more efficient construction techniques. Today, even though Japan is the most densely populated country of the developed world, it remains 70 percent forested.

In this light, what are the key challenges today, and, so far, how is our global civilization (China, United States) rising to the challenge?

JARED DIAMOND | The key challenges today are the same as in the past, with a few new factors added. Environmental degradation is rampant—overfishing, deforestation, invasive species, shortages of fresh water. Population is putting immense pressure on resources, as in the past. New factors include global climate change that is anthropocentric, not natural. Toxic pollutants are present now that never existed in the past.

Today, we have far more people with more potent, destructive technology. Things are happening faster. The Maya had 850 years, from 800 to 1650, before they collapsed. That time frame would be much more accelerated in today’s civilization. Easter Island had the luxury of collapsing in isolation. With globalization, the risk of environmental collapse is worldwide today.

NPQ | You have argued that the relevant time frame for responding in a successful way to these challenges to global sustainability is 50 years. What has to ?happen to avoid collapse in that five-decade time frame?

DIAMOND | The problem is that all the challenges are interrelated. If we solve problems such as invasive species or toxic pollution, but not the shortage of fresh water, collapse still beckons. All the challenges need to be addressed simultaneously because they add up to an unsustainable course.

But, let’s take just two challenges: deforestation and fresh water.

At the rate at which we are going now, the world’s tropical rainforests—except the largest ones in Congo and Amazon Basin—will be completely felled within the next decade. In the Philippines and the Solomon Islands, they will be gone within the next five years.

Most economies in these areas, of course, are heavily dependent on those forests. In places like Indonesia, which is the world’s fourth most populous country, or in the Philippines with 80 million people tightly connected to the US, there are already civil wars, in part based on environmental factors and fights over resources. China and Japan already get most of their timber from those countries.

Further, this is not to mention places in Africa like Gabon or Cameroon that are similarly on the verge of deforestation.

Historically, deforestation makes people poor and leads to conflict. We are bound to see that again.

Seventy percent of the earth’s fresh water is already being utilized by people for drinking, industry and agriculture. The remaining 30 percent is in places like Iceland and Northwest Australia, are hard to get to. What happens when we use up even that last 30 percent? Why not desalinization of sea water? Okay, but that requires fossil fuel energy to operate the plants, and that creates other problems.

We’ve already seen countries come close to fighting over water, such as Turkey and Syria or Hungary and the Czech Republic. Water is a time bomb set to go off within decades, not centuries.

NPQ | How are we responding given the gravity of the challenge? Are we making choices that will lead us to failure or success?

DIAMOND | It is a mixed bag. Twenty years ago, for example, I never would have guessed that Bangladesh and Indonesia, among the world’s most populous nations, would be close, as they are today, to getting their population explosion under control. In the last 30 years, air quality in the US has improved markedly—even though there are a lot more people and a lot more cars. Water quality has also improved.

These improvements make me cautiously optimistic, despite the scale and gravity of the challenges.

Further, the ability of some countries to radically adapt to new circumstances bodes well. Look at Australia, a rich country. It has had one of the lowest soil productivity rates in the world because its soils are so leached of nutrients. To grow anything, they thus require huge inputs of fertilizers to grow on immense tracks of land crops that can be grown in other places with far less land and therefore far less expensively. The European-descended Australians just grew crops on the available open land because that was what was done where the immigrants came from.

With globalization, they have realized it is cheaper to buy food from elsewhere and devote less land to farming. Sensibly, there are now plans on the table to wipe out 99 percent of Australian agriculture. If they can make 80 percent of their profits from 1 percent of the land that is suited to agriculture, it makes sense to change.

That is a drastic change.

Look at Bhutan, a poor country. They decided they wanted to keep their unique culture and not to let their small land be overrun by tourism like neighboring Nepal. So, only 2,000 tourists a year are allowed in at a minimum fee of $200 per tourist per day. They are adapting well to modern challenges.

Nepal, by contrast, has been massively deforested and is headed toward civil war between Maoist rebels and “the revolution from the top.” As in Rwanda, the soil erosion and deforestation have contributed significantly to the conflict. Their development policy based on mass tourism—often hippies with backpacks—was not wise for Nepal. It exposed itself to unregulated outside influence, to a First World lifestyle without the means to sustain it.

NPQ | The antithesis of long-term planning and sustainable values is the ethos that stands behind globalization: consumer democracy. That is, the short-term, self-interested aspiration of the majority to accumulate more and more stuff.

This ethos no longer just drives the “resource hogs” of the sprawling American middle class, but also Mexican immigrants shopping at WalMart for goods produced by upwardly mobile Chinese peasants-turned-assembly line workers who themselves have adopted consumerism as their new ideology. It may be entirely rational for a Chinese family to want their own car, but if they each get one, like the Americans, it will amount to ecocide. Retail sanity can add up to wholesale madness—global warming, air pollution and energy scarcity.

As the world advances toward democracy, the priorities of all societies will be set by a consumer majority.

If you don’t change that, I don’t see how you can get off the path to unsustainability you so well document in “Collapse.”

DIAMOND | You are absolutely right. The Chinese and Mexicans, among others, aspire to have a US lifestyle, which is a bad example. The biggest problem is the increase in total human impact on the environment as a result both of rising Third World living standards and of Third World individuals immigrating to the First World and adopting First World living standards.

The consequences for China are very vivid. The proliferation of cars and the horrible air quality have already arrived. You eat fish in China at your own risk because the toxin levels are so high.

Yet, China is also a hopeful case in that it has a history of taking radical solutions. Some of these, like the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution, have been disastrous. Some have been fantastic. It took China one year to phase out leaded gasoline. It took one day to end logging in the whole country! The government decreed it.

NPQ | This suggests that the Communist remnants of central planning in China might be better able to respond to the environmental challenge of unsustainability than consumer democracy.

If Japan had a consumer democracy in the 17th century instead of the Tokugawa Shogunate, perhaps it would not have been able to stem deforestation and collapse?

DIAMOND | Maybe, but I don’t think so. The historical record, at least, shows no general case for either democracy or dictatorship in terms of curbing environmental damage. The Tokugawa Shoguns made a good decision; the ruling kings of the Maya failed to take action.

The Scandinavian democracies have the best environmental record in the world. It is true that Trujillo preserved the forests in his dictatorial interests, but the more democratic regime of Joaquin Balaguer in the Dominican Republic led to the establishment of remarkable forest preserves, on the very same island as deforested Haiti.

In short, democracies can create messes and so can dictatorships. You can’t generalize.

NPQ | Almost 20 years ago, the Norwegian prime minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, sounded many of the same alarms about the world being headed on an unsustainable course. She told me then that our big hope was the “information society.” If people are informed, they will act.

That seems to work on the individual level—many people have quit smoking. But in the case of the US, birthplace of the information revolution, information about global warming has not stopped the proliferation of SUVs or led to massive investment in conservation or public transportation. After the OPEC oil shock of the 1970s and two Iraq wars, the governor of California (Arnold Schwarzenegger) still drives a Humvee!

When facing long-term environmental threats, why do people act against their own interests?

DIAMOND | People act against their interest when change conflicts with deeply held values or when elites are insulated and can’t see clearly what is happening. The best information does not remove conflicts of interest—many of the energy companies and car companies don’t want change, of course. We have seen a mixture of all these in the debates over the Kyoto Protocol, which the US has not gone along with because the current leadership gives greater value to economic growth.

NPQ | Following consumer preference, why can’t the market be the instrument of change. If consumers demand hybrid cars, won’t the market deliver them as the Japanese are now, just as they delivered smaller, fuel-efficient cars after the first oil shock?

DIAMOND | When faced with environmental problems in the past, the market has not solved them. As the behaviorists who won Nobel prizes in economics have pointed out, neither individuals nor firms always make rational decisions in the marketplace for a variety of reasons.

Why, for example, has the mining industry in the US virtually driven itself out of business? In the last elections, despite being outspent ten to one by the mining companies, the citizens of Montana maintained the ban against cyanide heap-leach mining. Despite the enormous importance of mining to the American West, the citizens of Montana have concluded that this problem-plagued mining method may have led to better share prices for mining company stockholders back East, but left them with only toxic wastes. In short, the market only encouraged bad mining practices that were bad for the local population, and in the end also bad for the companies.

NPQ | In democratic societies, the long-term planning you argue is necessary to avoid collapse would require crossing a political threshold in which the majority embraces the necessity of change. Given today’s network society, perhaps “distributed change” is more viable, that is, the decentralized, networked change that doesn’t require a political majority to happen?

I’m thinking, for instance, of the manifold practical advances today from biomimicry to hydrogen fuel cars to nanotechnology to cycle-to-cycle manufacturing.

DIAMOND | There is some role for distributed change; there is some role for step, or threshold, change. Here are opposite examples. Both Britain and the US have dramatically increased air quality in the last several decades. In Britain it was a threshold phenomenon: In the late 1950s there was an inversion and thousands of Londoners died from the pollution. That galvanized Britain to act.

In the US, it was an incremental phenomenon resulting from the slow but widespread diffusion of environmental sensibility among the public, which resulted in legislative regulation of auto emissions. There was no awful event that pushed us past a critical political threshold of action. On the other hand, the American coal industry today is much cleaner than copper or gold mining. That was because of a terrible accident—the 1973 Buffalo Creek coal mining disaster in which 167 people drowned. That produced an outcry for government regulation, despite industry claims it would drive them into bankruptcy. Of course, we know today that a regulated coal industry can be perfectly profitable.

In the US today, a lot of people are going out and buying Humvees; but there are also a lot of people going out and buying hybrids. In California, dedicated freeway lanes are open now not only to multipassenger vehicles, but also to hybrids. There are tax incentives for purchasing fuel-efficient cars. Where will this all lead?

As for the political threshold of majority consensus in democracies, one does have reason to be pessimistic on environmental issues given the current national leadership, although we also need to remember that the electorate was closely divided. Fortunately, the US is not only a federal government, but state and local governments as well who can act, and do.

NPQ | Where political will lacks, technology can often substitute. We may still be dependent on Middle East oil, but fuel efficiency in cars tempers the consequences. That is well and good, but can’t it also lead to the delusion that we can have our resources and sustainability too, that our inability to curb our appetites can one day be remedied by some kind of planetary liposuction before the 50-year window closes? In the absence of politics, a technological fix.

What is different today from the past is our technological prowess. Does that make a difference?

DIAMOND | Technology can solve problems in some cases. Just recently I attended the inauguration of a super-efficient windmill that will generate power in Wyoming. This new technology could, rather quickly, supply half the power requirements of the US and allow us to phase out oil-based generation.

On the other hand, those who argue that technology will solve our problems ignore the historical track record. Technology—the invention of the car, for example —has created as many problems as it has solved.

Moreover, as you point out, technology can paralyze us and prevent us from engaging the necessary political solutions. One reviewer of my book said “Diamond looks at 13,000 years of history to make his case, but only a few decades forward to tell us time is running out for solutions. If we looked as far ahead as Diamond looks back,” he said, “we’ll be colonizing other galaxies.”

This is a misplaced faith in technology. If we don’t find some way of getting through the next five decades we are not going to have the option of colonizing the galaxies.

NPQ | Throughout our conversation, you have pointed to both negative and positive examples of change underway. I suppose the ultimate question is whether the hybrids win out over the Humvees in the end, or vice versa? Should we be cautiously optimistic, or anxiously pessimistic? Is your gut feeling that we will fail to meet the civilizational challenge?

DIAMOND | No, absolutely not. Although the title of my book is “Collapse,” the subtitle—“How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail”—is closer to my sense of things. We are in a horse race between the forces of destruction and the forces of solution. It is an exponentially accelerating race of unknown outcome.

My gut feeling is that it is up for grabs. What I do know is that the crisis of unsustainability can be solved—if we choose to do so. It will be fatal to our civilization, or near fatal, if we don’t. We have a fighting chance.