7 June 2003

Why Societies Collapse

I can't help wondering what the Islander who chopped down the last palm tree said as he or she did it. Was he saying, 'What about our jobs? Do we care more for trees than for our jobs, of us loggers?' Or maybe he was saying, 'What about my private property rights? Get the big government of the chiefs off my back.' Or maybe he was saying, 'You're predicting environmental disaster, but your environmental models are untested, we need more research before we can take action.' Or perhaps he was saying, 'Don't worry, technology will solve all our problems.'

Or maybe he was saying that the Murray-Darling Basin can be saved without spending any money. Or that the Kyoto Protocol threatens Australia's economy. Or that Iraq really, really truly did have weapons of mass destruction ready to fire in 45 minutes. Or that gross violations of human rights by the Indonesian state are evil in East Timor but permissible in Aceh and West Papua?

People, as Jared Diamond mentions, love drawing comparisons between Easter Islands catastrophic history and our own. There's one major difference. We can ask if the rulers of Easter Island at least thought about where the next tree was coming from, but their ecological science must have been fairly limited. Ours is not. If we cut down our last metaphorical tree it will be because our leaders refuse the science, not because they lack it.

Sadly, the recent inability of governments to receive or promulgate the truth suggests that our leaders' ingenuousness is just as dangerous as the Easter Islanders' ignorance.

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