January 21, 2005

Last night's lecture at the RS was fascinating. Collapse: how societies choose to fail or survive was very popular, too - a little too popular. Tulna and I arrived twenty minutes early, but the main hall was full, so we ended up in the first overflow room, where we met Katherine. (Welcome to the blogsphere, Katherine!)

Michael was a bit later still, and ended up in the 2nd overflow room downstairs! This was by far the most popular lecture I've been to there - usually, everyone fits into the main hall.

Mark, Katherine's SO, wasn't able to make it at all. He went back to his jujutsu class after a bit of a break, and got his head kicked in. He's been off work for a week. :-(

Anyway, it was a fascinating talk, as I said. Some civilisations fail, while others succeed in the face of seemingly similar problems. Why is this?

Jared Diamond has found a number of factors that make the difference between surceases and failures. Some of these are external - the success of your neighbour civilisations, friendly or otherwise, is one, natural climate change another. But many of the factors are internal - things like willingness to challenge and change dearly held beliefs, willingness to see problems, the extent to which elites are remote from the problems of the wider population, for example.

The example of Easter Island was startlingly pertinent. You can almost see the world as Easter Island writ large just right now, with us cheerfully ruining out environment. The inhabitants of Easter Island ended up totally deforesting the entire island. I wonder what went through the man who cut down to last tree? (I'm willing to bet that it was a man.) With no trees, fishing and building became impossible, and soil quality plummeted. The natives turned to cannibalism towards the end - apparently, a popular insult was "your mother's meat sticks between my teeth."

Things aren't looking too hot for us, I must say. :-( But it's still not too late.

For the full story, you'll need to read Dr. Diamond's new book. That's what he was there for, anyway - to sell his new book. And if it's as interesting as the lecture, and as interesting as his last book, I'd recommend it. I'll be buying it - though I might wait for the paperback. Civilisation should last at least that long, hopefully.

His last book, Guns, Germs and Steel, was fantastic. It's basically about the rise of Western European as the dominant civilisation in the world, and the reasons for that rise. After all, a thousand years ago, Western European civilisation was looking pretty shabby. The title gives away the most proximate reasons, but the reasons for Europe's technological dominance are more complex, going back through The Enlightenment and the reasons for that, including the population thinning caused by The Black Death, and a cultural willingness to experiment (in a pre-scientific sense) and to think freely. A fascinating read - also highly recommended. I was going to bring it in to lend to Tulna, but I don't seem to have it. It's probably at my ex's - which is scary in itself, 'cos it means that I've not read it for a looooong time.

Posted to Science and technology by Simon Brunning at January 21, 2005 02:25 PM

I so love the way you expressed "He went back to his jujutsu class after a bit of a break, and got his head kicked in."

Only moderately far from the truth though... just "dropped on his head too many times" :-)

Posted by: Mark Matthews on January 21, 2005 03:35 PM

If you can look at my site with *my* colour scheme, you must be on the mend. ;-)

Posted by: Simon Brunning on January 21, 2005 03:57 PM
Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember info?