Book Review: “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”

The bus was crowded, and the sun hung at the mid-point of the afternoon sky blazing with ferocity, and though the bus’ air-conditioner is blasting at full, the interior was hot and humid, and the air filled with the stench of sweat and cheap perfume bought at the side stalls of unknown marketplaces. The bus arrived at its destination, and the crowd shuffled and stumbled out onto the dry pavement, walking towards separate directions. Some of them lined up behind a machine to scan their bus passes, and I was stuck behind the people lining up in front of me, waiting for the people to disperse.

To the annoyance of the majority, a middle aged man repeatedly touched his card to the machine, to no avail, as it failed to register the chip hidden in the card. He is obviously flustered, and with increased agitation, he touched the machine with the card again and again. The people behind him started to move away to another machine, as the repetitive dance between the guy and the machine continues. My patience exhausted, I quietly told him to hold his card in front of the machine, with a distance between the two (it has worked wonders for me in the past), instead of slamming the machine with the card to no end. The man looked at me with frustrated eyes, and turning his confused gaze back at the machine, proceeded to continue his previous movements despite my suggestions. As the crowd moved to another machine, there is a gap now between the man and the sliding doors, and I squeezed past the crowd, walking firmly away.


Curious thing, to see people repeating their actions that inevitably leads to failure, despite knowing that there are alternative solutions to their predicament. Which in the story that I just related, requires the guy to maybe go to the other machine and test his luck, or just heed my advice to touch the card to the machine softly instead of impatiently. Tedious perhaps, but it may have save him, and the others around him, a lot of trouble and nuisance.

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But of course, there are those who failed to solve a problem precisely because they are oblivious and ignorant of the proper solution. For instance, I once was stuck behind a line while buying a bus ticket. The woman in front of me continuously feed the machine with a ten ringgit bill despite a sign on the machine saying that it does not accept ten ringgit bills, and after I became aware that the woman did not know this fact, I touched her shoulder and told her, and instantly, she asked for change and I gave her and the issue is resolved. In this case, the person can change their ways once they know the solution, provided that someone made them realize their erroneous ways.

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In short, there are two different ways that lead to failure to solve a problem: (1) sticking to one’s ways despite repeating failures; or (2) not knowing the solution. As every problem involves a certain solution, in implementing the solution, it takes up precious time. And indeed, for every failed solution, time runs out, progressively more.

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The same can be said for a problem with gigantic proportions such as global warming, or climate change, or environmental degradation. I admit in full honesty that this issue is irksome and annoying for many, and indeed, in the past I closed my ears whenever people brought up such an issue into the conversation, because it just felt so repetitive, and what can I, a powerless individual, possibly do to help in this issue? But increasingly, I felt that the source of the annoyance lies not in the issue itself, or the person reminding us of the issue, but in the individual who is listening. The question then, should be: “Are we really listening?”

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Naomi Klein, in her new book, “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate”, said in the introduction that we tend to filter out symptoms of the planet’s demise precisely because it is such a vast issue that it just seems intangible for us to worry about it constantly. Or we listen, and we act in accordance to it, but then we forget about it again. Or we listen, and then we shirk off the responsibility, to others, to the government, to science, as if progress can work without the action of the individual. I was reminded once of a response my friend gave me when I told him about the Edward Snowden controversy and what we can do to partially stop government infiltration to our private lives. And he told me, “It’s useless, how can we stop something so big and so faraway?” I fully sympathize with that, but lest we forget, every campaign starts and progresses through the multitude of action that the individual in the mass takes, and each act piles upon the other, culminating in a change throughout the entire population.

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But of course, the most significant issue underlying the entire environment dilemma is the presence of the hordes of free-riders who use, sometimes in excess, of environmental resources without paying a price, and ultimately leave the responsibility of cleaning up the mess to some other peoples or organizations. I once did an observational study for a term paper in which I went to a McDonald’s in KL Central to observe people’s ketchup and chili sauce usage, and the results were staggering, because for every one person who ate there, most took three to four small dishes of sauce (sometimes using the burger box to fill up half of it), which they used only to eat a small packet of french fries. And the amount of leftover sauce left unused is enormous, with some only finishing a small dish of it, leaving the rest of it untouched. It is as if people were only taking it for the sake of taking it, a gesture, a ritual that went unquestioned. Clearly, the phenomenon of free riding, using up public resources because there is no penalty for excessive usage is a problematic factor in the entire farcical event of environmental damage where people who realize the harm of their actions continue doing so precisely because they can, and because they can get away with it.

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Reading Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” gives the reader an impression that he/she is reading a horror story, rooted in reality, taking place live somewhere else in this vast but small planet. Two particular chapters stood out: the one on Easter Island and the other on Medieval Greenland Viking society. Both colonies were wiped out a few centuries ago, and their demise took different paths: Easter Islanders killed each other out, cannibalizing their kin and next of kin, and Medieval Greenlanders were most probably killed off by Greenland Inuits who migrated there, and hunger and starvation as they stick to their diet of beef, which is impracticable to raise in Greenland’s cold climate, when there is an abundance of fish nearby, which they refused to eat until it is too late. But there is a theme underlying both case studies and that is the refusal to adopt changes in behavior and cultural beliefs when facing an irreversible damage in their environment. Of course, there are a multiplicity of factors further underlying this theme, but the gist of it is that when we partake actions that are harmful to the environment, we must find remedy in our own actions, instead of continuing the previous path that lead us to our current malaise.

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I read two of Jared Diamond’s books in succession, the first one is “Guns Germs and Steel” and then I read this one, and both books portrays past and present societies standing on opposite sides of the same spectrum, whereas the former book dealt with how societies arise and dominate others, and the latter book dealt with the twilight of civilization. A particular passage about Easter Island is haunting. When one thought of Easter Island, what comes to mind is the large and strange looking stone statues staring out into the vast empty landscapes of the island. Imagine a civilization so advanced that they took to construct such enormous stone statues just so they can compete with one another for the biggest statues, without the help of modern construction tools. But what they neglected was that they are simultaneously using up every tree in their vicinity for such a pointless task, not withstanding the additional problem that their island has infertile soils due to the windy climate leading to soil erosion. Professor Diamond asked us this question: “What was they thinking when they cut down the last tree?” And if one shall proceed to refute and ignore this allegory, let us put into perspective that just as Easter is an isolated island standing amidst the Pacific Ocean without any sign of civilization around for a few hundred miles, Earth is an isolated planet drifting amidst the vast universe without any sign of life for no one knows how many millions of light years. Who shall we turn to when all is lost?

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The thing is that while fragile environments may seem to doom those living in it, and it really is difficult for the inhabitants living there to eke out a path to survival, but survival is not a mere matter of fate but involves some element of choice. The volcanic ashlands of Iceland, the Javanese living on high mountain plains, Tibetans living on the world’s highest terrains and plateaus, and many more; all these people, living on the world’s edges, and on fragile lands where the slightest misstep means the death of thousands and perhaps millions, and yet they managed to wade through, for centuries or more. There is a human element to the act of living, and being able to choose in the midst of all our suffering is certainly one of the most significant consolations we have. A small gift perhaps, but a gift nonetheless.

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Hew (just call him Hew) is a Psychology student, studying in the prestigious, luxurious, and absolutely comfortable university that is HELP University.

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