There has been talk of the change from an industrial era to a knowledge or communications era for the last forty years. Why then do we still have in the US poor public education, no universal health insurance, decaying public infrastructure, high unemployment, a contracting middle class, a vastly skewed distribution of resources, enormous public deficits, unrestrained despoilment of the commons by major corporations, no viable energy policies, and a lack of positive images of the future?
In 1964 a distinguished group of scientists, thinkers and activists submitted the Triple Revolution memo to President Lyndon B. Johnson. (see Utopians? page) The memo talked about the dislocating changes in society resulting from cybernation and automation, the civil rights movement, and the development of weapons of terminal destruction. It called for a program of large-scale public works, low-cost housing, public transit, electrical power development, income redistribution, union representation for the unemployed, and government restraint on technology deployment.
Over 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 said then that our biggest hope was the “information society.” If people are informed, they will act. 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 still drives a Hummer.
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 New Perspectives Quarterly in late February of 2005 on these issues of sustainability and leadership.
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, which 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. Except for the fact that Prime Minister John Howard doesn’t support the Kyoto Protocol, Australia presents a pretty encouraging environmental picture.
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 | “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.”
BRUCE MAU, designer and collaborator with Frank Gehry, is co-author of Massive Change. His firm, Bruce Mau Design, is based in Toronto. He spoke with New Perspectives Quarterly in the Spring of 2005.
NPQ | “Your book Massive Change begins by citing the historian Arnold Toynbee’s remark that the well-being of a civilization depends on its ability to respond to challenges, human and environmental. Are we up to the challenge, particularly that of sustainability?”
MAU | “There are many practical advances from cycle-to-cycle manufacturing to biomimicry, from off-the-grid urban planning to biotech body parts that suggest we are indeed up to the challenge. In fact, I’m surprised that optimism is so controversial these days. To my surprise, I’ve found a general mood of pessimism and even cynicism among those very people sitting on the throne of power in their own lives. They have convinced themselves they are powerless, that they don’t have the capacity to change anything! But their capability, for example in the areas I mentioned, are unmatched in the history of mankind. In many ways, this is the best time in history. This pathology, I realized when teaching at the University of Toronto Architecture School, extends even to students. When asked to do a project about the health care system in Ontario, one student came up with this absurd post-structuralist spiel about cutting incisions into the government health building. I told them, ‘Why don’t you go inside and talk to them. Discover the incredible advances in medicine taking place instead. You are in graduate school. Never before in the history of mankind has society invested in its youth as much as we have, and this is what you come up with?’
The problem is that our civilization has developed extraordinary capacities, but we are unable to see the image they produce. It is as if that image has been cut up into the billion pixels of everyone’s contribution, and we can only see the pixel that we are working on, but never the image as a whole. What we’ve tried to do in Massive Change is reassemble the pixels into an image of our age. We are documenting the massive change that is happening, unapprehended, before our eyes.”
NPQ | In his new book, Collapse, Jared Diamond also argues that whether a civilization survives or not depends on its response to a common set of challenges, including self-inflicted environmental damage and climate change as well as changes in trade patterns and enemies. The Mayan civilization, for example, succumbed to the degradation of its own environment while Tokugawa Japan reforested and renewed itself. Diamond sees the world now on an environmentally “non-sustainable” course as a result of global warming, deforestation, soil degradation, water shortages. ‘They are like time bombs with fuses of less than 50 years,’ Diamond says. Environmental problems will be resolved, pleasantly or unpleasantly, ‘within the lifetimes of the children and young adults alive today.’
How does your optimism fit in that time frame?”
MAU | “I agree that the next 50 years, as E.O. Wilson has said, is a ‘bottleneck.’ During that period population will continue to increase to something like 9 or 10 billion, then start to decline. And it may come down sooner if women everywhere are educated and liberated. That makes the most difference in the rapid decline of birthrates.In other words, the problem won’t be with us forever. We just have to get through the bottleneck.
Another core realization of the Massive Change project is how, when you take all these practical advances together, we have escalated our capacities as a civilization because of cross-fertilization. As Internet connectivity combines with new energy sources you can get unprecedented efficiency; as information processing combines with genetics you get regenerative medicine. Suddenly, change speeds up and spreads rapidly.”
NPQ | “Still, will the practical advances you document in Massive Change be realized on a large enough scale and soon enough to make a difference within this five-decade time frame?
Some advances-grid computing or research in biomimicry, nanotechnology or tissue engineering-take place entirely outside a political context. But others-urban planning, transportation, recycling, energy, clean water, poverty reduction-require political mobilization and power if they are going to be realized.
I had to laugh when I read Rick Smalley, the Nobel chemist, say ‘there is at least one good, clean answer to how we can provide the energy we’ll need for about 10 billion people on the planet by 2050. I suspect that over the next ten years we will be able to get a major research program of the magnitude of the Apollo Space Program to make this come to pass.’
Hello? What planet is he living on? The United States has trillion-dollar deficits and is spending $100 billion a year on Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of America’s dams are in dangerous disrepair, having existed beyond their designed lifespan. Fixing the old infrastructure alone would require hundreds of billions, and this is not even being done.”
MAU | “Yes, it is all a matter of galvanizing and committing resources. In the past you needed to galvanize resources from the top. Now that can happen from below. Resources follow cultural commitments. If you put out a vision for a new approach that is effective, the resources you could direct to it are staggering. It is not that resources aren’t there; the only question is what they are committed to.
The question Smalley was addressing is a fundamental question for massive change: Now that we can do anything, what will we do? Massive resources are being directed every day already in phenomenally effective directions. Recently, I was at a small gathering of doctors who agreed, nonchalantly, ‘to end malaria.’ They were totally committed. And they are totally confident because they know it can be done. It will take a lot of sustained energy, but they have no doubt it will happen.
In order to discover what our global culture is committed to, we need to look at what is so widely acknowledged that it is almost unspoken. For example, everyone today from the Ford engineer to the tinkerer in his garage to the scientist to the energy company to the oil sheik knows we have to move toward sustainability. If we don’t, the damage will be too intense. That doesn’t mean everyone is acting yet to bring about sustainability. But the first step is a shared cultural assumption that resources will then sooner or later follow up.”
NPQ | “Going back to our 50-year window, sooner or later makes a big difference. Time, after all, is an ethical dimension. My concern is that our consumer democracy is a drag on change, not a facilitator. The consumer calculus is self-interest; the horizon is short term. We have created a DietCoke civilization in which we may profess to want to conserve, but only without having to give up consuming just as we want a sweet drink without the calories of sugar. That is not a cultural commitment but wishful thinking. The main problem in consumer democracy is there is no way to remember the future. Thus every small act of the consumer in the present-driving an SUV in California, not to speak of a few hundred million Chinese each buying a new car-creates big problems for the future, global warming. It’s retail sanity, but wholesale madness.”
MAU | “You are partially right, of course. The consumer you describe, however, is a certain demographic that is fading. It is not the new sensibility. Kids today are totally conscious of the long term. They are all aware of global warming. This “installed base,” to use a software analogy, will inform their day to day practices, lifestyles and choices of technology.
So, don’t be blinded by the present when trying to imagine the future. In the time frame we are talking about-50 years-Europe transformed without fanfare. You couldn’t breathe in Los Angeles a few decades ago; now the air is usually decent. Who would have imagined even 20 years ago that entire cities of millions of people would recycle their wastes, taking the time and effort to divide everything up into plastic, glass, paper, organic, inorganic and so on?
Of course, there are short-term vested interests who don’t want change and will try to block it because their operating system is the installed base of another era. They will be outmoded and inoperable when the new version takes hold.The important challenge is to maintain the visibility of accomplishments-the whole image-so the momentum toward massive change grows.”
NPQ | “European integration was possible, as the first EU president Jacques Delors has said openly, because it was done through the back door by technocrats. It was mostly concluded in conferences, not referendums. It makes me wonder if Japan could have been reforested in the 16th century if it was a consumer democracy instead of a feudal shogunate. If it was up to the local farmer instead of the feudal lord who saw his interests tied up with that of the whole community, the choices might have been different. My skepticism of majority support is whether a consumer democracy can reach the political threshold of majority support required for massive change? Or, perhaps politics just gets in the way.”
MAU | “For massive change to take place, it doesn’t have to cross the classical, formal political threshold. The single biggest difference between the past and the future is that the capacity to affect change is “distributed.” A new social and political ecology is evolving where individuals or groups don’t have to go up the tree of political authority only to come back down again and make something happen. That is inefficient. They can do it on their own, through interconnectedness with others. Look at what happened with the tsunami relief for South Asia. The response was massive, global, spontaneous and widespread, driven from websites reaching across the planet from Sweden to India. The ruthless self-interest of the consumer didn’t hold people back.
This distributed capacity to act will change the way we live in the course of the years and decades ahead. For most of history civilizations changed very slowly, operating the same way, with the same tools, the same concepts, the same methods and the same ideas of political and cultural authority for centuries at a time.
Now, all of that is changing. We’ve crossed the line. Everyone can get involved in designing solutions to our civilizational challenges. That is what massive change is about. “