Collapse: Is America Choosing to Fail?

L.A. Times' Dan Neil gets the distinct impression that unless we start making serious changes we face the fate of the Norse in Greenland.

Published: 15-Jun-2005

 The end of the world is getting a lot of attention lately. And I don't mean Steven Spielberg's re-mounting of H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds." We should be so lucky.

If you haven't already, seek out Elizabeth Kolbert's three-part series on climate change in the New Yorker, then find a quiet place to lie down and let the dread wash over you. To briefly paraphrase Kolbert, the United States, the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, is essentially a carbon rogue state, contemptuous of international efforts to curb the global warming that is already bringing misery to parts of the Earth.

 Our own colorful demise is the subject of "Collapse?" The exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County explores how societies augur into the ground and is based on the bestseller by UCLA professor Jared Diamond. The author of the Pulitzer-winning "Guns, Germs, and Steel," Diamond is this nation's most prominent Cassandra, though he would wince at being characterized like that. "It's not the case that I say collapse is imminent," he says in a Boston accent fairly sprouting with ivy, "but that if we continue to do what we are doing, we are on an unsustainable course."

Diamond's new book gimbals on this point: Societies choose to succeed or fail. Consider the fate of the Norse settlers of Greenland. Arriving in the 10th century, these clever and resourceful people nonetheless bankrupted the ecology of their new lands. By clearing grasslands and forests for livestock, they exposed the land's thin, fragile layer of topsoil, which quickly eroded in the blustery climate. Soon the Norsemen were on a downward spiral toward starvation.

Had they adopted the hunting-gathering ways of the Inuit—eating fish and using seal blubber instead of wood for fuel—the Norse might have survived. But they viewed these practices as barbaric. The Scandinavians were reduced to eating their pets.

The professor's book left me morose and wondering: How would I like my Chihuahua prepared?

Diamond's optimism, cautious as it is, is based on the belief that human society can find a way to act together before it's too late, but such mobilization seems a long way off, at least in the United States. I'll wager that 9.5 out of 10 Americans can't tell you what the McCain-Lieberman climate stewardship bill is, or that it's stalled like a wet Chevy in Congress.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration's castration of decades of environmental regulations—concerning emissions from coal-fired power plants, endangered species, road-building in national forest lands, you name it—has aroused almost no popular dissent, and the surest index of that is the silence of pop culture.

You would look in vain for protest songs about the environment on the Billboard Top 100. In fact, the very idea seems slightly ludicrous, though in the 1960s and 1970s pop music ("Big Yellow Taxi," "After the Gold Rush," "Village Green," "Don't Kill the Whale") provided vocals to the environmental protest movement.

Not that global warming has gone entirely unnoticed in pop culture. There was the Michael Crichton book "State of Fear," a fictional, fast-and-loose debunking of climate science that has been embraced as holy writ by the Radical Right. Then there's the 2004 film "The Day After Tomorrow," which for reasons of box-office imperative turned global warming into a catastrophic Cirque du Soleil, with tidal waves and a spectacular deep freeze. New York hits an iceberg, or the other way around.

Of course, much depends on how you define pop culture. According to a 2002 Time/CNN survey, most Americans believe the world will end not in a grinding collapse but a blinding flash of biblical light: the Rapture. Such end-times religiosity holds that environmental destruction is only a signpost on the road to salvation.

What, I asked Diamond, was the person who cut down the last tree on Easter Island thinking? "Probably that God would not let anything happen to his chosen people," he replied.

I don't mind telling you, it's all starting to freak me out. Is it my imagination, or are those thousands of freeway dwellers looking distinctly Norse?

Yet Diamond, who should be more freaked out than anyone, isn't.

He cites several examples, from 16th century Japan to modern-day Montana, where societies have acted to restore balance with the natural world (the former by instituting a reforestation program, the latter by ending predatory mining and development). So, things are going to be OK, right, professor? Right?

"I cannot tell you that things are going to be OK," he said with a charming evenness. "What I can tell you is that if people don't make tough decisions, then we are on an unsustainable course," and famine conditions will spread."

I call dibs on the paw.

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