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GEOG 352: Day 17. Housekeeping Items. Agenda for Today : Rick will be presenting his tool presentation, (we will have the final debate on Wednesday).

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GEOG 352: Day 17

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GEOG 352: Day 17


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Housekeeping Items

Agenda for Today:

  • Rick will be presenting his tool presentation, (we will have the final debate on Wednesday).

  • We'll talk about the Ridley & Low and Diamond readings. I would also recommend reading Chapter 15 of Diamond (“Big Business and the Environment”)‏

  • Two recent books I just became aware of are: Creating a World Without Poverty by Muhammad Yunus and Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet by Jeffrey Sachs. They both look very good.


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Jared Diamond – Why Do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions?

  • Diamond's book is a lucid look at why past and present societies have engineered their own ecological collapse. This chapter presents the nub of his findings.

  • He divides the reasons into four broad, non-mutually exclusive categories:

  • societies may fail to anticipate problems before they arrive;

  • when problems arrive, they may fail to perceive them;

  • when they perceive them, they may not try to solve them, and

  • even if they try to solve them, they may fail.

  • Can you think of examples of each one of these situations? Which one(s) seem to be most important in the case of our own society?


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Jared Diamond – Why Do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions?

  • He suggests that the Anasazi may have failed to learn from past experiences with droughts because they had no written language to permit the transmission of past learning. We do and that hasn't been a decisive factor for success, at least yet. He mentions, for instance, how quickly North Americans forgot about the experience of the oil crisis in going back to their gas-guzzling vehicles and reliance on oil.

  • Societies may also fail to anticipate problems because of making false assumptions. Because of similar vegetation, Norse settlers in Iceland assumed that the soils were clay like back home, and French military strategists thought future wars would be fought like World War I – in the trenches.


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Jared Diamond – Why Do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions?

  • Societies often fail to perceive a problem after it has arrived, as with the many areas of world that have lush-appearing vegetation, but whose soils are often nutrient-poor or saturated with salt, and whose condition only gets worse with human use.

  • Another reason for a failure to perceive is when those responsible for making decisions are distant from the problem – as with many multinational CEOs and administrators.

  • The most common reason for a failure in perception is creeping normalcy – the so-called boiled frog syndrome. Things get worse incrementally and people forget how different things used to be ('landscape amnesia').


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Jared Diamond – Why Do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions?

  • Third, societies often fail to attempt to solve problems once they are perceived. This usually takes the form of what Diamond calls “rational bad behaviour” by elites of one kind or another, where they put their own short-term interests ahead of those of others (see the next chapter for a number of corporate examples, as well as on 428).

  • Part of the reason they get away with this – and/or with receiving subsidies that benefit the few – is that the benefits to the few are great and worth lobbying for, while the costs to the many are diffuse and spread out and thus not as worth fighting against. Certain kinds of political systems with built-in “swing power” favour this kind of support for selfish interests.


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Jared Diamond – Why Do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions?

  • We will discuss this phenomenon in greater detail later, but it has been referred to the “tragedy of the commons” – if everyone is putting their selfish interest ahead of the collective or is likely to, then one fears being a chump and letting others benefit at one's own expense. The good news is that many “commons” have been sustainably managed for hundreds of years (see the literature on common property management; Fikret Berkes is a big name in Canada).

  • Lust for power on the part of elites is another factor inhibiting some societies from grappling with their severe problems, including ecological ones. Greater equality makes problem-solving more likely.


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Jared Diamond – Why Do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions?

  • The clash of values may not only exist within society, but within each individual – for instance, between an individual's desire to help bring about a more sustainable world for their children and grandchildren and their reluctance to give up their commitment to a certain lifestyle. Also, once people have invested in a certain technology or way of life, there is what Diamond refers to as the “sunk cost” mentality.

  • Achieving sustainability, or some other major essential shift, often requires jettisoning values that are a key part of a particular group's identity and adopting others. This can be a painful process. It can also involve a leap into the unknown.


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Jared Diamond – Why Do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions?

  • People may fail to act because of a perception that “it's someone else's problem,” or because – as with the global poor – they are in survival mode: focusing on surviving from day to day, and in concerning themselves with the state of the planet or even with their own regional ecology.

  • Politicians often have very narrow time frames as well, since they see it as their job to get re-elected.

  • People can also get trapped into “groupthink” or the mentality of the mob, and lose their critical faculties. Most especially, people often go into denial – this is a very important factor in terms of the global ecological crisis and climate change, in particular.


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Jared Diamond – Why Do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions?

  • Failures to solve problems can occur because solutions are perceived to be either unproven or too expensive or both. In other cases, actions taken prove to be “too little, too late.” Rome can be burning while different factions are arguing over what, if anything, should be done.

  • Ultimately, it comes down to leadership – though leaders can't do everything by themselves. But leaders have to have to wisdom and courage to anticipate or perceive problems, to formulate effective solutions, to build broad-based support for them – even if it means initially exposing themselves to challenge and ridicule – and being willing face down opponents and not give in to them. Are there examples of such leaders?


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