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Old 04-28-2003, 02:24 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Why do some societies make bad decisions?

My friend's uncle wrote "Guns Germs and Steel" the award winning book about the history of civilization. I read this today in Slashdot by him, and I thought it was VERY interesting

Quote:
WHY DO SOME SOCIETIES MAKE DISASTROUS DECISIONS?: JARED DIAMOND

Education is supposed to be about teachers imparting knowledge to students. As every teacher knows, though, if you have a good group of students, education is also about students imparting knowledge to their supposed teachers and challenging their assumptions. That's an experience that I've been through in the last couple of months, when for the first time in my academic career I gave a course to undergraduates, highly motivated UCLA undergraduates, on collapses of societies. Why is it that some societies in the past have collapsed while others have not? I was discussing famous collapses such as those of the Anasazi in the U.S. Southwest, Classic Maya civilization in the Yucatan, Easter Island society in the Pacific, Angkor Wat in southeast Asia, Great Zimbabwe in Africa, Fertile Crescent societies, and Harappan Indus Valley societies. These are all societies that we've realized, from archaeological discoveries in the last 20 years, hammered away at their own environments and destroyed themselves in part by undermining the environmental resources on which they depended.

For example, the Easter Islanders, Polynesian people, settled an island that was originally forested, and whose forests included the world's largest palm tree. The Easter Islanders gradually chopped down that forest to use the wood for canoes, firewood, transporting statues, raising statues, and carving and also to protect against soil erosion. Eventually they chopped down all the forests to the point where all the tree species were extinct, which meant that they ran out of canoes, they could no longer erect statues, there were no longer trees to protect the topsoil against erosion, and their society collapsed in an epidemic of cannibalism that left 90 percent of the islanders dead. The question that most intrigued my UCLA students was one that hadn't registered on me: how on Earth could a society make such an obviously disastrous decision as to cut down all the trees on which they depended? For example, my students wondered, what did the Easter Islanders say as they were cutting down the last palm tree? Were they saying, think of our jobs as loggers, not these trees? Were they saying, respect my private property rights? Surely the Easter Islanders, of all people, must have realized the consequences to them of destroying their own forest. It wasn't a subtle mistake. One wonders whether if there are still people left alive a hundred years from now people in the next century will be equally astonished about our blindness today as we are today about the blindness of the Easter Islanders.

This question, why societies make disastrous decisions and destroy themselves, is one that not only surprised my UCLA undergraduates, but also astonishes professional historians studying collapses of past societies. The most cited book on the subject of the collapse of societies is by the historian, Joseph Tainter. It's entitled The Collapse of Complex Societies. Joseph Tainter, in discussing ancient collapses, rejected the possibility that those collapses might be due to environmental management because it seemed so unlikely to him. Here's what Joseph Tainter said: "As it becomes apparent to the members or administrators of a complex society that a resource base is deteriorating, it seems most reasonable to assume that some rational steps are taken towards a resolution. With their administrative structure and their capacity to allocate labor and resources, dealing with adverse environmental conditions may be one of the things that complex societies do best. It is curious that they would collapse when faced with precisely those conditions that they are equipped to circumvent." Joseph Tainter concluded that the collapses of all these ancient societies couldn't possibly be due to environmental mismanagement, because they would never make these bad mistakes. Yet it's now clear that they did make these bad mistakes.
I thought it was pretty interesting. I think its incomplete though. Not a plug as it is a discussion starter.

Do you think the United States will survive its own mistakes?

History has only shown us that great superpowers have fallen in shorter spans: Egypt was 3000-4000 years, Greece 1000 Years, Rome 1000 years or so, England-500 years or so, and now in the new millenium America is reaching its 3rd centenial.

I know the years of survival are a little off, and there are some exceptions, but the trend seems to be shorter superpower lifespans.

How much longer will the United States as it is now last?
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Old 04-28-2003, 03:02 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Old 04-28-2003, 03:05 PM   #3 (permalink)
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US will last forever.

we're beyond that stage and we pretty much know what we need to do to survive (if only we would ratify the kyoto protocol, things would be much better)
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Old 04-28-2003, 03:37 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Do you mean the United States or Western Civilization?

If the Former, it is impossible to tell how long the United States will exist as a political entity. The answer partly rests on the later question and also on how well the US can continue to make decisions on the world stage and influence other nations. This in turn depends on the economic viability of the US which depends itself on many factors including resources, education levels of the populace, size of the populace and scientific advancements.

Civilization as a whole could very well continue with the collapse and break up of the US, (although it would be a sore economic blow.) At this point, I think you would have to have a much more serious disaster, such a largish meteor, another ice age, major pandemic, nuclear war, etc. before western civilization collapsed.
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Old 04-28-2003, 04:43 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Western civilization is pretty much dependant on the United States.

Don't get me wrong, westernized countries are very powerful, both economically and politicallly, but the united states as a superpower holds them together.


I think that the United States and the principals it holds are very vital to the entire world. However, I am not niave enough to believe that it will last forever (or even the remaining time the world has).
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Old 04-28-2003, 06:24 PM   #6 (permalink)
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Wow!! This thread wedged between "happily married men" and "best pickup lines." No dis on those, its just - wow - contrast.

I have always felt that, while cultures are strong, people are influenced heavily by other cultures. This is happening more rapidly in a world that is seemingly growing smaller with every advance in technology.

I feel a current bad decision by the United States that may lead to our downfall is the domination of our culture, goods, and beliefs. Especially beliefs. I feel this really leads to alot of resentment in other places, as US companies start chasing the almighty dollar around the globe.

So there you have it - I believe that we are so amazingly materialistic that we may be alienating other cultures that hold other values. And these cultures will probably resent it.

Could we be so strong in our capitalist beliefs that the whole of OUR society suffers - why not? If the upper ten percent continues in an upward trend while the rest of citizens see little hope of advancement, why couldn't there be a popular revolt against the very ideas that the United States was founded on?

Caveat, though. Supposedly our democratic society should be able to meet challenges that we have not yet dreamed of if meeting these challenges becomes a priority of the people. In other words, if we are threatened as a nation or society, we should have representation that addresses the threat.

Your uncle sounds like an excellent teacher. To often, I found in college that you paid to go to classes taught by an instructer - not a teacher. Real "just the facts" people. The good ones are geniuinely interested in being there. I'll never regret taking more difficult electives (instead of health) with recognized experts, and above all, great teachers. Not just facts, but knowledge and a great attitude are applied in settings that mark the college experience.
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Old 04-28-2003, 08:43 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Actually gov135, its my friends uncle....but he's still a really great professor.

Good argument though. Globalization/Westernization is probably a big mistake in the long run. We'll see I guess.
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Old 04-28-2003, 09:34 PM   #8 (permalink)
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Personally, I don't see civilization as we know it lasting for more than 100-150 years. Too many people with too little perception - most are unable or unwilling to think in the long term. The decisions we make now may benefit us for a generation or two, but it will eventually come back to bite us in the ass. As soon as a large enough group of people reach their boiling point it's going to get ugly, and in the current world situation there's a whole load of discontent brewing underneath the surface of people of all nationalities and cultures. I, for one, have noticed a sharp increase in this hidden malcontent in the past few years, not only in my circles of people but in all media as well. People are getting angrier. Everyone has something major to gripe about. Think about it, can you read any kind of newspaper for more than half an hour and not get pissed off about <i>something?</i> It doesn't matter if it's something that effects the many or the few, people are getting fed up with the world around them now matter what their life perception might be. The kettle isn't boiling just yet; but you can see the little bubbles collecting on the bottom. It's just a matter of time until those bubbles finally surface and some serious changes are going to happen, for better or worse.
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Old 04-28-2003, 09:49 PM   #9 (permalink)
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Jared Diamond is a very interesting author. I can't say I loved "Guns Germs and Steel", but he made some interesting points.
And as for the question of how long Western society will last, well, nothing lasts forever, and we certainly aren't so far advanced that we could make it last forever.
People who start assuming that their culture will last forever tend to wake up one morning with barbarians at the gates.
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Old 04-28-2003, 09:59 PM   #10 (permalink)
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the US will be around until the rest of the world that hates it decides to put them back into their place. societies fall because they have bad rulers.
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Old 04-28-2003, 10:06 PM   #11 (permalink)
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I think that oversimplifies the issue a bit. It's easy to blame the leaders because they're more visible than the underlying population.
Societies fall when they cease to recognize the possibility that they could fall.
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Old 04-29-2003, 01:01 AM   #12 (permalink)
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You mean like the Germans pre-WWII?


There was some really bad things going on then.
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Old 04-29-2003, 05:16 AM   #13 (permalink)
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Got to look at history on this one (feel free to correct my history lesson if im wrong):

Egypt fell to a variety of issues. Outside invaders, collapsing internal structure.

Ancient Greece was too loosely structured to really survive any outside invaders....eventually it was just overwhelmed. Alexander the Great did good uniting the known world, but too much land and too many problems led to its downfall.

Ancient Rome fell due to terrible leaders, threats from the all directions, and collapsing internal systems.

England was just passed up by other countries. Defeating the Spanish Armada put them on the map for imperialism, but after the American Revolutionary War, they werent the same.

Germany and Japan 1925-1945 had great leadership (depending how you see it), but we're absolutely wrecked by the rest of the world.

Soviet Union was a power but had bad leadership and even worse economy.

Japan seems to be the new contender, doing what the U.S. did in 50 years, in less than 10.

Bad leadership is just one cause....internal problems and other things cause a society to fall as well

Just a thought
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Old 04-29-2003, 05:29 AM   #14 (permalink)
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" hammered away at their own environments and destroyed themselves in part by undermining the environmental resources on which they depended."

...Oh you mean like the Bush Administration's "Clean Air/Environment Act"

I love to hate everything Dubya does.
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Old 04-29-2003, 05:41 AM   #15 (permalink)
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How's about this:

The ancient societies mentioned here fell because they were unwilling/unable to change. They thought they had it all figured out and were perfect. Something changes in their environment (sudden appearance of barbarian hordes, gradual removal of all forests), and the old system doesn't work anymore. If you are then unable to change, you die.

Think about it: you *know* that what your father did was the right way to do things, and you know that your children will have to do the same. You just don't notice gradual changes if they're gradual enough. Rapid, sudden changes are also deadly: you just don't know what to do, and usually cannot come up with an answer quickly enough.

- Ancient Egypt: they continued to depend on foreign payments; previously, they simply marched their army into neighboring countries, and threatened to do it again unless paid. When these countries changed, and became able to stop the invaders, the gold ran out. With it, the Egyptian society collapsed, because they didn't want to change.

- Rome: they had no real answer to modern hit-and-run tactics from the tribes in Northern-Europe, and the steppe nomads from the east. They had grew more and more dependent on slave labor over the centuries, and when the supply of slaves ran out, they couldn't change rapidly enough to stop the eventual collapse of the empire.

etc.

As for the Western culture: it seems able to change rapidly, but for some countries, the whole environmental issue may be their downfall (unwilling to adopt new technologies in that area). The globalization/westernization thing isn't an issue, because it is not *forced* onto other people, as some claim it is; it's a simple byproduct of being the dominant world culture.

I think we've got a better chance of survival, simply because the Western culture has *always* been changing and adapting.
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Old 04-29-2003, 05:50 AM   #16 (permalink)
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All I know is no one has found any weapons of mass destruction, 25 million bucks is still up for grabs for Osamas noggin, Saddam is nowhere the US is, and Iraq is levelled.

What do you think?
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Old 04-29-2003, 06:43 AM   #17 (permalink)
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I think education and the development of a strong working class keeps a country and society strong.
Any place that has depended largely on slavery for its manpower and skilled labor has collapsed.
Cultures that have encouraged learning at every level are more likely to be aware of oncoming problems and be able to adapt to deal with them.
Racism, bigotry and environmental destruction come from people who are unaware and unwilling to change.
By rewarding its working class a country builds a strong base. England is a good example. When it became too dependant on its colonies for manpower and funding it lost power with each colony that split away.
The future of America depends on a broad, well-educated working class.
Without it we will crumble like every empire before us.

Last edited by redravin40; 04-29-2003 at 06:45 AM..
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Old 04-29-2003, 07:30 AM   #18 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally posted by Dragonlich
How's about this:

The ancient societies mentioned here fell because they were unwilling/unable to change. They thought they had it all figured out and were perfect. Something changes in their environment (sudden appearance of barbarian hordes, gradual removal of all forests), and the old system doesn't work anymore. If you are then unable to change, you die.

Think about it: you *know* that what your father did was the right way to do things, and you know that your children will have to do the same. You just don't notice gradual changes if they're gradual enough. Rapid, sudden changes are also deadly: you just don't know what to do, and usually cannot come up with an answer quickly enough.

- Ancient Egypt: they continued to depend on foreign payments; previously, they simply marched their army into neighboring countries, and threatened to do it again unless paid. When these countries changed, and became able to stop the invaders, the gold ran out. With it, the Egyptian society collapsed, because they didn't want to change.

- Rome: they had no real answer to modern hit-and-run tactics from the tribes in Northern-Europe, and the steppe nomads from the east. They had grew more and more dependent on slave labor over the centuries, and when the supply of slaves ran out, they couldn't change rapidly enough to stop the eventual collapse of the empire.

etc.

As for the Western culture: it seems able to change rapidly, but for some countries, the whole environmental issue may be their downfall (unwilling to adopt new technologies in that area). The globalization/westernization thing isn't an issue, because it is not *forced* onto other people, as some claim it is; it's a simple byproduct of being the dominant world culture.

I think we've got a better chance of survival, simply because the Western culture has *always* been changing and adapting.
Thanks for adding to what I said.

I agree, change is very good. But there is a certain point that all the changes in the world wont help you survive. Eventually, somewhere, somehow, something will happen that will surpass the United States.

There is no doubt in my mind that this is the greatest time to live in the history of the world. Medical science, technology, wealth, are all the greatest theyve ever been. Even the poorest of the poor today are still more wealthy than many were during the middle ages. I think someone will agree with me on that.

However, while change improves chances of survival, I dont think it ensures life.

Just a thought
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Old 04-29-2003, 07:43 AM   #19 (permalink)
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Capitalism (the driving ideology of Western society) will not fail easily... It survived so far becasue, as others have rightly pointed out, it has the ability to adapt. Marx's Communit Manefesto failed to recognize this abiltity (althought his concept of Capitalism is bang on his conclusions were clearly faulty).

In the end, western society won't so much fail as morph into something totally different from what we would call Western Culture. It's abiltiy to adapt and absorb contrary points of view and methods is quite powerful. The key to its success is time.

It is not a revolutionary culture but rather one of slow and steady progress (like a lumbering juggernaut). There might be bumps along the way (war, terrorism, economic failure, etc) but it will keep marching on...

As for the USA... If it fails it will only be to rise up as something else... The Federated States of Texas, The Republic of California, etc... The collapse of the USA will only come if its economy fails.
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