Tag Archives: Jared Diamond

Cutting our own wrists

Back in 2005 I saw a link to a review of Jared Diamond’s book Collapse on the New Yorker website. Malcolm Gladwell was telling the story of Norse settlers coming to Greenland a millennium ago and I found the story fascinating. Even to the Norse, Greenland was not a place that one would want to inhabit but on the southwest corner there are some Fjords that looked a lot like southern Norway and was a perfect place to settle so they got off the boats and set out to tame the land. For four hundred and fifty years they built two settlements, churches, traded with Europe and possibly even had a section of prime downtown real estate they couldn’t develop. They hunted seal, caribou and raised livestock and pets. Life was good and then one day it was all over. What happened?

Diamond’s book is full of stories of societal collapse. Easter Island, Mayans, and even the genocide in Rwanda but the Norse on is the one that I keep re-reading. Partly because I am part Norwegian but partly because I keep seeing those settlement’s demise being played out again and again today.

What happened in Greenland is what happened in most of the societies that Diamond looks at. The ecosystem was too fragile to support the population. The trees were chopped down for fuel, the soil erodes, the crops fail and society has to leave or ends up dying. He tells essentially the same story over and over again. Greenland wasn’t as green as the Norse thought it was and the same thing happened to them.

What is so odd about this chapter is that within feet of their shore is some of the best fishing grounds in the world. Diamond describes running into a tourist who had caught two Arctic Char with her bare hands so why did they not fish. For years archeologists have looked for the fish bones and no one has ever found them. They found tons of trash fully of garbage and livestock bones. When the pastures couldn’t support the cattle, the Norse ate the cattle, then their young (right down to the hoofs), and even their pets while ignoring a massive food supply right that was within feet of them. You could argue that maybe the Norse didn’t know any better but there was Inuit there but the Norse looked down at the Inuit and their hunting practices that probably would have saved their lives.

What does this have to do with today? Until last week I wasn’t that preoccupied with the U.S. debt ceiling. To be honest I was much more preoccupied with the NFL lockout. It never occurred to me that American politicians would allow the U.S. government to default on its debt. As the rhetoric flew in Washington, I realized it all sounded familiar. This isn’t about economics; this is about the survival of ideologies and political parties. In the same way the Norse wouldn’t fish, intermarry with the Inuit or even copy their ways of life because they were ranchers and because of cultural status, Republicans can’t make a deal because they can’t be seen raising taxes or Democrats can’t been seen cutting Social Security or Medicare. Michele Bachmann can’t compromise because that would alienate the Tea Party. John Boehner can’t compromise because then he looks weak. Obama can’t compromise or he’ll upset his base. They may push the United States into another recession but they won’t have compromised on their values.  It’s a pile of crap and the rest of the world in this case pays for it.

This is what bothers me about ideological arguments, they ignore the cost to people along the way.  Real leaders are not ideologues.  They are pragmatists who are capable of making hard decisions that go against their base.  In Saskatchewan how popular do you think it was for the NDP when they closed rural hospitals or cut the public sector in their efforts to reign in the Saskatchewan deficit?  In Alberta during the same time Ralph Klein instituted user fees on healthcare.  How popular were the Chretien budget cuts and austerity of the 1990s with Liberals.  So much for the short term vision of a just society.  While the Saskatchewan Party says it is a party of free market principles, they dug in (with the support of the NDP) to help save PotashCorp (an American company that for some reason we could not handle being taken over by an Australian company because that would be wrong for some reason).  Leaders decide to go fishing from time to time.  They also know they need to raise taxes to pay for a war in Afghanistan and Iraq, no matter what it does to their presidential aspirations or how much it hurts their base.

So why didn’t the Norse settlements eat Arctic Char (apparently it’s quite tasty, similar to rainbow trout)?  Because they were so concerned with the survival of their northern European culture, a culture of churches, cattle, and trade that they never could see there was an alternative way to act.  Why is the United States about to walk into financial Armageddon because Republican’s don’t raise taxes and Democrats don’t cut entitlements and they are both too stupid to realize that this polarization can’t continue.

As Gladwell points out,

The lesson of "Collapse" is that societies, as often as not, aren’t murdered. They commit suicide: they slit their wrists and then, in the course of many decades, stand by passively and watch themselves bleed to death.

I think I see blood on the floor.

Other by Kester Brewin

Other by Kester BrewinKester Brewin released his latest book Other.  It’s only available in the U.K. right now but if you want to pay the Canadian government a lot of fees, you can get it shipped here (I paid more in taxes and fees for The Complex Christ than I did for the book but it was worth it).

I am pretty excited about this book because The Complex Christ forced me to rethink much of how I saw the world, looked at history, and read the Scriptures.  While Brewin writes theology, his writing extends my thinking beyond where it has gone before.  I rate him up with Thomas Homer-Dixon, Jared Diamond, Malcolm Gladwell, and Steven Johnson as people that have helped constantly reinvent my world view.  I can’t wait until my copy gets here (the fees alone should erase Canada’s deficit).

Will Big Business Save Earth?

Jared Diamond thinks it is a possibility

The embrace of environmental concerns by chief executives has accelerated recently for several reasons. Lower consumption of environmental resources saves money in the short run. Maintaining sustainable resource levels and not polluting saves money in the long run. And a clean image — one attained by, say, avoiding oil spills and other environmental disasters — reduces criticism from employees, consumers and government.

It makes good business sense as seen by Chevron

Chevron Logo Not even in any national park have I seen such rigorous environmental protection as I encountered in five visits to new Chevron-managed oil fields in Papua New Guinea. (Chevron has since sold its stake in these properties to a New Guinea-based oil company.) When I asked how a publicly traded company could justify to its shareholders its expenditures on the environment, Chevron employees and executives gave me at least five reasons.

First, oil spills can be horribly expensive: it is far cheaper to prevent them than to clean them up. Second, clean practices reduce the risk that New Guinean landowners become angry, sue for damages and close the fields. (The company has been sued for problems in Ecuador that Chevron inherited when it merged with Texaco in 2001.) Next, environmental standards are becoming stricter around the world, so building clean facilities now minimizes having to do expensive retrofitting later.

Also, clean operations in one country give a company an advantage in bidding on leases in other countries. Finally, environmental practices of which employees are proud improve morale, help with recruitment and increase the length of time employees are likely to remain at the company.

Of course where is the thinking in the Alberta Oil Sands?  According to the Toronto Star.

Tailing from the Alberta Oilsands

An independent study suggests pollution from Alberta’s oilsands is nearly five times greater and twice as widespread as industry figures say.

The study says toxic emissions from the controversial industry are equal to a major oil spill occurring every year. Government and industry officials say contamination in area soils and rivers is natural, but the report links it firmly to oilsands mining.

Here is how they did it.

In the summer of 2008, Schindler’s team set up monitoring stations on the Athabasca and several of its tributaries. Some stations were upstream of both the oilsands and facilities, others were in the middle of the deposits but upstream of industry and still others were downstream of both.

It found petrochemical concentrations did not increase until the streams flowed past oilsands facilities, especially when they flowed past new construction.

"We always found that the major contribution to the river was from industry," Schindler said.

Researchers also took snow samples from similar locations earlier that spring.

They found deposits of bitumen particulates within a 50-kilometre radius around Suncor and Syncrude’s upgraders – twice the previous distance estimate. The deposits were "substantial" and enough to form an oily slick on the snow when it was melted.

Now you could argue that Chevron is just a better global citizen than Suncor and Syncrude or more realistically one could say is that the Alberta government has done a bad job of regulating and punishing companies who do pollute.

From the New York Times

With Canada facing mounting international pressure to confront its sluggish emission-reduction record heading into the Copenhagen climate meetings next week, environmental groups this week released yet another unflattering appraisal — this one showing that seven of Alberta’s nine oil sands projects will fail to meet new cleanup rules for the vast tailing ponds near bitumen refineries.

Absent compliance, the Pembina Institute and the Water Matters Society of Alberta estimate that by 2020, Alberta’s tailing ponds could contain about 300 million gallons of toxic liquid and cover almost 100 square miles — an area the size of Brooklyn. Those figures represent a 30 percent increase over current volumes.

After assessing available corporate and government data, the group concluded that most oil sands projects are years away from complying with a February 2009 directive requiring producers to capture 50 percent of fine particles by mid-2013.

The question is what is being done about  it because as it is now, the clean up of the oil sands is going to dwarf cleanup needed to take care of the Sydney Tar Ponds (or even worse, Hamilton Harbour).   Until this year, there wasn’t a lot of attention paid to the oilsands tailing (until 500 ducks landed on them and died) and while Alberta took some good first steps, only time will tell if they are bold enough to force a Chevron type of reaction in corporate responsibility.  While Shell has developed a plan and targets, others have not and blame the lack of technology to cut targets.  Well at least some companies are making a genuine effort.

Read it to me again

Recently a friend came by work and there were some washers and dryers being moved around the building.  He asked what was up and I explained what we were doing and the reason why.  While the specifics are pretty boring, the “why” is that the more money we save operationally, the more money can be directed into more important things which is why companies and non-profits look to cut operational costs.

As we sat down in my office, he started to mull over his church’s budget and started to list off expenses that many organizations would reject.  He then told me what his church spent on conferences and I was stunned.  Him and I talked about Jared Diamond coming to Saskatoon.  We both had attended and the talk was one that he had given out of Collapse.  We paid $40 a ticket to go and while Diamond was entertaining and gave a good talk, it was nothing we hadn’t read before from him.  He asked me how that was different than most church conferences I had gone to.  Well, it was out of pocket for me and I think for him as well (Wendy gave me the tickets as an anniversary gift) but other than that, it was pretty much the same formula.  A speaker who is always a published author give an excerpt from a book I have probably already read or will be able to purchase in the lobby after the talk.

The question comes down to how better spent would conference money be doing something else in the church?  Conferences are an expensive line item for a lot of churches and of course that money comes from tithes to the church.  For some that money is being used as a pastoral junket to hear speakers who are out promoting their books.  Books that could just be bought and read.   Airfare, hotel, conference fees, meals, all are spent to hear someone give a talk based out of a $30 book that could be ordered from Amazon.

Of course this is being done at a time when we are in a great recession.  I have had these misgivings for years and have listened to pastors says, “if the church is paying for it, why not go?”   It’s as if they have no personal responsibility for their actions and I have to admit, that flippant usage of church money really bothers me.

There is a bigger question here as well and that is why does the evangelical church as a whole need so many conferences.  Years ago I read an article which talked about how students at Canada’s premiere seminaries were not as good as quality as students at the neighboring university.  The idea was that with low wages and a stressful lifestyle, the best and brightest were avoiding seminaries and the marks were curved to suit the students.  Maybe conferences serve the need of a clergy that are not as smart as other professions. Maybe this explains the lack of serious journals and publications dedicated to the trade of being a pastor. Perhaps they serve as a vacation subsidy for pastors.  Lower than average wages mean that vacations are not as common and therefore this kind of boosts them up.   Also they may just happen because no one asks if there is any value to the church for a conference like this.  It is just taken for granted that a couple thousand dollars spent having an author read to a room of pastors is better spent than spending it helping the community.  Either way something doesn’t seem right.


Collapse by Jared Diamond It was a couple of years ago that I read Collapse by Jared Diamond and the book had a profound influence on my thinking.  Hearing him a couple of weeks ago started caused me to revisit my thought process on societal collapse some more.  For me the most interesting part of the book is the difference between cultures that allowed themselves to collapse and those that did not.  The main difference was the isolation of the leadership.  If you were an isolated leader whose fate was not related to the well being of the people, you tended not to care.  If your fate in life was dependent on the ebbs and tides of those following your rule, you cared a lot.  A modern day example would be why New Orleans did not spend the millions to fix the dykes.  While Ward 9 was below sea level, the wealthy and the ruling class lived on much higher ground.  Another example of this is PM Harper’s comments that the economic collapse is a good buying opportunity for stocks.  He may be right (If I find a couple more dollars in the couch, I can afford to buy all of the Ford Motor Company [which has a market cap of only 4.3 billion today]) but his viewpoint comes from being a long way removed from where many people are living.  His pension is secure and he doesn’t have to worry about retirement.

I wonder the same thing can be said about church pastors.  For many, they come from outside the community, have no long term ties to the community or the church and if going  gets rough, have escape routes to take to another church, back to school, or another religious institution.  Constant church transitions means that entire years are lost (researchers say it takes a pastor 7 years to build the relationships necessary to be effective in a local church… of course since most senior pastor tenures are under 2 years in the United States, that is just theory). In addition to this, there is a clergy class in almost every denomination which in a variety of historical settings has chosen to protect itself and it’s members rather than the institution it serves.

Lyle Schaller has written about this extensively but I wonder if until we can get our minds around a different idea what leadership looks like and then figure out new ways to teach and  educate them for pastoral ministry, the current system is just going to make the problems worse.

Jared Diamond

Wendy, myself and about 1500 people went and saw Jared Diamond at TCU Place tonight.  He was what I expected.  Witty, gracious, concise, and profound.  He talked mostly of his work in Collapse but offered up some thoughts on the global economic collapse and global warming.  Sadly for a lot of defeated Liberal candidates, he offered up the best apologetic of the Green Shift that I have heard.  Too bad it came out now instead of prior to election day as it would have contributed greatly to the election debate.

I have some more thoughts on his talk and his book Collapse but that is for another night.  Tonight I need some sleep.