Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and of a forthcoming book on why some societies do, and some don’t, deal effectively with potentially catastrophic environmental problems, gave today’s Jacob Marschak Memorial Lecture on the topic of the new book.
The structure of the analysis of failure was straightforward: problems aren’t anticipated in time, or they aren’t perceived after they arise, or no serious attempt is made to deal with them, or they’re just too hard. But the wealth of example was fascinating.
Diamond told the story of Easter Island, home to what were the largest palm trees in the world, settled sometime in the Ninth Century, increasingly prosperous until the beginning of the Seventeenth Century, and then abandoned within half a century of its peak as a result of deforestation.
Here’s the “money quote,” which I’m paraphrasing from memory:
“What was the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree thinking? Was he saying to himself, ‘Jobs, not trees’? Or was it ‘Down with Big Chieftainship’? Or maybe ‘Those deforestation models haven’t been validated’?”