The last palm tree

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’?”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com