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Disasters waiting to happen

The events of Boxing day have shown us all how fragile our existence is. The tsunami was an unavoidable natural disaster, which could happen anytime. But not all disasters are so beyond our control. Our own actions may provoke global catastrophes just as forceful as those in the Indian ocean.

Take the human impact on sea levels. Imagine you live on an island safely 15 feet above sea level. If human-induced climate change raises those levels by only a few feet, the difference man has made could spell disaster in the event of a 12ft tsunami. We cannot stop another tsunami. But the threats of man-made environmental collapse are now more pressing than ever.

Ask some ivory-tower academic ecologist, who knows a lot about the environment but never reads a newspaper and has no interest in politics, to name the overseas countries facing some of the worst problems of environmental stress, overpopulation, or both. The ecologist would likely answer: "That's a no-brainer, it's obvious. Your list of environmentally stressed or overpopulated countries should surely include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burundi, Haiti, Indonesia, Iraq, Rwanda, the Solomon Islands, and Somalia, plus others".

Then ask a first world politician, who knows nothing and cares less about the environment and population problems, to name the world's worst trouble spots: countries where state government has already been overwhelmed and has collapsed, or is now at risk of collapsing, or has been wracked by recent civil wars; and countries that, as a result of those problems, are also creating problems for us rich first world countries. Surprise, surprise: the two lists would be very similar.

Today, just as in the past, countries that are environmentally stressed, overpopulated, or both, become at risk of getting politically stressed, and of their governments collapsing. When people are desperate, undernourished, and without hope, they blame their governments, which they see as responsible for or unable to solve their problems. They try to emigrate at any cost. They fight each other over land. They kill each other. They start civil wars. They figure that they have nothing to lose, so they become terrorists, or they support or tolerate terrorism.

The results of these transparent connections are far-reaching and devastating. There are genocides, such as those that exploded in Bangladesh, Burundi, Indonesia, and Rwanda; civil wars or revolutions, as in most of the countries on the lists; calls for the dispatch of troops, as to Afghanistan, Haiti, Indonesia, Iraq, the Philippines, Rwanda, the Solomon Islands, and Somalia; the collapse of central government, as has already happened in Somalia and the Solomon Islands; and overwhelming poverty, as in all of the countries on these lists.

Hence the best predictors of modern "state failures" prove to be measures of environmental and population pressure, such as high infant mortality, rapid population growth, a high percentage of the population in their late teens and 20s, and hordes of young men without job prospects and ripe for recruitment into militias.

Those pressures create conflicts over shortages of land, water, forests, fish, oil, and minerals. They create not only chronic internal conflict, but also emigration of political and economic refugees, and wars between countries arising when authoritarian regimes attack neighbours in order to divert popular attention from internal stresses.

In short, it is not a question open for debate whether the collapses of past societies have modern parallels and offer any lessons to us. Instead, the real question is how many more countries will undergo them.

As for terrorists, you might object that many of the political murderers, suicide bombers, and 9/11 terrorists were educated and moneyed rather than uneducated and desperate. That's true, but they still depended on a desperate society for support and toleration. Any society has its murderous fanatics; the US produced its own Timothy McVeigh and its Harvard-educated Theodore Kaczinski. But well-nourished societies offering good job prospects, like the US, Finland, and South Korea, don't offer broad support to their fanatics.

The problems of all these environmentally devastated, overpopulated, distant countries become our own problems because of globalisation. We are accustomed to thinking of globalisation in terms of us rich advanced first worlders sending our good things, such as the internet and Coca-Cola, to those poor backward third worlders. But globalisation means nothing more than improved worldwide communications, which can convey many things in either direction; globalisation is not restricted to good things carried only from the first to the third world. We in the US are no longer the isolated Fortress America to which some of us aspired in the 1930s; instead, we are tightly and irreversibly connected to overseas countries. The US is the world's leading importer nation, we import many necessities and many consumer products, as well as being the world's leading importer of investment capital. We are also the world's leading exporter, particularly of food and of our own manufactured products. Our own society opted long ago to become interlocked with the rest of the world. That's why political instability anywhere in the world now affects us, our trade routes, and our overseas markets and suppliers.

We are so dependent on the rest of the world that if, 30 years ago, you had asked a politician to name the countries most geopolitically irrelevant to our interests, the list might surely have begun with Afghanistan and Somalia, yet they subsequently became recognised as important enough to warrant our dispatching US troops. The US can no longer get away with advancing its own self-interests, at the expense of the interests of others.

When distant Somalia collapsed, in went American troops; when the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union collapsed, out went streams of refugees to all of Europe and the rest of the world; and when changed conditions of society, settlement, and lifestyle spread new diseases in Africa and Asia, those diseases moved over the globe.

We need to realise that there is no other planet to which we can turn for help, or to which we can export our problems. Instead, we need to learn to live within our means.

By world standards, southern California's environmental problems are relatively mild. Jokes by east coast Americans to the contrary, this is not an area at imminent risk of a societal collapse. Los Angeles is well known for some problems, especially its smog, but most of its environmental and population problems are modest or typical compared to those of other leading first world cities.

I moved here in 1966. Thus, I have seen how southern California has changed over the last 39 years, mostly in ways that make it less appealing.

The complaints voiced by virtually everybody in LA are those directly related to our growing and already high population: our incurable traffic jams, the very high price of housing, the long distances, of up to two hours and 60 miles one way, over which people commute daily in their cars between home and work. Los Angeles became the US city with the worst traffic in 1987 and has remained so every year since then.

No cure is even under serious discussion for these problems, which will only get worse. There is no end in sight to how much worse Los Angeles's problems of congestion will become, because millions of people put up with far worse traffic in other cities.

Environmental and population problems have been undermining the economy and the quality of life in southern California. They are in large measure ultimately responsible for our water shortages, power shortages, garbage accumulation, school crowding, housing shortages and price rises, and traffic congestion. However, there are many reasons commonly advanced to dismiss the importance of environmental problems. These objections are often posed in the form of simplistic one-liners. Here are some of the commonest ones:

"The environment has to be balanced against the economy"

This portrays environmental concerns as a luxury but puts the truth backwards. Environmental messes cost us huge sums of money both in the short run and in the long run; cleaning up or preventing those messes saves us huge sums.

Just think of the damage caused by agricultural weeds and pests, the value of lost time when we are stuck in traffic, the financial costs resulting from people getting sick or dying from environmental toxins, cleanup costs for toxic chemicals, the steep increase in fish prices due to depletion of fish stocks, and the value of farmland damaged or ruined by erosion and salinisation. It adds up to a few hundred million dollars per year here, a billion dollars there, another billion over here, and so on for hundreds of different problems.

For instance, the value of "one statistical life" in the US - ie, the cost to the US economy resulting from the death of an average American whom society has gone to the expense of rearing and educating but who dies before a lifetime of contributing to the national economy - is usually estimated at around $5m (£2.6m). Even if one takes the conservative estimate of annual US deaths due to air pollution as 130,000, then deaths due to air pollution cost us about $650bn (£340bn) per year. That illustrates why the US Clean Air Act of 1970, although its cleanup measures do cost money, has yielded estimated net health savings (benefits in excess of costs) of about $1 trillion per year, due to saved lives and reduced health costs.

"Technology will solve our problems"

Underlying this expression of faith is the implicit assumption that, from tomorrow onwards, technology will function primarily to solve existing problems and will cease to create new problems. Those with such faith also assume that the new technologies now under discussion will succeed, and that they will do so quickly enough to make a big difference soon.

But actual experience is the opposite. Some dreamed-of new technologies succeed, while others don't. Those that do succeed typically take a few decades to develop and be phased in widely: think of gas heating, electric lighting, cars and airplanes, television and computers.

New technologies, whether or not they succeed in solving the problem they were designed to solve, regularly create unanticipated new problems. Technological solutions to environmental problems are routinely far more expensive than preventive measures to avoid creating the problem in the first place: for example, the billions of dollars of damages and cleanup costs associated with major oil spills, compared to the modest cost of safety measures to minimise the risks of a major oil spill.

All of our current problems are unintended negative consequences of our existing technology. What makes you think that, as of January 1, 2006, for the first time in human history, technology will miraculously stop causing new unanticipated problems while it just solves those it previously produced?

A good example is chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The coolant gases formerly used in refrigerators and air conditioners were toxic and could prove fatal if the appliance leaked while the homeowner was asleep at night. Hence it was hailed as a great advance when CFCs (alias freons) were developed as synthetic refrigerant gases.

They are odourless, non-toxic, and highly stable under ordinary conditions at the Earth's surface, so that initially no bad side effects were observed or expected. But in 1974 it was discovered that in the stratosphere they are broken down by intense ultraviolet radiation to yield highly reactive chlorine atoms that destroy a significant fraction of the ozone layer protecting us and all other living things against lethal ultraviolet effects.

Unfortunately, the quantity of CFCs already in the atmosphere is sufficiently large, and their breakdown sufficiently slow, that they will continue to be present for many decades after the eventual end of all CFC production.

"We can switch to electric cars, or to solar energy"

Optimists who make such claims ignore the unforeseen difficulties and long transition times regularly involved. For instance, one area in which switching based on not-yet-perfected new technologies has repeatedly been touted as promising to solve a major environmental problem is automobiles.

The current hope for a breakthrough involves hydrogen cars and fuel cells, which are technologically in their infancy. Equally, there is the motor industry's recent development of fuel-efficient hybrid gas/electric cars. However, the automobile industry's simultaneous development of SUVs (Sports Utility Vehicles), which have been outselling hybrids by a big margin more than offset their fuel savings. The net result of these two technological breakthroughs has been that the fuel consumption and exhaust production of the American car fleet has been going up rather than down.

Another example is the hope that renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar energy, may solve the energy crisis. These technologies do indeed exist; many Californians now use solar energy to heat their swimming pools, and wind generators are already supplying about one-sixth of Denmark's energy needs. However, wind and solar energy have limited applicability because they can be used only at locations with reliable winds or sunlight.

The recent history of technology shows that conversion times for adoption of major switches, such as oil lamps to gas lamps to electric lights, require several decades. It is indeed likely that energy sources other than fossil fuels will make increasing contributions to our motor transport and energy generation, but this is a long-term prospect.

"The world's food problems will be solved by more equitable distribution and genetically modified (GM) crops"

The obvious flaw is that first world citizens show no interest in eating less so that third world citizens could eat more. While first world countries are willing occasionally to export food to mitigate starvation occasioned by some crisis (such as a drought or war), their citizens have shown no interest in paying on a regular basis to feed billions of third world citizens.

If that did happen but without effective overseas family planning programs, which the US government currently opposes on principle, the result would just mean an increase in population proportional to an increase in available food.

Genetically modified food varieties by themselves are equally unlikely to solve the world's food problems. In addition, virtually all GM crop production at present is of just four crops (soy-beans, corn, canola, and cotton) not eaten directly by humans but used for animal fodder, oil, or clothing, and grown in six temperate-zone countries or regions. Reasons are the strong consumer resistance to eating GM foods and the fact that companies developing GM crops can make money by selling their products to rich farmers in mostly affluent temperate-zone countries, but not by selling to poor farmers in developing tropical countries. Hence the companies have no interest in investing heavily to develop GM cassava, millet, or sorghum for farmers in developing nations.

"Just look around you: there is absolutely no sign of imminent collapse"

For affluent western citizens, conditions have indeed been getting better, and public health measures have on the average lengthened lifespans in the third world as well. But lifespan alone is not a sufficient indicator: billions of third world citizens, constituting about 80% of the world's population, still live in poverty, near or below the starvation level.

Even in the US, an increasing fraction of the population is at the poverty level and lacks affordable medical care, and all proposals to change this situation have been politically unacceptable. In addition, all of us know as individuals that we don't measure our economic wellbeing just by the present size of our bank accounts: we also look at our direction of cash flow.

When you look at your bank statement and you see a positive £5,000 balance, you don't smile if you then realise that you have been experiencing a net cash drain of £200 per month for the last several years, and at that rate you have just two years and one month left before you have to file for bankruptcy.

The same principle holds for our national economy, and for environmental and population trends. The prosperity that the richer nations enjoy at present is based on spending down its environmental capital in the bank. It makes no sense to be content with our present comfort when it is clear that we are currently on a non-sustainable course.

"Why should we believe the fearmongering environmentalists this time?"

Yes, some predictions by environmentalists have proved incorrect, but it is misleading to look selectively for environmentalist predictions that were proved wrong, and not also to look for environmentalist predictions that proved to be right, or anti-environmentalist predictions that proved wrong.

We comfortably accept a certain frequency of false alarms and extinguished fires, because we understand that fire risks are uncertain and hard to judge when a fire has just started, and that a fire that does rage out of control may exact high costs in property and human lives. No sensible person would dream of abolishing the town fire department just because a few years went by without a big fire. Nor would anyone blame a homeowner for calling the fire department on detecting a small fire, only to succeed in quenching the fire before the fire truck's arrival.

We must expect some environmentalist warnings to turn out to be false alarms, otherwise we would know that our environmental warning systems were much too conservative. The multi-billion-dollar costs of many environmental problems justify a moderate frequency of false alarms.

"The population crisis is already solving itself"

While the prediction that world population will level off at less than double its present level may or may not prove to be true, it is at present a realistic possibility. However, we can take no comfort in this possibility, for two reasons: by many criteria, even the world's present population is living at a non-sustainable level; and the larger danger that we face is not just of a two-fold increase in population, but of a much larger increase in human impact if the third world's population succeeds in attaining a first world living standard.

It is surprising to hear some first world citizens nonchalantly mentioning the world's adding "only" two-and-a-half billion more people (the lowest estimate that anyone would forecast) as if that were acceptable, when the world already holds that many people who are malnourished and living on less than $3 (£1.60) per day.

"Environmental concerns are a luxury affordable just by affluent first world yuppies"

This view is one that I have heard mainly from affluent first world yuppies lacking experience of the third world. In all my experience of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, East Africa, Peru, and other third world countries with growing environmental problems and populations, I have been impressed that their people know very well how they are being harmed. They know it because they immediately pay the penalty, in forms such as loss of free timber for their houses, massive soil erosion, and (the tragic complaint that I hear incessantly) their inability to afford clothes, books, and school fees for their children.

Another view that is widespread among affluent first world people, but which they will rarely express openly, is that they themselves are managing just fine at carrying on with their lifestyles despite all those environmental problems, which really don't concern them because the problems fall mainly on third world people (though it is not politically correct to be so blunt).

Actually, the rich are not immune to environmental problems. Chief executive officers of big western companies eat food, drink water, breathe air, and have (or try to conceive) children, like the rest of us. While they can usually avoid problems of water quality by drinking bottled water, they find it much more difficult to avoid being exposed to the same problems of food and air quality as the rest of us. Living disproportionately high on the food chain, at levels at which toxic substances become concentrated, they are at more rather than less risk of reproductive impairment due to ingestion of or exposure to toxic materials, possibly contributing to their higher infertility rates and the increasing frequency with which they require medical assistance in conceiving.

In addition, in the long run, rich people do not secure their own interests and those of their children if they rule over a collapsing society and merely buy themselves the privilege of being the last to starve or die.

As for first world society as a whole, its resource consumption accounts for most of the world's total consumption that has given rise to the impacts described at the beginning of this chapter. Our totally unsustainable consumption means that the first world could not continue for long on its present course, even if the third world didn't exist and weren't trying to catch up to us.

"If those environmental problems become desperate, it will be at some time far off in the future, after I die"

In fact, at current rates most or all of the dozen major sets of environmental problems discussed at the beginning of this chapter will become acute within the life-time of young adults now alive.

Most of us who have children consider the securing of our children's future as the highest priority to which to devote our time and our money. We pay for their education and food and clothes, make wills for them, and buy life insurance for them, all with the goal of helping them to enjoy good lives 50 years from now. It makes no sense for us to do these things for our individual children, while simultaneously doing things undermining the world in which our children will be living 50 years from now.

This paradoxical behaviour is one of which I personally was guilty, because I was born in the year 1937, hence before the birth of my children I too could not take seriously any event (like global warming or the end of the tropical rainforests) projected for the year 2037. I shall surely be dead before that year, and even the date 2037 struck me as unreal. However, when my twin sons were born in 1987, I realized with a jolt: 2037 is the year in which my kids will be my own age of 50. It's not an imaginary year! What's the point of willing our property to our kids if the world will be in a mess then anyway?

About the author

Professor of physiology at UCLA since 1966, Jared Diamond developed a parallel career in the ecology and evolution of New Guinea birds while in his twenties, then added a professorship in geography when, in his fifties, his interest grew in environmental history. Boston-born son of a physician father and teacher/musician/linguist mother, he is a Pulitzer prize-winning author of bestselling books including The Third Chimpanzee and Why is Sex Fun?. He and his wife Marie Cohen, a clinical psychologist at UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine have twin 17-year-old sons. In his spare time he watches birds and is learning his 12th language, Italian.

· Extracted from Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive by Jared Diamond published by Allen Lane on January 17 at ?20. To obtain a copy at the offer price of ?18.40 with free UK postage call the Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop

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