As I read Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed for one of my community sustainability classes, my mind couldn’t help but wander to the fate of our modern society. In Collapse, author Jared Diamond argues that the ultimate reason for the downfall of past societies is a failure to perceive, accept, and respond to environmental issues. Sound familiar? It sure did to me, and that’s terrifying.
We live in a time of “optional” environmental degradation. Of climate change and widespread distrust of science and media. Of pandemics and misinterpretations of freedom; deforestation and ignorant oblivion. Most of us lead lives of privilege in some sense. We hold true to “seeing is believing” and worship political idols for their appeal to the beliefs we hold onto for dear life.
Some may never personally experience drought, flooding, hurricanes, wildfires, or the melting of ice caps; to them climate change seems as mythical as the Loch Ness Monster. Instead of an iteration in the pattern of increasing public health crises, COVID-19 is a political ploy impeding upon freedom for some. Others may never think to empathize with Indigenous people forced out of their native land by encroaching governments and corporations endorsing the destruction of entire forest ecosystems. The “ignorance is bliss” attitude of society, whether intentional or otherwise, fuels the polarization behind our perception, acceptance, and response to our very real environmental issues – and the norm of placing our identity in unyielding partisanship makes for a dangerous cacophony between the two.
The people of Easter Island disappeared around 1600, as recounted in Collapse. The ultimate cause of death? Severe deforestation. But environmental issues don’t occur in a vacuum. Social factors are intrinsically intertwined. As the island suffered from the severe clearing of forests, the islanders more desperately fought to build their infamous ahu and moai monuments to appeal to their gods – worshipping idols instead of accepting and responding to issues. Their identity and trust was in the hands of their chiefs and gods. We may never know whether some in their society attempted to respond to the environmental issues that plagued them, but we can, however, learn from what happens when society as a whole ignores reality.
Is our fate headed in the same direction as the Easter Islanders? At this rate, we’ve sentenced ourselves to death by societal polarization. However, we must not discredit the work of those who are devoted to responding to environmental issues that affect real people, animals, processes, and places, and instead find actionable inspiration in them if we are to survive.