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On The Collapse of Complex Societies

Hemos posted more than 11 years ago | from the this-the-way-the-world-ends dept.

Science 461

One of the mailing lists that I'm on had a great short essay about the disastrous decision that societies can make - and their consequences. The author is Jared Diamond, who also wrote Guns, Germs and Steel (First Slashdot book review was that book), and is still one of the most interesting books I've read in a while.

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well if poop doesn't fly! (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5826256)

I got fp!

Claim it with straight good troll fiction!

Frost my Piss (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5826260)

I fucked Taco's mom. It was good.

Jared Gould, computer programmer, dead at 22 (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5826261)

I just heard some sad news on local radio - computer programmer/Porsche mechanic Jared Gould was found dead in his Alabama dorm room this afternoon. There weren't any more details. I'm sure everyone in the Slashdot community will miss him - even if you didn't enjoy his code, there's no denying his contributions to Porsche cu1ture. Truly an American icon.

POO ON YOUR FP MOM (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5826269)

What a stinky article! FP FP SUCKAZ!!! HAHAH

Poo oN YR mom

The Maya (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5826271)

Wasn't it because of drugs?

Prits Fots!!!

Chaos theory of human societies? (3, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5826285)

One butterfly flapping its wings cannot lead to the destruction of the sun. Nature has built in redundancy. So do human societies. Diamond's book (Guns Germ and Steel) is a hodgepodge of deterministic gibberish.

AllYourWeaponsOfMassDestructionAreBelongToUs +1 (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5826683)

The U.S. has biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. All others have WMD.

Cheers,
W00t

Get Your War On 23 [mnftiu.cc]

Re:Chaos theory of human societies? (3, Interesting)

Dyolf Knip (165446) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826877)

The probability that a butterfly's actions could cause critical damage to a star is so low as to be totally impossible (i.e., a trllion stars could last a trillion years without it ever happnening once), but that probability is still non-zero. You familiar with the notion that the air in a room might evacuate itself under no force other than a freak concerted motion of the constituent molecules? Same principle. I find it just _slightly_ unlikely that butterfly wings could precipitate a storm that would blow half the atmosphere towards the sun at relativistic speeds, but there's no reason why it couldn't happen.

Re:Chaos theory of human societies? (1)

Dr. Manhattan (29720) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826936)

Weather does appear to be chaotic. Weather influences when people make love. Even a small change in position, much less timing, will alter what sperm gets to the egg first. A small change, therefore, can and will lead to an entirely different generation being born later. If that doesn't affect a society, I don't know what will.

Climate is what we expect; weather is what we get. A butterfly flapping its wings doesn't change spring into fall, but it can change sun into rain and vice versa - changes take place within a climate. No one that I've heard of claims that a butterfly can cause the destruction of the sun.

Larger, slower climactic variations do occur, and there is some evidence that they are chaotic, so in a sense a butterfly could cause an ice age, but it'd be a long time after that flapping.

Re:Chaos theory of human societies? (1)

DNS-and-BIND (461968) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826998)

Yeah, the guy definitely has a leftist axe to grind. "Failure of group decision-making" my ass. The man has definitely never held down a Real Job like the rest of us do (think Office Space here). Biological organisms simply grow to the limit of their resources and then die off. Ever seen a petri dish?

Re:Chaos theory of human societies? (1)

feepness (543479) | more than 11 years ago | (#5827064)

One butterfly flapping its wings cannot lead to the destruction of the sun. Nature has built in redundancy. So do human societies. Diamond's book (Guns Germ and Steel) is a hodgepodge of deterministic gibberish.

The butterfly doesn't CAUSE the destruction of the sun. The conditions exist that it is possible and the butterfly is the proverbial straw (or first domino).

I give it 45 more seconds...... (5, Funny)

mao che minh (611166) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826288)

Slashdot: On The Collapse of Complex Web Servers

Article Text (just in case) (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5826354)


WHY DO SOME SOCIETIES MAKE DISASTROUS DECISIONS?: JARED DIAMOND

Education is supposed to be about teachers imparting knowledge to students. As every teacher knows, though, if you have a good group of students, education is also about students imparting knowledge to their supposed teachers and challenging their assumptions. That's an experience that I've been through in the last couple of months, when for the first time in my academic career I gave a course to undergraduates, highly motivated UCLA undergraduates, on collapses of societies. Why is it that some societies in the past have collapsed while others have not? I was discussing famous collapses such as those of the Anasazi in the U.S. Southwest, Classic Maya civilization in the Yucatan, Easter Island society in the Pacific, Angkor Wat in southeast Asia, Great Zimbabwe in Africa, Fertile Crescent societies, and Harappan Indus Valley societies. These are all societies that we've realized, from archaeological discoveries in the last 20 years, hammered away at their own environments and destroyed themselves in part by undermining the environmental resources on which they depended.

For example, the Easter Islanders, Polynesian people, settled an island that was originally forested, and whose forests included the world's largest palm tree. The Easter Islanders gradually chopped down that forest to use the wood for canoes, firewood, transporting statues, raising statues, and carving and also to protect against soil erosion. Eventually they chopped down all the forests to the point where all the tree species were extinct, which meant that they ran out of canoes, they could no longer erect statues, there were no longer trees to protect the topsoil against erosion, and their society collapsed in an epidemic of cannibalism that left 90 percent of the islanders dead. The question that most intrigued my UCLA students was one that hadn't registered on me: how on Earth could a society make such an obviously disastrous decision as to cut down all the trees on which they depended? For example, my students wondered, what did the Easter Islanders say as they were cutting down the last palm tree? Were they saying, think of our jobs as loggers, not these trees? Were they saying, respect my private property rights? Surely the Easter Islanders, of all people, must have realized the consequences to them of destroying their own forest. It wasn't a subtle mistake. One wonders whether -- if there are still people left alive a hundred years from now -- people in the next century will be equally astonished about our blindness today as we are today about the blindness of the Easter Islanders.

This question, why societies make disastrous decisions and destroy themselves, is one that not only surprised my UCLA undergraduates, but also astonishes professional historians studying collapses of past societies. The most cited book on the subject of the collapse of societies is by the historian, Joseph Tainter. It's entitled The Collapse of Complex Societies. Joseph Tainter, in discussing ancient collapses, rejected the possibility that those collapses might be due to environmental management because it seemed so unlikely to him. Here's what Joseph Tainter said: "As it becomes apparent to the members or administrators of a complex society that a resource base is deteriorating, it seems most reasonable to assume that some rational steps are taken towards a resolution. With their administrative structure and their capacity to allocate labor and resources, dealing with adverse environmental conditions may be one of the things that complex societies do best. It is curious that they would collapse when faced with precisely those conditions that they are equipped to circumvent." Joseph Tainter concluded that the collapses of all these ancient societies couldn't possibly be due to environmental mismanagement, because they would never make these bad mistakes. Yet it's now clear that they did make these bad mistakes.

My UCLA undergraduates, and Joseph Tainter as well, have identified a very surprising question; namely, failures of group decision-making on the part of whole societies, or governments, or smaller groups, or businesses, or university academic departments. The question of failure of group decision-making is similar to questions of failures of individual decision-making. Individuals make bad decisions; they enter bad marriages, they make bad investments, their businesses fail. But in failures of group decision-making there are some additional factors, notably conflicts of interest among the members of the group that don't arise with failures of individual decision-making. This is obviously a complex question; there's no single answer to it. There are no agreed-on answers.

What I'm going to suggest is a road map of factors in failures of group decision making. I'll divide the answers into a sequence of four somewhat fuzzily delineated categories. First of all, a group may fail to anticipate a problem before the problem actually arrives. Secondly, when the problem arrives, the group may fail to perceive the problem. Then, after they perceive the problem, they may fail even to try to solve the problem. Finally, they may try to solve it but may fail in their attempts to do so. While all this talking about reasons for failure and collapses of society may seem pessimistic, the flip side is optimistic: namely, successful decision-making. Perhaps if we understand the reasons why groups make bad decisions, we can use that knowledge as a check list to help groups make good decisions.

~~~

The first item on my road map is that groups may do disastrous things because they didn't anticipate a problem before it arrived. There may be several reasons for failure to anticipate a problem. One is that they may have had no prior experience of such problems, and so may not have been sensitized to the possibility. For example, consider forest fires in the U.S. West. My wife, my children and I spend parts of our summers in Montana, and each year when we fly into Montana I look out our plane window as our plane is coming in to see how many forest fires I see out there today. Forest fires are a major problem not only in Montana, but throughout the U.S. Intermontane West in general. Forest fires on that giant scale are unknown in the eastern United States and in Europe. When settlers from the eastern United States and Europe arrived in Montana and a forest fire arose, their reaction was, of course, that you should try to put out the fire. The motto of the U.S. Forest Service for nearly a century was: our goal is that every forest fire will be put out by 10:00 AM of the next morning after the day on which it has been reported. That attitude of easterners and Europeans about forest fires was because they had had no previous experience of forest fires in a dry environment where there's a big buildup of fuel, where trees that fall down into the understory don't rot away as in wet Europe and as in the wet eastern United States, but accumulate there in a dry environment. lt turns out that frequent small fires burn off the fuel load, and if you suppress those frequent small fires, then when eventually a fire is lit it may burn out of control far beyond one's ability to suppress it, resulting in the big disastrous fires in the U.S. Intermontane West. It turns out that the best way to deal with forest fires in the West is to let them burn, and burn out, and then there won't be a buildup of a fuel load resulting in a disaster. But these huge forest fires were something with which eastern Americans and Europeans had no prior experience. The idea that you should let a fire burn, and destroy valuable forest, was so counter-intuitive that it took the U.S. Forest Service a hundred years to realize the problem and to change the strategy and let the fire burn. So here's an example of how a society with no prior experience of a problem may not even recognize the problem -- the problem of fuel loads in the understory of a dry forest.

That's not the only reason, though, why a society may fail to anticipate a problem before it actually arises. Another reason is that they may have had prior experience but that prior experience has been forgotten. For example, a non literate society is not going to preserve oral memories of something that happened long in the past. The Classic Lowland Maya eventually succumbed to a drought around 800 A.D. There had been previous droughts in the Maya realm, but they could not draw on that prior experience, because although the Maya had some writing, it just preserved the conquests of kings and didn't record droughts. Maya droughts recur at intervals of 208 years, so the Maya in 800 A.D., when the big drought struck, did not and could not remember the drought of A.D. 592.

In modern literate societies, even though we do have writing, that does not necessarily mean that we can draw on our prior experience. We, too, tend to forget things, and so for example Americans recently behave as if they've forgotten about the 1973 Gulf oil crisis. For a year or two after the crisis they avoided gas-guzzling vehicles, then quickly they forgot that knowledge, despite their having writing. And again in the 1960s the city of Tucson, Arizona went through a severe drought, and the citizens swore that they would manage their water better after that, but within a decade or two Tucson was going back to its water-guzzling ways of building golf courses and watering one's gardens. So there we have a couple of reasons why a society may fail to anticipate a problem before it has arrived.

The remaining reason why a society may fail to anticipate a problem before it develops involves reasoning by false analogy. When we are in an unfamiliar situation, we fall back on reasoning by analogy with old familiar situations. That's a good way to proceed if the old and new situations are truly analogous, but reasoning by analogy can be dangerous if the old and new situations are only superficially similar.

An example of a society that suffered from disastrous consequences of reasoning by false analogy was the society of Norwegian Vikings who immigrated to Iceland beginning in the year AD 871. Their familiar homeland of Norway has heavy clay soils ground up by glaciers. Those soils are sufficiently heavy that, if the vegetation covering them is cut down, they are too heavy to be blown away. Unfortunately for the Viking colonists of Iceland, Icelandic soils are as light as talcum powder. They arose not through glacial grinding, but through winds carrying light ashes blown out in volcanic eruptions. The Vikings cleared the forests over those soils in order to create pasture for their animals. Unfortunately, the ash that was light enough for the wind to blow in was light enough for the wind to blow out again when the covering vegetation had been removed. Within a few generations of the Vikings' arriving in Iceland, half of Iceland's top soil had eroded into the ocean. Other examples of reasoning by false analogy abound.

The second step in my road map, after a society has anticipated or failed to anticipate a problem before it arises, involves a society's failing to perceive a problem that has actually arrived. There are at least three reasons for such failures, all of them common in the business world and in academia. First, the origins of some problems are literally imperceptible. For example, the nutrients responsible for soil fertility are invisible to the eye, and only in modem times measurable by means of chemical analysis. In Australia, Mangareva, parts of the U.S. Southwest, and many other locations, most of the nutrients had already been leached out of the soil by rainfall. When people arrived and began growing crops, those crops quickly exhausted the remaining nutrients, so that agriculture rapidly failed. Yet such nutrient-poor soils often bear lush-appearing vegetation; it's just that most of the nutrients in the ecosystem are contained in the vegetation rather than in the soil, so that the nutrients are removed when one cuts down the vegetation. There was no way that the first colonists of Australia and Mangareva could perceive that problem of soil nutrient exhaustion.

An even commoner reason for a society's failing to perceive a problem is that the problem may take the form of a slow trend concealed by wide up-and-down fluctuations. The prime example in modern times is global warming. We now realize that temperatures around the world have been slowly rising in recent decades, due in large part to changes in the atmosphere caused by humans. However, it is not the case that the climate each year is inexorably 0.17 degrees warmer than in the previous year. Instead, as we all know, climate fluctuates up and down erratically from year to year: three degrees warmer in one summer than the previous summer, then two degrees warmer the next summer, down four degrees the following summer, down another degree the next summer, then up five degrees, etc. With such wide and unpredictable fluctuations, it takes a long time to discern the upwards trend within that noisy signal. That's why it was only a few years ago that the last professional climatologist previously skeptical of the reality of global warming became convinced. Our president is still not convinced of the reality of global warming, and he thinks that we need more research. The medieval Greenlanders had similar difficulties in recognizing that the climate was gradually becoming colder, and the Maya of the Yucatan had difficulties discerning that the climate was gradually becoming drier.

Politicians use the term "creeping normalcy" to refer to such slow trends concealed within noisy fluctuations. If a situation is getting worse only slowly, it is difficult to recognize that this year is worse than last year, and each successive year is only slightly worse than the year before, so that one's baseline standard for what constitutes "normalcy" shifts only gradually and almost imperceptibly. lt may take a few decades of a long sequence of such slight year-to-year changes before someone suddenly realizes that conditions were much better several decades ago, and that what is accepted as normalcy has crept downwards.

The remaining frequent reason for failure to perceive a problem after it has arrived is distant managers, a potential problem in any large society. For example, today the largest private landowner and the largest timber company in the state of Montana is based not within the state but in Seattle, Washington. Not being on the scene, company executives may not realize that they have a big weed problem on their forest property.

All of us who belong to other groups can think of examples of imperceptibly arising problems, creeping normalcy, and distant managers.

The third step in my road map of failure is perhaps the commonest and most surprising one: a society's failure even to try to solve a problem that it has perceived.

Such failures frequently arise because of what economists term "rational behavior" arising from clashes of interest between people. Some people may reason correctly that they can advance their own interests by behavior that is harmful for other people. Economists term such behavior "rational," even while acknowledging that morally it may be naughty. The perpetrators are often motivated and likely to get away with their rational bad behavior, because the winners from the bad status quo are typically concentrated (few in number) and highly motivated because they receive big, certain, immediate profits, while the losers are diffuse (the losses are spread over large numbers of individuals) and are unmotivated because they receive only small, uncertain, distant profits from undoing the rational bad behavior of the minority.

A typical example of rational bad behavior is "good for me, bad for you and for the rest of society" -- to put it bluntly, "selfishness." A few individuals may correctly perceive their self-interests to be opposed to the majority's self-interest. For example, until 1971, mining companies in Montana typically just dumped their toxic wastes of copper and arsenic directly into rivers and ponds because the state of Montana had no law requiring mining companies to clean up after abandoning a mine. After 1971, the state of Montana did pass such a law, but mining companies discovered that they could extract the valuable ore and then just declare bankruptcy before going to the expense of cleaning up. The result has been billions of dollars of clean-up costs borne by the citizens of the United States or Montana. The miners had correctly perceived that they could advance their interests and save money by making messes and leaving the burden to society.

One particular form of such clashes of interest has received the name "tragedy of commons." That refers to a situation in which many consumers are harvesting a communally owned resource (such as fish in the ocean, or grass in common pastures), and in which there is no effective regulation of how much of the resource each consumer can draw off. Under those circumstances, each consumer can correctly reason "If I don't catch that fish or graze that grass, some other fisherman or herder will anyway, so it makes no sense for me to be careful about overfishing or overharvesting." The correct rational behavior is to harvest before the next consumer can, even though the end result is depletion or extinction of the resource, and hence harm for society as a whole.

Rational behavior involving clashes of interest also arises when the consumer has no long-term stake in preserving the resource. For example, much commercial harvesting of tropical rainforests today is carried out by international logging companies, which lease land in one country, cut down all the rainforest in that country, and then move on to the next country. The international loggers have correctly perceived that, once they have paid for the lease, their interests are best served by clear-cutting the rainforest on their leased land. In that way, loggers have destroyed most of the forest of the Malay Peninsula, then of Borneo, then of the Solomon Islands and Sumatra, now of the Philippines, and coming up soon of New Guinea, the Amazon, and the Congo Basin. In that case, the bad consequences are borne by the next generation, but that next generation cannot vote or complain.

A further situation involving rational behavior and conflicts of interest arises when the interests of the decision-making elite in power conflict with the interests of the rest of society. The elite are particularly likely to do things that profit them but hurt everybody else, if the elite are able to insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions. Such clashes are increasingly frequent in the modern U.S., where rich people tend to live within their gated compounds and to drink bottled water. For example, executives of Enron correctly calculated that they could gain huge sums of money for themselves by looting the company coffers and harming the rest of society, and that they were likely to get away with their gamble.

Failure to solve perceived problems because of conflicts of interest between the elite and the rest of society are much less likely in societies where the elite cannot insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions. For example, the modern country of which the highest proportions of its citizens belong to environmental organizations is the Netherlands. I never understood why until I was visiting the Netherlands a few years ago and raised this question to my Dutch colleagues as were driving through the countryside. My Dutch friends answered, "Just look around you and you will see the reason. The land where we are now is 22 feet below sea level. Like much of the area of Holland it was once a shallow bay of the sea that we Dutch people surrounded by dikes and then drained with pumps to create low-lying land that we call a polder. We have pumps to pump out the water that is continually leaking into our polders through the dikes. If the dikes burst, of course the people in the polder drown. But it is not the case that the rich Dutch live on top of the dikes, while the poor Dutch are living down in the polders. If the dikes burst, everybody drowns, regardless of whether they are rich or poor. That was what happened in the terrible floods of February 1, 1953, when high tides and storms drove water inland over the polders of Zeeland Province and nearly 2000 Dutch people drowned. After that disaster, we all swore, 'Never again!' and spent billions of dollars building reinforced barriers against the water. In the Netherlands the decision-makers know that they cannot insulate themselves from their mistakes, and that they have to make compromise decisions that will be good for as many people as possible."

Those examples illustrate situations in which a society fails to solve perceived problems because the maintenance of the problem is good for some people. In contrast to that so-called rational behavior, there are also failures to attempt to solve perceived problems that economists consider "irrational behavior": that is, the behavior is harmful for everybody. Such irrational behavior often arises when all of us are torn by clashes of values within each person. We may be strongly attached to a bad status quo because it is favored by some deeply held value that we admire. Religious values are especially deeply held and hence frequent causes of disastrous behavior. For example, much of the deforestation of Easter Island had a religious motivation, to obtain logs to transport and erect the giant stone statues that were the basis of Easter Island religious cults. In modern times a reason why Montanans have been so reluctant to solve the obvious problems now accumulating from mining, logging, and ranching in Montana is that these three industries were formerly the pillars of the Montana economy, and that they became bound up with the pioneer spirit and with Montanan self-identity.

Irrational failures to try to solve perceived problems also frequently arise from clashes between short-term and long-term motives of the same individual. Billions of people in the world today are desperately poor and able to think only of food for the next day. Poor fishermen in tropical reef areas use dynamite and cyanide to kill and catch reef fish, in full knowledge that they are destroying their future livelihood, but they feel that they have no choice because of their desperate short term need to obtain food for their children today. Governments, too, regularly operate on a short-term focus: they feel overwhelmed by imminent disasters, and pay attention only to those problems on the verge of explosion and feel that they lack time or resources to devote to long-term problems. For example, a friend of mine who is closely connected to the current federal administration in Washington, D.C. told me that, when he visited Washington for the first time after the year-2000 national elections, the leaders of our government had what he termed a "90-day focus": they talked about only those problems with the potential to cause a disaster within the next 90 days. Economists rationally justify these irrational focuses on short-term profits by "discounting" future profits. That is, they argue that it may be better to harvest a resource today than to leave some of the resource for harvesting tomorrow, because the profits from today's harvest could be invested, and the accumulated interest between now and a harvest of exactly that same quantity of resource in the future would make today's harvest more valuable than the future harvest.

The last reason that I shall mention for irrational failure to try to solve a perceived problem is psychological denial. This is a technical term with a precisely defined meaning in individual psychology, and it has been taken over into the pop culture. If something that you perceive arouses an unbearably painful emotion, you may subconsciously suppress or deny your perception in order to avoid the unbearable pain, even though the practical results of ignoring your perception may prove ultimately disastrous. The emotions most often responsible are terror, anxiety, and sadness. Typical examples include refusing to think about the likelihood that your husband, wife, child, or best friend may be dying, because the thought is so painfully sad, or else blocking out a terrifying experience. For example, consider a narrow deep river valley below a high dam, such that if the dam burst, the resulting flood of water would drown people for a long distance downstream. When attitude pollsters ask people downstream of the dam how concerned they are about the dam's bursting, it's not surprising that fear of a dam burst is lowest far downstream, and increases among residents increasingly close to the dam. Surprisingly, though, when one gets within a few miles of the dam, where fear of the dam's breaking is highest, as you then get closer to the dam the concern falls off to zero! That is, the people living immediately under the dam who are certain to be drowned in a dam burst profess unconcern. That is because of psychological denial: the only way of preserving one's sanity while living immediately under the high dam is to deny the finite possibility that it could burst.

Psychological denial is a phenomenon well established in individual psychology. lt seems likely to apply to group psychology as well. For example, there is much evidence that, during World War Two, Jews and other groups at risk of the developing Holocaust denied the accumulating evidence that it was happening and that they were at risk, because the thought was unbearably horrible. Psychological denial may also explain why some collapsing societies fail to face up to the obvious causes of their collapse.

Finally, the last of the four items in my road map is the failure to succeed in solving a problem that one does try to solve. There are obvious possible explanations for this outcome. The problem may just be too difficult, and beyond our present capacities to solve. For example, the state of Montana loses hundreds of millions of dollars per year in attempting to combat introduced weed species, such as spotted knapweed and leafy spurge. That is not because Montanans don't perceive these weeds or don't try to eliminate them, but simply because the weeds are too difficult to eliminate at present. Leafy spurge has roots 20 feet deep, too long to pull up by hand, and specific weed-control chemicals cost up to $800 per gallon.

Often, too, we fail to solve a problem because our efforts are too little, begun too late. For example, Australia has suffered tens of billions of dollars of agricultural losses, as well as the extinction or endangerment of most of its native small mammal species, because of introductions of European rabbits and foxes for which there was no close native counterpart in the Australian environment. Foxes as predators prey on lambs and chickens and kill native small marsupials and rodents. Foxes have been widespread over the Australian mainland for over a century, but until recently they were absent from the Australian island state of Tasmania, because foxes could not swim across the wide, rough seas between the Australian mainland and Tasmania. Unfortunately, two or three years ago some individuals surreptitiously and illegally released 32 foxes on the Tasmanian mainland, either for their fox-hunting pleasure or to spite environmentalists. Those foxes represent a big threat to Tasmanian lamb and chicken farmers, as well as to Tasmanian wildlife. When Tasmanian environmentalists became aware of this fox problem around March of 2002, they begged the government to exterminate the foxes quickly while it was still possible. The fox breeding season was expected to begin around July. Once those 32 foxes had produced litters and once those litters had dispersed, it would be far more difficult to eradicate 128 foxes than 32 foxes. Unfortunately, the Tasmanian government debated and delayed, and it was not until around June of 2002 that the government finally decided to commit a million dollars to eliminating foxes. By that time, there was considerable risk that the commitment of money was too little and too late, and that the Tasmanian government would find itself faced with a far more expensive and less soluble problem. I have not heard yet what happened to that fox eradication effort

~~~
Thus, human societies and smaller groups may make disastrous decisions for a whole sequence of reasons: failure to anticipate a problem, failure to perceive it once it has arisen, failure to attempt to solve it after it has been perceived, and failure to succeed in attempts to solve it. All this may sound pessimistic, as if failure is the rule in human decision-making. In fact, of course that is not the case, in the environmental area as in business, academia, and other groups. Many human societies have anticipated, perceived, tried to solve, or succeeded in solving their environmental problems. For example, the Inca Empire, New Guinea Highlanders, 18th-century Japan, 19th-century Germany, and the paramount chiefdom of Tonga all recognized the risks that they faced from deforestation, and all adopted successful reforestation or forest management policies.

Thus, my reason for discussing failures of human decision-making is not my desire to depress you. Instead, I hope that, by recognizing the sign posts of failed decision making, we may become more consciously aware of how others have failed, and of what we need to do in order to get it right.

Re:Article Text (just in case) (1)

Blaine Hilton (626259) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826614)

Whenever somebody posts the content then the article is available. However when there is no "mirror", then the site is not available, is this bad luck or just a natural consequence of having the mirror?

Go calculate [webcalc.net] something

Short essey ? (1)

Mika_Lindman (571372) | more than 11 years ago | (#5827041)

Is this short essey? If my teacher ever asked me to write short essey, I made sure I wouldn't use more than ten minutes writing it, max 200 words.. Looks like this guy just want's to be the teachers pet.

Why read (0)

Bearded Pear Shaped (665665) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826295)

Dewd just dl CivII off kazaa and learn all u need 2 know about society!!

Okay I admit it, I'm an idiot.

Jared Diamond (3, Interesting)

killerfocus (413472) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826307)

I go to UCLA and had the unique opportunity to study Guns, Germs, and Steel among other books with Jeffery Miller, pre-eminent microbiologist. A highlight was a guest discussion with Jared. The depth and breadth of his knowledge is amazing, and he is, in my professors words "a national treasure."

Re:Jared Diamond (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5826656)

he is, in my professors words "a national treasure."


Quick! Harvest him before someone else does.

because... (-1, Offtopic)

HappyCycling (565803) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826315)

Jesus was black; portraying him as white was a big mistake.

Re:because... (0, Troll)

Planesdragon (210349) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826407)

Jews aren't black, dumbass.

Neither the Israelites, the Egyptians, nor the Arabs were "black" in biblical times. If they had been, then large numbers of them would stll be "black" today.

Damn... (4, Funny)

asparagus (29121) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826317)

The adage popular then was that students who got A's did the technical work, while people who managed only C's wound up running things.

That this adage may no longer hold true seems like progress.


After all those years of hard work, getting ready to rule the world, they switch the rules of the game just as I leave!

Re:Damn... (2, Funny)

mcmonkey (96054) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826413)

Nope, now folks who got As run things, while people who managed only Cs get to wave at the cameras and say things like, "I think anybody who doesn't think I'm smart enough to handle the job is underestimating"

God bless America!

Re:Damn... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5826455)

A "gentelmans" Cs at that.
Have money, want Cs...? they donate a building, buy us an indoor pool...

Re:Damn... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5827052)

I think you mean "misunderestimating"

Only gh3y societies collapse (-1, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5826318)

Notice that, in the article, all the societies he talks about are backward non-western societies. They collapse because they're fucking INFERIOR, dipshit.

Or, because Cthulu ate them.

Stupid decisions? (2, Insightful)

sulli (195030) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826322)

Like guarding the Oil Ministry while letting the National Museum, Library, and more fall to looters? [nytimes.com] If that isn't dumbass, not to mention tragic in its disregard for the whole world's cultural heritage, I don't know what is.

Re:Stupid decisions? (0, Flamebait)

Ender Ryan (79406) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826387)

Oh yeah, what a huge disaster! That's more important than anything else in the country! Sure, they did a pretty good job of preventing civilian casualties, but the museum got looted!</sarcash>

Get some fucking priorities!

Re:Stupid decisions? (2, Insightful)

blincoln (592401) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826439)

Get some fucking priorities!

I'd say that millenia-old artifacts which are our only link to the beginnings of civilization are a little more important than you make them out to be.

Re:Stupid decisions? (2, Interesting)

Jerf (17166) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826662)

I'd say that millenia-old artifacts which are our only link to the beginnings of civilization are a little more important than you make them out to be.

You are aware that by saying that, you are claiming that they are more important then the lives saved by both the troops not guarding the museum but doing something more important, and by the oil revenues that will be the salvation of the millions who live in that country?

It's just plain selfish to demand that people give their welfare, food, or even lives for artifacts that you think are important, and I have no respect for people like you, who demand sacrifice (for baubles no less!) from others while you live in comfort, far, far away from the conflict.

Oh, and let's not let the facts about who actually did it, when they did it, and the unlikelihood that anything could have stopped it get in the way. Ironic that the theft of artifacts is the only thing the left is willing to criticize Saddam's administration about, and they still lay the blame on the US, instead of the people who actually did the looting.

In conclusion, you and your misplaced priorities disgust me. People rate over museum collections anyday and it takes a diseased mind to miss that.

Re:Stupid decisions? (3, Insightful)

Planesdragon (210349) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826393)

The National Musem never fed anyone; it was a luxury item. Oil Fields can feed all of Iraq; it's the company's meal ticket.

Re:Stupid decisions? (3, Interesting)

JoeBuck (7947) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826600)

Wrong: the National Museum drew scholars from all around the world, and in a free society, would be a major tourist attraction. All that money coming in feeds people.

Studies have shown, for example, that New York's art museums contribute far more to New York's economy than all its sports teams combined.

Re:Stupid decisions? (1)

sigep_ohio (115364) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826718)

Studies have shown, for example, that New York's art museums contribute far more to New York's economy than all its sports teams combined.>

That just means they aren't charging enough for Yankees games.

Re:Stupid decisions? (0)

liposuction (176349) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826999)

Studies have shown that people just don't want to watch iragis play baseball or basketball; let alone pay for it.

Studies have also shown that iraqis looking for food and water don't give a shit about what some snobby new yorker thinks of a bunch of paint smeared on old ass clay.

Re:Stupid decisions? (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5827048)

Studies have also shown that some of New York's teams play in New Jersey.

Re:Stupid decisions? (1)

Arthur Dent (76567) | more than 11 years ago | (#5827028)

The National Musem never fed anyone; it was a luxury item.

Wow. I suppose you know for a fact that there were no ancient manuscripts describing a cure for cancer or some other technological advance (witness scientists discovering wireless transmission of electricity that Nicolai Tesla documented) in that library?

And how did you know it never fed or would never feed anyone? Do you mean to say that there would be no researchers who would pay good money to live in Baghdad studying those treasures? How about all those tourists who would pay for a tour of the museum?

Re:Stupid decisions? (0)

liposuction (176349) | more than 11 years ago | (#5827070)

Oh god you too. Show me the numbers that put a Museum's profit over that of an oil-riddled GDP.

Are YOU going to go do all those things? Do you even support your local museums? How much do you donate?

Boo hoo. They looted their own museum, oh well.

Hmmmmm..... (3, Funny)

airrage (514164) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826323)

First of all, a group may fail to anticipate a problem before the problem actually arrives.
-- My girlfriend and I will be together forever.
Secondly, when the problem arrives, the group may fail to perceive the problem.
-- She is not interested in other guys, we are simply growing closer.
Then, after they perceive the problem, they may fail even to try to solve the problem.
-- Her dating other guys is simply a cry for more attention.
Finally, they may try to solve it but may fail in their attempts to do so.
-- I will win her back with chocolates and poetry.

Re:Hmmmmm..... (4, Funny)

travdaddy (527149) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826404)

First of all, a group may fail to anticipate a problem before the problem actually arrives.
-- My girlfriend and I will be together forever.


If you were trying to make an example that other Slashdotters would understand through their own experience... you failed. :)

Re:Hmmmmm..... (1, Funny)

sig cop (661590) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826557)

OMG ROTFLMAO!! You so funny witty slashdot poster!!! Do you have any other beat-into-the-ground jokes for us?

You: Take my wife, please!
Us: OMG - you so funny!!!!

You: White people can't dance!!
Us: HAHAHAHAHAH!! So True and funny!

You: Nerds don't get dates!!!
Us: HA ha - funny and true! And sad :(

You: What do you call 32 lawyers at bottom of ocean? ANS: A good start!!
Us: ROTFL!!! Stop - you slay us with wit!!!

You: Imagine BEOWULF cluster!
Us: Thank you sir may I have another?

You: Why do they have braille at drive up ATM? HMMM? Think about it please.
Us: OMFG!!! That is so strange - because blind people don't drive!!! HAHHAHAHHAH.

You: Knock Knock
Us: PLEASE DIE

Re:Hmmmmm..... (1)

travdaddy (527149) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826904)

Hm, how about...
In Soviet Russia, jokes beat YOU into the ground. Ha! I kill me.

Re:Hmmmmm..... (0)

sig cop (661590) | more than 11 years ago | (#5827033)

LOL - You kill all of us.

Re:Hmmmmm..... (3, Funny)

ePhil_One (634771) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826505)

First of all, a group may fail to anticipate a problem before the problem actually arrives.
-- My girlfriend and I will be together forever.
Secondly, when the problem arrives, the group may fail to perceive the problem.
-- She is not interested in other guys, we are simply growing closer.
Then, after they perceive the problem, they may fail even to try to solve the problem.
-- Her dating other guys is simply a cry for more attention.
Finally, they may try to solve it but may fail in their attempts to do so.
-- I will win her back with chocolates and poetry.

You forgot a few steps:

As one attempt fails, more and more radical solutions are attempted
-- I'll stand outside her home/office so she knows I'm there for her.
-- I'll call her friends and family to get them to remind her how good we are for each other
-- I'll secretly more into her attic and hold her cat hostage...

Hold on, there's a knock on my door...

Re:Hmmmmm..... (1)

gfxguy (98788) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826891)

That restraining order just shows how much she thinks about me.

In case of Slashdotting (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5826328)

WHY DO SOME SOCIETIES MAKE DISASTROUS DECISIONS?: JARED DIAMOND What I'm going to suggest is a road map of factors in failures of group decision making. I'll divide the answers into a sequence of four somewhat fuzzily delineated categories. First of all, a group may fail to anticipate a problem before the problem actually arrives. Secondly, when the problem arrives, the group may fail to perceive the problem. Then, after they perceive the problem, they may fail even to try to solve the problem. Finally, they may try to solve it but may fail in their attempts to do so. While all this talking about reasons for failure and collapses of society may seem pessimistic, the flip side is optimistic: namely, successful decision-making. Perhaps if we understand the reasons why groups make bad decisions, we can use that knowledge as a check list to help groups make good decisions. Honoring The Scientist As Poet Lewis Thomas Prize Lecture The Rockefeller Institute, New York City Thursday March 27, 2003 Jared Diamond: EdgeVideo DSL+ | Modem Requires Real Player plug-in (Free Download) IN THE NEWS BRILLIANT! By Robbie Hudson March 9, 2003, Sunday Farewell, Dolly: Robbie Hudson finds the cloned sheep honoured at brilliant scientific forum www. edge.org. Are you going to be part of the last generation to die, or the first one to live for ever? Ask this on a daytime phone-in show and you would attract fanatics calling down divine vengeance. Canvass a select group of theorists who like to "ask each other the questions they are asking themselves", however, and you might prompt a serious discussion of issues usually consigned to science fiction. This is Edge's raison d'etre. The website grew out of a debating society called the Reality Club. Taking the debate online gave us access to its intelligent forum, where luminaries such as the experimental psychologist Steven Pinker and the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins lock horns with other able minds. Edge's huge list of topics includes mankind's ability to become one with machines, and the implications of Dolly the cloned sheep's recent death. An enjoyable feature is the annual question asked of the contributors. This year's was: "Imagine you are George W Bush's scientific adviser. What would you do?" Suggestions included $ 1 billion to be spent on science fellowships for scholarsfrom Muslim countries and travel to Mars. Edge's combination of political engagement and blue-sky thinking makes stimulating reading for anyone seeking a glimpse into the next decade. Copyright © 2003 Times Newspapers Limited THE THIRD CULTURE Editorial February 28, 2003 Education during most of the 20th century divided, all too neatly, between liberal arts and the sciences. You studied one or the other, but rarely both. It was C.P. Snow who divided the world of the intellect into literary criticism and science. But in recent years, science, once relegated by academia to the sidelines as a sort of technical specialty, has been where most of the worthwhile intellectual activity has been taking place. And a lot of what science is discovering tends to stand much of what literary intellects believed on its head. So, anyway, says John Brockman, an author and the editor and publisher of the Web site, edge.org. Brockman has a theory about the way in which science has flowed over into the liberal arts and forged a partnership between the two disciplines that Brockman calls "the third culture." Brockman argues that a growing number of scientists are writing elegant books and articles linking science and its discoveries to the real world of the average person. What used to be the purview of philosophers and poets, interpreting the world for the rest of us, has been taken over by scientists. Brockman argues that scientists look forward and change the world, while philosophers and, perhaps less so, poets examine and interpret their predecessors. While not knocking history, Brockman wonders at the value of the intellectual debate over "who was or was not a Stalinist in 1937, or what the sleeping arrangements were for guests at a Bloomsbury weekend in the early part of the 20th century." Meanwhile, science is about "the new and important ideas that drive our times: revolutionary developments in molecular biology, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, artificial life, chaos theory, massive parallelism, neural nets, the inflationary universe, fractals, complex adaptive systems, linguistics, superstrings, biodiversity, the human genome, expert systems, punctuated equilibrium, cellular automata, fuzzy logic, virtual reality, cyberspace and teraflop machines. Among others." Brockman offers examples of where science and art ought to, but don't always, come together. The art critic who doesn't understand visual perception is suspect. So are those who balk at genetic modification though ignorant of evolutionary biology and genetics. Naturally, Brockman's theories are subject to demeaning and intellectual disagreement, and to Brockman's credit, he provides his critics space to make their points. But the basic point belongs to Brockman, who has stirred the thought pot and added new spices. Many whose education spanned the middle of the last century can identify with Brockman's description of the sciences as technical specialties. The adage popular then was that students who got A's did the technical work, while people who managed only C's wound up running things. That this adage may no longer hold true seems like progress. Copyright © 2003 Winston-Salem Journal WHY DO SOME SOCIETIES MAKE DISASTROUS DECISIONS?: JARED DIAMOND Introduction At the end of March, Jared Diamond was in New York to receive THE LEWIS THOMAS PRIZE Honoring the Scientist as Poet. The prize was presented to Jared by Thomas P. Sakmar, Acting President, The Rockefeller University. "Throughout history," states the LEWIS THOMAS PRIZE literature, "scientists and poets have sought to unveil the secrets of the natural world. Their methods vary: scientists use tools of rational analysis to slake their compelling thirst for knowledge; poets delve below the surface of language, and deliver urgent communiqués from its depths. The Lewis Thomas Prize honors the rare individual who is fluent in the dialects of both realms -- and who succeeds in spinning lush literary and philosophical tapestries from the silken threads of scientific and natural phenomena -- providing not merely new information but cause for reflection, even revelation." "The Lewis Thomas Prize was established in 1993 by the trustees of The Rockefeller University and presented to Lewis Thomas, its first recipient, that year. Other recipients have been François Jacob (1994), Abraham Pais (1995), Freeman Dyson (1996), Max Perutz (1997), Ernst Mayr (1998), Steven Weinberg (1999), Edward O. Wilson (2000), and Oliver Sacks (2001)." ~~~ Jared is an early and frequent contributor to Edge. In his first feature in 1997 ("Why Did Human History Unfold Differently On Different Continents For The Last 13,000 Years?") he stated: "I've set myself the modest task of trying to explain the broad pattern of human history, on all the continents, for the last 13,000 years. Why did history take such different evolutionary courses for peoples of different continents? This problem has fascinated me for a long time, but it's now ripe for a new synthesis because of recent advances in many fields seemingly remote from history, including molecular biology, plant and animal genetics and biogeography, archaeology, and linguistics." Underlying his task is the question of how to turn the study of history into a science. He notes the distinction between the "hard sciences" such as physics, biology, and astronomy -- and what we sometimes call the "social sciences," which includes history, economics, government. The social sciences are often thought of as a pejorative. In particular many of the so-called hard scientists such as physicists or biologists, don't consider history to be a science. The situation is even more extreme because, he points out, even historians themselves don't consider history to be a science. Historians don't get training in the scientific methods; they don't get training in statistics; they don't get training in the experimental method or problems of doing experiments on historical subjects; and they'll often say that history is not a science, history is closer to an art. He comes to this question as one who is accomplished in two scientific areas: physiology and evolutionary biology. The first is a laboratory science; the second, is never far from history. "Biology is the science," he says. "Evolution is the concept that makes biology unique." He continues to bring together history and biology in new and interesting ways to present global accounts of the rise and fall of civilizations. More than one million copies of the U.S. edition of Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs, and Steel:The Fates of Human Societies have now been sold. Jared hopes to deliver his much-anticipated new book, Ecocide, at the end of this year for publication in 2004. Following the Prize Presentation, Jared delivered the Lewis Thomas Prize Lecture "Why Do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions?" The next morning, he stopped by to videotape a reprise of the opening of his talk which Edge is pleased to present as a streaming video along with the text of his lecture. --JB JARED DIAMOND is Professor of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. Until recently he was Professor of Physiology at the UCLA School of Medicine. He is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the widely acclaimed Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies, which also is the winner of Britain's 1998 Rhone-Poulenc Science Book Prize. He is also the author of two other trade books: The Third Chimpanzee, which won The Los Angeles Times Book award for the best science book of 1992 and Britain's 1992 Rhone-Poulenc Science Book Prize; and Why is Sex Fun? (ScienceMasters Series). Dr. Diamond is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship ("Genius Award"); research prizes of the American Physiological Society, National Geographic Society, and Zoological Society of San Diego; and many teaching awards and endowed public lectureships. In addition, he has been elected a member of all three of the leading national scientific/academic honorary societies (National Academy of Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Philosophical Society). His field experience includes 17 expeditions to New Guinea and neighboring islands, to study ecology and evolution of birds; rediscovery of New Guinea's long-lost goldenfronted bowerbird; other field projects in North America, South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia. As a conservationist he devised a comprehensive plan, almost all of which was subsequently implemented, for Indonesian New Guinea's national park system; numerous field projects for the Indonesian government and World Wildlife Fund; founding member of the board of the Society of Conservation Biology; member of the Board of Directors of World Wildlife Fund/USA. Jared Diamond 's Edge Bio Page Further reading on Edge: "Why Did Human History Unfold Differently On Different Continents For The Last 13,000 Years?" [4.23.97] "Jared Diamond Awarded Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction" [4.15.98] "Laying A Foundation For Human History" Bill Gates on Jared Diamond [4.15.98] "How to Get Rich" [6.7.99] WHY DO SOME SOCIETIES MAKE DISASTROUS DECISIONS?: JARED DIAMOND Education is supposed to be about teachers imparting knowledge to students. As every teacher knows, though, if you have a good group of students, education is also about students imparting knowledge to their supposed teachers and challenging their assumptions. That's an experience that I've been through in the last couple of months, when for the first time in my academic career I gave a course to undergraduates, highly motivated UCLA undergraduates, on collapses of societies. Why is it that some societies in the past have collapsed while others have not? I was discussing famous collapses such as those of the Anasazi in the U.S. Southwest, Classic Maya civilization in the Yucatan, Easter Island society in the Pacific, Angkor Wat in southeast Asia, Great Zimbabwe in Africa, Fertile Crescent societies, and Harappan Indus Valley societies. These are all societies that we've realized, from archaeological discoveries in the last 20 years, hammered away at their own environments and destroyed themselves in part by undermining the environmental resources on which they depended. For example, the Easter Islanders, Polynesian people, settled an island that was originally forested, and whose forests included the world's largest palm tree. The Easter Islanders gradually chopped down that forest to use the wood for canoes, firewood, transporting statues, raising statues, and carving and also to protect against soil erosion. Eventually they chopped down all the forests to the point where all the tree species were extinct, which meant that they ran out of canoes, they could no longer erect statues, there were no longer trees to protect the topsoil against erosion, and their society collapsed in an epidemic of cannibalism that left 90 percent of the islanders dead. The question that most intrigued my UCLA students was one that hadn't registered on me: how on Earth could a society make such an obviously disastrous decision as to cut down all the trees on which they depended? For example, my students wondered, what did the Easter Islanders say as they were cutting down the last palm tree? Were they saying, think of our jobs as loggers, not these trees? Were they saying, respect my private property rights? Surely the Easter Islanders, of all people, must have realized the consequences to them of destroying their own forest. It wasn't a subtle mistake. One wonders whether -- if there are still people left alive a hundred years from now -- people in the next century will be equally astonished about our blindness today as we are today about the blindness of the Easter Islanders. This question, why societies make disastrous decisions and destroy themselves, is one that not only surprised my UCLA undergraduates, but also astonishes professional historians studying collapses of past societies. The most cited book on the subject of the collapse of societies is by the historian, Joseph Tainter. It's entitled The Collapse of Complex Societies. Joseph Tainter, in discussing ancient collapses, rejected the possibility that those collapses might be due to environmental management because it seemed so unlikely to him. Here's what Joseph Tainter said: "As it becomes apparent to the members or administrators of a complex society that a resource base is deteriorating, it seems most reasonable to assume that some rational steps are taken towards a resolution. With their administrative structure and their capacity to allocate labor and resources, dealing with adverse environmental conditions may be one of the things that complex societies do best. It is curious that they would collapse when faced with precisely those conditions that they are equipped to circumvent." Joseph Tainter concluded that the collapses of all these ancient societies couldn't possibly be due to environmental mismanagement, because they would never make these bad mistakes. Yet it's now clear that they did make these bad mistakes. My UCLA undergraduates, and Joseph Tainter as well, have identified a very surprising question; namely, failures of group decision-making on the part of whole societies, or governments, or smaller groups, or businesses, or university academic departments. The question of failure of group decision-making is similar to questions of failures of individual decision-making. Individuals make bad decisions; they enter bad marriages, they make bad investments, their businesses fail. But in failures of group decision-making there are some additional factors, notably conflicts of interest among the members of the group that don't arise with failures of individual decision-making. This is obviously a complex question; there's no single answer to it. There are no agreed-on answers. What I'm going to suggest is a road map of factors in failures of group decision making. I'll divide the answers into a sequence of four somewhat fuzzily delineated categories. First of all, a group may fail to anticipate a problem before the problem actually arrives. Secondly, when the problem arrives, the group may fail to perceive the problem. Then, after they perceive the problem, they may fail even to try to solve the problem. Finally, they may try to solve it but may fail in their attempts to do so. While all this talking about reasons for failure and collapses of society may seem pessimistic, the flip side is optimistic: namely, successful decision-making. Perhaps if we understand the reasons why groups make bad decisions, we can use that knowledge as a check list to help groups make good decisions. ~~~ The first item on my road map is that groups may do disastrous things because they didn't anticipate a problem before it arrived. There may be several reasons for failure to anticipate a problem. One is that they may have had no prior experience of such problems, and so may not have been sensitized to the possibility. For example, consider forest fires in the U.S. West. My wife, my children and I spend parts of our summers in Montana, and each year when we fly into Montana I look out our plane window as our plane is coming in to see how many forest fires I see out there today. Forest fires are a major problem not only in Montana, but throughout the U.S. Intermontane West in general. Forest fires on that giant scale are unknown in the eastern United States and in Europe. When settlers from the eastern United States and Europe arrived in Montana and a forest fire arose, their reaction was, of course, that you should try to put out the fire. The motto of the U.S. Forest Service for nearly a century was: our goal is that every forest fire will be put out by 10:00 AM of the next morning after the day on which it has been reported. That attitude of easterners and Europeans about forest fires was because they had had no previous experience of forest fires in a dry environment where there's a big buildup of fuel, where trees that fall down into the understory don't rot away as in wet Europe and as in the wet eastern United States, but accumulate there in a dry environment. lt turns out that frequent small fires burn off the fuel load, and if you suppress those frequent small fires, then when eventually a fire is lit it may burn out of control far beyond one's ability to suppress it, resulting in the big disastrous fires in the U.S. Intermontane West. It turns out that the best way to deal with forest fires in the West is to let them burn, and burn out, and then there won't be a buildup of a fuel load resulting in a disaster. But these huge forest fires were something with which eastern Americans and Europeans had no prior experience. The idea that you should let a fire burn, and destroy valuable forest, was so counter-intuitive that it took the U.S. Forest Service a hundred years to realize the problem and to change the strategy and let the fire burn. So here's an example of how a society with no prior experience of a problem may not even recognize the problem -- the problem of fuel loads in the understory of a dry forest. That's not the only reason, though, why a society may fail to anticipate a problem before it actually arises. Another reason is that they may have had prior experience but that prior experience has been forgotten. For example, a non literate society is not going to preserve oral memories of something that happened long in the past. The Classic Lowland Maya eventually succumbed to a drought around 800 A.D. There had been previous droughts in the Maya realm, but they could not draw on that prior experience, because although the Maya had some writing, it just preserved the conquests of kings and didn't record droughts. Maya droughts recur at intervals of 208 years, so the Maya in 800 A.D., when the big drought struck, did not and could not remember the drought of A.D. 592. In modern literate societies, even though we do have writing, that does not necessarily mean that we can draw on our prior experience. We, too, tend to forget things, and so for example Americans recently behave as if they've forgotten about the 1973 Gulf oil crisis. For a year or two after the crisis they avoided gas-guzzling vehicles, then quickly they forgot that knowledge, despite their having writing. And again in the 1960s the city of Tucson, Arizona went through a severe drought, and the citizens swore that they would manage their water better after that, but within a decade or two Tucson was going back to its water-guzzling ways of building golf courses and watering one's gardens. So there we have a couple of reasons why a society may fail to anticipate a problem before it has arrived. The remaining reason why a society may fail to anticipate a problem before it develops involves reasoning by false analogy. When we are in an unfamiliar situation, we fall back on reasoning by analogy with old familiar situations. That's a good way to proceed if the old and new situations are truly analogous, but reasoning by analogy can be dangerous if the old and new situations are only superficially similar. An example of a society that suffered from disastrous consequences of reasoning by false analogy was the society of Norwegian Vikings who immigrated to Iceland beginning in the year AD 871. Their familiar homeland of Norway has heavy clay soils ground up by glaciers. Those soils are sufficiently heavy that, if the vegetation covering them is cut down, they are too heavy to be blown away. Unfortunately for the Viking colonists of Iceland, Icelandic soils are as light as talcum powder. They arose not through glacial grinding, but through winds carrying light ashes blown out in volcanic eruptions. The Vikings cleared the forests over those soils in order to create pasture for their animals. Unfortunately, the ash that was light enough for the wind to blow in was light enough for the wind to blow out again when the covering vegetation had been removed. Within a few generations of the Vikings' arriving in Iceland, half of Iceland's top soil had eroded into the ocean. Other examples of reasoning by false analogy abound. The second step in my road map, after a society has anticipated or failed to anticipate a problem before it arises, involves a society's failing to perceive a problem that has actually arrived. There are at least three reasons for such failures, all of them common in the business world and in academia. First, the origins of some problems are literally imperceptible. For example, the nutrients responsible for soil fertility are invisible to the eye, and only in modem times measurable by means of chemical analysis. In Australia, Mangareva, parts of the U.S. Southwest, and many other locations, most of the nutrients had already been leached out of the soil by rainfall. When people arrived and began growing crops, those crops quickly exhausted the remaining nutrients, so that agriculture rapidly failed. Yet such nutrient-poor soils often bear lush-appearing vegetation; it's just that most of the nutrients in the ecosystem are contained in the vegetation rather than in the soil, so that the nutrients are removed when one cuts down the vegetation. There was no way that the first colonists of Australia and Mangareva could perceive that problem of soil nutrient exhaustion. An even commoner reason for a society's failing to perceive a problem is that the problem may take the form of a slow trend concealed by wide up-and-down fluctuations. The prime example in modern times is global warming. We now realize that temperatures around the world have been slowly rising in recent decades, due in large part to changes in the atmosphere caused by humans. However, it is not the case that the climate each year is inexorably 0.17 degrees warmer than in the previous year. Instead, as we all know, climate fluctuates up and down erratically from year to year: three degrees warmer in one summer than the previous summer, then two degrees warmer the next summer, down four degrees the following summer, down another degree the next summer, then up five degrees, etc. With such wide and unpredictable fluctuations, it takes a long time to discern the upwards trend within that noisy signal. That's why it was only a few years ago that the last professional climatologist previously skeptical of the reality of global warming became convinced. Our president is still not convinced of the reality of global warming, and he thinks that we need more research. The medieval Greenlanders had similar difficulties in recognizing that the climate was gradually becoming colder, and the Maya of the Yucatan had difficulties discerning that the climate was gradually becoming drier. Politicians use the term "creeping normalcy" to refer to such slow trends concealed within noisy fluctuations. If a situation is getting worse only slowly, it is difficult to recognize that this year is worse than last year, and each successive year is only slightly worse than the year before, so that one's baseline standard for what constitutes "normalcy" shifts only gradually and almost imperceptibly. lt may take a few decades of a long sequence of such slight year-to-year changes before someone suddenly realizes that conditions were much better several decades ago, and that what is accepted as normalcy has crept downwards. The remaining frequent reason for failure to perceive a problem after it has arrived is distant managers, a potential problem in any large society. For example, today the largest private landowner and the largest timber company in the state of Montana is based not within the state but in Seattle, Washington. Not being on the scene, company executives may not realize that they have a big weed problem on their forest property. All of us who belong to other groups can think of examples of imperceptibly arising problems, creeping normalcy, and distant managers. The third step in my road map of failure is perhaps the commonest and most surprising one: a society's failure even to try to solve a problem that it has perceived. Such failures frequently arise because of what economists term "rational behavior" arising from clashes of interest between people. Some people may reason correctly that they can advance their own interests by behavior that is harmful for other people. Economists term such behavior "rational," even while acknowledging that morally it may be naughty. The perpetrators are often motivated and likely to get away with their rational bad behavior, because the winners from the bad status quo are typically concentrated (few in number) and highly motivated because they receive big, certain, immediate profits, while the losers are diffuse (the losses are spread over large numbers of individuals) and are unmotivated because they receive only small, uncertain, distant profits from undoing the rational bad behavior of the minority. A typical example of rational bad behavior is "good for me, bad for you and for the rest of society" -- to put it bluntly, "selfishness." A few individuals may correctly perceive their self-interests to be opposed to the majority's self-interest. For example, until 1971, mining companies in Montana typically just dumped their toxic wastes of copper and arsenic directly into rivers and ponds because the state of Montana had no law requiring mining companies to clean up after abandoning a mine. After 1971, the state of Montana did pass such a law, but mining companies discovered that they could extract the valuable ore and then just declare bankruptcy before going to the expense of cleaning up. The result has been billions of dollars of clean-up costs borne by the citizens of the United States or Montana. The miners had correctly perceived that they could advance their interests and save money by making messes and leaving the burden to society. One particular form of such clashes of interest has received the name "tragedy of commons." That refers to a situation in which many consumers are harvesting a communally owned resource (such as fish in the ocean, or grass in common pastures), and in which there is no effective regulation of how much of the resource each consumer can draw off. Under those circumstances, each consumer can correctly reason "If I don't catch that fish or graze that grass, some other fisherman or herder will anyway, so it makes no sense for me to be careful about overfishing or overharvesting." The correct rational behavior is to harvest before the next consumer can, even though the end result is depletion or extinction of the resource, and hence harm for society as a whole. Rational behavior involving clashes of interest also arises when the consumer has no long-term stake in preserving the resource. For example, much commercial harvesting of tropical rainforests today is carried out by international logging companies, which lease land in one country, cut down all the rainforest in that country, and then move on to the next country. The international loggers have correctly perceived that, once they have paid for the lease, their interests are best served by clear-cutting the rainforest on their leased land. In that way, loggers have destroyed most of the forest of the Malay Peninsula, then of Borneo, then of the Solomon Islands and Sumatra, now of the Philippines, and coming up soon of New Guinea, the Amazon, and the Congo Basin. In that case, the bad consequences are borne by the next generation, but that next generation cannot vote or complain. A further situation involving rational behavior and conflicts of interest arises when the interests of the decision-making elite in power conflict with the interests of the rest of society. The elite are particularly likely to do things that profit them but hurt everybody else, if the elite are able to insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions. Such clashes are increasingly frequent in the modern U.S., where rich people tend to live within their gated compounds and to drink bottled water. For example, executives of Enron correctly calculated that they could gain huge sums of money for themselves by looting the company coffers and harming the rest of society, and that they were likely to get away with their gamble. Failure to solve perceived problems because of conflicts of interest between the elite and the rest of society are much less likely in societies where the elite cannot insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions. For example, the modern country of which the highest proportions of its citizens belong to environmental organizations is the Netherlands. I never understood why until I was visiting the Netherlands a few years ago and raised this question to my Dutch colleagues as were driving through the countryside. My Dutch friends answered, "Just look around you and you will see the reason. The land where we are now is 22 feet below sea level. Like much of the area of Holland it was once a shallow bay of the sea that we Dutch people surrounded by dikes and then drained with pumps to create low-lying land that we call a polder. We have pumps to pump out the water that is continually leaking into our polders through the dikes. If the dikes burst, of course the people in the polder drown. But it is not the case that the rich Dutch live on top of the dikes, while the poor Dutch are living down in the polders. If the dikes burst, everybody drowns, regardless of whether they are rich or poor. That was what happened in the terrible floods of February 1, 1953, when high tides and storms drove water inland over the polders of Zeeland Province and nearly 2000 Dutch people drowned. After that disaster, we all swore, 'Never again!' and spent billions of dollars building reinforced barriers against the water. In the Netherlands the decision-makers know that they cannot insulate themselves from their mistakes, and that they have to make compromise decisions that will be good for as many people as possible." Those examples illustrate situations in which a society fails to solve perceived problems because the maintenance of the problem is good for some people. In contrast to that so-called rational behavior, there are also failures to attempt to solve perceived problems that economists consider "irrational behavior": that is, the behavior is harmful for everybody. Such irrational behavior often arises when all of us are torn by clashes of values within each person. We may be strongly attached to a bad status quo because it is favored by some deeply held value that we admire. Religious values are especially deeply held and hence frequent causes of disastrous behavior. For example, much of the deforestation of Easter Island had a religious motivation, to obtain logs to transport and erect the giant stone statues that were the basis of Easter Island religious cults. In modern times a reason why Montanans have been so reluctant to solve the obvious problems now accumulating from mining, logging, and ranching in Montana is that these three industries were formerly the pillars of the Montana economy, and that they became bound up with the pioneer spirit and with Montanan self-identity. Irrational failures to try to solve perceived problems also frequently arise from clashes between short-term and long-term motives of the same individual. Billions of people in the world today are desperately poor and able to think only of food for the next day. Poor fishermen in tropical reef areas use dynamite and cyanide to kill and catch reef fish, in full knowledge that they are destroying their future livelihood, but they feel that they have no choice because of their desperate short term need to obtain food for their children today. Governments, too, regularly operate on a short-term focus: they feel overwhelmed by imminent disasters, and pay attention only to those problems on the verge of explosion and feel that they lack time or resources to devote to long-term problems. For example, a friend of mine who is closely connected to the current federal administration in Washington, D.C. told me that, when he visited Washington for the first time after the year-2000 national elections, the leaders of our government had what he termed a "90-day focus": they talked about only those problems with the potential to cause a disaster within the next 90 days. Economists rationally justify these irrational focuses on short-term profits by "discounting" future profits. That is, they argue that it may be better to harvest a resource today than to leave some of the resource for harvesting tomorrow, because the profits from today's harvest could be invested, and the accumulated interest between now and a harvest of exactly that same quantity of resource in the future would make today's harvest more valuable than the future harvest. The last reason that I shall mention for irrational failure to try to solve a perceived problem is psychological denial. This is a technical term with a precisely defined meaning in individual psychology, and it has been taken over into the pop culture. If something that you perceive arouses an unbearably painful emotion, you may subconsciously suppress or deny your perception in order to avoid the unbearable pain, even though the practical results of ignoring your perception may prove ultimately disastrous. The emotions most often responsible are terror, anxiety, and sadness. Typical examples include refusing to think about the likelihood that your husband, wife, child, or best friend may be dying, because the thought is so painfully sad, or else blocking out a terrifying experience. For example, consider a narrow deep river valley below a high dam, such that if the dam burst, the resulting flood of water would drown people for a long distance downstream. When attitude pollsters ask people downstream of the dam how concerned they are about the dam's bursting, it's not surprising that fear of a dam burst is lowest far downstream, and increases among residents increasingly close to the dam. Surprisingly, though, when one gets within a few miles of the dam, where fear of the dam's breaking is highest, as you then get closer to the dam the concern falls off to zero! That is, the people living immediately under the dam who are certain to be drowned in a dam burst profess unconcern. That is because of psychological denial: the only way of preserving one's sanity while living immediately under the high dam is to deny the finite possibility that it could burst. Psychological denial is a phenomenon well established in individual psychology. lt seems likely to apply to group psychology as well. For example, there is much evidence that, during World War Two, Jews and other groups at risk of the developing Holocaust denied the accumulating evidence that it was happening and that they were at risk, because the thought was unbearably horrible. Psychological denial may also explain why some collapsing societies fail to face up to the obvious causes of their collapse. Finally, the last of the four items in my road map is the failure to succeed in solving a problem that one does try to solve. There are obvious possible explanations for this outcome. The problem may just be too difficult, and beyond our present capacities to solve. For example, the state of Montana loses hundreds of millions of dollars per year in attempting to combat introduced weed species, such as spotted knapweed and leafy spurge. That is not because Montanans don't perceive these weeds or don't try to eliminate them, but simply because the weeds are too difficult to eliminate at present. Leafy spurge has roots 20 feet deep, too long to pull up by hand, and specific weed-control chemicals cost up to $800 per gallon. Often, too, we fail to solve a problem because our efforts are too little, begun too late. For example, Australia has suffered tens of billions of dollars of agricultural losses, as well as the extinction or endangerment of most of its native small mammal species, because of introductions of European rabbits and foxes for which there was no close native counterpart in the Australian environment. Foxes as predators prey on lambs and chickens and kill native small marsupials and rodents. Foxes have been widespread over the Australian mainland for over a century, but until recently they were absent from the Australian island state of Tasmania, because foxes could not swim across the wide, rough seas between the Australian mainland and Tasmania. Unfortunately, two or three years ago some individuals surreptitiously and illegally released 32 foxes on the Tasmanian mainland, either for their fox-hunting pleasure or to spite environmentalists. Those foxes represent a big threat to Tasmanian lamb and chicken farmers, as well as to Tasmanian wildlife. When Tasmanian environmentalists became aware of this fox problem around March of 2002, they begged the government to exterminate the foxes quickly while it was still possible. The fox breeding season was expected to begin around July. Once those 32 foxes had produced litters and once those litters had dispersed, it would be far more difficult to eradicate 128 foxes than 32 foxes. Unfortunately, the Tasmanian government debated and delayed, and it was not until around June of 2002 that the government finally decided to commit a million dollars to eliminating foxes. By that time, there was considerable risk that the commitment of money was too little and too late, and that the Tasmanian government would find itself faced with a far more expensive and less soluble problem. I have not heard yet what happened to that fox eradication effort ~~~ Thus, human societies and smaller groups may make disastrous decisions for a whole sequence of reasons: failure to anticipate a problem, failure to perceive it once it has arisen, failure to attempt to solve it after it has been perceived, and failure to succeed in attempts to solve it. All this may sound pessimistic, as if failure is the rule in human decision-making. In fact, of course that is not the case, in the environmental area as in business, academia, and other groups. Many human societies have anticipated, perceived, tried to solve, or succeeded in solving their environmental problems. For example, the Inca Empire, New Guinea Highlanders, 18th-century Japan, 19th-century Germany, and the paramount chiefdom of Tonga all recognized the risks that they faced from deforestation, and all adopted successful reforestation or forest management policies. Thus, my reason for discussing failures of human decision-making is not my desire to depress you. Instead, I hope that, by recognizing the sign posts of failed decision making, we may become more consciously aware of how others have failed, and of what we need to do in order to get it right.

Review of Wal-Mart's 1 hour photo (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5826330)


Also, Wal-Marts photo department is sub-par. I bleieve they hire the grumpiest people on the planet to work there. And the pictures always look kind of washed out to me, and the stock seems thin and flimsy. Still, if you go for the 1-hour option they always get it done in under and hour! I'd take pictures of your kid's crappy birthday party there but not, say, wedding photos.

Societies don't make decisions. (2, Insightful)

Moderation abuser (184013) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826335)

Individuals do.

Society is the aggregation of the decisions we make as individuals.

Re:Societies don't make decisions. (4, Insightful)

Jerf (17166) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826554)

Society is the aggregation of the decisions we make as individuals.

That's more true now than it has been for most of our history. On some level that's always true, but I doubt keeping Saddam in power was truly the will of the Iraqi people.

A lot of factors, not least of which is governmental power being vested in a few or even one person, bend the decisions the "society" would make if it was in some hypothetical "pure" state. (I personally interpret Arrow's Theorum to imply that there is no such thing as one clear "voice of the society" no matter how you slice it. YMMV, but it's not an unreasonable corrolary.)

But even now it's not completely true. The closest thing to a pure "society is the aggregation of decisions we make as individuals" would be a pure democracy, which breaks down and forms a tyranny of the majority.

The aggregations of decisions we make as individuals has an impact, but in the final analysis if Jack T. Ass, owner of a large logging interest, decides to clear cut a county in Montana and does it before the law (i.e., "the rest of us") even notices, then the environmental damage has occurred, regardless of how the rest of the individuals feel about it.

Re:Societies don't make decisions. (4, Insightful)

Beryllium Sphere(tm) (193358) | more than 11 years ago | (#5827026)

Groups have emergent properties that you can't predict by looking at individuals.

A mob doesn't act like an individual multiplied by a thousand. Any single person who acted like one one-thousandth of a mob would be institutionalized.

One generality about large organizations is that they're inflexible. They're like computer programs -- they may perform well or poorly at the problem they're designed for, but give them unexpected input or a novel situation and they crash.

William Livingston wrote an interesting book about this in 1988, called "Have Fun At Work". He points out that when you toss a complex problem at a system that doesn't know how to deal with it, some predictable malfunctions happen. One is that the real problem becomes taboo for discussion. Another is that all proposed actions make the problem worse. Want examples? Consider the "War on Drugs", or your workplace.

The cure he proposes is to implement tightly coupled feedback cycles. For example, one software company bills its business units for the tech support calls that come in about the software they produce.

I'd also suggest keeping organizations small enough that it's tolerable for them to die. One of the advantages of real capitalism would be that when (not if) a company fails to adapt to change, it ceases to exist. An extreme version of this point of view was Jefferson's idea that there should be a revolution every twenty years.

Hoo-kay... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5826347)

This is obviously some strange usage of the word "science" that I wasn't previously aware of.

Re:Hoo-kay... (1)

error0x100 (516413) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826535)

Since you didn't read the whole article, I'll help you:

"Underlying his task is the question of how to turn the study of history into a science. He notes the distinction between the "hard sciences" such as physics, biology, and astronomy -- and what we sometimes call the "social sciences," which includes history, economics, government. The social sciences are often thought of as a pejorative. In particular many of the so-called hard scientists such as physicists or biologists, don't consider history to be a science. The situation is even more extreme because, he points out, even historians themselves don't consider history to be a science. Historians don't get training in the scientific methods; they don't get training in statistics; they don't get training in the experimental method or problems of doing experiments on historical subjects; and they'll often say that history is not a science, history is closer to an art."

The lack of an ability to define something in very concrete terms does not imply that we should not attempt to study it in as rigorous and "scientific" a manner as possible. Psychology, for example, is full of such "fuzziness", but nobody can rationally deny that the study of psychology as a science is still beneficial to society.

All it took in high school.... (2, Funny)

kewsh (655090) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826351)

was telling one girl that another had sex with her football star boyfriend...

It's simple (2, Insightful)

Sabalon (1684) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826359)

People are basically selfish assholes. As time goes on, they think more and more about themselves and less about how their actions impact others. As society gets more complex and has more technology, this is amplified - now instead of being an asshole in my own little area, I can be a much bigger asshole and affect more people. ("Gee...I don't see a problem with speakers that'll rattle a whole city block.")

Raises stress, causes more tension and then boom.

At least that's my take...think I may be a bit too cynical :)

Re:It's simple (1)

usotsuki (530037) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826461)

<rant mode="religious">Nah, you're exactly right. By nature humans are mofos, and we have to train ourselves/be trained by others not to be. Such is life. </rant>

-uso.

Re:It's simple (2, Interesting)

sigep_ohio (115364) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826971)

I think that points to the conclusion that Humans are social and selfish in nature. We need a social environment or we all kinda go crazy, yet individually we are extremely selfish looking only at what is good for ourselves and not anyone else.

Personally I don't think it is necesarily technology that has amplified this, but the increased number of people. We are much more crowded today than in years past, and in many areas it isn't going to get any better. People need space from each other, but more and more we can't find it. This helps lead to the whole increase in assholes around the world.

Human nature derived from survival of fittest (1)

Fastball (91927) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826995)

Yes, people are assholes, but what did you expect when you woke up this morning? That six billion people with distinct socio-economic situations and egos were waiting anxiously to find out what Sabalon wanted from them?

This is what makes being human so frickin' cool. We have these traits that have been given to us by way of evolution. We're self-centered, because nature has taught us that no one else is going to look out for #1 quite like ourselves. But paradoxically, we expect everyone around us to yield. E.g. driving in traffic. That latter trait really glows in a modern civilization. It's fascinating this friction of realization and expectation.

It depends on your viewpoint (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5826375)

The Easter Islanders gradually chopped down that forest to use the wood for canoes, firewood, transporting statues, raising statues, and carving and also to protect against soil erosion. Eventually they chopped down all the forests to the point where all the tree species were extinct, which meant that they ran out of canoes, they could no longer erect statues, there were no longer trees to protect the topsoil against erosion, and their society collapsed in an epidemic of cannibalism that left 90 percent of the islanders dead.

But for the 10% of slacker, cannibalistic, sun worshipping Easter Islanders this was a golden age.

Fisheries. (5, Insightful)

Lemmy Caution (8378) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826379)

Fisheries are being depleted around the planet. In each case that the problem is identified ahead of time, the local fishing industry mobilizes to prevent restrictions on their own fishing. They always find some other cause to blame for the loss of fish populations - in Japan, they blame it on whale protection laws; in the Maritime Provinces of Canada, they blamed it on environmental policies. In no case did they accept overfishing as responsible, until it was too late.

Now, the North Sea fisheries are facing the same threat. And predictably, the fishing industries their are in deep denial, insisting that quotas on fishing "threaten their way of life." A group of former fishers from New Brunswick actually travelled to the UK to testify that, in fact, it was quite conceivable that overfishing was responsible, and to beg the British fishing industry to not be as stupid as they had been.

I think this is the key to poor decision making in groups - it's group-delusion, strengthened by fear of challenging group consensus, and fed by short-term self-interest.

Re:Fisheries. (3, Interesting)

pumpkinescobarsof2 (602825) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826919)

i am adding this because you made specific reference to the Maritime Provinces of Canada.

to be factual, the resident inshore fishery had identified the problem and made moves to restrict THEIR fishing patterns.

however, our federal gov't. did not see fit (or maybe they simply couldn't) to impose the same restrictions on foreign factory vessels, sitting just outside canadian waters, but still on the Grand Banks.

the effect of this was to make any efforts by the residents to manage their resource of no consequence.

the way this ties into the parent topic is to illustrate that often there is a hierarchy of groups (resident fishers, federal govt's, international institutions) making decisions, often with distinctly different powers and objectives.

so it is entirely possible that the group most affected by a decision will choose the correct course of action and be submarined (pun intended) or over-ruled by a group further up the chain.

I know (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5826382)

Blame Nature, that vengeful bastard is always out to get us!

Collapses (5, Interesting)

gnarly (133072) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826389)

Jared Diamond was the speaker at my graduation & I've heard a few of his talks at UCLA. He pointed out that the factor that caused the collapse of both the Easter Island civilization and (probably) the Mayan civilization is now thought to be the same: Logging. Both civilizations overlogged the surrounding forest ecosystems which sustained them, resulting ultimately in a collapse of agriculture. Diamond wondered what might have been going through the mind of the Easter Islander who felled the last tree on the island. He guessed that it might just have been thoughts that would resonate today: "Hey, keeping my job is more important than preserving the environment".

Re:Collapses (-1, Troll)

gpinzone (531794) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826421)

It's a good thing that modern loggin companies plant new trees when after they cut them down. Too bad a lot of enviro-wackos forget that part.

Re:Collapses (1)

arcite (661011) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826459)

Oh yes praise those considerate logging companies! PLanting a few seedlings is really going to help replenish forests that took THOUSANDS of years to develop, yet only minutes to cut down. ugh.

Re:Collapses (4, Insightful)

0WaitState (231806) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826486)

It's a good thing that modern loggin companies plant new trees when after they cut them down. Too bad a lot of enviro-wackos forget that part.

They plant commercially viable species, and harvest them at the optimum ROI age (15-30 years). A healthy forest has a variety of species at various stages of maturity. A commercial plantation is no more a forest than a swimming pool is a wetland.

Re:Collapses (1, Troll)

JebusIsLord (566856) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826524)

It's because of the enviro-wackos that the logging companies do so in the first place.

Re:Collapses (4, Interesting)

aron_wallaker (93905) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826531)

Ever seen the "tree farms" that result when "modern loggin(g) companies" clear cut and replant ? They don't look anything like a natural forest. The clear cut not only kills the large profitable trees, it also kills many smaller flora that are part of the forest ecosystem. Replant small trees and they quickly take over, resulting a new forest with very little diversity but very fast tree growth.

Forest companies at first thought this looked great - the faster tree growth, the sooner we can come back to that piece of land. Unfortunately, and this is supported by studies done by the BC dept. of forestry (which they tried to cover up), the rapid growth of the replanted trees results in much lower density wood than that found in "old-growth" (ie natural) forests. As a result the wood is worth very little to the foresters who planted it and they don't want to log it. Forestry companies continue to push for more "old-growth" forests to be opened up to logging because that's where the best quality wood is, all the replanting that's been done has yet to produce a lumber supply that adequately replaces what has been lost. We may not be as bad as Easter Island, but we're nowhere near sustainability.

Re:Collapses (2, Insightful)

error0x100 (516413) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826642)

Many logging companies do, although mostly they do it because it makes business sense to do so (i.e. "Our property size is limited, and we need to still have trees to cut down 5 years from now"). But there is a definite problem when a resource is perceived as being "essentially unlimited", and/or when people are too poor or greedy to care that a resource is being depleted. A perfect example is the rainforests, which will, at the current rates of destruction, be gone within our lifetimes. Yet the people who are cutting them down probably tell themselves, "well there is so much rainforest left that there will still be plenty left by the time I retire, and by then it will be someone else's problem". Additionally they may be saying, "I need to feed my family", and the logging companies will be saying "there is so much rainforest there to still be chopped down that if we try do it responsibly, other companies will be able to log cheaper and faster" (tragedy of the commons).

Re:Collapses (3, Insightful)

CognitivelyDistorted (669160) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826630)

Diamond wondered what might have been going through the mind of the Easter Islander who felled the last tree on the island. He guessed that it might just have been thoughts that would resonate today: "Hey, keeping my job is more important than preserving the environment". Bah. The guy probably hadn't eaten in 3 days and was thinking "If I don't cut down this tree for a fishing boat, I'll surely die."

Re:Collapses (1)

0WaitState (231806) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826967)

Bah. The guy probably hadn't eaten in 3 days and was thinking "If I don't cut down this tree for a fishing boat, I'll surely die."

Nah, more likely it was "Lets cut this last tree to build a canoe and get the fuck out of here, so we can bring our precious way of life to a new island."

Call me a freak... (3, Funny)

uityup (660183) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826972)

but if I came across the last tree on an island which is quickly converting to cannabalism, my thought would be closer to "building a boat and getting my ass off this island is more important than preserving the environment."

Individual's property rights (2, Insightful)

pen (7191) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826408)

It's my opinion that the absence of individual property rights is the exact reason all of these disasters occur.

The essay presents one example of the civilization that wiped out all of the trees it depended on. If that civilization allowed for the ownership of pieces of land, the individuals with a little more foresight could conserve the trees on their plots of land. On the other hand, if every tree belongs to the person who cut it down, then even if the majority of the society is conscious of the problem, the nearsighted minority is still able to cut down the last tree.

The problem with any kind of "public" resource is that it doesn't belong to everyone -- it belongs to noone. Noone cares enough about it to protect or conserve it. Everyone just wants to grab as big a piece as possible.

Re:Individual's property rights (1)

kaphein (667700) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826430)

And when it belongs to everyone, everyone thinks that somebody else will take care of it.

How do you privately own the air? (1)

Kwil (53679) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826660)

And how do you determine if it was my pollution on my property that harmed your air?

Re:Individual's property rights (1)

Yo_mama (72429) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826666)

Something as esoteric as property rights has less to do with it than the human drive to procreate.

My dad has private property out in Idaho. Got a gate and fence, but it didn't stop someone from coming over his property line and cutting down a couple of his trees to sell to the local lumber yard. I'm sure the Eastern Islanders would have felt better knowing that the owner of the last tree was able to take the guy who cut his tree down to court after the fact.

Ask yourself this, is it the lifestyle that's causing the problems or the NUMBER of people living it? Does your car pollute the environment or is it the millions of them collectively that are harming air quality?

Until we can figure out a way to get humans to keep their populations in check any society is going to grow past its ability to sustain peak power.

FYI: (1)

centauri (217890) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826797)

It's "no one" not "noone".

Re:Individual's property rights (1)

Lemmy Caution (8378) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826824)

The problems with this are twofold. One is profitability: without regulation, any privately owned property could well be used more profitably by turning it into strip malls or developments. If there is already a commitment to manage the land as a natural resource, then it could be argued that a private concern, should they find a way to make a profit from would would be optimal policy, would be more effective than public administration (although the characterization of public incompetence is just that - a characterization which has become a myth.)

But the race to the bottom scenario is still in effect. If I get more profit from paving my forest than for maintaining it, once I own it there is little to prevent me from doing so. A poorly administered forest is a better forest than a well-administered forest that has become tract housing, or consists only of profitable tree species.

And how one would go about privitizing air quality and fisheries is lost to me.

Re:Individual's property rights (2, Insightful)

ashultz (141393) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826864)


This is the typical libertarian response, and it's true enough for things that can be owned. Although not entirely true, in that nothing can be entirely subdivided - it may make you happy to remove your trees from your mountain because you later plan to mine it, but when my valley land gets covered with mud, I'm not too thrilled anyway.

But further, what do you say to things that fundamentally cannot be subdivided and owned, like air?

Re:Individual's property rights (4, Insightful)

Zathrus (232140) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826865)

The problem with any kind of "public" resource is that it doesn't belong to everyone -- it belongs to noone. Noone cares enough about it to protect or conserve it. Everyone just wants to grab as big a piece as possible.

What an... interesting view of things.

So, I presume that you'd like to argue that Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, etc. should be privatized - because obviously them being National Parks (which are de facto public property managed by the National Park Service) means that nobody cares about them.

Frankly, when it comes to individuals they generally act in the most self improving way possible. If I owned a few hundred acres of trees I may be tempted to sell the rights to log them to someone for a few million. After all, they're my trees, and I can do what I want with them.

On the otherhand, there's some very large swaths of land near my house that won't ever be logged... they're part of the Chatahoochee National Park system. While other greenspace all around is being cut down to put in new subdivisions, this land (which was either purchased by the Federal government, or by local interest groups and then donated to the government) isn't going to sprout McMansions anytime soon.

I'm not a fan of big government, but claiming that individual rights would solve everything is a load of crap. I can choose to pollute my bit of land afterall, and then say that I was within my rights to do so since it was my land. Funny thing though, eco systems don't respect legal borders.

Re:Individual's property rights (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5826889)

Sure. That's why, in California, redwood trees in National Forests have all been clear cut while those on land belonging to timber companies are still intact. Idiot.

But let's consider that you might be almost right. What happens when the individual property owners, one by one, succumb to the lure of selling their trees for bigger and bigger money? I'll tell you: the trees get cut down.

Are you suggesting that the guy who owned the last stand of trees on the island and could sell them for enough money for him and his descendents to live on forever didn't sell? Maybe that's why the island is treeless. They might have a few left if there'd been an Easter Island National Park.

Private companies absolutely DO NOT consider sustainable logging for slow-growing timber as a viable alternative. What they do is cut down what they can get away with, hoping that nobody really notices that 80% of the trees on their property have disappeared in the last 10 years. They avoid cutting next to roads (so tourists still think there's a forest there) and too close to the towns where the loggers and mill operators live (same sort of reason). There is not one reason in the world to believe that these companies are looking 100 years or 200 years into the future and are logging accordingly.

Conglomerates such as Houston-based Maxxam own big chunks of the remaining redwood forests and log trees to maintain their revenues and to make payments on their loans this quarter. A hundred years from now? What the hell do they care?

Re:Individual's property rights (1, Insightful)

akaina (472254) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826945)

What about intellectual property? The patent system makes the explicit distinction that a certain thought (or implimentation) may belong to (or be implimented by) no one else but you.

When that happens, the land grab begins and the resources of intellectuals begins to run dry. When I asked Noam Chomsky about this issue he told me:

" But the problems you pose are very serious, no matter what technology or scientific knowledge we may have in mind. It's certain that powerful institutions will seek to use anything for their own purposes, which are only by accident benign (as Adam Smith also recognized, and emphasized, in passages that are rarely cited). We always have to be alert to this danger, and there is no formula as to how to avert it."

Those who saved their trees (1)

aliens (90441) | more than 11 years ago | (#5827024)

Those that were wise and saved their trees would have been the first to have been eaten. Individual property rights mean diddly when the mob says so.

"These are my trees go away 100's of people you can't have them."

mob - "Oh, we didn't realize, they're not yours if you're dead right?"

"No I guess not...."

(awkward silence)

I happen to think... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5826448)

...that the goatse hole is a sign of impending dume for this sivilization. What do you think?

NAKED PR10ST!!!!!!!!

Not Jared again (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5826460)

Man, I'm so sick of Jared. You know, I can't get a sandwhich at Subway or watch TV without his smug kisser staring back at me. Yeah, Jared, congrats on losing the weight. That was an accomplishment, I admit. But that's not enough to qualify you as a permanent celebrity in my book. Now he's using his newfound fame to write about the collapse of society? Jimminy Fuckin' Cricket! When are we going to stop getting Jared thrown at us?

Intelligence is slavery! (-1, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5826496)

Niggers are our strength!

2 Key Elements (2, Interesting)

4of12 (97621) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826542)


An intriguing essay and one that most of us ought to ponder as we sit in the here and now, as groups, making decisions, watching things happen, recogizing or ignoring problems.

One thing is that many members of a group don't like to confront problems or issues. Frankly, it's too damn uncomfortable for many people to come face problems whose evident solution may well demand of them that they endure change or discomfort. We're creatures of habit and we don't like change (shoot, some people won't make a change for the better even if you lead them to water), even if events suggest that change might be in our better long-term interest.

Second, groups are composed of individuals with greater and lesser abilities to influence group decision making. For example, decisions by one typical homeless person are less likely to impact the group's overall decisions than are decisions by a large stockholder of Exxon-Mobil, just to take an illustrative example. It turns out that decision makers at EXOM may well perceive threats and benefits differently than the average homeless person, and even differently than an average cross-section of individuals in the group we call society.

From an environmental perspective, beneficiaries of extractive industries don't necessarily feel a balanced level of pain for their actions: some of the consequences won't be felt for a lifetime. (Same deferred consequence problems applies to political decisions in general).

Easter Island's environmental demise probably wasn't accelerated due a few powerful individuals benefitting out of proportion to the changes made to their environment.

But it's certain in our modern industrialized society that some points of view are going to be affected because some individuals will perceive current benefits to outweigh possible long-term adverse consequences. Those individuals have more influence than an average person. They may even be right sometimes in their views. But it's important to know the frame of mind where those views are born.

I don't know (2, Insightful)

khendron (225184) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826700)

I believe the opposite. If societies acted as a group, probably very few stupid decisions would be made. But societies don't act as groups. The members of societies act as individuals.

It comes down to greed and human nature. Most people are extremely selfish and hypocritical, and this is be basis of most "stupid" decisions.

We, as a species, are polluting our planet. Take a poll and you will probably find that a majority of people believe the SUVs create a lot of pollution. Yet, everybody and their dog wants one. A majority of people probably think that the world is or is becoming over-populated. Yet we, continue to crank out children at an enourmous rate.

As a group, we recognize problems and can even see solutions. But as individuals we are not willing to do anything about it.

Re:I don't know (4, Insightful)

kawika (87069) | more than 11 years ago | (#5827076)

Take a poll and you will probably find that a majority of people believe the SUVs create a lot of pollution. Yet, everybody and their dog wants one.
Automakers promote SUVs because they are more profitable than econoboxes. The government cooperates, keeping oil prices low. Individuals buy what they are led to believe they need, and what they can afford.

A majority of people probably think that the world is or is becoming over-populated. Yet we, continue to crank out children at an enourmous rate.
Western countries are barely cranking out children at a break-even rate. Only countries where cheap labor is beneficial have a high birth rate.

As a group, we recognize problems and can even see solutions. But as individuals we are not willing to do anything about it.
Many groups can easily see the problems of other groups, and want to do something about it. When they do, it's called "war". :-)

The problem is overpopulation. (1, Interesting)

reporter (666905) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826707)

The underlying problem is overpopulation. If there were only 1 person in this world, he could not damage the earth regardless of how stupid his decisions might be. However, when there are 6 billion people, the cumulative effect of the 6 billion stupid decisions would destroy the earth.

The depletion of fish stock is an excellent example. 6 billion people catching and eating fish every day without regard to the existing fish supplies would deplete the oceans of fish. Even as we speak, several varieties of fish are on the verge of distinction.

The world is overpopulated.

Re:The problem is overpopulation. (4, Funny)

Lemmy Caution (8378) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826867)

Even as we speak, several varieties of fish are on the verge of distinction.

Recently, a well-spoken mackerel was nominated for a Pulitzer!

Re:The problem is overpopulation. (1)

dglo (21986) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826880)

The underlying problem is overpopulation. If there were only 1 person in this world, he could not damage the earth regardless of how stupid his decisions might be. However, when there are 6 billion people, the cumulative effect of the 6 billion stupid decisions would destroy the earth.

Easy solution: kill yourself!

Wrong (2, Insightful)

snatchitup (466222) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826897)

We're talking about societies.

How do you explain that the society of Israeli Jews is failing due to "Under-Population".

In fact, they will be a significan minorty in 50 years. Palestinians have significantly positive birth rates, while Jews just are procreating enough.

This guy doesn't realize something. We can't see the Forest from the Trees. But things change. We grow forests overnight practically these days. In Minnesota, far more trees are planted each year, than harvested.

Modern societies don't fail due to Natural Resources. They fail because we can't seem to get along with each other. Or, we can't get along with our neighbors. Or, our neighbors hate us, and conquer us.

Modern societies fail because they don't value life. For instance, Genocide, and dare I say Abortion?

Effects of Limited Liability Corporations (2, Insightful)

g8orade (22512) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826767)

The goals of a limited liability corporation are expressly to make profit for a group of shielded remote elite executives.

Hmmm. What effects of this do we now see?

And these are the most powerful organizations in the world today...

Networking (2, Funny)

xyote (598794) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826778)

Maybe when the Easter Islanders ran out of trees, they tried networking to find new trees. Now everyone knows networking can't find you trees (or jobs) when there are none, but it does help you meet new food. So the next time you meet some smug employed geek, ask him if he knows what "long pig" means. And give him your best toothy grin.

Poor Jared (4, Funny)

michaelhood (667393) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826781)

I'm sure the collapse of the Amish [800padutch.com] society must have devastated him, and lead to Jared's [edge.org] writing of this column.

Just broad, long-term examples like this? (4, Interesting)

ianscot (591483) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826862)

FTA: ...famous collapses such as those of the Anasazi in the U.S. Southwest, Classic Maya civilization in the Yucatan, Easter Island society in the Pacific, Angkor Wat in southeast Asia, Great Zimbabwe in Africa, Fertile Crescent societies, and Harappan Indus Valley societies.

The Easter Islanders' chopping down their forests is the sort of problem that happens across many generations, and "DISASTROUS DECISIONS" (in the essay title) doesn't quite seem to fit. Did they "decide" to do that, in any conscious way? More like a blind spot. (If we overrely on fossil fuels and the world economy collapses by stages in a prolonged, strangling energy crisis, well, we knew we were doing it; that's not the same.)

Same thing with the Norsemen in Iceland: they farmed the way they knew how, not because they made a disastrous "choice" but because they didn't know any better. That one's on a different scale, too; Norse culture as a whole didn't collapse.

Foreign policies are easy to look for decisive short-term blunders in, aren't they? Alcibiades and his generation of Athenian aristocrats basically made two decisions, intended to aggressively assert and expand the Athenian empire, that doomed that empire instead. Their aligning with rebellious Persian satraps caused the Persian king to throw money Sparta's way, and their expeditionary force in eastern Sicily against Syracuse basically cost them their confidence in empire along with the flower of their armed forces. Disastrous choices, made by a few ambitious men.

Or how about the Soviet Union's inability to escape the ruinous arms race with the U.S.? Calamitous decisions, made by a few individuals over a narrow span of years. (Not that I'm exempting Truman from his share of the blame, but still.)

"The past may not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme."
-- Mark Twain

Holy bad website formatting, Batman! (5, Funny)

Kakurenbo Shogun (64436) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826863)

Holy bad website formatting, Batman! When you first arrive, you see the headline for the article: "WHY DO SOME SOCIETIES MAKE DISASTROUS DECISIONS?: JARED DIAMOND" with a brief synopsis of the what the article is about under it. But don't expect the article to begin yet. As you scroll down and prepare to be enlightened, what do you see? First, somebody's comment about Dolly, the cloned sheep. Uh, this must not be the article. Scroll down a little farther.

Next you find an unrelated editorial. Is the article anywhere on the page or not? Scroll down a little farther.

Ah! Here it is: "WHY DO SOME SOCIETIES MAKE DISASTROUS DECISIONS?: JARED DIAMOND". You start to read, and then realize that what you're reading is an introduction to the article. I thought I already read an introduction up above!? Oh, wait, that was a synopsis. Is the article anywhere on this page or not? Scroll down a little farther.

Next, you see a little section titled "further reading on Edge" with some links. I can't believe it! Huh, I must have missed the link to the actual article above. Scroll around a little, but find no link.

Just by chance, you scroll a little farther down and see it again: "WHY DO SOME SOCIETIES MAKE DISASTROUS DECISIONS?: JARED DIAMOND". By this time, you're a little wary. But to your delight, you finally find the article!

It's about 1/3 the way down the page under the THIRD copy of it's title. My best guess is that the guy who designed the page had a 6 foot tall monitor that showed the whole thing all at once, so he didn't know how confusing that was. Come on, guys! The least you can do is provide a TOC of what's on the page with links to scroll you to each section!

Underpants gnomes? (0, Offtopic)

Joe the Lesser (533425) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826938)

Have they considered the ramifications of actually collecting all the underpants, and thus forcing themselves to admit that they have no phase 2?

Artic Oil (2, Interesting)

Camel Pilot (78781) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826958)

Failure to solve perceived problems because of conflicts of interest between the elite and the rest of society are much less likely in societies where the elite cannot insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions.

His above comment has particular relevance concerning the North Slope Artic oil fields. The elite (ie those driving suv's in the lower 48) will feel no effect of developing those fields.

It's a flame, but important anyway (4, Interesting)

Animats (122034) | more than 11 years ago | (#5826988)

First, the article is basically a flame. A well-written flame, but a flame. That's not unusual in what passes for the literary community.

The author complains that history isn't treated as a science, but offers nothing more than anecdotes. What he's groping for is a theory of economic externalities. But he doesn't have one.

Externalities involve unloading some of your costs onto someone else. Pollution is the classic example, as is spam. Windows bugs are another; the costs are borne by users, not Microsoft. A major social question is the extent to which externalities should be accounted for and billed back to the source. Most of the political arguments over "litigation reform" and "deregulation" involve this issue.

Classically, the problem with externalities was that accounting for them was technically difficult and expensive, more expensive than the value of tracking them. In the computer era, this is less of an issue than it used to be. Measuring and tracking things is now a cheap operation. We're seeing some of this, in the form of "road-usage fees". It's still possible for tracking to cost more than the value of the thing being tracked; long-distance phone billing costs more than long-distance call transmission, for example. There's a legitimate economic tradeoff argument.

But mostly, externality issues are resolved by power, not accounting. Understanding this gives one insight into how societies function.

Government corruption corrupts societies. (2, Interesting)

Futurepower(R) (558542) | more than 11 years ago | (#5827040)


We can study the U.S. society for clues to why societies become self-destructive:

History surrounding the U.S. war with Iraq: Four short stories [futurepower.net]

In the case of the U.S. government, the self-destruction seems to be due to government secrecy and to the availability of easy money by fostering corruption.

Question: Shouldn't U.S. vice president Dick Cheney be investigated for using his government influence to make money? Pre-arranged no-bid contracts were given to his former company, Halliburton. In the past such conflict of interest would have resulted in a prison term.

Reason for collapse (1)

PSL (519746) | more than 11 years ago | (#5827099)

Societies (sp) collapse when the seperation between the haves and the have-nots grows to large.
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