Lauren In Tokyo

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Past, according to Rand

As I mentioned in a previous entry, I am reading through the Rand corporation's "50 Books For Thinking About the Future Human Condition". Since my reading time is time spent on the train, I can't read all the books, nor can my wallet afford such an expensive habit. I've picked the books that are both portable and inexpensive, and I read those on the train every day.

This past Friday, I finished the first section. The Past. Rand lists 3 books as indispensable in understanding where we come from and where we are going. "Our most common tool for thinking about the future is extrapolations from the past." Thus the books they select as indicative of the past must give a good insight into what Rand is concerned about.

I chose the two Jared Diamond books "Guns, Germs, and Steel" and "Collapse". "The New History of the World" is too large, so I disqualified it from my reading list.

Diamond's thesis is that the environment shapes our civilizations and our management of the environment determines our ability to avoid societal collapse. GGS explains how societies located in resource-rich areas were able to grow and become powerful or integrate into a more powerful society (either by being conquered or intermarriage, and usually both). Societies that arose in resource poor areas were hampered in their ability to grow and remained "stuck in time", so to speak. When the former encountered the latter, the clash of civilizations typically favored the former by a wide margin.

GGS continues on to discuss the importance of urban areas which bred and fed germs with lots of live (and dead) bodies. When sailors who were immune to some of Europe's worst diseases arrived in the Americas, they spread diseases which proceeded to decimate the native populations. Those populations that did not fall to germs were brought down with steel weaponry which the native Americans had not yet developed.

"Collapse" explains the environmental factors that led to the downfall of a handful of selected societies. Diamond shows how certain decisions and short-sightedness led to the over-exploitation of resources and also how unwillingness or inability to adapt to new climates and environments led to the collapse of these societies. He also provides counter-examples that show similar societies succeeding (or at least barely making it) in the same circumstances.

The key theme that ties these two books together is the environment. Diamond's insistence on the importance of the environment in all aspects of politics and society comes across powerfully and crystal clear. In selecting these two books by Diamond, and considering that the other is a general history text, the Rand corporation tells us that they believe that the upcoming crises that humans will face will be primarily environmental.

I believe that is possible. I also believe that we have the ability to work through these crises to a satisfactory end. I recommend these two books for anyone interested in understanding why the world looks the way it does today.

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