Jared Diamond in his book Collapse, constructs a five-point framework of factors which he believe contribute to a society’s collapse: 

1.                  Environmental damage

2.                  Climate change

3.                  Hostile neighbours

4.                  Friendly trade partners, or absence of friendly trade partners

5.                  The society’s response to its environmental problems 

The last factor, the society’s response, is – according to Diamond – always significant. 

See also Tainter, Joseph, The Collapse of Complex Societies and Tuchman, Barbara, The March of Folly

It seemed from Tainter, and from Diamond’s own explorations of societies that collapsed that there was a common phenomenon, difficult to understand, of a failure of group decision-making on the part of whole societies or groups, which failure was also related to a failure of individual decision-making. 

Four categories of poor decision-making emerged: 

1.                  A group may fail to anticipate a problem before the problem arrives 

An example would be the introduction of foxes and rabbits to Australia in the 1800s.  Another, that Norse Greenland did not (could not have) anticipate the effect that the Crusades would have in eliminating the market for walrus ivory by reopening Europe’s access to Asian and African elephant ivory, or that increasing sea ice would impede ship traffic to Europe.  Even prior experience may not guarantee that a problem is anticipated, especially in non-literate societies where the problem occurred several life times ago. 

2.                  When the problem does arrive, the group may fail to perceive it. 

This may be because the problem is literally imperceptible (e.g., leaching nutrients out of soil).  Those who manage the problem may be very distant from it.  Or, there may be a slow trend concealed by up and down variations.  This trend is often called “creeping normalcy” or “landscape amnesia”.  It may take a few decades of a long sequence of slight year-to-year changes before people realise with a jolt, that conditions used to be much better several decades ago, and that what is accepted as normalcy has crept downwards. 

3.                  Then, after they perceive it, they may fail even to try to solve it. 

“Rational” behaviour

There may be several reasons for this.  One is so called “rational behaviour”.  That is, some people may reason correctly that they can advance their own interests by behaviour harmful to other people.  “The perpetrators know that they will often get away with their bad behaviour, especially if there is no law against it or if the law isn’t effectively enforced.  They feel safe because the perpetrators are typically concentrated (few in number) and highly motivated by the prospect of reaping big, certain, and immediate profits, while the losses are spread over large numbers of individuals.  That gives the losers little motivation to go to the hassle of fighting back, because each loser loses only a little and would receive only small, uncertain, distant profits even from successfully undoing the minority’s grab.” (p427)   

Another phenomenon which may prevent a society from trying to solve its problem is known as the “tragedy of the commons”, closely related to the “prisoner’s dilemma” and “the logic of collective action”.  This may occur where lots of individuals are harvesting the same crop which is becoming exhausted.  If the over harvesting continues the crop will decline or even disappear to the detriment of all the consumers.  It would therefore be in the common interest of all consumers not to over harvest.   But in the situation where there is no effective regulations of harvesting, each consumer would be correct (rational) to reason that if he does not harvest the crop, somebody else will. 

One solution is for the government or some other outside force to step in to regulate the harvesting.  A second solution is to privatise the resources, that is, divide it into individually owned tracts that each owner will be motivated to manage prudently.   

Or, the consumers may recognise their common interests and design, obey and enforce prudent harvesting quotas themselves.  Diamond says that this is likely to happen only if a whole series of conditions is met: the consumers form a homogeneous group; they have learned to communicate with each other, they expect to share a common future and to pass on the resources to their heirs; they are capable of and permitted to organise and police themselves and the boundaries of the resource and its pool are well defined. (p429) 

Other conflicts of interest may arise when the principal consumer has no long-term stake in preserving the resource, but society as a whole does.  Equally, a conflict arises when the interests of the decision-making elite in power clash with the interests of the rest of society, especially if the elite can insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions.  Tuchman says “Chief among the forces affecting political folly is lust for power, named by Tacitus as ‘the most flagrant of all passions’”. 

“Irrational” behaviour 

Humans are prone to irrational behaviour.  There is “persistence in error”, “wooden-headedness”, “refusal to draw inference from negative signs” and “mental standstill or stagnation”.  A related trait is the “sunk cost effect”: we feel reluctant to abandon a policy in which we have already invested heavily.  “It is painfully difficult to decide whether to abandon some of one’s core values when they seem to be becoming incompatible with survival” (p433). 

“All such decisions involve gambles, because one often can’t be certain that clinging to the core values will be fatal or (conversely) that abandoning them will ensure survival” (p433). 

Another irrational motive for failure to address problems include that the public may widely dislike those who first perceive and complain about the problem.  There may also be irrational failures associated with clashes between short-term and long-term motives of the same individual, having a “90 day focus” for example. 

Then there is “crowd psychology” or “group think”.  Sometimes the stress and the need for mutual support and approval may lead to the suppression of doubts and critical thinking, sharing of illusions, a premature consensus, and ultimately a disastrous decision. 

Diamond ends by highlighting the disastrous results of “psychological denial”.  If something you perceive arouses in you a 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 grief. (p435).  He gives an interesting example. 

Consider a narrow river valley below a high dam, such that if the dam burst, the resulting flood of water would drown people for a considerable distance downstream.  Unsurprisingly the fear of a dam burst is lowest far downstream, and increases with proximity to the dam.  Surprisingly, however, it is those who live closest to the dam, the ones most certain to drown, who profess unconcern.  This is because of psychological denial: the only way of preserving one’s sanity while looking up every day at the dam is to deny that possibility that it could burst. 

Religious values also tend to be especially deeply held and hence a frequent cause of disastrous behaviour. 

4.                  Finally, they may try to solve it, but may not succeed 

“Finally, even after a society has anticipated, perceived, or tried to solve a problem, it may still fail for obvious possible reasons: the problem may be beyond our present capabilities to solve, a solution may exist but be prohibitively expensive, or our efforts may be too little and too late.” (p436).  

All of which reasons should convince us of the need to elect our leaders carefully.  Diamond insists that his book is not pessimistic – if decision-makers understand the lessons of history, and the tendency to makes decisions on wrong rational or irrational grounds, then better decision-making should result, and societies should be able to solve their problems.  He gives the example – as cause for optimism – of the contrast between the deliberations over two consecutive crises involving Cuba and the US by President Kennedy and his advisors. 

“In early 1961 they fell into poor group decision-making practices that led to their disastrous decision to launch the Bay of Pigs invasion, which failed ignominiously, leading to the much more dangerous Cuban Missile Crisis.  As Irving Janis pointed out in his book Groupthink, the Bay of Pigs deliberations exhibited numerous characteristics that tend to lead to bad decisions, such as a premature sense of ostensible unanimity, suppression of personal doubts and suppression of expression of contrary views, and the group leader (Kennedy) guiding the discussion in such a way as to minimize disagreement.  The subsequent Cuban Missile Crisis deliberations, again involving Kennedy and may of the same advisors, avoided those characteristics and instead proceeded along lines associated with productive decision-making, such as Kennedy ordering participants to think sceptically, allowing decisions to be freewheeling, having subgroups meet separately, and occasionally leaving the room to avoid his overly influencing the discussion himself.” (p439)  

Diamond, Jared, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Penguin, 2005 

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