Diamond, Jared

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22: Jared Diamond

Excerpt from "The Last Americans: Environmental Collapse and the End of Civilization"

    Published in Harper's Magazine, June 2003.

Jared Diamond (1937–), a professor of geography and of environmental health sciences, explores history in order to understand how some civilizations of the past fell quickly into ruin by failing to perceive and solve their environmental problems. He extends his findings to contemporary areas overwhelmed by pollution and the loss of natural resources as a means for helping understand and overcome problems that may lead to modern-day societal collapses.

"We need a healthy environment because we need clean water, clean air, wood, and food from the ocean, plus soil and sunlight to grow crops. We need functioning natural ecosystems, with their native species of earthworms, bees, plants, and microbes, to generate and aerate our soils, pollinate our crops, decompose our wastes, and produce our oxygen."

In his essay "The Last Americans: Environmental Collapse and the End of Civilization" and the book that followed, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2004), Diamond cites a combination of factors that contributed to the downfall of past societies. Those problems were made worse, according to Diamond, because cultural attitudes kept those in positions of leadership from understanding or resolving the environmental crisis. "That's a familiar problem today," Diamond wrote in "The Last Americans." He added: "Some of us are inclined to dismiss the importance of a healthy environment, or at least to suggest that it's just one of many problems facing us—an 'issue.'" Not every collapse begins with an environmental problem, noted Diamond, but it is often the main catalyst, or the primary reason for the breakdown, particularly when a society disregards signs of coming disaster.

A member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society, Diamond won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for an earlier book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies (1997). That work examines how access to weapons, immunity to diseases, and advances in technology allowed the people of Europe and Asia to achieve success throughout the world over the course of thousands of years. "The Last Americans" and Collapse, however, explore reasons for the failure of certain societies throughout history.

Diamond contends that many times the failure of a society is directly related to its mismanagement of environmental resources. Modern-day examples identified by Diamond range from small communities in Montana that face a decline in living standards and a depletion of natural resources to devastation in the African nation of Rwanda, the Caribbean island of Haiti, and communities in China and Australia. Overpopulation in Rwanda and Haiti led to overworking available farmland and cutting down forests. This resulted in environments that are unable to sustain the large human population. In China and Australia, toxic wastes ruined the land that supplied growing populations with food and energy. Diamond also acknowledges examples of communities in such areas as Montana, New Guinea, and Japan that have responded effectively to environmental problems that were initially created by humans.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "The Last Americans: Environmental Collapse and the End of Civilization":

  • Diamond's essay, first published in 2003, formed the basis of his full-length book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2004). The book's subtitle is a key to Diamond's argument: societies have the ability to confront troubles, and they fail when they choose to ignore the problems facing them.
  • Diamond cites three examples of trends in the United States that reflect the choice of ignoring trouble: 1) the belief "that we must balance the environment against human needs"; 2) "that we can trust in technology to solve our problems"; and 3) "that environmentalists are fear-mongering, overreacting extremists whose predictions of impending disaster have been proved wrong before and will be proved wrong again."

Excerpt from "The Last Americans: Environmental Collapse and e End of Civilization"

One of the disturbing facts of history is that so many civilizations collapse. Few people, however, least of all our politicians, realize that a primary cause of the collapse of those societies has been the destruction of the environmental resources on which they depended. Fewer still appreciate that many of those civilizations share a sharp curve of decline. Indeed, a society's demise may begin only a decade or two after it reaches its peak population, wealth, and power.

Recent archaeological discoveries have revealed similar courses of collapse in such otherwise dissimilar ancient societies as the Maya in the Yucatan, the Anasazi in the American Southwest, the Cahokia mound builders outside St. Louis [Missouri], the Greenland Norse, the statue builders of Easter Island, ancient Mesopotamia in the Fertile Crescent, Great Zimbabwe in Africa, and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. These civilizations, and many others, succumbed to various combinations of environmental degradation [decline] and climate change, aggression from enemies taking advantage of their resulting weakness, and declining trade with neighbors who faced their own environmental problems. Because peak population, wealth, resource consumption, and waste production are accompanied by peak environmental impact—approaching the limit at which impact outstrips [exceeds] resources—we can now understand why declines of societies tend to follow swiftly on their peaks.

These combinations of undermining factors were compounded by cultural attitudes preventing those in power from perceiving or resolving the crisis. That's a familiar problem today. Some of us are inclined to dismiss the importance of a healthy environment, or at least to suggest that it's just one of many problems facing us—an "issue." That dismissal is based on three dangerous misconceptions [false beliefs].

Foremost among these misconceptions is that we must balance the environment against human needs. That reasoning is exactly upside-down. Human needs and a healthy environment are not opposing claims that must be balanced; instead, they are inexorably linked by chains of cause and effect. We need a healthy environment because we need clean water, clean air, wood, and food from the ocean, plus soil and sunlight to grow crops. We need functioning natural ecosystems, with their native species of earthworms, bees, plants, and microbes, to generate and aerate our soils, pollinate our crops, decompose our wastes, and produce our oxygen. We need to prevent toxic substances from accumulating in our water and air and soil. We need to prevent weeds, germs, and other pest species from becoming established in places where they aren't native and where they cause economic damage. Our strongest arguments for a healthy environment are selfish: we want it for ourselves, not for threatened species like snail darters, spotted owls, and Furbish louseworts.

Another popular misconception is that we can trust in technology to solve our problems. Whatever environmental problem you name, you can also name some hoped-for technological solution under discussion. Some of us have faith that we shall solve our dependence on fossil fuels by developing new technologies for hydrogen engines, wind energy, or solar energy. Some of us have faith that we shall solve our food problems with new or soon-to-be-developed genetically modified crops. Some of us have faith that new technologies will succeed in cleaning up the toxic materials in our air, water, soil, and foods without the horrendous cleanup expenses that we now incur.

Those with such faith assume that the new technologies will ultimately succeed, but in fact some of them may succeed and others may not. They assume that the new technologies will succeed quickly enough to make a big difference soon, but all of these major technological changes will actually take five to thirty years to develop and implement—if they catch on at all. Most of all, those with faith assume that new technology won't cause any new problems. In fact, technology merely constitutes increased power, which produces changes that can be either for the better or for the worse. All of our current environmental problems are unanticipated harmful consequences of our existing technology. There is no basis for believing that technology will miraculously stop causing new and unanticipated problems while it is solving the problems that it previously produced.

The final misconception holds that environmentalists are fear-mongering, overreacting extremists whose predictions of impending disaster have been proved wrong before and will be proved wrong again. Behold, say the optimists: water still flows from our faucets, the grass is still green, and the supermarkets are full of food. We are more prosperous than ever before, and that's the final proof that our system works.

Well, for a few billion of the world's people who are causing us increasing trouble, there isn't any clean water, there is less and less green grass, and there are no supermarkets full of food….

But what about the United States? Some might argue that the environmental collapse of ancient societies is relevant to the modem decline of weak, far-off, overpopulated Rwanda and environmentally devastated Somalia, but isn't it ridiculous to suggest any possible relevance to the fate of our own society? After all, we might reason, those ancients didn't enjoy the wonders of modern environment-friendly technologies. Those ancients had the misfortune to suffer from the effects of climate change. They behaved stupidly and ruined their own environment by doing obviously dumb things, like cutting down their forests, watching their topsoil erode, and building cities in dry areas likely to run short of water. They had foolish leaders who didn't have books and so couldn't learn from history, and who embroiled [involved] them in destabilizing [weakening] wars and didn't pay attention to problems at home. They were overwhelmed by desperate immigrants, as one society after another collapsed, sending floods of economic refugees to tax the resources of the societies that weren't collapsing. In all those respects, we modern Americans are fundamentally different from those primitive ancients, and there is nothing that we could learn from them.

Or so the argument goes. It's an argument so ingrained both in our subconscious and in public discourse [discussion] that it has assumed the status of objective reality. We think we are different. In fact, of course, all of those powerful societies of the past thought that they too were unique, right up to the moment of their collapse. It's sobering to consider the swift decline of the ancient Maya, who 1,200 years ago were themselves the most advanced society in the Western Hemisphere, and who, like us now, were then at the apex of their own power and numbers….

We can identify increasingly familiar strands in the Classic Maya collapse [c. 800-900 ce]. One consisted of population growth outstripping available resources: the dilemma foreseen by Thomas Malthus in 1798. As [David] Webster succinctly puts it in The Fall of the Ancient Maya, "Too many farmers grew too many crops on too much of the landscape." While population was increasing, the area of usable farmland paradoxically was decreasing from the effects of deforestation and hillside erosion.

The next strand consisted of increased fighting as more and more people fought over fewer resources. Maya warfare, already endemic [widespread], peaked just before the collapse. That is not surprising when one reflects that at least 5 million people, most of them farmers, were crammed into an area smaller than the state of Colorado. That's a high population by the standards of ancient farming societies, even if it wouldn't strike modern Manhattan [New York]-dwellers as crowded.

Bringing matters to a head was a drought that, although not the first one the Maya had been through, was [the] most severe. At the time of previous droughts, there were still uninhabited parts of the Maya landscape, and people in a drought area or dust bowl could save themselves by moving to another site. By the time of the Classic collapse, however, there was no useful unoccupied land in the vicinity on which to begin anew, and the whole population could not be accommodated in the few areas that continued to have reliable water supplies.

The final strand is political. Why did the kings and nobles not recognize and solve these problems? A major reason was that their attention was evidently focused on the short-term concerns of enriching themselves, waging wars, erecting monuments, competing with one another, and extracting enough food from the peasants to support all those activities. Like most leaders throughout human history, the Maya kings and nobles did not have the leisure to focus on long-term problems, insofar as they perceived them.

What about those same strands today? The United States is also at the peak of its power, and it is also suffering from many environmental problems. Most of us have become aware of more crowding and stress. Most of us living in large American cities are encountering increased commuting [travel] delays, because the number of people and hence of cars is increasing faster than the number of freeway lanes. I know plenty of people who in the abstract [theory or assumption] doubt that the world has a population problem, but almost all of those same people complain to me about crowding, space issues, and traffic experienced in their personal lives.

Many parts of the United States face locally severe problems of water restriction (especially southern California, Arizona, the Everglades [Florida], and, increasingly, the Northeast); forest fires resulting from logging and forest-management practices throughout the intermontane West; and losses of farmlands to salinization, drought, and climate change in the northern Great Plains. Many of us frequently experience problems of air quality, and some of us also experience problems of water quality and taste. We are losing economically valuable natural resources. We have already lost American chestnut trees, the Grand Banks cod fishery, and the Monterey sardine fishery; we are in the process of losing swordfish and tuna and Chesapeake Bay oysters and elm trees; and we are losing topsoil.

The list goes on: All of us are experiencing personal consequences of our national dependence on imported energy, which affects us not only through higher gas prices but also through the current contraction [shrinking] of the national economy, itself the partial result of political problems associated with our oil dependence. We are saddled with expensive toxic cleanups at many locations, most notoriously near Montana mines, on the Hudson River, and in the Chesapeake Bay. We also face expensive eradication [elimination] problems resulting from hundreds of introduced pest species—including zebra mussels, Mediterranean fruit flies, Asian longhorn beetles, water hyacinth, and spotted knapweed—that now affect our agriculture, forests, waterways, and pastures.

These particular environmental problems, and many others, are enormously expensive in terms of resources lost, cleanup and restoration costs, and the cost of finding substitutes for lost resources: a billion dollars here, 10 billion there, in dozens and dozens of cases. Some of the problems, especially those of air quality and toxic substances, also exact health costs that are large, whether measured in dollars or in lost years or in quality of life. The cost of our homegrown environmental problems adds up to a large fraction of our gross national product, even without mentioning the costs that we incur from environmental problems overseas, such as the military operations that they inspire. Even the mildest of bad scenarios for our future include a gradual economic decline, as happened to the Roman and British empires. Actually, in case you didn't notice it, our economic decline is already well under way. Just check the numbers for our national debt, yearly government budget deficit [shortfall], unemployment statistics, and the value of your investment and pension funds.

The environmental problems of the United States are still modest compared with those of the rest of the world. But the problems of environmentally devastated, overpopulated, distant countries are now our problems as well. We are accustomed to thinking of globalization in terms of us rich, advanced First Worlders sending our good things, such as the Internet and Coca-Cola, to those poor backward Third Worlders. Globalization, however, means nothing more than improved worldwide communication and transportation, which can convey many things in either direction; it is not restricted to good things carried only from the First to the Third World. They in the Third World can now, intentionally or unintentionally, send us their bad things: terrorists; diseases such as AIDS [acquired immunodeficiency syndrome], SARS [sudden acute respiratory syndrome], cholera, and West Nile fever, carried inadvertently by passengers on transcontinental airplanes; unstoppable numbers of immigrants, both legal and illegal, arriving by boat, truck, train, plane, and on foot; and other consequences of their Third World problems. We in the United States are no longer the isolated Fortress America to which some of us aspired in the 1930s; instead, we are tightly and irreversibly connected to overseas countries. The United States is the world's leading importer, and it is also the world's leading exporter. Our own society opted long ago to become interlocked with the rest of the world.

That's why political stability anywhere in the world now affects us, our trade routes, and our overseas markets and suppliers. We are so dependent on the rest of the world that if a decade ago you had asked a politician to name the countries most geopolitically irrelevant to U.S. interests because of their being so remote, poor, and weak, the list would have begun with Afghanistan and Somalia, yet these countries were subsequently considered important enough to warrant our dispatching U.S. troops. The Maya were "globalized" only within the Yucatan: the southern Yucatan Maya affected the northern Yucatan Maya and may have had some effects on the Valley of Mexico, but they had no contact with Somalia. That's because Maya transportation was slow, short-distance, on foot or else in canoes, and had low cargo capacity. Our transport today is much more rapid and has much higher cargo capacity. The Maya lived in a globalized Yucatan; we live in a globalized world.

If all of this reasoning seems straightforward when expressed so bluntly, one has to wonder: Why don't those in power today get the message? Why didn't the leaders of the Maya, Anasazi, and those other societies also recognize and solve their problems? What were the Maya thinking while they watched loggers clearing the last pine forests on the hills above Copan? Here, the past really is a useful guide to the present. It turns out that there are at least a dozen reasons why past societies failed to anticipate some problems before they developed, or failed to perceive problems that had already developed, or failed even to try to solve problems that they did perceive. All of those dozen reasons still can be seen operating today. Let me mention just three of them.

First, it's difficult to recognize a slow trend in some quantity that fluctuates widely up and down anyway, such as seasonal temperature, annual rainfall, or economic indicators. That's surely why the Maya didn't recognize the oncoming drought until it was too late, given that rainfall in the Yucatan varies several-fold from year to year. Natural fluctuations also explain why it's only within the last few years that all climatologists have become convinced of the reality of climate change, and why our president [George W. Bush] still isn't convinced but thinks that we need more research to test for it.

Second, when a problem is recognized, those in power may not attempt to solve it because of a clash between their short-term interests and the interests of the rest of us. Pumping that oil, cutting down those trees, and catching those fish may benefit the elite by bringing them money or prestige and yet be bad for society as a whole (including the children of the elite) in the long run. Maya kings were consumed by immediate concerns for their prestige (requiring more and bigger temples) and their success in the next war (requiring more followers), rather than for the happiness of commoners or of the next generation. Those people with the greatest power to make decisions in our own society today regularly make money from activities that may be bad for society as a whole and for their own children; those decision-makers include Enron executives, many land developers, and advocates of tax cuts for the rich.

Finally, it's difficult for us to acknowledge the wisdom of policies that clash with strongly held values. For example, a belief in individual freedom and a distrust of big government are deeply ingrained in Americans, and they make sense under some circumstances and up to a certain point. But they also make it hard for us to accept big government's legitimate role in ensuring that each individual's freedom to maximize the value of his or her land holdings doesn't decrease the value of the collective land of all Americans.

Not all societies make fatal mistakes. There are parts of the world where societies have unfolded for thousands of years without any collapse, such as Java, Tonga, and (until 1945) Japan. Today, Germany and Japan are successfully managing their forests, which are even expanding in area rather than shrinking. The Alaskan salmon fishery and the Australian lobster fishery are being managed sustainably. The Dominican Republic, hardly a rich country, nevertheless has set aside a comprehensive system of protected areas encompassing most of the country's natural habitats.

Is there any secret to explain why some societies acquire good environmental sense while others don't? Naturally, part of the answer depends on accidents of individual leaders' wisdom (or lack thereof). But part also depends upon whether a society is organized so as to minimize built-in clashes of interest between its decision-making elites and its masses….

Throughout human history, all peoples have been connected to some other peoples, living together in virtual polders. For the ancient Maya, their polder consisted of most of the Yucatan and neighboring areas. When the Classic Maya cities collapsed in the southern Yucatan, refugees may have reached the northern Yucatan, but probably not the Valley of Mexico, and certainly not Florida. Today, our whole world has become one polder, such that events in even Afghanistan and Somalia affect Americans. We do indeed differ from the Maya, but not in ways we might like: we have a much larger population, we have more potent destructive technology, and we face the

Global Warming: The Twenty-First Century's Challenge?

Global warming is the increase in Earth's temperature that has occurred over the past century. Climate alterations have occurred in the past, but much more gradually, and plants and animals were able to adapt to the changing environment or migrate to new areas. If global warming in the twenty-first century occurs as quickly as some scientists predict, a warmer Earth will produce changes in rainfall patterns and rising seas. It will greatly impact plants, wildlife, and humans. Global warming results from the "greenhouse effect": emissions from factories and cars pollute the atmosphere, creating a filter in the air that traps heat, much like a greenhouse traps heat to shelter plants from cold and frost.

Scientists suspect that global warming will increase the number of very hot days that occur during the year, adding to heat-related health problems and changes in food and water supplies. Flooding is also a major concern: melting of the ice caps covering the Arctic and Antarctica will raise sea levels, shrink the environment for such animals as polar bears and penguins, disrupt natural systems, and challenge human-made structures along coastlines. Flooding can cause saltwater to flow into freshwater areas, threatening plants and animals and reducing the quality of drinking water. Many regions depend on a predictable balance of rainfall, temperature, and types of soil. Excessive rain in some areas and droughts in others would affect crops, and some beneficial plants might be overwhelmed by weeds and poisonous vegetation.

Scientists can't predict the exact outcome of global warming. Some believe that the increase of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, will provide more energy for plant life, with positive effects. Others warn that failure to curb greenhouse gases as early as the first decade of the twenty-first century will result in problems too numerous and complicated to overcome. Concern about global warming intensified in 2006 with a report in June by top climate scientists associated with the National Academy of Sciences. Their report concluded that the recent rise in Earth's temperature is unprecedented in history because of the speed in which it happened and the fact that human activity is responsible for much of the warming.

Several weeks before the report was issued, global warming also received attention when the film An Inconvenient Truth by Davis Guggenheim (1964–) was released to critical acclaim. A multimedia presentation on climate change featuring former Vice President Al Gore (1948–; served 1993–2001), the documentary blends such images as receding ice fields and glaciers, maps of submerged coastlines, and onslaughts of hurricanes arising from warming oceans with Gore's narrative of facts and projections to show the effects of global warming. Gore had served as vice president under Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001) and wrote a best-selling book, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit (1992). The book examines how mismanagement of the environment leaves children with what Gore calls a degraded earth and a diminished future. In the book's conclusion, Gore argues that a worldwide mobilization is needed for a bold and visionary response to overcome an environmental crisis.

risk of a worldwide rather than a local decline. Fortunately, we also differ from the Maya in that we know their fate, and they did not. Perhaps we can learn.

What happened next …

Diamond's essay, published in 2003, was expanded into the best-selling book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2004). The book concludes by listing the twelve most serious problems of the early twenty-first century. The first four center on the destruction or loss of natural resources, followed by three involving limitations of natural resources (including energy supplies, freshwater, and sunlight blocked by pollution). The next three problems involve overpopulation, harmful things that move from one place to another (toxic chemicals, species that have harmful effects when introduced to a new area), and atmospheric gases that cause global warming—a rise in temperature worldwide related to pollutants in the atmosphere. While these problems can be categorized as having different sources and effects, Diamond believes they are interlinked.

It remains to be seen whether Diamond was accurate in identifying the scope of environmental problems of the twenty-first century. His analysis of environmental factors that made some societies more unstable than others, as well as how some societies managed to overcome their environmental problems won praise. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in an article on Diamond in the New Yorker magazine, Diamond makes a distinction between social and biological survival. Following two world wars and the threat of nuclear annihilation, or total nuclear destruction, during the twentieth century, Gladwell noted that humankind learned "we would survive as a species only if we learned to get along and resolve our disputes peacefully." He continued: "The fact is, though, that we can be law-abiding and peace-loving and tolerant and inventive and committed to freedom and true to our own values and still behave in ways that are biologically suicidal. The two kinds of survival are separate."

As for his hopes for Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Diamond said in an interview with Will Boisvert of Publishers Weekly: "I hope people will come away from this book feeling that there are environmental problems, but we can solve them."

Did you know …

  • Diamond began working in 1973 as a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History. That allowed him to pursue a career in ecology, the study of the relationship between organisms and their environment, and evolutionary biology. He participated in more than fifteen expeditions to the island of New Guinea.
  • Beginning in 1977, Diamond devoted a large portion of his energy to popular science writing, believing that helping non-scientists understand important scientific issues is critical to the preservation of the world's natural resources. Diamond has written more than three hundred articles and books and is a longtime contributing editor for Discover magazine.
  • Diamond said he wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel to put an end to the belief that people of one race are intellectually inferior or superior to others. The book proposes instead that certain geographical regions were better for the development of agriculture, which in turn allowed the humans living there to focus on other things, like developing new technologies. "The differences between human societies on different continents," he stated in the book, "seems to me to be attributable to differences among continental environments, and not to biological differences among peoples themselves."

Consider the following …

  • Newly developed neighborhoods, towns, and cities in areas that had been rural are often called urban sprawl. What new communities have developed in your area during the past decade? Research and write about the reasons why that area of land was developed and what impact it had on the natural environment.
  • In his essay, Diamond notes that modern environmental problems are more global in scale than those that affected the Maya and other past civilizations. Among the challenges people face in the twenty-first century is global warming. Some statistics show that Earth is warming and that pollution is a significant factor in this rise in temperature. Research some of the different views on the causes and effects of global warming. Keeping in mind the excerpt from "The Last Americans: Environmental Collapse and the End of Civilization," write an essay on whether you believe the problem of global warming is being addressed to your satisfaction.

For More Information


Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking Press, 2004.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.


Anderson, Terry L. "Environmental False Alarms." National Review (May 9, 2005).

Boisvert, Will. "Apocalypse Then: PW Talks with Jared Diamond." Publishers Weekly (November 15, 2004). Also available at http://publishrweekly.com/article/CA480069.html?display=current&industry=PW+Interview&verticalid=792 (accessed on June 21, 2006).

Demenocal, Peter B., and Edward R. Cook, eds. "Current Anthropology Forum on Anthropology in Public: Perspectives on Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed." Current Anthropology (December 2005).

Diamond, Jared. "The Last Americans: Environmental Collapse and the End of Civilization." Harper's Magazine (June 2003).

Grossman, Lev. "When Things Fall Apart." Time (February 14, 2005).

Shapiro, Kevin. "Scorched Earth." Commentary (April 2005).


Gladwell, Malcolm. "The Vanishing: In Collapse Jared Diamond Shows How Societies Destroy Themselves" (January 3, 2005). New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/critics/books/?050103crbo_books (accessed on June 8, 2006).

Global Warming: Kids Site. United States Environmental Protection Agency. http://www.epa.gov/globalwarming/kids/index.html (accessed on June 8, 2006).

Kavanagh, Michael J. "Don't Do as the Romans Do: Jared Diamond's Collapse Traces the Fates of Societies to Their Treatment of the Environment" (February 8, 2005). Grist Magazine. http://www.grist.org/advice/books/2005/02/08/kavanagh-collapse/(accessed on June 8, 2006).

"Why Societies Collapse: Jared Diamond at Princeton University" (October 27, 2002). ABC Radio National. http://www.abc.net.au/rn/talks/bbing/stories/s707591.htm (accessed on June 8, 2006).

Inexorably: Not able to be separated.

Ecosystems: The community of organisms and the surrounding natural environment that functions as a unit.

Aerate: To supply with air or expose to air circulation.

Genetically modified crops: Crops that result from human-made changes to the gene structure of vegetables.

Optimists: Persons who have a positive outlook.

Rwanda: A nation in central Africa.

Somalia: A nation in east Africa.

Subconscious: The part of the mind that works below the conscious (immediate awareness) level.

Objective reality: A view not influenced by emotions or personal prejudices.

Thomas Malthus: (1766–1834); British economist.

Intermontane: Between mountains.

Salinization: The introduction of salt, or higher levels of salt, that occurs when soil erodes.

Gross national product: The total monetary value of all the goods and services produced in a nation.

Globalization: Increased trade and business cooperation between nations.

First Worlders: Richest and most industrially advanced nations.

Third Worlders: Poor countries.

Climatologists: Scientists who study climates, or weather conditions.

Enron executives: Corporate officers for one of the world's leading energy companies who were convicted of fraud.

Sustainably: Leaving enough for the future.

Polders: Isolated land areas threatened by natural destruction.