The distinguished lectures held at Trinity University are a great asset for San Antonio especially since they are free and open to the public. Last night I attended the 2009-10 DeCoursey Lecture given by Jared Diamond, professor of geography at UCLA. A relatively large audience was present.
Dr. Diamond’s talk “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” follows his book of the same name. Dr. Diamond said he initially outlined a book describing 18 romantic mysteries of abandoned civilizations including Easter Island, Pitcairn Islands, Maya kingdoms, the Anasazi of southwestern United States, and the Norse Greenlanders. But Dr. Diamond’s wife/editor said a book about failed societies would be boring and depressing. So he added some heartwarming stories about societies that succesfully overcame obstacles and become thriving countries. Success stories include Iceland, Japan andthe New Guinea Highlands. Dr. Diamond said he tried to determine why some societies overcome obstacles and remain successful while other highly developed civilizations collapse.
Dr. Diamond’s lecture was filled with colorful examples illustrating his points. Dr. Diamond listed five causes of collapsing civilizations – human environmental impacts; climate change; enemies/military conquest; friends/trade partners; and the political/social/economic institutions of the society. Dr. Diamond then drew some parallels between past and present societies. He stressed that environmental problems destroyed past societies. He criticized balancing the environment against the economy and assuming that the environment is a luxury to be addressed after the economy is stable. Dr. Diamond said that another common thread among collapsed societies was that the political elite insulated themselves and weren’t motivated to solve problems for the community as a whole.
The main differences between the past and the present, according to Dr. Diamond, are that today people have more potent tools that can cause environmental problems such as deforestation much faster. Another difference is globalization and the interconnection of societies. Today a collapse of a political or economic entity affects the rest of the world. In conclusion, Dr. Diamond said that he is cautiously optomistic about the future of the world. The media has enabled us to learn from societies located far away. We have the potential of learning from the good and bad problems of societies.
The next lecture at Trinity University is by Thomas Friedman on February 16. April lectures feature Condoleezza Rice on April 7 and Rashid Khalidi on April 12. For more information see the Trinity events calendar.