This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

May 5, 2011 - will we face facts, or collapse?

Jared Diamond is the man who wrote "Guns, Germs, and Steel." Published in 1997, it was the story of how, where, and why civilization developed. I just finished reading "Collapse," his book about how and why civilizations end. It came out in 2007.

Diamond's curiosity, erudition, and exposition are impressive. There's no one explanation for why a society falters -- or thrives. In fact, he identifies five concerns: climate change, hostile neighbors, collapse of essential trading partners, environmental problems, and failure to adapt to environmental issues.

Using fascinating scientific evidence from the Mesa Verde area (dendrochronology, or the study of tree rings, and the information extracted from packrat middens, which are the remains of rat nests), he makes a persuasive case that the disappearance of the Anasazi basically came down to drought. The cycle of such droughts is long - too long for a pre-literate people to remember as they expanded their population.

Other environmental problems are more directly manmade. For example, there was the complete deforestation of Easter Island. Today, it is farming and lumbering practices that lead to "mining" the soil (extracting nutrients for short term crops) instead of sustainably farming it, as in Australia.

An example of "hostile neighbors" is the abandonment of their little North American colony by the Vikings, whose idea of announcing their presence was to kill every Indian they met. There were rather more Indians than Vikings. The Vikings got into trouble again in Greenland when their connection to Europe was disrupted by increasingly icy seas.

In addition to his exploration of the distant and not-so-distant past Diamond analyzes more current challenges, such as those faced by Haiti, Montana, and the author's home town of Los Angeles.

He also takes a hard look at big business and the environment. Some of his conclusions may surprise you. For instance, guess who runs what has become "by far the largest and most rigorously controlled national park in Papua New Guinea?" Answer: Chevron, which is fact operating an oil field.

Then there's mining. An all-too-common story is Galactic Resources' Summitville Mine right here in Colorado. The owners, eight years after getting an operating permit for a gold mine and apparently doing quite well, abruptly declared bankruptcy, failed to pay their sizable tax bill, laid off all its employees with a week's notice, abandoned the site, and left taxpayers to clean up a cyanide spill into the local water supply. Cost: $147,500,000.

Diamond doesn't blame the companies. Or at least, he doesn't just shake his finger at their "rape and run" morality. He states flatly that if we want mining, we have to figure in the full costs of good stewardship and clean-up. Those are the costs of doing business, and we need regulation to ensure that we identify them and hold the company accountable. We also have to track the supply chain, and let the consumer know the full cost of a sustainable economy. Most Americans will indeed pay a little more for the green product -- if they have the option.

Some civilizations fall. Others face facts, address both the cultural and scientific factors of their situation, and solve their problems. Will we be one of them?

LaRue's Views are his own.

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