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499 of 542 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars There is no somewhere else, January 13, 2005
This review is from: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Hardcover)
About 15 years ago, I was shocked to read the results of an American aerial survey of roads in remote areas of the country, which concluded that there is (in 1990) no place in the continental United States that is more than about 20 miles, as the crow flies, from the nearest road. At Philmont Scout Ranch in the Sangre de Cristo range of the Rockies in NE New Mexico, to which many hundreds of Scouts travel each summer for an extended "wilderness" hike, the paths, directions and speeds of each of the flood of hiking parties is managed on a wall-size map in their war room, much like a flight control room of a modern airport. The conscious purpose of the war room is to present "the illusion of wilderness" to the hikers, by preventing them from seeing that there are crowds of other hikers nearby in every direction, only hidden by a bend, a ridge, a ravine.

In one of Jared Diamond's earlier books, Guns, Germs and Steel, he explored the role of man's natural environment in shaping the unique nature of the human societies that emerged in different regions of the world. It was backed by a prodigious body of research spanning anthropology, physiology, botany, archeology, animal behavior and climatology, to name only a few fields. Although his conclusions were satisfying and plausible, the subjects were too remote in time to garner more than a smile and a nod of the head. The paucity of detailed evidence regarding the biologic emergence of man, and man's development of agriculture, animal domestication and civilization, dooms Dr. Diamond's conclusions on those subjects to the realm of conjecture.

Now we are presented with the other side of the equation: the role of man's behavior in shaping the environments in which he lives. While Professor Diamond seems to go to great lengths to present us with a glimmer of optimism in the face of a substantial body of contrary information, the thrust of this new volume is that today, anybody's environmental problem is everybody's problem. His discussions of past failed (and successful) societies serve as a sequence of progressively more complex environmental scenarios highlighting the choices-both intentional and unintentional-that determined the ultimate outcome.

One wonders how intelligent people in those societies that ultimately failed seemed to have made decisions that, at least in retrospect, were patently damaging to their future survival. Diamond offers numerous examples of contemporary environmental challenges for which perfectly rational individuals and governments have made, and continue to make, decisions that are damaging to their future survival.

Over thirty years ago, JW Forrester, then at MIT, developed a computer simulation called World II, which modeled scores of human and environmental factors, in order to see what future the model would predict for the world. In brief, the simulation demonstrated catastrophic population collapse between 2040 and 2060, regardless of how the values of variables and their interactions were adjusted. The only stable simulations required that the world population be set to below its current (1970) value. Well, we can set aside their conclusions as peculiar to their particular set of assumptions, but in Jared Diamond's current book, he concludes that each of the individual, massive environmental issues covered in his various examples will reach catastrophic crisis by about 2050, if they are not addressed promptly and in a dramatic way. I find the correlation sobering.

From the standpoint purely of readable history, Collapse offers more credible conclusions about the decline of the societies it surveys than does the massive 12 volumes of Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History. Toynbee leaned heavily on Hegelian dialectic, Diamond on compelling archeological studies and on the physical sciences. Though a professor of geography, Diamond's formal training was in biology and physiology. Add to that his lifelong studies in ornithology, which have contributed to his wide-ranging travels in third world countries, and it should come as no surprise that the science presented here stands up fairly well to close scrutiny.

This is a book that will certainly appeal to historians, environmentalists and folks who want to know what the tree-hugging fuss is all about. For those who might be disinclined toward environmentalist assertions, this book can serve as a framework for the serious concerns that must be addressed in some fashion.
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 13, 2008 1:25:52 PM PDT
simply put, your comment on the "no place further than 20 miles from a road" is patently false, and demonstrates a real ignorance of geography. Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming are four I personally KNOW of that refute that claim. I would imagine there are others.

Posted on Sep 27, 2008 11:34:54 PM PDT
I think you mean "contiguous" United States, not "continental." Alaska is part of North America, and most of Alaska is more than 20 miles from a roadway. But Northwest Reader is wrong and you are right: you can't get more than 20 miles from a road - sometimes just a logging road - as the raven flies in the contiguous states.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 23, 2009 12:32:03 PM PDT
a reader says:
I recall when this was reported in the Hartford Courant in Connecticut. The work was done by a geographer hired by a car manufacturer to identify the most road-remote spot in the contiguous states. She wrote software to analyze cartographic data, and found that the spot was indeed just 20 miles from the nearest road. The car people wanted to make an SUV commercial showing their product as far off road as it could get.
I recall that the article mentioned that the most road-remote spot in Connecticut at the time was Canaan Mountain-just one mile from the nearest road.
Even though this report was years ago, I coincidentally did happen to come upon my clipping of the newspaper article within the past few weeks.

Just now a quick Web search shows that the work was done by Susan Boswell of Cartographic Technologies in Vermont.

Posted on Apr 21, 2011 6:14:22 PM PDT
jtvt says:
Excellent review, thanks. Interested (or is that not quite the word?) to learn of the World 2 program and its conclusions as well.

Posted on Sep 5, 2012 2:40:36 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 5, 2012 3:17:43 PM PDT
A thoughtful review! However, Dr. Goff, I would not set aside the work of systems dynamics theorists so lightly. The scenarios produced by the World2 model are, naturally, a consequence of the assumptions on which the model was built, but the model is not a "black box." The assumptions are available for anyone's perusal; in fact, the code of the successor to World2 can be downloaded from the Internet for one to study and alter! Importantly, multiple scenarios with both conservative and more ambitious assumptions about the impact of actions to avoid collapse were modeled. Taking the scenarios as a whole, I am convinced that societal collapse on a world scale is, unfortunately, a likely future for us Earthlings.

World2 was significantly updated after it was developed by Dr. Forrester. World3, developed by a group of his proteges at MIT in 1970, was the foundation of The Limits to Growth ("LTG"), published by Dennis Meadows, et. al. in 1972. LTG was a call to action to world leaders to take steps to avoid societal collapse on a planetary scale. The LTG team used World3 to examine five factors that limit growth on our planet: population growth, agricultural production, nonrenewable resource depletion, industrial output, and pollution generation. Importantly, World2 and World3 were not forecast models! However, when World3 was run under multiple scenarios the results indicated that if significant action wasn't taken quickly, human society could collapse on a global scale by around 2030-2040.

World3 has been updated and it scenarios tested against actual data several times in the 40 years since LTG was published. The trends World3 indicated were confirmed in 2004. By and large, the actions the LTG team thought critical have not been embraced by world leaders or society in general and, thus, the LTG authors, now in their 60's, believe collapse is inevitable. One of the original authors of LTG, Dr. Jorgen Randers, split off from the group several years ago and developed his own, predictive, model. His book, 2052 -- A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years, was published on the 40th anniversary of LTG's publication. A close reading of both books (the latest incarnation of LTG is Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update, published in 2004), combined with a viewing of presentations by Professor Meadows and Dr. Randers at the Smithsonian Institution last May (available on Youtube), provide, what appears to me, ample support for their concerns about collapse, and confirmation of Professor Jared's conclusions about the direction in which world society is headed, if not his optimism about the possibility of avoiding collapse.

Both LTG and its authors were vilified and treated as misguided "Doomers" when it was published. You may recall an organization called the Club of Rome. It commissioned and helped fund the original study, and also took the brunt of the beating from academics, economists, think tanker's, politicians, and other pundits at the time. Interestingly, one of the harshest groups of critics has been economists, who insist that systems dynamics theorists don't understand how markets will operate to alter the trends leading to collapse; how, for example, the rising price of crude oil which occurs as traditional sources are depleted will cause entrepreneurs to invest in more elaborate and expensive methods of extracting crude oil from tar sands, shale deposits, etc., thus pushing this resource limit farther into the future. (In response, LTG's authors point out that this misses another important point: even global society has a limited pocketbook and only so much of it can be spent any one of the many resources necessary for society as we know it to operate. Moreover, there are also the consequences of higher oil prices on the cost of the other limiting factors, perhaps most importantly on the cost of agricultural production given its increasing dependance on petroleum products and the rapidly growing number of people that must be fed. As a larger portion of the world pocketbook is spent on energy and food, spending on pollution abatement and industrial output must be reduced with quality of life consequences it is easy to envision.)

Since the initial harsh reception, updates to LTG and the authors have been largely ignored. (The Smithsonian presentation I mentioned above garnered no coverage in the MSM! None!!)

I have just become aware of Dr. Diamond's newest book and look forward to reading it for another perspective on this urgent problem. For me, since I am convinced that collapse -- or a succession of severe crisis that occur as world society bumps into the precursors of ultimate collapse and make harsh corrections to avoid it -- the question is what to do about it personally. (Dr. Randers, who has developed a rather jaundiced view of human nature and world institutions, makes some suggestions in his book; its worth reading just to scan the final chapter in which they appear.) I never imagined donning white robes and carrying a "the-world-is-about-to-end" placard on a street corner somewhere, but becoming an evangelist is one obvious option. I'm still considering ... but time is running out!
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