Modern society: is it on the path to oblivion?

Twice winner of the Science Book Prize, Jared Diamond is hot favourite again this year. Steve Connor meets the author who warns that modern society could follow the Mayans into oblivion
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

What do all these people have in common? The Vikings, who established a colony on Greenland more than 1,000 years ago, the Polynesians who lived on Easter Island in the Pacific and the Maya of Central America. The simple answer is that they all went from boom to bust - from a period of success and plenty to one of miserable decline and ultimate failure.

There are, of course, more complicated reasons to explain the decline and fall of each of these societies. Some of them are cogently set out in Collapse, the latest work of the polymath anthropologist Jared Diamond to be shortlisted for the prestigious Aventis Prize for Science Books.

Diamond is no stranger to the science book prize, having won the award twice already, and his latest entry on the shortlist of five is already the bookies' favourite to win next week's award. Few who have read the book could fail to be impressed by Diamond's ambitious attempt to explain how some societies - past and present - chose, by their action or inaction, to fail or survive.

Many mysteries about failed civilisations still remain. Why, for instance, did the Greenland Norse not catch and eat the plentiful cod in the surrounding sea when they themselves were clearly starving to death? Why did the Maya suddenly disappear, apparently consumed by the encroaching jungle? And what was behind the huge stone statues erected at great environmental cost by the inhabitants of Easter Island?

Diamond, a professor of physiology at the University of California at Los Angeles and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, attempts to bring together the common themes that could explain why these and other societies have collapsed. In doing so, he tries to formulate a strategy for our own society's future survival. He sums up what we have to do towards the end of his book with a checklist of the 12 most serious environmental problems facing the world today.

Top of the list comes the destruction of natural habitats, or at best the conversion of them into something that is fundamentally man-made. "At the rate at which we are going now, the world's tropical rainforests, outside maybe the Amazon and Congo basins, will be gone by 2030," Diamond says.

"But look at the countries that depend on tropical rainforests for their economies. Indonesia, the world's most populous country, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Brazil, Gabon - what's going to happen to all these countries by 2030 when the major source of their economies is knocked out?" he says.

Another pressing problem is the burgeoning human population, which many analysts see as being the root cause of the other problems. It is not a view that Diamond shares. "People regularly make the mistake of looking for a root cause. The root cause is looking for a root cause, and that's because we have a dozen problems and we have to solve them all," he says.

It is not so much the total number of people living on the planet that matters, he insists, it is the impact or "footprint" that each and every one of us has on the Earth's limited resources. "China catching up to the First World would double the human impact. The whole of the Third World catching up would increase human impact by a factor of 11, which in effect means we have 6.5 times 11 billion - this would be equivalent to a global population of 71.5 billion people," Diamond says. "I'm less concerned at 6.5 billion going up to 9 billion if nothing else changed, whereas I'm much more concerned about the whole world going up in effect to the equivalent of 71.5 billion people," he says.

So in his estimation, does civilisation at the beginning of the 21st century have a chance of surviving? "Yes, I think there is a chance to be alive, but I would say for sure we will not have a First-World lifestyle, such as we have now, in 50 years from now if we carry on as we are," Diamond says. "If within the next 50 years we can get ourselves on to a sustainable course, then we can go on indefinitely," he says.

Collapse is published by Penguin, priced £9.99. To order any of the shortlisted books, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

The rest of the best: other books on the shortlist

Electric Universe, by David Bodanis (Abacus, £7.99)

We take it for granted that we can boil water in a few minutes using a kettle, but imagine what life would be like without electricity. Charged electrons moving around copper wires and silicon chips are the basis of modern civilisation and we can thank Michael Faraday, an impoverished son of a blacksmith, for starting the revolution in the first half of the 19th century.

It was Faraday's early experiments with magnets that led to the invention of the first electrical generators - and eventually power stations. David Bodanis continues the fascinating story into the 20th century with the advent of the computer, and describes how electricity switched on the modern world.

Science Book Prize
odds: 3:1

Parallel Worlds, by Michio Kaku (Penguin, £8.99)

A leading Russian physicist once said that cosmologists are often wrong but never in doubt. Another wit complained that there are lies, there are damn lies and there is cosmology. Michio Kaku, hailed as one of the gurus of modern physics, attempts to sort out the fact from the fiction in this epic romp through the frontiers of cosmology.

His thesis is that our Universe is perhaps one of many parallel universes, each with countless worlds like our own. When our own planet is consumed by the Sun turning into a red giant star, or when it becomes a cold, lifeless landscape, we might be able to escape to these new worlds and start again.

Science Book Prize
odds: 6:1

Empire of the Stars, by Arthur I Miller (Little, Brown, £17.99)

This is the story of a young Indian physicist called Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar - known simply at Chandra - who pursued a dream to understand the nature of the creation. In August 1930, on a voyage to London, he calculated that certain stars would suffer a violent death, collapsing to virtually nothing. It was the first mathematical description of black holes.

However, the forces of the scientific establishment, mainly in the guise of Sir Arthur Eddington, were to frustrate this young man's career. He was frequently the victim of blind prejudice and it was not until 1983 that Chandra got the international recognition he deserved with a Nobel Prize. Arthur Miller's scholarly account is gripping and illuminating.

Science Book Prize
odds: 5:1

The Truth About Hormones, by Vivienne Parry (Atlantic Books, £9.99)

Hormones are the chemical messengers of our body. They tell us when we are hungry, when it's time to go to bed or - in the case of women - what time of the month it is. Yet most people don't know that much about the molecules that dominate our lives, says Parry, a veteran journalist.

"Hormones have an elegance and matchless wonder about them that is little known or understood," she says. "Part of the reason for this is that the language of hormones is so confusing with numerous acronyms and a tendency to call the same thing by many different names." So if you want to know more about HRT, FSH, MHC and DHEA, this is the book for you.

Science Book Prize
odds: 4:1