Next generation may be doomed to live in 'global Somalia'

An environmental collapse that would transform the world into a "global Somalia" could begin in 50 years if we fail to do anything about it, a world authority on the rise and fall of civilisations warned yesterday. Professor Jared Diamond, of the University of California, Los Angeles, said society was on the brink of irreversible decline unless 12 major environmental problems were tackled.

Professor Diamond, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, has spent many years studying the reasons why some societies in history thrived and others slipped into decline. He cited present-day Somalia as among several places where environmental degradation has already helped to trigger a collapse of government and the rule of law.

"Conditions of Somalia will spread," he said. "Somalia is an example of a worst-case scenario. State government has collapsed; it is a dry landscape, difficult to manage and, not surprisingly, it has problems of environmental degradation.

"There are plenty of countries where state government is moving towards collapse ... We will be living in a global Somalia if we don't do anything about it. My children, who are 17 years old, will be living in a global Somalia unless we solve our problems."

He warned that the omens were not looking good for the rich countries to survive the 21st century without a serious and possibly catastrophic drop in their present standard of living.

"If we continue doing the things we are doing now the outcome, which is not the worst-case scenario but the actual outcome, would be that we don't arrive at the end of the century," Professor Diamond said. "Most of our problems are ones with 30- to 50-year time fuses. That is the rate at which we are exploiting the world ... So if we carry on we do not arrive at the end of the century with a First-World lifestyle."

Professor Diamond, who was in London to publicise his book Collapse: How Societies Chose to Fail or Survive, said there were several possibilities if exploitation of the planet and its resources continued at the present rate. "The worst-case scenario can range from an apocalypse to something greyer. An apocalpyse would include fighting in dead earnest [over natural resources]," he said.

"There are also gentler outcomes. Today, there are countries that are poor and getting poorer. So one gentler outcome would be that poverty just spreads. Today, most African countries are poor and quite a few South American countries are poor. A gentle-worst-case scenario is that Brazil becomes poorer and Mexico becomes poorer and in Europe poverty spreads. Instead of eastern Europe catching up to western Europe, western Europe declines towards eastern Europe."

Most of the problems, such as deforestation and soil erosion, were similar to those that led to the collapse of societies ranging from the Maya in Mexico, the Easter Islanders and the Norse inhabitants of Greenland, he said. But the world was also facing global warming and more toxic pollution. "We need to do much more than we are doing now," Professor Diamond said.

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