TEDTalks: Why do societies collapse?

Jared Diamond is a scientist and author who has specialised in three separate fields over the course of his career: medicine, ornithology and ecology, and environmental history. With dozens of awards and honours to his name, Diamond is an established and popular science book writer voted ninth of the world’s top one hundred public intellectuals.

To learn more about the potential realism behind dystopian fiction, I decided to watch his TEDTalks on ‘Why do societies collapse’. The nature of this talk is to determine the causes of societal destruction and possible solutions to repairing the damage before it’s too late.

Throughout his speech, Diamond stresses that there is never one single cause for the destruction of a settlement of people. Using the Greenland Norse Vikings as an example, Diamond provides five key issues that collectively break down or severely diminish societies:

  1. Environmental issues caused by man, including deforestation and a general ravaging of the land.
  2. Environmental issues that are potentially products of man’s destruction, such as climate change.
  3. A relationship breakdown between allied and neighbouring societies.
  4. A worsening in hostility with enemy societies.
  5. An inability to resolve issues due to political, economical, social or cultural factors (i.e. religion and tradition).

This really got me thinking about the UK and how we are demonstrating signs of societal collapse:

  1. As our population expands, demand for housing and resources is increasing, causing significant damage to the land.
  2. We are experiencing significant seasonal weather shifts, potentially caused by global warming.
  3. There is a possibility of leaving the EU.
  4. Terrorism threats are worsening.
  5. Our inherent Britishness could be obstructing our ability to improve and expand.

If the UK is showing all the signs of collapsing, why are we not all in a state of panic? Diamond says there are two reasons why the inhabitants of a society fail to see their own downfall:

  1. There is a conflict of interest between short-term and long-term interests – i.e. what is good for the short-term for the elite and powerful is bad for the lower classes in the long-term. Cough. Tories. Cough.
  2. It is difficult to make positive changes to a society when they are blinded by a way of life. For instance, changes that will help better the environment can heavily impact on systems already set in place, i.e. the public’s reluctance to recycle due to the additional effort to sort out waste.

So is the UK on the brink of collapse? This is unlikely to happen in the near future due to our global status, but we are causing ourselves serious harm. As Diamond says, we are ‘currently on a non-sustainable course’, so eventually changes will have to be made. This will either be voluntary and peaceful, or unpleasant and resulting in war.

Diamond finishes the talk on a surprisingly optimistic note. After all, we can fix the problems we have made because it is us who caused them in the first place. The best solution is to understand and recognise the mistakes we are making so that we can educate ourselves and others into making better decisions for our future.

You can watch Jared Diamond’s talk by clicking here.

Emily created Dystopic in July 2012 after requiring an outlet for her love of dystopian and apocalyptic fiction. Her debut novel 'These Unnatural Men' was published in 2018.


One thought on “TEDTalks: Why do societies collapse?”

  1. I see so many of these examples in the United States, but even more terrifying is they happen at the local and regional level as often as the national. And while the solution is obvious, it is rarely done before drastic measures must be taken.

    I don’t know if there will ever be a time when dystopian futures can be avoided because once everyone is happy, they will start desiring more until they plunge themselves back into where they are now. It’s terrifying to think the only time the world has ever been calm is during the first few days after the end of a war. Even then the wounded are dying while meager victories take place. Has there every been a moment in our “civilized” history where most of the countries and nations weren’t on the brink of a collapse in accordance with Diamond’s issues?

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