Religion and societal collapse

Jared Diamond (picture, Wikipedia entry) has written Collapse, a book about how societies fail, following on the heels of his previous Guns, Germs and Steel, which addressed the other side of the same question—why some societies succeeded. (That book, by the way, has a great section on the Incan empire and its defeat by the conquistadors.)

My interest is in how religion relates to a society’s success or failure. Unfortunately in “Collapse” Diamond deals with this question only tangentially. The examples he gives, however, do not speak well for religion. For instance, he attributes much of the blame for the collapse of the Norse society which existed in Greenland during the first half of the last millennium to the overinvestment in Christian infrastructure: the building of large churches, the undertaking of dangerous expeditions to acquire walrus tusk to trade for religious ornamentation. Similarly, the death of the civilization on Easter Island can also be attributed to religious factors, at least to the extent the motivation for building the huge stone statues was religious in nature. Building the statues consumed huge amounts of manpower and natural resources. In contrast, the societies he presents as relatively successful—including Tokugawa-era Japan, which he praises for its forestry policies—had weak religious infrastructures.

At the same time, it’s worthy of note that none of the societies Diamond identifies as political and environmental disasters are Buddhist.

Overall, “Collapse” is a worthy successor to “Guns, Germs and Steel”, although it tends to bog down in places. The focus is overwhelmingly on ecological/environmental issues, which account for three of the five causes Diamond identifies for societies collapsing:

  1. environmental damage
  2. climate change
  3. hostile neighbors
  4. friendly trade partners
  5. society’s response to environmental problems

Fine, but in his conclusions—basically, that the world faces an environmental crisis that threatens its collapse, albeit one that he bravely claims we can deal with—he entirely ignores his third factor, hostile neighbors, which would seem to be of prime importance given the current wave of global terrorism. He mentions terrorism of course, but only in the context that environmental depradations and the ensuing poverty can give rise to it. But the Saudis who flew airplanes into buildings suffered from neither.

Concerning his fifth point, society’s response to environmental problems, Diamond does mention political and organizational factors in the form of e.g. NGOs working to conserve natural resources, but, oddly, fails to address how a country’s political system affects its response (other than mentioning how poorly the USSR did environmentally). He does praise the conservation policies of noted autocrat Balaguer in the Dominican Republic, but fails to ask the obvious question: to what extent is democracy the best political system for dealing with environmental issues? Presented with a potential choice between some political prisoners rotting in jails and environmental devastation destroying a society, which would you choose? And of course Diamond talks at length about the impact of overpopulation on the environment, but fails to address how either it, or technology which allows information to be transmitted instantaneously and virtual groups to be formed overnight, affect the political and decision-making dynamic.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the impact of race. “Guns, Germs and Steel” went to great lengths, to the extent it can almost be read as an anti-racism manifesto. to make the point that Europe did not succeed because the Caucasians there were smarter than, say, native Americans, but rather because of factors such as flora, fauna, and geography. In “Collapse”, we are similarly told that Haiti is a failed country not due to any lack of giftedness on the part of its citizens but rather as a result of colonial history, climate, and the like.

But as the world becomes flat, in Thomas Friedman’s term, and globalization continues its inexorable progress, with people, information, products, resources, and money flowing like water across borders, making historical and geographical factors less important than ever before, what are the remaining factors that will dictate a country’s success ?

5 Responses to “Religion and societal collapse”

  1. DavidD Says:

    It’s much easier to predict the past than the future.

  2. mogg Says:

    Buddhism fought and divided tibet for the majority of its history. Butan and tibet, until just before tibets ‘return’ to china had still at war. The 2 major sects (the red hats(big wheel buddhism) and yellow hats(small wheel buddhism)) had been killing each other off for years- Tibet red, butan yellow. And japan nearly collapsed into full civil war several times over the buddhist monastries control of major parts of land. With the coming of tokugawa shogunate limiting their powers considerably this ended. Some temples in Kyoto are still know today for the relaxed behaviour of the monks then. Same can be said of china at the end of nearly every dynasty. Buddhism like all religions has its dark side.

    Feudal Japan and trees- end of 1600 they had none, they learnt ,like communist china, the hard way, took them 50 years to correct this. Majority of forest outside of hokkaido is man made.

    If you are only concerned about religions effects on a country,then when religion in history become powerful and influential; a massive body of oppression and influence instead of enlightenment, then i leads to that countrys’ collapse. When holding personal beliefs (without religion) are promoted, or others beliefs accepted without prejudice or attempts to correct their outlook, a country tends to be successful- especially with as little or no religion as you can – look at romes fall; christianitys’ rise as a powerful religion and its disdain of everything else ‘pagan’ helped lead to the collapse of the empire and 2000 years of death and agony across the world.

  3. sushil_yadav Says:

    The link between Mind and Social / Environmental-Issues.

    The fast-paced, consumerist lifestyle of Industrial Society is causing exponential rise in psychological problems besides destroying the environment. All issues are interlinked. Our Minds cannot be peaceful when attention-spans are down to nanoseconds, microseconds and milliseconds. Our Minds cannot be peaceful if we destroy Nature.

    Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment.

    Subject : In a fast society slow emotions become extinct.
    Subject : A thinking mind cannot feel.
    Subject : Scientific/ Industrial/ Financial thinking destroys the planet.
    Subject : Environment can never be saved as long as cities exist.

    Emotion is what we experience during gaps in our thinking.

    If there are no gaps there is no emotion.

    Today people are thinking all the time and are mistaking thought (words/ language) for emotion.

    When society switches-over from physical work (agriculture) to mental work (scientific/ industrial/ financial/ fast visuals/ fast words ) the speed of thinking keeps on accelerating and the gaps between thinking go on decreasing.

    There comes a time when there are almost no gaps.

    People become incapable of experiencing/ tolerating gaps.

    Emotion ends.

    Man becomes machine.

    A society that speeds up mentally experiences every mental slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

    A ( travelling )society that speeds up physically experiences every physical slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

    A society that entertains itself daily experiences every non-entertaining moment as Depression / Anxiety.





    To read the complete article please follow either of these links :




  4. Top Business Zine Says:

    It really seems that the “flattening” of the world, or the general globalization does indeed bring opportunity and choice to the planet’s inhabitants. Clearly this isn’t available 100%, but the success of a country or region, seems to be in the democratic opportunities that other on the globe have the chance to participate in. Could be wrong, but having choice vs. oppressive rule? Give me choice and hard work any time!

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    Canon 300d customer how-to book. I only subscribed to a occupied Canon 300D, and it didn’t avail using a manual of instruction. Is There wherever I might could download this? Or perhaps are a web site with tips?

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