Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer Prize-winning anthropologist, is an expert on the collapse of societies. In his book Collapse, he explains conditions which can cause the demise of centuries-old civilisations within just a couple of decades. A fascinating insight common to most extinct societies is that even though signs of their demise were obvious, especially in cases of man-induced environmental degradation, those societies continued down the slippery slope to extinction. So why do societies choose to literally die, instead of taking remedial steps?
According to Diamond, one of the main reasons why even sophisticated societies fall into this suicidal spiral is the conflict between the short-term interests of decision-making elites and the long-term interests of society as a whole, especially if the elites are able to insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions. And that is how many decision makers have behaved over centuries across the world, including in India.
Just a few decades ago, most residents of Indian metros including Delhi could sleep out in the open during the summers and spring, drink water from a garden hose, consume unpasteurised milk and probably didn’t even know what smog was. Parents could send children to school unescorted and there was no concept of gated colonies. Rivers were cleaner, food wasn’t toxic and pollution was negligible. But within decades, the decision-making elite chose to take short-term decisions that favoured their interests rather than society’s, precisely because they were able to insulate themselves and their own families from the adverse effects, with gated colonies, air-conditioned environments, bottled water and organic farms.
One of the most fascinatingly tragic stories of social collapse chronicled by Diamond is of the Easter Island in the Pacific Oceans, inhabited by Polynesians whose sustenance was farming and fishing. The Easter Island was forested with over 21 species of trees including some of the largest palm trees. At its zenith, this society numbered over 15,000 with a sophisticated social structure, skilled seamen, farmers and builders. The major attraction of the island till date continues to be hundreds of monolithic stone statues several metres tall, some of them weighing over 90 tonnes, built as a monument to demised leaders. These statues were carved in a volcanic quarry and then transported across the island to the coasts. Diamond postulates that the building of these statues became the competitive obsession of satraps who wanted to outdo their neighbours in the number and size of the figurines.
The Achilles’ heel wasn’t the carving of the statues. Instead, it was their transportation. To be able to move these massive sculptures from the quarry to the coast facing the sea, the natives had to cut the trees to build rollers. This process essentially deforested the entire island, causing soil erosion and depletion of fishing boats which eliminated their source of protein. Soon, a shortage of resources led to a civil war and within a matter of years, the entire society was decimated. Those who hear this story often ask the inevitable question: Just what were the natives thinking? Couldn’t they see trees being cut down was making the island barren? Isn’t it incredulous that a society capable of so much sophistication would commit hara-kiri? But that’s what collapsing societies do. They hurtle down the path of self-destruction in pursuit of short-term disastrous objectives in unison, even while they realise the looming catastrophe as individuals.
India is sitting on several time bombs. Climate change, toxic environments, burgeoning aspirations, jobless growth, crumbling infrastructure and of course, pollution being just a few of them. The current models of social consumption and growth are simply unsustainable. More importantly, not only are these issues interlinked but in most cases, have reached a gridlock wherein no single component can be solved in isolation without impacting stakeholders affected by other problems. This is illustrated by the Delhi smog, which is not just an interstate problem now but has spread across to Pakistan. And solving such intricate challenges meaningfully requires initiatives across several different fronts, with the cooperation of squabbling stakeholders who put aside their parochial agendas and appreciate the gravitas of the impending catastrophe. The only silver lining of the Delhi smog is that misery has now been truly democratised. When the very air we breathe is toxic, the elite decision-makers can no longer insulate themselves or their families from their actions. Perhaps this would be the final wakeup call. Else future generations – if any – would ask the same incredulous question that we do about the natives of the Easter Island. Just what were they thinking building statues when their world was coming to an end?
Raghu Raman is former CEO of NATGRID and president of Reliance Industries. He tweets @captraman and views are personal.