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Esteemed author discusses downfall of societies

Habitat destruction, resource depletion and an overall lack of foresight have led to the destruction of many societies. From Ancient Mayan civilizations to the present-day New Orleans, poor environmental decisions have resulted in utter devastation.

These are the topics covered in geography professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: Why Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, which he spoke about to a group of 500 in the Special Events Center on Thursday.

“The book started out as an attempt to answer the romantic mysteries of why past societies collapse, leaving behind the abandonment of their cities and temples,” Diamond said.

Diamond is fascinated with abandoned cities, ruins and societies and tries to unwrap how some societies outlasted others.

As an example, he offered the downfall of an ancient Polynesian society on Easter Island. The island was once full of a variety of tree species, and the native Polynesians cut down the last tree in 1680, Diamond said.

Once the trees were gone, the Easter Islanders were used to build canoes, which allowed them to go out into the ocean and hunt for food.

“Easter Island society collapsed into an epidemic of cannibalism and civil war,” Diamond said. “Old tradition said that if you wanted to make another islander absolutely furious, the worst insult that you could shout at someone was, ‘The skin of your mother is between my teeth.’ That was the collapse of Easter Island society.”

Diamond’s answer to why societies made poor environmental decisions are because they were unable to anticipate or recognize a problem before it occurred. Sometimes, nothing was done because of a conflict of interest within the culture.

Diamond said Americans should watch their consumer habits and reduce their ideas of consumerism.

“Today we are struggling with the same problems, such as water, soil, wood, fish and climate, as well as new problems such as energy and toxic chemicals,” he said. “What we learn from past societies can help us.”

Diamond said cultural values play a role in the decisions that societies make. His example of this was a Norwegian society in Greenland that crumbled after living comfortably for 450 years. They were unwilling to work together with a neighboring culture due to different religious beliefs, Diamond said.

“I found Diamond’s talk to be really interesting,” USF junior Cassandra Carlson said. “I am an environmental science major, but I loved the anthropology side of Diamond’s lecture.”