Festival of Ideas: Learning from past civilizations to preserve the future
That query, and how the lessons learned can be applied to the situation many parts of the western world find themselves in now, are the basic theses of celebrity scientist Jared Diamond’s Festival of Ideas’ Inaugural Capital Power Corporation Lecture to be held Nov. 17 at the Winspear Centre, entitled “Why societies fail or flourish.”
A professor of geography at UCLA and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies and Collapse, Diamond routinely draws thousands of rapt listeners who walk away with a deeper and more nuanced view of the development of human civilization and the continued gulf between rich and poor in the global community.
“His lecture will challenge us to learn from the history of past civilizations, to understand why they failed or flourished, and how they reconciled humanity’s quest for happiness with the limits of their ecology,” said Martin Kennedy, Capital Power Corporation’s vice-president, external and investor relations. Capital Power Corporation is the founding sponsor of the Festival of Ideas.
While on the lecture circuit, Diamond explores different lost civilizations like the Maya and the Norse of Greenland and attempts to draw a direct line from the calamities that sent ancient societies into myth to the pressing issues the entire world is dealing with today
For his talks, Diamond has formulated a five-point framework for possible contributing factors to a society’s collapse—environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbours, friendly trade partners and the society’s responses to its problems—within which, he says, each has a common denominator.
“The common thread [of failed societies] is the rapidity of collapse after reaching peak in power,” said Diamond. “How could societies not see their impacts on the environment and stop in time? [For example,] in the next century, we will be asking why the people of today did not see the obvious things that they were doing and take corrective action. It seems incredible what was done in the past; in the future it will seem incredible what we are doing today.”
Diamond speaks of a civilization’s “ticking time bombs,” such as climate change and fresh-water shortages, which he says, once identified, generally resolve themselves for the worse in just a few decades. Unfortunately, Diamond says, “the blueprint for trouble, making collapse likely, is when there is a conflict-of-interest between the short-term interests of the decision-making elite and the long-term interests of society as a whole.
“It’s hard for a society to make good decisions where there is conflict between commonly-held beliefs that are good in many circumstances but bad in other circumstances. It is particularly hard to change course when the things that get you into trouble are also the source of your strength.”
A riveting lecturer, Diamond says that all the bleakness of his talk doesn’t mean he is pessimistic about the future, choosing, rather, to hold out hope for the world.
“The biggest problems of the world are not above our control. Since we made the problems, we can solve them. It is completely in our power to solve the problems.”