Friday, April 22, 2005



Collapse: Pitcairn, Henderson - and New Zealand?

I'm reading Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive at the moment. In the outline chapter he identifies five broad factors which can determine a society's fate: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbours, friendly trade partners, and how that society responds to its challenges. An early chapter examines Easter Island, which due to its lack of outside influences and isolation from the rest of Polynesian culture is perhaps the textbook example of a society killing itself off by degrading its environment (they cut down all their trees, which both decreased agricultural production due to erosion and reduced soil fertility, and meant they had no canoes, meaning much reduced access to seafood). But a sadder story is told in the next chapter, on Pitcairn and Henderson. These societies were not self-sufficient, but sustained by trade from the larger island of Mangareva; when that trade disappeared, Mangareva having made the same mistake as Easter and cut down all the trees which provided it with ocean-going canoes, so did the inhabitants of Pitcairn and Henderson. Not immediately - there is evidence that human habitation continued for up to a century after trade ceased - but by the time these islands were "discovered" by Europeans (1606 and 1790 respectively) they were empty. Diamond thinks that this should be a warning to us; globalisation has led to increasing economic interdependence, which allows us to offset the cost of degraded environments and sustain a well-fed, high-tech society through imports. But what happens if a vital part of the global economic system falls over?

Diamond uses the specific example of oil, and its fairly easy to see what the consequences of a sudden and sustained disruption of oil supplies (due to a nuclear exchange in the Middle East, for example) would be. The price would skyrocket, and in much of the world, transport would grind to a halt - resulting in a disruption of industrial production, economic recession, and possibly famine. If the disruption was long-lasting, societies would adapt, but more expensive transport would change patterns of industrial production and habitation; as in the nineteenth century, before we began using oil, factories would need to be closer to suppliers, and people closer to food sources.

What about total disruption? You'd need to look very hard to find a modern society as isolated and dependent on external trade as Henderson or Pitcairn was, but we can always do a though experiment. What would happen if New Zealand was completely cut off from the rest of the world? I think we'd actually do pretty well - we'd have to drop down to a 1900's or maybe 1940's level of existence, but we wouldn't die. And I think most western societies are probably in the same boat. The loss of imported fuel and raw materials would lead to vastly reduced standards of living, and the transition would be painful, but it wouldn't necessarily result in that society disappearing.

And OTOH, a painful transition is bad enough...

Following on from Diamond's point, if globalisation exposes us to risk, how can we manage it? Autarchy - self-sufficiency on a national level - may seem a tempting answer, but this throws out the benefits of interdependence along with the risks. I think a better solution is to use globalisation itself. Just as countries can ameliorate famine by working with others, we may be able to ameliorate other distributional disruptions (and on a global scale, famine is a distributional problem, not one of there not being enough food). Of course, self-interest and history will interfere with this, just as they interfere with other efforts to resolve global problems collectively - but I think its a lot better than each society trying to solve its own problems alone.

8 comments:

New Zealand may have a small enougth population that it could be sustained without external contacts. I am not sure that more heavily populated societies could support the existing number of people without modern infrastructure. It has certainly been a long time since the British Isles tried to be self sufficent in food.

Posted by Gary J : 4/23/2005 10:17:00 AM

If, as in your example, oil prices suddenly skyrocketed for some reason, New Zealand would be in serious trouble. International trade would suddenly stop. No more imports, and no more exports. While we could probably feed our current population, most of that population lives in cities. The transition to a lower standard of living (like that of the 1940s) would not be smooth. The economy would collapse. How would all those city dwellers pay for their food? Who would distribute it?

There's also a strong likelihood that we would be swamped by refugees from Australia and the Pacific. Those who were well off before - especially the farmers and others with property capable of feeding themselves - would seek to protect what they have against starving, desperate people. (See the chapter in Diamond on the Classic Maya collapse>)

I think this is already beginning to happpen on a global scale. The large amounts of illegal immigrants seeking to move from the third world to the first are just the start of it.

Posted by David : 4/23/2005 12:20:00 PM

Gary: I think the UK would be in a lot of trouble.

David: There's no question we'd be in serious trouble economically - as a country, we make our living by agricultural exports, and that would disappear. We would suffer a major economic depression and (as the effects flowed through) mass unemployment. And the government would have to step in to ensure that people didn't starve.

In the longer term, NZ has plenty of food, and enough energy to run a fairly good transport network (we wouldn't have to go back to horses; just coal or electric trains and LPG-powered trucks). But we'd have problems over electricity-generation infrastructure, electronics, and particularly computers.

I haven't got up to the Maya yet (I have other things to read ATM as well), but I think distance provides some protection from refugees. It's not as if you can just walk here...

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 4/23/2005 01:11:00 PM

David,

What do you mean by 'oil prices skyrocketed'. A 50 times current oil prices, the cost of oil in (eg) transporting frozen lamb to England would still not make the lamb cost as much as 4 times what it does now. That would be very bad economically, but we're not talking 'starvation in Britain'. Nor is that necessarily going to make such trade impossible: we shipped frozen lamb to England on coal-powered steamships once.

Still... with oil our economic eggs are all in one basket, and the basket might have a hole in it.

Posted by Icehawk : 4/23/2005 09:37:00 PM

Idiot/Savant: The upshot of the Maya chapter is that the rich buy themselves the privilege of being the last to starve to death.

Icehawk: When we shipped frozen lamb to England on coal-powered steamships there was an entire infrastructure built around doing that. I don't think it'd be trivial to rebuild it.

Posted by David : 4/25/2005 12:46:00 AM

Every man and his dog would be busy building nuclear power stations, including us... unfortunately.

Posted by t selwyn : 4/25/2005 11:43:00 PM

The British Isles have been self-sufficient (on a net basis) in basic foods for the past 30 years.

It wasn't before WW2 - and was threatened with starvation as a result. British governments since then have instituted a system of agricultural subsidy, which was taken over by the EEC (now EU) after 1973.

Posted by Rich : 4/26/2005 12:48:00 PM

Turns out I'm wrong!

The UK is 73% self sufficient in food. However, should food exports suddenly become unavailable, the population could easily eat 27% less and would become much fitter and healthier as a result!

Posted by Rich : 4/26/2005 01:12:00 PM