why do some societies make disastrous decisions

Why is it that some societies in the past have collapsed while others have not? I was discussing famous collapses such as those of the Anasazi in the U. S. Southwest, Classic Maya civilization in the Yucatan, Easter Island society in the Pacific, Angkor Wat in southeast Asia, Great Zimbabwe in Africa, Fertile Crescent societies, and Harappan Indus Valley societies. These are all societies that we've realized, from archaeological discoveries in the last 20 years, hammered away at their own environments and destroyed themselves in part by undermining the environmental resources on which they depended. For example, the Easter Islanders, Polynesian people, settled an island that was originally forested, and whose forests included the world's largest palm tree.

The Easter Islanders gradually chopped down that forest to use the wood for canoes, firewood, transporting statues, raising statues, and carving and also to protect against soil erosion. Eventually they chopped down all the forests to the point where all the tree species were extinct, which meant that they ran out of canoes, they could no longer erect statues, there were no longer trees to protect the topsoil against erosion, and their society collapsed in an epidemic of cannibalism that left 90 percent of the islanders dead. The question that most intrigued my UCLA students was one that hadn't registered on me: how on Earth could a society make such an obviously disastrous decision as to cut down all the trees on which they depended?

For example, my students wondered, what did the Easter Islanders say as they were cutting down the last palm tree? Were they saying, think of our jobs as loggers, not these trees? Were they saying, respect my private property rights? Surely the Easter Islanders, of all people, must have realized the consequences to them of destroying their own forest. It wasn't a subtle mistake. One wonders whether if there are still people left alive a hundred years from now people in the next century will be equally astonished about our blindness today as we are today about the blindness of the Easter Islanders. Jared Diamond's for the New York Times over the weekend reminded me of another, that appeared on the Edge website in March 2003.

In that essay, Diamond outlines four simple reasons why societies make disastrous decisions: failure to anticipate a problem. failure to perceive it once it has arisen. failure to attempt to solve it after it has been perceived. failure to succeed in attempts to solve it. He further dissects this list. prior experience has been forgotten. reasoning by false analogy. the origins of some problems are literally imperceptible. the problem may take the form of a slow trend concealed by wide up-and-down fluctuations. distant managers who are not on the scene never become aware of the problem. Reasons for failure to try to solve a problem that has been perceived are divided into "rational and "irrational" reasons, where "rational" and "irrational" are used in the economic sense. "Rational" reasons include: clashes of interest between people with different inherent interests. when the consumer has no long-term stake in preserving the resource. when the interests of the decision-making elite in power conflict with the interests of the rest of society. attachment to a bad status quo because it is [embodies] deeply held value that we admire. clashes between short-term motives and long-term motives. psychological denial. efforts are too little, begun too late All this may sound pessimistic, as if failure is the rule in human decision-making.

In fact, of course that is not the case, in the environmental area as in business, academia, and other groups.

Many human societies have anticipated, perceived, tried to solve, or succeeded in solving their environmental problems. For example, the Inca Empire, New Guinea Highlanders, 18th-century Japan, 19th-century Germany, and the paramount chiefdom of Tonga all recognized the risks that they faced from deforestation, and all adopted successful reforestation or forest management policies. Thus, my reason for discussing failures of human decision-making is not my desire to depress you. Instead, I hope that, by recognizing the sign posts of failed decision making, we may become more consciously aware of how others have failed, and of what we need to do in order to get it right. There are lessons for telecom policy here, I am certain.