Monday, January 16, 2006

Falling Tides and Boats

JFK famously said "a rising tide lifts all boats". It's a favorite mantra of liberals--a way to finesse conflicts over distribution of wealth by encouraging economic progress. Benjamin Friedman has written "The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth" arguing that growth makes it easier for people to be virtuous, tolerant, and democratic. [Disclaimer--I've noted the favorable reviews but not read the book, yet.]

But how about the obverse? What happens when an organization loses income, a church loses members, a town loses population, a corporation loses profitability? Do they gracefully fade away into the mists of history, along with various Indian tribes? Or do they fight, fight against the dying of the light? Do they come together, joining forces against the common enemy? Or do they sputter out in recriminations, in animosity? See Jared Diamond's "Collapse", which I have read and recommend.


  1. I, too, have read Collapse and found it stimulating, but your questions call to mind another real gem of socio-ecological writing: Tim Flannery's outstanding book The Eternal Frontier; An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples (Grove Press: 2001).

    As part of a fascinating discussion of the massive changes that occurred on this continent with the extinction of the pleistocene megafauna, Flannery describes techniques used to investigate whether the demise of mastadon and mammoth species can be attributed to starvation after climate change or slaughter by paleolithic hunters. It is this section of the book that made me think about your question about "fading into history" or "fighting against the dying light." It seems the elephants fought.

    Flannery cites a remarkable study by Dr. Dan Fisher of the University of Michigan of the growth rings of fossil mammoth and mastadon tusks that suggests that North American elephant species were trying to reproduce with shorter intervals between pregnancies at the time of their extinction.

    "Fisher collected the tusks of animals that lived about 13,000 years ago and tried to determine whether their owners were chronically starved, or were healthy and breeding rapidly. If they were starved, as many climate-based hypotheses suggest they should be, their tusks should show a pattern of stunted growth with no of few signs of reproduction in the undernourished females - the pattern seen in modern elephants during a prolonged drought. if, on the other hand, the mammoths were being overhunted, they should show signs of rapid growth due to ample nutrition (for there would be fe mammoths and mastodons and lots of food), and the females should be having young frequently, just as modern elephants do in response to intense hunting...
    (T)he tale told by Fisher's tusks is unequivocal. They were, by and large, from well-nourished individuals and the females were -by elephant standards-breeding furiously, producing a new young every four years. Only considerable predation, and not deteriorating climate, could account for such a pattern (Flannery:201)"

    In fairness, your question was really about what happens to human social institutions when they become non-viable, but I thought the parallel with the natural world worth pondering.

  2. Interesting on two points. First I wonder how Fisher's work relates to evolution on islands. Apparently species often evolve to be smaller when they become stuck on islands (I think this has come up in regards to the new(?) species of homo sapiens discovered in Indonesia ("hobbits"). Second, it's likely that animals are "smarter" than human animals often are. Diamond observes that Easter Islander culture seems to have had an explosion of war before it collapsed. It seems to me that's often the case with organizations--there's internal fighting in response to the crisis. Animals just get cracking reproducing.

  3. The mammoth apparently hung on until as recently as 8,000 years ago on remote, Siberian islands, where it was both smaller than its kin on the Asiatic mainland and spared from excessive hunting for a longer period because of its isolation.

    Some researchers believe that mammoths were a keystone species, and cite their role in maintaining a formerly widespread natural habitat type called the mammoth steppe that once covered much of Alaska. Grazing mammoths kept down the woody vegetation and allowed herbs and forbes proliferate. With the demise of the mammoth, woody growth overwhelmed this habitat, and starvation for many pleistocene herbivores is thought to have been the result.