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Why some societies collapse

Publication Date : 28-08-2014

 

I like to read odd books sometimes. In particular, I like to read books about the human condition, not so much the philosophies behind it but as much as can be learnt from reality as possible.

One of the authors I really enjoy reading is Jared Diamond, an American academic, best known for his books such as Guns, Germs and Steel, Collapse and his latest, The World Until Yesterday.

Diamond is known as a polymath, a person “whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas; such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems”.

Prof Diamond is an expert on physiology, biophysics, ornithology, environmentalism, history, ecology, geography, evolutionary ecology and anthropology. Today at age 76, he is Professor of Geography at the University of California Los Angeles.

Reading any of Diamond’s books really makes you understand the world in a different way because of his ability to weave together different threads of knowledge.

For instance, in his book Collapse, which discusses why some societies collapse while others are resilient, he points out that what we think of as political and social problems arise out of some very basic issues of survival.

In the case of Rwanda, famously depicted as a civil war between the Hutu and the Tutsi, at its most basic, it was about the tensions that arise when people are so squeezed together that the amount of land they have to grow food on is too small to be productive.

Similarly, in The World Until Yesterday, which compares traditional hunter-gatherer societies with state societies (ie the “developed” world), when people are asked why they go to war with each other, the answers are usually simple things like “revenge”, “women” or “pigs” or “cattle”.

But at heart it is about ensuring the survival of the society you live in, no matter what the size.

He backs up these assertions by the many anthropological, archaeological and historical studies that have been done about societies around the world and shows that we cannot really judge them all by the same values.

For instance, we may think that tribal societies in places such as Papua New Guinea or parts of Africa are “backward” but that is because we are judging them by our standards.

Indeed, there is much to admire in their attitudes towards children and in the way they resolve disputes.

On the other hand, there is much about “modern” society today which these tribal people would find appalling, especially in the way we sometimes treat our old people.

This is not to say that everything about these tribal hunter-gatherer communities is wonderful.

Until relatively recently, many of them lived in a constant state of warfare and things such as infanticide were very common, for the most practical reasons.

Most of us would not want to give up the benefits of living in a settled centralised state for such nomadic hand-to-mouth lifestyles.

But there are some things which we do which are not that far off from those “primitive” habits.

Diamond compares only Western lifestyles with the tribal communities he did field studies on. Which means that the contrasts can be big.

If he had studied Asian societies, however, he would have found us somewhere in the middle.

For instance, the Asian extended family and the way our children are cared for by many adults, not just their parents, is more akin to the way hunter-gatherer communities in Papua New Guinea or the Amazon live.

The way we coddle our children too is more similar to those communities than to that of Western parenting, which stresses independence.

Yet children from these hunter-gatherer communities are observed to become very confident adults who are well versed in many adult responsibilities such as foraging for food, caring for children and protecting their communities; while children brought up in the Western style often grow up very protected but unable to take on adult responsibilities when they come of age.

For instance, we disapprove of early marriage because our children are often unprepared to be parents even after being biologically ready.

But children in tribal communities, who have not only been observing their parents daily but also have had to help care for younger siblings, know exactly what to do should they have children even at very young ages.

What is confusing for us Malaysians is that we are very much a society in transition, not quite a socie?ty living hand-to-mouth but not quite yet a modern one, despite our buildings and gadgets.

Our attitudes towards many things hark back to a different type of society where everyone knew each other and relationships were set in certain ways. But things have changed very rapidly for us.

We should, therefore, take heed of Diamond’s main discovery in Col?lapse: if as a society we do not adapt fast enough to change, we will face collapse.


 

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