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UCLA Magazine Spring 2005
From Murphy Hall
Living La Vida 'Lorca'
Stress Fractures
What's at Stake
The Importance of Being Elma
House of Cards
The Quest
Through Women's Eyes
Dynamic Duo
Bruin Walk

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Spring 2005
House of Cards

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While we do face big risks, the most serious risks are not ones beyond our control, like a possible collision with an asteroid of a size that hits the Earth every hundred million years or so. Instead, they are ones that we are generating ourselves. Because we are the cause of our environmental problems, we are the ones in control of them, and we can choose or not choose to stop causing them and start solving them. The future is up for grabs, lying in our own hands. We don’t need new technologies to solve our problems; while new technologies can make some contribution, for the most part we “just” need the political will to apply solutions already available. Of course, that’s a big “just.” But many societies did find the necessary political will in the past. Example? Our modern societies have already found the will to solve some of our problems and to achieve partial solutions to others.

My other cause for hope is a consequence of the globalized modern world’s interconnectedness. Past societies lacked archaeologists and television. While the Easter Islanders were busy deforesting the highlands of their overpopulated island for agricultural plantations in the 1400s, they had no way of knowing that, thousands of miles to the east and west at the same time, Greenland Norse society and the Khmer empire were simultaneously in terminal decline, while the Anasazi had collapsed a few centuries earlier, Classic Maya society a few more centuries before that, and Mycenaean Greece 2,000 years before that. Today, though, we turn on our televisions or pick up our newspapers, and we learn about what happened in Somalia or Afghanistan a few hours earlier. Our television documentaries and books show us in graphic detail why the Easter Islanders, Classic Maya and other societies collapsed. Thus, we have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of distant, past peoples. That’s an opportunity that no previous society enjoyed to such a degree. I hope that enough people will choose to profit from that opportunity to make a difference.

Adapted from Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking, 2005).

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