Learning from Past Societies

The sustainability lessons are there, if only we can find them

Learning from Past Societies - Cover pageLearning from Past Societies PDF - In 2005 Jared Diamond, author of the runaway best seller Guns, Germs, and Steel, did it again. His new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed set the new standard for serious studies of how we can learn from past societies to save our own.

In 2006 a similar book appeared: Treading Lightly: The Hidden Wisdom of the World's Oldest People. This is a provocative study of the the Australian Aborigines, who discovered how to live sustainably for an astonishing 40,000 years.

This 20 page paper takes a hard look at these two books by zeroing in on their premises. Here is the first paragraph of the abstract:

Recent books like Treading Lightly and Collapse have made serious efforts to learn sustainability lessons from past societies, notably the Australian Aborigines and Easter Island Polynesians. The premise is that there is much to learn from the few successes of past societies that were sustainable, and from the many failures of those that were not.

Up to this point, this sounds like your normal book review. But the abstract continues, and takes a fork in the road:

This paper argues that the premise is sound, but the approach used in executing the premise in these works is not. The approach lacks the full analytical rigor necessary to extract valuable cause and effect insights that are highly applicable to today’s sustainability problem. This paper explores this proposition by assessing the process maturity used in the two books. It concludes that while both books have taken valuable first steps, the chief value of works like these lies in the accumulation of data that can be used in future analyses, ones that are more analytical than intuitive.

What? The best book in the world on the subject, Collapse, has failed "to extract valuable cause and effect insights that are highly applicable to today’s sustainability problem?" Is this true? And if so, why?

The answer may both surprise and enlighten.