[SPECIAL INTERVIEWS WITH SCHOLARS ― (1) Jared Diamond on ecology]Finland worthy of emulationThe following is the first in a series of interviews with scholars on major issues of the 21st century. The interviews were arranged by the JoongAng Ilbo in collaboration with the Global Academy for Neo-Renaissance of Kyung Hee University. The series, on the biological sciences, European integration, non-violence, ethics for the earth, the era of Northeast Asia and politics for the future, will run every Monday through Dec. 26. ― Ed.
Jared Diamond is a Renaissance man, recognized as a distinguished scholar in three different fields. He became a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences for his achievements in physiology. In his spare time, he studied the birds of New Guinea and became well known in both evolutionary biology and environmental biology. Now a professor of geography, he contributes regularly to the journals Nature, Discover and Natural History and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for “Guns, Germs and Steel.” He has also written several articles on the Korean alphabet.
My conversation with Professor Diamond begins with the story of Easter Island, a dramatic example of a fallen civilization, where once-dense tropical forests have degenerated into barren fields bereft of even a single tree, and where colossal stone statues are the sole reminders of the now extinct creators of the civilization. It’s a reminder of what could happen to the earth as a whole if humankind is not careful.
But Easter Island did not have to contend with nearby cultures, either hostile or friendly, so international issues were not a factor in its collapse.
“With the progress of transportation, the Internet, international trade and globalization,” Mr. Diamond said, “all of the countries in the world have formed a community engaged in infinite competition for limited resources. The earth can be compared to Easter Island afloat in the sea of the universe. The island’s history provides strong evidence of the worst-case scenario in which the civilization of the global village could disintegrate from within.”
Other fallen civilizations, such as the Maya, the Anasazi, and the Vikings, experienced serious ecological destruction. So is environmental destruction the ultimate factor behind the fall of a civilization?
“I cannot say that it is the most important or the only reason,” he responded. “But it is a clear fact that all fallen civilizations destroyed the environment without an exception. It is a common factor present in all of them ― no doubt about it.”
During the conversation, I could not help but picture the excavator claws that are destroying the fields and mountains of Korea under the ideology of balanced national development. I asked if there were a case in human history where a civilization prospered while protecting the environment. Mr. Diamond said he viewed Tokugawa Japan as the most successful case.
“The powerful shoguns understood that conserving the forests was absolutely favorable not only to the people but also to their own political life, and they put conservation into action,” he said. “The social or political capacity to confront the causes of collapse such as environmental destruction is of enormous importance. The possibility of societal collapse from politicians’ ignorance and misjudgment always exists in human society.”
A new book by Mr. Diamond, “Collapse,” is subtitled, “How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” Sometimes, I said, it seemed to me that Korea faces either a destruction of its environment in an attempt to keep up with an economically resurgent Japan and a rapidly growing China, or losing its competitiveness entirely. What can Korea do?
Without hesitation, he replied that Korea should “benchmark Finland.”
“Finland has followed a development model appropriate to its own circumstances while maintaining its national identity in its relations with the power of Russia. Its history is not very different from that of Korea vis-a-vis China. Finland promotes sustainable development without violating the environment and demonstrates excellent diplomatic abilities with neighboring big powers.”
He emphasized that there is no guarantee that Chinese society will succeed. It is true that China has overcome the terrible tragedies of the Cultural Revolution and has recently been revitalized, he said, but he added that China has also been “lurching too much.” When a lurching giant falls, it sends shock waves to its neighbors as well.
Finally, I asked Mr. Diamond about his next book. He was writing on why humans came to form nations, he replied. Publication is slated for 2010.
by Choe Jae-chun
* The interviewer is a professor of biological sciences at Seoul National University, has a Ph.D. from Harvard University and has written a number of books, including “The Evolution of Social Behavior in Insects and Arachnids,” “Ant Empire Unearthed” and “Every Living Creature is Beautiful.”