Top 10 checklist: How societies can avoid 'ecocide'
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He uses the term "ecocide" to describe humanity's penchant for ignoring signs that current behavior is unsustainable, environmentally speaking, and effectively committing suicide.
Accepting that the human sphere exists within the larger biosphere, you might further generalize Diamond's idea to: "cultures that ignore the limits of the biosphere in which they exist tend to fall apart."
But not every human society collapses. Some heed the warning signs, adjust their behavior, and keep on keeping on. Human cultures can evolve to fit within – rather than overstep – environmental limits. Mr. Diamond counts Java, Japan, and Tonga among his successful case studies; Easter Islanders, the Greenland Vikings, and the Anasazi of the Southwest failed, by his criteria.
So what made the difference? What do some cultures respond and change while others collapse? What are the attributes of long-term success?
In an essay appearing in the current issue of the journal Science, she tries to parse how and why some cultures achieve sustainability.
In her own words:
"[A]ccepted theory has assumed that resource users will never self-organize to maintain their resources and that governments must impose solutions. Research in multiple disciplines, however, has found that some government policies accelerate resource destruction, whereas some resource users have invested their time and energy to achieve sustainability."
Then she poses the trillion-dollar question: "When will the users of a resource invest time and energy to avert 'a tragedy of the commons'?" That is, the exhaustion of a resource shared by different individuals or groups.
In the language of cost-benefit analysis, change comes when the benefits of sustainability seem to outweigh the costs of achieving it. Averting environmental collapse often means taking a loss now – no fishing for a few years, for example, so that stocks can recover – in the interest of long-term sustainability. That means sacrifice now. What makes people more willing to make such a sacrifice?
In her essay, Ostrom offers a list of 10 variables that, she says, greatly influence whether a group organizes to become sustainable or not.
1) Size of resource system
2) Productivity of system
3) Predictability of system dynamics
4) Resource unit mobility
5) Collective-choice rules
6) Number of users
8) Norms/social capital
9) Knowledge of social-ecological systems/mental models
10) Importance of resource
"There are a number of questions you have to ask to diagnose illness," says Ostrom in a phone conversation. "What I'm trying to get people to recognize is that we need diagnostic theories that enable us to dig down and unpack the complexity."