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Top 10 checklist: How societies can avoid 'ecocide'


(Read caption) A 'moai' (ancestral spirit figure) protectively watches over Rapa Nuians at a fishing harbor on Easter Island, Chile. Easter Island tribes failed to live sustainably on the once heavily forested island, which led to ecological disaster.

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In his book "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," Jared Diamond explores why some societies fall apart, and why others endure.

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?

That's the question that Elinor Ostrom, research director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University, Bloomington, has been asking for years.

In an essay appearing in the current issue of the journal Science, she tries to parse how and why some cultures achieve sustainability.


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