Upon the recommendation of one of my blog readers, I recently read, actually listened to on my ipod, Jared Diamond's book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. This book provides a jolting history of many societies through the history of this planet and how their environmental values lead to their success or failure.
The most intriguing part of Collapse for me were the numerous examples of societies who over exploited their own natural resources, became dependent upon others, and then collapsed as the other society grew to consume their own output. Some, who had no others to depend upon, simply collapsed more quickly. In a number of examples, religious values appeared to have clouded the judgement, leading to an accelerated collapse.
Diamond, in his factual writing style, stopped short of making any direct conclusions about our current society, choosing instead to leave that to the reader. From my own perspective, the parallels to our current society were striking.
Diamond presented a question throughout the book, of what was the person thinking on Easter Island when they cut down the last tree. Of course, it wasn't about the last tree. By the time they were down to the last tree, it was way too late. The collapse occurred when the critical mass of trees hit a tipping point and proceeded toward decline. At this point in time, no one realized the tipping point. Much like our own environmental exploitation today, people feel all to comfortable continuing to pollute our environment, continuing to kill off species, continuing to segment eco-systems, ... None of us know where the collapse tipping point is, but there is reasonable evidence that it is not far off.
While you can draw your own conclusions, the book is a excellent primer on the failure of past societies and their failure to sustain their environment. Hopefully, we as a society can learn from their mistakes and prevent making more of our own.
I was previously familiar with Diamond as I had listened to his book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. I would highly recommend this book as well.