My recent explorations in Maya country made me look with renewed interest at Jarad Diamond’s new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking, 2005). Diamond is a Pulitzer prize-winning geographer at UCLA, a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and Japan’s Cosmos prize. He has spent his entire career wrestling with why once flourishing societies collapse.

Diamond studied four ancient societies across space and time that disappeared: the Viking settlement on the coast of Greenland, Native American Anasazi in the American Southwest, the Maya, and the Polynesians on Easter Island. All four, in spite of their diversity, made the same errors and experienced what Diamond calls “ecocide,” or intentional ecological suicide.

The Vikings who settled in arctic Greenland after 984 A.D. established a pastoral economy, raising sheep, goat and cattle. They also hunted caribou, seal and walrus, developing a flourishing trade with Norway. They disappeared 300 years later because of deforestation and soil erosion. Also, Viking prejudices about adopting any Inuit technologies like harpoons, dogsleds, or sealskin boats, doomed them.

The ancient Anasazi and Maya also disappeared because of increasing population, decreasing fertile land, and droughts. The seafaring Polynesians settled on Easter Island 1100 years ago. They cut down trees for canoes and firewood, and used the logs to help transport statues, some weighing as much as 80 tons. Eventually they chopped down all the forests and their society collapsed in an epidemic of cannibalism.

It doesn’t take a genius to see the obvious contemporary parallels. Diamond says, “Our society is presently on an unsustainable course.” Toxic waste, desertification, the polar ice caps melting, the proverbial floodwaters rising, and soon there won’t be enough species to fill the Ark. A culture of narcissism and materialism is leading to unparalleled greed, which is a shortsighted worldview, and one that presages a society’s failure.

I believe we can still change the course of our history, but we must have the will, and we must do it now. Can we, as a culture, make the political commitment to longer-term thinking rather than immediate gratification? Can we make the sacrifices it requires and give up some of the things we think we need, opting for fewer golf greens in the deserts, low-volume flush toilets, and less dependence on fossil fuels or genetically modified organisms?

Let us not let our greed exceed our need, or we will become another society that has reached its golden age.