Centuries from now, a team of researchers may sift through dust-caked remains of the ancient Valley of the Sun civilization, searching for evidence that might explain more fully the reasons for its abrupt demise.
A prolonged period of extreme drought could drive many residents out of the area. The local economy would collapse, and those who remained — especially the ones with little income — would not find adequate food and water to sustain them.
A deeper investigation by the researchers might reveal it was the decades of rampant growth and reckless consumption leading up to the drought, in which demand for water outstripped the society’s ability to conserve or replenish it, that sealed the area’s fate.
If that vision of the future seems implausible, scientist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond wants you to know it would not be the first time a society has similarly committed “unintentional ecological suicide.”
There is evidence that the Anasazi, Mayans, Nordic Greenlanders and several other once-thriving cultures ignored warning signs or made poor choices that contributed in part to their own ruin.
“Environmental problems did in many societies from the past,” Diamond said. “You can bet they could do us in as well.”
Diamond delivered that message to a group of Valley business leaders Friday at a Valley Forward luncheon at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix and encouraged them to get more involved in efforts to preserve the area’s long-term health.
To illustrate his point, he discussed examples of past successes and failures contained in his recent book, titled “Collapse,” which uses history to make a point about the present.
“What we really care about is success today and in the future,” he said.
Diamond is known as a pioneer historian for the way he cross-references scientific evidence from a range of disciplines to develop a broader picture of how past civilizations rose and fell.
Arizona faces several potential threats, he said, including water shortages, air pollution, toxic chemicals from mining and global climate change.
“There are winners and losers in global warming, and Arizona ... is definitely one of the losers,” he said.
But Arizona isn’t the only place where leaders and residents can learn from the past to work toward a better future, and changes in the environment are not the only threat.
The United States — and the world — face other challenges that can be overcome if governments and individuals make the right choices, Diamond said.
The strength of international relationships, ability to adapt cultural values to changing circumstances and the willingness of the sociopolitical elite to address problems of the less wealthy and powerful are all factors shown to affect a society’s long-term prosperity, he said.
Diamond said it worries him that in his home city of Los Angeles, members of the upper class are isolating themselves in greater numbers behind the walls of gated communities with their own private security guards, drinking bottled water, sending their children to private schools and enjoying private pensions and health care benefits.
If they don’t continue to address problems facing the public at large, he said, the security found in isolation is likely to be short-lived.
“It can’t go on indefinitely if conditions get too bad outside the gated community,” he said.