"The biological extinction of a society is rare," said Redman, describing social extinction as more of a cultural rollover - certain social orders become antiquated and irrelevant and tend to be replaced.
"At some point, the old ways just die out. In some cases," he said, "the language still exists, but the society may not."
Redman questioned the importance of the collapse of societies in reference to the central theme of the AAAS meeting, sustainable science. The loss of a species is unequivocally deemed morally important, but is the loss of society? What causes societies to fail? Is there such a thing as a truly sustainable society?
Redman answered himself simply. "The only thing that is certain is that change is ubiquitous."
He detailed briefly and necessarily the Easter Island paradigm of cultural collapse and the succession of regimes in Mesopotamia as examples, following with a concise definition of societal "resilience," the ability of a society, biologically and culturally, to remain in a desirable state or to be able to change in a desirable way. Redman never exactly defined "desirability," but I think we can assume that state generally involves nonviolent shifts in society.
Redman sees two major threats to a society: environmental changes and the capacity for response in problem solving, either through greater mobility, technology or sweeping social transformations. He pointed out that the simplest and often the most effective response, greater mobility, is no longer feasible. People are generally stuffed into particular nations where travel between is at best, a bureaucratic paper race and at worst, absolutely forbidden. This problem is especially puzzling in this time of globalization, where goods are brought to people across the world. Redman would like to see more people brought to the goods, evening things out a bit more.
I think one of Redman's more poignant statements was "sustainability is not always good" when you're speaking from a societal perspective. The longest lived, strongest governments in human history were not democracies, but totalitarian monarchies and theocracies. Redman questioned the power of democracy to create a lasting, sustainable, resilient society. No answer was implied in the statement; he just wondered if there was potential.
He questioned the value of information to a society, wondering if the availability of information was as much a detriment as a boon, offering too many options, leading to indecision and confusion faced with so many choices. Unlike biological diversity, which is essential in prolonged stabilization in evolved living systems, cultural diversity may lead to gridlock on senate floors, each group holding firm to subcultural principles.
So I'd like to throw a couple of questions that Redman asked out to the blogosphere. Please, spread them around if you would, on your blog, through e-mail, asking friends:
- When a society is on the verge of extinction, are we morally obligated to save it?
- Do you agree with Redman about diversity and information in today's society?
- Is a sustainable, "resilient" society possible? Does in involve greater globalization, as Redman suggests?