Jared Diamond has a new book out called Collapse about the history of failed civilizations. Although I have not read it yet, a few bloggers have reached a mini-consensus in saying that the parallels that history portends for the future should not be given as much weight as Diamond suggests. In particular, man's evolving culture and technology has a bigger impact than any environmental effects that Diamond espouses.
When listening to these kind of arguments I immediately think to how antiquated gun control laws would evolve if framers knew about laser weapons. And then there was the question of "What if Eleanor Roosevelt Could Fly?". This SNL skit featured experts soberly considering what an asset the first lady could have been to the Allied forces in World War II had she been able to hover over enemy territory.
In any event, I tend to agree that history won't repeat in any way similar to what happened on Easter Island and elsewhere.
But one thing that the critics probably can't dispute is the effects of resource depletion. For the fact that Diamond makes this a strong theme probably makes it worth recommending.
Update: A couple more links Majikthise and Jared Diamond in NY Times:
Such questions seem especially appropriate this year. History warns us that when once-powerful societies collapse, they tend to do so quickly and unexpectedly. That shouldn't come as much of a surprise: peak power usually means peak population, peak needs, and hence peak vulnerability. What can be learned from history that could help us avoid joining the ranks of those who declined swiftly? We must expect the answers to be complex, because historical reality is complex: while some societies did indeed collapse spectacularly, others have managed to thrive for thousands of years without major reversaland then Diamond sums up his opinion piece:
I also draw hope from a unique advantage that we enjoy. Unlike any previous society in history, our global society today is the first with the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of societies remote from us in space and in time. When the Maya and Mangarevans were cutting down their trees, there were no historians or archaeologists, no newspapers or television, to warn them of the consequences of their actions. We, on the other hand, have a detailed chronicle of human successes and failures at our disposal. Will we choose to use it?
Update #2: Commenter Santos points out an editor who likely has not heard of Diamond here. Howler line: " The Saudis, to whom oil reserves are everything, are basing their forecasts on solid science, not on wishful thinking. "
Enlightenment: No. Easter Island: Yes. Bwhahahaha.