ISIS Commentary 29/07/09

Why Civilisations Collapse

A Lesson for Climate Change

Modern society is technologically far superior to any that has gone before, we have all the means to head off the worst effects of climate change and adapt to those we cannot avoid. History tells us however that the most common reason societies collapse is not inadequate science or technology but failure to take the difficult decisions necessary for survival Prof. Peter Saunders

Surviving environmental disasters

As the world faces the challenge of climate change, it is instructive to recall that this is by no means the first time humans have had to cope with similar problems. Many societies have found themselves in serious trouble because of an unwelcome change in their environment. It may have been something over which they had no control, like the onset of the Little Ice Age in the 15th century, or they may have brought it upon themselves, all too often by clearing forests, or perhaps a combination of the two. Some societies survived, others did not.  

Long before the Spanish arrived, the Mayans of Central America had already abandoned their magnificent cities because of drought. Deforestation destroyed the Easter Island society that erected the famous statues, though a very much reduced population continued to live on the island. Others, like the Norwegian settlers in Greenland, and the original inhabitants of Pitcairn Island, died out completely.

On the other hand, the Inuit who arrived in Greenland while the Norse settlements were flourishing are still there. The 18th century Tokugawa Japanese reversed the deforestation that had threatened their way of life. The inhabitants of Tikopia, a tiny island in the Pacific, have adopted a whole series of measures that allow them to survive in a difficult environment; one of the most striking 400 years ago was to kill all their pigs - high status animals in Melanesia and at one time a major source of protein on Tikopia - because they were too inefficient for feeding humans.

Societies collapse through failing to take decisive action

In his fascinating book Collapse [1] Jared Diamond describes and analyses these and other examples and looks for common features that would help explain why some civilisations survived environmental challenges and others did not.

There are many reasons why societies have failed to cope. They may not have anticipated the problem, and so neither tried to head it off, nor made sure they were ready when it came. The Mayans might have been better able to deal with the great drought of the 9th century if they had known such things could happen in their part of the world. Unfortunately, the last great drought was in the 3rd century, and had been forgotten. The Mayans did keep careful records, but only of things they considered important such as the exploits of their kings, not trivia like climate data.

A society may not even be aware of a serious problem when it is actually upon them, especially if the effect is slow. An increase in mean temperature of a degree or two per century can easily be masked by annual fluctuations or dismissed as part of some cycle.

It may also be that the problem is just too difficult. If you live an already marginal existence on an isolated island in the South Pacific and the rainfall decreases even further, there is not much you can do.

Diamond found that in the many societies he studied, the most common reason for their collapse was none of the above, but the failure to take decisive action that could have saved them. Surprisingly, even when it had become obvious that there was a serious problem, little or nothing was done to address it.

Why do societies fail to save themselves?

Why would a society that knows it is in danger not do all it can to survive? There are a number of possible reasons, most of which arise from the fact that a society is not an individual but a collection of human beings. There can be significant conflicts of interests, and these often lead to decisions that suit one faction but are not in the best interests of the society as a whole.

The most obvious source of conflict is that the interests of the ruler or the elite are not always the same as those of the rest. It is easy to think of examples, from the chiefs who devoted so much of Easter Island’s resources to building the famous statues (squandering large amounts on prestige projects is a common failing of rulers) to the owners of the companies that are clearing the rain forests and the politicians who are allowing that to happen. Even a group that does not have much intrinsic power may be given what it wants because it is more determined to get it than the majority are to refuse it. That is essentially why we continue to subsidise fishermen when the seas are already overfished.

There is also the “tragedy of the commons”: a fisherman lands more fish than he knows he ought to because he fears that if he holds back in the hope of preserving stocks, others will take them instead. [2].

Societies also have deeply held values and find it very difficult to take any action that conflicts with them. The obvious example is religious taboos, but values do not have to be expressed in terms of a religion. The Greenland Norse, for example, reduced their chances of survival by keeping as close as they could to Norwegian customs and farming practices [3], and refusing to learn from the Inuit.

Will we survive climate change?

If collapses were usually due to one of the first three reasons that Diamond identifies - failure to anticipate the problem, failure to be aware of it when it materialises, and lack of the technology to cope - we could be quite confident about our prospects. It is more than a century since Arrhenius showed that if we burned too much fossil fuel the Earth would get warmer, so this isn’t coming as a complete surprise. Meteorologists and climatologists have been measuring the upward trend in the mean temperature and comparing it with the greenhouse gas concentration, so we know the scale of the problem. We already have the technologies to limit climate change and mitigate its effects (see  Which Energy? [4] and Food Futures Now: *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free  [5]), and more are being developed (see SiS 31-43).

The crucial question is whether we have the ability to take the right decisions; and it is not at all obvious that we are any better placed to do that than earlier societies.

The problem that faces us is planet-wide, and to solve it we need cooperation at an unprecedented global level. Any agreement to limit climate change will have to take into account the quite different interests of the developed countries and developing countries. The tragedy of the commons operates in the same way whether we are talking about individual fishermen or national fishing fleets. Worse, it can act at both levels simultaneously.  

There are two serious obstacles in trying to resolve such conflicts. First, any society has some form of government, from an autocratic ruler to an informal congress of the entire community, or something in between. The form of government obviously affects the decision-making. Diamond argues that those near one end of the spectrum of government or the other are more able to cope with environmental challenges than those in the middle. As there is no world government of any kind, formal or informal, we find ourselves having to make difficult choices with no framework for reaching decisions and no means of enforcing the decisions that are taken.

Second, attempts to overcome conflicts of interests among states have to take account at the same time of those within states. Because the consequences of any agreement will impact differently on different groups, a country may be unable to make a concession to which an influential minority is strongly opposed. Most of the 44 Democrats in the US House of Representatives who almost defeated the recent climate change bill were from states that either produce coal or are heavily dependent on it [6]. It is too soon to know how much the struggle to get the bill through Congress will affect the US negotiating position, but it shows there can be a multiplier effect.  A small but determined group within one society can have a significant effect on the whole world, even though on that scale they are very small indeed.

Thus what Diamond identified as the greatest obstacle to success has become double layered and even more difficult to overcome. We must not give in to pessimism, but neither should we underestimate the size of the challenge that faces us.

How we can save ourselves

It is easy to delude ourselves into thinking either that climate change will not happen or that if it does, those of us who live in the developed world will be immune from its consequences.

Climate change is happening, and the consequences will be global; if we don’t do something soon they will be much worse. And if we do not act quickly and effectively, our society may well collapse. The human species will probably not go extinct, but we may suffer the same fate as the Mayans: reduced to a much smaller, marginal agrarian population. If you find that an ultimately attractive prospect, think of the social unrest, wars, famines and other disasters that would happen along the way.

We have all the science and technology we need to avert the catastrophe. What is more, as the Stern Report [7] has shown  (The Economics of Climate Change, SiS 33 [8]), we can do it at a price we can easily afford. The question is whether we have the will, and an early test of this will be whether we can preserve the world’s remaining forests.

Deforestation has been a key factor in many collapses because trees serve many vital purposes, such as holding the soil in place on slopes, providing timber for housing and boats, sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and above all helping to stabilise the climate. Unfortunately they grow very slowly. Once a forest has been cleared it takes a long time to replace, if it can be replaced at all. Our society, like so many before us, is squandering this resource. We seem unable to stop the destruction of the Amazonian and Indonesian rain forests even though the Stern Report has shown that this would be by far the most cost effective contribution we can make towards mitigating climate change. The second most effective is reforesting areas already cleared (see also Saving and Restoring Forests Saves Far More Carbon Emissions than Biofuels, SiS 37 [9]). It needs international cooperation because the forests that have to be preserved lie largely in developing countries, those in the developed world having been cleared long ago (Old Growth Forests Are Carbon Sinks and Must Be Protected, SiS 40 [10]).

If we cannot find a way of working together even on this, it is hard to see how we can cooperate on the more difficult problems like reducing the use of fossil fuels while allowing developing countries to raise their standards of living.

The danger is not that we won’t do anything about climate change, especially now that the USA and China are on board. It is that what we do will be too little and too late. The effects are cumulative, and the longer we delay, the harder our task will be. It is already too late to begin with symbolic acts and good intentions. We need to make real changes, and we need to start making them now.


1. Diamond J. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Viking Penguin, New York, 2005.

2. Hardin G.  The tragedy of the commons. Science, 162, 1243-1248, 1968.

3. Twentieth century examples of a society refusing to learn how to live in a different environment are provided by Noel Coward in his song Mad Dogs and Englishmen, e.g., “In the Malay States there are hats like plates, which the Britishers won’t wear.”

4. Ho MW, Bunyard P, Saunders PT, Bravo E and Gala R. Which Energy? Institute of Science in Society, London, 2006,

5. Ho MW, Burcher S, Lim LC et al. Food Futures Now: *Organic, *Sustainable, *Fossil Fuel Free. Institute of Science in Society, London, 2008, ISBN 0-954-44923-4-X,

6. “House passes bill to address threat of climate change”, Jim Broder, New York Times, 26 June, 2009.

7. Stern N. The Economics of Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007, ISBN 0-521-70080-9.

8. Saunders PT The economics of climate change. Science in Society 33, 20-23, 2007.

9. Ho MW. Saving and restoring forests saves far more carbon emissions that biofuels. Science in Society 37, 17, 2008.

10. Ho MW. Old growth forests are carbon sinks and must be protected. Science in Society 40, 29-30, 2008.

ISIS Press Release 05/08/09

Harnessing the Wind with Scrap

A boy who had to leave school at 14 shows the world how to harness wind energy by using dumped objects
Sam Burcher

A fully referenced and illustrated version of this article is posted on ISIS members’ website. Details here

An electronic version of the full report can be downloaded from the ISIS online store. Download Now

Electricity from recycled materials

William Kamkwamba was only 14 years old when he built a windmill to provide his family home in a remote village in Malawi with enough electricity to read by and to listen to the radio [1]. William first started thinking about energy when he had to drop out of school early because his parents could no longer afford the school fees after their maize harvest failed in 2001. He got his idea from a school library book called “Using Energy” and modified a design for a windmill with materials that were to hand such as an old bicycle, broken PVC pipes, a pair of worn out shoes, copper wire and a tractor fan.

William and his wind turbine from scrap

William's motivation for his invention was the health of his sisters. At night their home would be lit with paraffin candles that emit toxic fumes similar to those of burning diesel, which was making his sisters ill from the smoke. At first his neighbours mocked him saying that he was going mad, but William persevered with the design because the book told him that it worked.

In Malawi only 2 percent of the population enjoy household electricity, so Williams' neighbours, who had no electricity at all, soon changed their minds when they heard the sound of Malawian music coming from his house. They were even happier when they realised that William's windmill could re-charge their mobile phones too.

His first attempt at a windmill gave his family enough energy to light one room so William decided to adapt the design further by adding a fourth rotor blade to create more power. He asked a local tinsmith to cut more efficient steel blades from a recycled oil drum and added a second windmill below the original blades that had been fashioned from heated, flattened and shaped PVC pipes . He also replaced the bicycle chain that doubled as a pulley rotor with an old car fan belt that worked much better.

Adapting to local conditions

The new design speeded up the dynamo (electric generator), the sort that powers bicycle headlights, from generating 12 volts of electricity to 20 volts of electricity. This was enough to provide energy to the battery for lighting his whole house, plus two radios, two mobile phone chargers and a car battery for backup power. The windmill is atop a 12 metre tall tower made out of blue gum tree poles that can catch the wind high above the windy village of around sixty families. William has also experimented with a radio transmitter that can serve his local community. He plans to broadcast important HIV prevention messages as well as popular music to a 20 square mile radius [2].

William's project encountered several problems along the way. He had to improvise necessary electrical components such as light switches from the rubber off old shoes and some springs. He also needed a generator, which a friend gave him. With the help of other farmers, he found discarded scrap materials on the tobacco plantations in his locality.

Since building his windmill William has been made a Fellow of TEDGlobal, a not for profit conference that brings together exceptional people from around the world who specialise in Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED). In his conference speech in Tanzania in 2007, William said, “When I dropped out of school, I went to the library and read and gathered information about how to make a windmill. And I tried, and I made it.” [3].

William was flown over New York in a helicopter; visited wind farms in the USA, exhibited at the Museum of Science and Technology in Chicago; wrote a book about his windmill [4]; was the subject of an award-winning short documentary film [5]; and set up a blog about how he harnessed the wind to produce a reliable source of electricity for his community [6].

Supporters in his native country are impressed with the actions of a boy who did not blame his parents, the power companies, the government, or policy makers for his lack of education. William simply got on with the task in hand. His efforts have resulted in his addressing the World Economic Forum Africa in 2008, where he dined with the President of Malawi. At the 2009 TEDGlobal conference in Oxford , the young inventor, now 21 years old, gave a lecture about his experiences so far.

Back to school

William's story has attracted interest around the world and through TED he has been given financial help to improve his project by incorporating solar energy. This expanded system has allowed him to add a deep-water well that pumps water to irrigate crops in his native Mastala village in Kusungu district. His next project is to re-design a new classroom for his local school, which has no lighting or water.

Through the interest garnered by a Malawi's Daily Times article entitled, "School Drop-Out with a Streak of Genius " and the University of Cape Town as well as TED, William was sponsored to return to secondary school after five years' break and has completed his studies as an electrical engineer at the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg. His next step is to start a windmill company and to teach.

The Envirocycle Scrap Wind Turbine follow-up

This success story may also have acted as catalyst for a more recent project at Portsmouth University [7]. Max Robson, a 22 year old graduate has created a wind turbine from recycled materials found at the roadside and in front gardens. The “Envirocycle Scrap Wind Turbine” prototype converts kinetic energy from the wind into 73 watts of electricity which trickles down and can then be stored in a battery. When fully charged the battery provides energy for 63 hours of lighting and 30 hours of radio [8]. Max's next windmill aims at producing ten times that amount of energy.

The Envirocycle project was privately funded so that scrap turbines can be used to help people in the poorest parts of the world. Meanwhile, Portsmouth University is supporting Max's research through a postgraduate Masters Degree to develop the project using the University's resources. So far two primary schools in the UK have invested in the educational pack that Max has produced so that schools can build their own turbines and learn about renewable energy. One school is running a laptop off their turbine and the ultimate aim of the research is to link with the schools in the developing world that are also producing energy from wind turbines.

Max' Envirocycle Scrap Wind Turbine

Max Robson's prototype windmill cost 20 to produce from reclaimed scrap and is 1.8 metres wide, so it is low cost and low impact on the surrounding environment. The finished product, which has been painted with hard wearing white paint (pictured) costs around 60, which is remarkable because, as Max points out, the nearest alternative wind turbine on the market costs 2 000. The Envirocycle can be constructed using hand tools in a matter of days.

An example of small-scale wind turbines called “Micro Wind Turbines” that have been used for decades on boats have been adapted for household use and are springing up on UK urban rooftops. These mini turbines supplement national grid electricity and cost around 1 000 after grants, or 1 500 fully installed from a high street DIY store, which can save the homeowner around 30 percent on electricity bills per year. Another, even cheaper micro-wind turbine can be used to charge batteries with electricity. These cost around 800, but also require the cost of a power inverter to convert 12 or 24 DC volts (V) into 240 AC V as well as a bank of suitable batteries [9]. This is the wind turbine that the Conservative leader David Cameron has on his roof.

Max and William have demonstrated that ingenious, alternative and affordable local solutions to small-scale electricity needs can by made by using relatively easily found scrap for a global renewable future.