John Porter 2005. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
August 14, 2005

Every Sunday morning we repeat these words. "We light this chalice to remind ourselves ... To take good care of the earth, because it is our home." That's what I will talk about this morning, taking good care of our home, the earth.

I will share some of my ideas with you about environmental matters. Much of this will be based on Jared Diamond's recent book: Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Diamond's book is quite amazing in its depth and scope. Some of you have read it and, if you have not, I heartily recommend it.

I was disconcerted while writing this by an online survey that I completed. Based on your answers to 14 questions, this survey calculates how many acres of the earth's land surface are required to support you, based on the type of food you eat, the size of your house, your transportation habits, the size of your city and so forth.

According to, the earth holds 4.5 biologically productive acres for each person. The average footprint for the United States is 24 acres per person. So if everyone on earth lived like we Americans do, it would require the resources of 5.3 earths. Or to look at it another way, each American uses his or her 4.5 acres and, in addition, the fair share of 4.3 other people.

The survey reveals that Jackie and I come in at 23 acres each, only slightly less than the US average of 24 acres. Unfortunately, if we cut our use of resources to the minimum by using locally-grown foods, walking everywhere, and so forth, our usage would still come in at 17 acres for each of us, still requiring 3.8 planets if we all lived like this.

I used the questionnaire to calculate the footprint for a native of India, assuming a very small dwelling, no electricity or running water, no automobile, and living in what we would consider extremely reduced circumstances. That Indian uses almost exactly the average of resources available on mother earth. I must admit to being shocked.

My little exercise at points out a disagreeable truth: we Americans not only live in an unsustainable economy, but acting as individuals we are unable to change it very much without a huge change in how we live: less driving, smaller homes, fewer processed foods, little meat and so forth. And many changes - such as more renewable energy, soil and forest conservation, less greenhouse gas - require collective action.

In Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond examines the dynamics between the environment and its human beings. His basic point is this: Societies create and succumb to environmental disasters, or avoid them, based in large part on decisions that those societies make, often unwittingly.

Diamond examines a number of these specific places, such as the Anasazi in the U.S. Southwest, Pitcairn and Easter Islands in the Pacific, Norse Greenland, many others. I will touch lightly on two of them: first, Norse Greenland, and second, the tiny island of Tikopia, one of the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific.

About 1000 AD, the Norse established six settlements around the rim of the North Atlantic. Four of these succeeded and still support populations today: Iceland, the Faeroes, the Shetlands, and the Orkneys. Two failed: Vinland almost immediately and Greenland after about 450 years. (450 years is a long time; 450 years ago in North America takes us back before the first permanent settlements in present-day Massachusetts. So the Norse succeeded in Greenland for a very long time indeed.)

The Norse, a violent people, governed by powerful chiefs, settled in two fiords in southwest Greenland during a relatively warm period similar to what exists today. Diamond describes the weather as "cold, variable, windy, and foggy." But keep in mind that the Norse all lived in high latitudes with short summer seasons. These Scandinavians, according to Diamond, "built a cathedral and churches, wrote in Latin and Old Norse, used iron tools and herded farm animals."

The Greenland economy was based on cattle, sheep and goats. The animals grazed in the short, 3-month summers and lived in barns in the long, long winters, eating hay harvested during the summer. The settlers used their animals mostly for dairy products and wool. They also hunted caribou, seals, walrus and polar bears and exported wool cloth and walrus ivory, which was highly prized in Europe. They imported iron tools, lumber, and items for their churches - bells, stained glass windows, bronze candlesticks, linen, silver, churchmen's robes and jewelry.

Diamond credits their eventual demise to depletion of their natural resources, the cooling climate, neglect by Norway which cut off their imports of key items, decreased demand for walrus ivory, the arrival of the Inuit, and the unwillingness of the Norse to make changes in their way of life.

There were many innovations that might have improved their conditions: importing more iron and fewer luxuries, allocating more boat time to obtaining iron and timber, and learning Inuit hunting techniques. But those innovation would have threatened the power and prestige of the chiefs.

Diamong says, "Thus, Norse society's hierarchical structure created a conflict between the short-term interests of those in power, and the long-term interests of the society as a whole. . . . The last right that [the chiefs] obtained for themselves was the privilege of being the last to starve."

The conflict between short-term interests of those in power and the long-term interests of the society as a whole is key.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Now let's journey to Tikopia on the opposite side of the globe. Tikopia, covering less than 2 square miles, is an extinct volcano which rises about 1000 feet above the sea, with surrounding lowlands. From space, it appears to float in the surrounding sea, not unlike the earth, floating in space. It has been continuously occupied by Polynesians for some 3000 years and at present supports about 1200 people.

Tikopia's remoteness - the nearest neighbor, Vanuta, is even smaller and 85 miles away - requires that it be self sufficient, although small quantities of rock for tools, and shells have been traditionally imported on dangerous sea voyages.

Tikopia is blessed for agricultural production with high rainfall, moderate latitude, and steady fallout of volcanic ash from distant islands and dust from Asia. Much of the island is planted with orchards of nuts and fruits, with the ground underneath tilled for yams, bananas and taro. Tikopians depend on shellfish and fish for protein, plus a few chickens.

Over the centuries, the Tikopians, aware of their limited resources, kept population growth near zero using contraception, abortion, killing newborns, celibacy and suicide. In the 20th century the British government and Christian missions prohibited most of these methods and the population soared to an unsustainable 1,753. The British then permitted resettlement into other, less-populated islands. Today Tikopians limit their population to 1,115, about its traditional size.

The Tikopians who first arrived about 900 BC practiced slash and burn agriculture and over-used fish and bird resources, driving a number of local species into extinction. Around 100 BC they gradually switched to an orchard economy and developed the use of pigs for their main protein. In about 1600 AD they made another enormous change. The pigs, which rooted up gardens, required about 10 pounds of vegetables to make 1 pound of pork, and had become a luxury and prestige item for the chiefs, were all killed. Tikopians returned to the practice of eating more seafood.

According to Diamond, the Tikopians practice a bottoms-up decision-making process. While each of the several clans live in a traditional part of the island, they are permitted to farm in other locations. Thus everyone understands that the well-being of the entire island depends on each person, and decisions are made accordingly.

Tikopia is not a utopia. It suffers from the violent cyclones that cross the central Pacific - what we call hurricanes or typhoons. But the Tikopians, by being willing to change their practices, have survived on their tiny island for nearly 30 centuries. To the Tikopians, it was obvious to all that they needed to take good care of their earth, because it was their home.

There are differences and similarities between the Greenlanders and the Tikopians. Greenland is cold with short growing seasons; Tikopia is tropical with fertile soil. Greenland suffered from a cooling trend; Tikopia from frequent tropical cyclones. Both were isolated and pretty much on their own.

Both started on one course and were forced to change. The Norse expected to raise cattle and sheep and were forced to limit cattle to just a few, for the chiefs, and to take up raising goats. The Tikopians began with slash and burn farming, plus pigs. After centuries they changed to rely on nut and fruit orchards plus yams and the like, retaining pigs for the chiefs, just as the Norse kept cattle for theirs. But eventually the Tikopians found the pigs too expensive and destructive and killed them all.

We can't blame success or failure on just the climate. After all, the Norse succeeded in Iceland, the Faeroes, the Orkneys, and the Shetlands. And the success of mid-Pacific islands is hardly guaranteed; witness the collapse of the societies on Easter, Pitcairn, and Henderson Islands.

So what made the difference? Why did one succeed and the other fail?

There seem to be two important differences. First, the Norse settlers retained their ties to Norway, however tenuous, and considered themselves Norse, and Europeans, even though in a far-flung spot. They built European churches, imported Norwegian bishops (when they could get them) and invested much of their trade goods in expensive material for their churches. They never adapted hunting techniques used by the Inuit. Oddly, they never took up fishing, even though local waters were filled with fish. The extremely conservative Greenland Norse remained displaced Europeans, instead of really settling into, and adapting to their new home.

In contrast, the Tikopians seem to have become one with their island home. When slash-and-burn threatened their well-being, they changed to an orchard economy. When pigs, as a status item, proved too destructive, they killed them. They learned to limit their population to what the island could carry. They learned techniques for storing food underground in order to survive tropical cyclones. The Tikopians seem to have succeeded for 30 centuries because it was obvious that what affected one, affected all, in the long run.

In contrast, the powerful chiefs of the Greenland Norse isolated themselves from the consequences of their actions and decisions. They continued to live in relative luxury while their economy collapsed and their peasants starved.

Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day, and who died this last July 3, wrote on Earth Day 2000, "Forging and maintaining a sustainable society is The Challenge for this and all generations to come. At this point in history, no nation has managed to evolve into a sustainable society. We are all pursuing a self-destructive course of fueling our economies by drawing down our natural capital - that is to say, by degrading and depleting our resource base.... We have finally come to understand that the real wealth of a nation is its air, water, soil, forests, rivers, lakes, oceans, scenic beauty, wildlife habitats, and biodiversity. Take this resource away, and all that is left is a wasteland."

We can all cite many examples of drawing down our natural capital. Over half of the earth's original forests have been converted to other uses, and more than half of her wetlands have suffered the same fate. The great majority of valuable fisheries have collapsed or are in steep decline. Farmland soils are being carried away by erosion at rates of 10 to 40 times the rate of soil formation. Readily accessible reserves of oil and natural gas will last only for a few more decades.

If we had the awareness of Tikopians we would understand that our farming and fishing practices, our use of petroleum and energy resources, and the pollution of the air with greenhouse gases is no more sustainable than slash and burn farming and raising destructive pigs was for the Tikopians.

For most of us there is no higher value than leaving a liveable world to our children, their children and theirs. In the face of what seems to be looming catastrophe, is there any hope?

Diamond says that he is cautiously optimistic and he cites several reasons.

First, the lessons of the past, as we've discussed, point out that we humans got ourselves into this mess and "that the future is lying in our own hands." For the most part the technology is there and it's just a matter of political will. That's a big "just" but we've solved some big problems and can solve others. We've established the Environmental Protection Agency, enforced a world-wide ban on DDT, and put in place controls on the chlorofluorocarbons that are destroying the Antarctic ozone layer. Over the last 30 years the U.S. has reduced levels of the 6 major air pollutants by 25%, while energy consumption has risen 40% and vehicle miles driven by 150%. These are major accomplishments.

Second, there is a diffusion of environmental thinking all around the world. Beginning with the publication of Rachael Carson's Silent Spring in 1962 there has been a steady increase in environmental organizations and in their effectiveness. The website,, lists more than twenty nine hundred of these, covering every aspect of the environment from Agriculture to Wildlife.

I'd like to make a suggestion. With your children, if you have any, develop a Tikopian awareness of the consequences of your actions. When you turn on a water tap think of where the water comes from and who else uses it. In the case of Newark, where we live, part of our water flows out of Yosemite down the Hetch Hetchy viaduct and eventually across the South Bay, then up the Peninsula to provide water for San Francisco. When you fill your gas tank, picture the oil coming out of a well in the Middle East, moving by tanker to a terminal, flowing through a refinery and then to your gas station. Remind yourself about who else uses that oil, including places like China and India.

And remember, most of the dozen major environmental problems that Diamond discusses - things like destruction of natural habitats, loss of wild foods, depletion of fossil fuels, and global warming - will become acute within the lifetime of young adults. The outcomes are not assured.

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