In the Jan. 3 issue of The New Yorker, writer Malcolm Gladwell reviews Pulitzer Prize-winner Jared Diamond’s new book, “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.”
Diamond’s premise, says Gladwell, “stands in sharp contrast to the conventional explanations for a society’s collapse.”
While conventional wisdom has it that “civilizations are destroyed by forces outside their control, by acts of God,” Gladwell writes, “the lesson of ‘Collapse’ is that societies, as often as not, aren’t murdered. They commit suicide: they slit their wrists and then, in the course of many decades, stand by passively and watch themselves bleed to death.”
As an example, Diamond writes of the Norse settlers of Greenland who clung steadfastly to their beef-laden diet, destroyed the ecosystem by raising cattle, then refused to hunt seal or eat fish because that’s what the Inuit, whom the Norse despised, liked to do.
“Right up until they starved to death,” Gladwell says, “the Norse never lost sight of what they stood for.”
We Hoosiers have a bit of Norse stubbornness in us. Listen closely and you’ll hear the words, “That’s not how we do things around here.”
Advocate daylight-saving time and you’ll hear how it’s bad for the cows.
Propose motorcycle helmets and you’ll hear “Don’t tell me what to do.”
Try to ban secondhand smoke in public places and you’ll hear, “Mind your own business.”
Push for a tax increase to fund collective needs and you’ll hear, “Read my lips
Search for a Hoosier venture capitalist, and you’ll find an oxymoron.
And while most of us haven’t clung so stubbornly to our beliefs that we’ve starved ourselves to death (at least not in the dietary sense), there’s plenty of famishment in these 92 counties-especially of the economic variety.
This week, we got a new sheriff in these parts-in the form of Gov. Mitch Daniels.
In his inaugural address, as in his campaign, Daniels made it clear the status quo must go.
“We offered ourselves as people of change,” Daniels said of his campaign. “We tried to hold up the prospect of an era in which we would leave behind old arguments for new solutions, provincialism for unified purpose, timidity and caution for boldness and even risk-taking.”
Placing the state’s economic challenge in the context of more dire historical crises, Daniels said, “When we note what our predecessors overcame in their day, we should be ashamed if we hesitate, sheepish if we pull up short.” Yet if past is prologue (and author Diamond says it is), stubbornness and parochialism, not sheepishness and hesitation, will be our highest hurdles. At a Meridian Song Project performance Saturday evening, soprano Evelyn de la Rosa rattled off the rapid-fire lyrics of a Stephen Sondheim show tune:
Everybody says don’t Everybody says can’t Everybody says wait around for miracles.
Then, as a counterpart, she offered:
Make just a ripple, come on be brave, This time a ripple; next time a wave, Sometimes you have to start small, Climbing the tiniest wall, Maybe you’re going to fall, But it is better than not starting at all.
In a similar vein, Daniels said at Monday’s inauguration: “I will urge that our purpose be bold; that if we err, we err on the side of action, of movement, of experiment. And that our aim be high. It’s been said that every great achievement was first a dream; cathedrals are not brought into being by skeptics.” The skeptics will have their say, of course, as will the cynics, naysayers and special interests. But if we habitually gun down all the action, movement, experimentation and risk-taking in our lives and in our government, we’ll only fulfill that clever definition of insanity: “Doing more of the same and expecting different results.” In a folder in my credenza, I keep an old advertisement from TRW. The ad shows nine pictures of a light bulb, each growing dimmer and dimmer. The captions say, in order: “I have an idea … ” “A word of caution … ” “A little too radical … ” “I like it myself, but …” “We tried something like that once … ” “Let me play devil’s advocate … ” “It’s just not us … ” “I wish it were that easy … ” In the last photograph, the light bulb is completely black. The caption says: “Oh, it was just an idea.” “An idea is a fragile thing,” the folks at TRW concluded in their advertisement, “Turning it off is much easier than keeping it lit.” But if we don’t want our society to collapse, we must light on ideas, experiment with alternatives and weigh collective survival over dogmatic devotion to outmoded methodologies. More important, if we want our society to improve, we must accept change and forego status quo. For as Kahlil Gibran said, “Progress lies not in enhancing what is, but in advancing toward what will be.”
Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to [email protected]