Randall G. Shelden


While vacationing on Cape Cod recently I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jared Diamond.  His latest book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fall or Succeed, was the subject of his talk.  The subject of this lengthy book (550+ pages) would be hard to summarize in a short period of time, but he managed to do so.  A few of the points he raised has relevance to my study of crime and our response to it.

For Diamond, civilizations come to an end for a number of interrelated set of factors, five of which are most crucial.  These five factors are: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, decreased support by friendly neighbors, and society’s response to these problems.  It was the fifth set of factors that intrigued me the most, for within this category he mentioned the extent to which ruling elites have insulated themselves from the negative effects of the first four set of factors.  His thesis about this factor is this: in cases where elites have themselves been negatively affected by the above factors and chose not to insulate themselves but rather contributed greatly to problem solutions, societies have not faltered.  In cases where they insulated themselves and were not significantly affected, societies collapsed.

It was not surprising that Diamond would frequently refer to problems facing the United States today.  He made reference to the fact that growing numbers of elites (and some non-elites too) have insulated themselves by, for example, hiding behind high-security gated communities.  During the past quarter century, literally several million have moved into gated communities.  More specifically, according to a study by Seth Low (Behind the Gates, Routledge, 2003), the number of people living in such communities now number at least 16 million (as of 1998), up from 4 million in 1995.  Not surprisingly, most of these are among the most affluent.  While many such communities have merely a remote to enter the gates, the most affluent have a security guard posted 24 hours a day.  Some have extremely high walls and are patrolled by their own private security police. This is part of the fast-growing “crime control industry” I have written about.

The rise of such communities has been driven largely by an exaggerated fear of crime and a growing wealth and income gap, with significant racial overtones. Indeed, the racial gap is illustrated by the growing segregation of American society, where the most affluent whites have fled to the suburbs and most blacks have remained in (or have moved to) urban centers.   Many Americans with relatively modest incomes (compared to the super-rich) have chosen to live in these communities, but in most of these the gates often do not work and provide little, if any, real security.  If anyone wants to enter, all they have to do is park out front and wait for someone to either enter or leave.  I should know, for I live in one such community, although not for reasons of safety, for I would live here with or without the gate. 

            What does it mean when a good proportion of the population retreats behind closed doors, so to speak?  One interpretation is that they are either unaware of the causes of the surrounding problems they want to escape from or they just don’t care what the causes are and they simply want to be protected in some way.  Another possible interpretation is that they and their life styles (including greed) have helped create many of these problems and they have a vested interest in keeping things as they are.  After all, growing profits, growing inequality, corporate downsizing and even environmental damage (e.g., pollution, global warming) reap rewards for a small minority.  (The most recent figures show that 1% of the population has about 48% of all financial wealth and another 20% have about 96 %.)

            Returning to Diamond’s analysis, he devotes a chapter to the question of why societies make disastrous decisions.  His answer revolves around four general categories: (1) a group may fail to anticipate the problems before they arrive; (2) when the problems arrive, they may fail to perceive it; (3) even after they perceive the problems, they may fail to try to solve them; (4) they may try to solve them but not succeed.

            Space does not permit a complete coverage of these categories, so I will concentrate on the third one.  As Diamond notes, this is the most frequent cause of failure and the most common variety is the “rational behavior” that comes from “clashes of interests between people.” In other words, some people may reap enormous benefits from the harm they do to others.  This is especially the case where the interests of decision-making elites in power “clash with the interests of the rest of society.”  Returning to a point made earlier, Diamond states that this would be especially the case “if the elite can insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions, they are likely to do things that profit themselves, regardless of whether those actions hurt everybody else.” 

            As I drive around Las Vegas, my home for the past 28 years, I see some of the effects of growth seemingly without thought of the consequences, as a small minority benefits the most.   I grew up in the Los Angeles area and have seen the consequences of the lack of planning.  It is not a pretty sight.  Neither is Las Vegas, having modeled itself after LA.  In both places, the elites have insulated themselves in heavily guarded gated communities.  Crime and other problems flourish outside their walls, but they don’t see it. 

            Diamond cites the total collapse of the Mayan civilization as an illustration of how elites isolate themselves as “their attention was evidently focused on their short-term concerns of enriching themselves, waging wars, erecting monuments, competing with each other, and extracting enough food from the peasants to support all those activities.” Sound familiar?


© 2005, Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.