I recently re-read Jared Diamond's Collapse, and a passage towards the end struck me. "[T]he apparently simple question that most puzzled my students was one whose actual complexity hadn't sunk into me before: how on earth could a society make such obviously disastrous decision as to cut down all the trees on which it depended?" Jared Diamond 'Collapse' pg. 419
At first I thought it would be similar to the modern attitude of "well if I don't buy it, someone else will" only adapted to cutting down trees. But this steeply discounts the influence of the isolated society over individual decision making. I am sure it was much more along the lines of, "we have been doing things this way for many generations and it must be the only way to appease the gods".
This last modality of thinking also has a strong parallel in modern day decision making. The often touted "economic consequences" of changing from a carbon based to a post-carbon economy are as hyperbolic as they are inconsequential compared to the potential economic costs of inaction. Yet like the Eastern Islanders we ignore the clearly defined trend towards collapse. We are simultaneously, exceeding and shrinking the carrying capacity of the ecosystem we depend on for food and water.
There is a limit to the carrying capacity (the ultimate number of organisms that can be supported sustainability in an ecosystem) of the Earth. Food might not be a problem for most Americans (yet), but water is starting to grow traction as an issue. Desalination and other treatment systems will never be capable of providing the volume of clean water that we are currently provided by natural processes. As the Earth warms, this problem will be accentuated and compounded, as the interdependent systems that formed the aquifers we rely on will be effected.
If we as a species cannot learn to live within the carrying capacity of our ecosystem, and end activities that threaten our life support system, we will surely pay a much higher price than the short term economic disruptions that accompany change. Dime now or dollar later, we will end up paying for the mistakes of generations past. Like any failure the sooner it is addressed the less expensive it is likely to be.