Saturday, 14 July 2012


Dick Pountain/30 May 2005/08:45/Political Quarterly

TITLE: "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive"
AUTHOR: Jared Diamond
PUBLISHED: Jan 2005, hard cover, pp 576 , £20.00

"... [B]ecause we are rapidly advancing along this non-sustainable course, the world's environmental problems *will* get resolved, in one way or another, within the lifetimes of the children and young adults alive today." Had this sentence appeared at the beginning of Jared Diamond's massive new work one might possibly have read it as a statement of optimism. Appearing as it does though in the very last chapter it can only be read as the most deeply-qualified realism: throughout the previous 500 pages Diamond has painstakingly explained, on the basis of copious scientific evidence, what that sinister little 'another' might be. Most civilisations have believed themselves to be the only or the ultimate goal of human history, destined to persist for ever, but few have ever reached even a hundred human generations. In 'Collapse', Diamond examines the reasons why societies fail and disappear, and extracts certain lessons that he thinks may be of use to us in our present environmental fix.

What raises this work above the level of typical popular scaremongering is Diamond's meticulous investigative method, honed in his previous Pulitzer-winning book 'Guns, Germs and Steel'. In that work he sought to explain the relative rates of historical development of Europe, the Americas, Asia, Oceania and Africa from basic geography, geology and biology as they affected the domestication of plants and animals, the spread of technologies and fatal diseases. In 'Collapse' he again condenses and sifts all the latest archeological data to explain why certain previous civilisations - including the Maya, the Greenland Vikings and the statue-builders of Easter Island - came to sticky ends. Some of Diamond's critics accuse him of environmental determinism, but that charge is even less true of 'Collapse' than it was of 'Guns..' What certainly is true is that Diamond is a materialist (and, I'm coming to believe, perhaps the most rigorous one since Karl Marx). Diamond is no Marxist though because he doesn't accept 'determination in the last instance by the economic'. On a shallow reading he might seem to believe in determination in the last instance by geography and climate, but this he explicitly denies. In fact he relies on multiple causes - five are employed throughout this book - any one of which might become determinant at some particular place and time. The factors he implicates in social collapses are: human impact on the environment; climate change; friendly neighbours (trade); hostile neighbours (war); and the human response to such threats (politics, religion and culture). More subtly, one factor may cause another to become dominant in any particular case, so for example in mediaeval Greenland climate change determined that the Norse settlers' conservative cultural outlook would undo their society, while Inuit living in precisely the same environment developed a sustainable economy.

Diamond trained in biology, geography and history and his facility with figures, while not making for a light read, ought be a model for other social scientists. Acutely aware that historians and geographers are denied the possibility of true experiment, he uncovers natural experiments thrown up in the spread of human settlement, for example the 'island-hopping' expansion of the Polynesians throughout the Pacific between 1200BC and 1200AD. He seeks from such 'experiments' the variety of data made possible by modern forensic techniques, including radiocarbon and tree-ring dating, oxygen isotope analysis of ice cores (to determine past temperature), palynology (pollen studies that reveal changes in flora), garbage/midden archeology to reveal diet, and carbon isotope analysis to distinguish seafood from land food. By integrating all these data Diamond builds up a picture of the impact of humans on their environment as this varied over time. Note that term 'impact': it's not population numbers per se that determine the fate of societies but total environmental impact - that is, population multiplied by impact-per-person. For example the environmental impact of each modern US citizen (water, food, energy and materials consumed) is 30 times that of an average African.

Using these methods Diamond seeks the ultimate and proximate causes of the collapse of Easter Island and Pitcairn societies, the pre-historic Anasazi civilisation of South-West USA, the Maya and the Greenland Norse settlements. He then applies the lessons learned to modern times by considering the genocide in Rwanda, the current plights of Haiti and the Dominican Republic (a most illuminating contrast), and the future prospects for China and Australia. Certain repeated tropes emerge from his analysis. Afforestation is crucial: in ancient times wood was the building material for both homes and transport, and also the principal fuel. Cutting too many trees leads to soil erosion and disruption of water supplies, which in turn reduces the ability to grow food. Nowadays we Westerners rely on other fuels, but we still cut trees for paper and furniture. Cyclic climate change intervenes in a most particular way: during warm epochs food is plentiful and population rises; environmental impact increases, leading to soil depletion; the climate turns nasty, population growth doesn't slow, they can no longer feed everyone, they fight over food and water (and in surprisingly many cases turn to eating each other...) The first English farmers to settle Australia had "... the misfortune to arrive during a string of wet years", a misfortune because had they arrived during a more typical drought they would have formed a more realistic impression of what the land could support. 

I suspect that one aspect of Diamond's work that rattles liberally-inclined critics is his remorseless naturalism: Homo Sapiens is another animal species, not physically so removed from others, and despite our advanced intelligence, no less subject to environmental pressures (the birthrate in 18th and 19th century Japan rose and fell precisely in phase with the price of rice). This is not to say that Human Will counts for nothing and we have no choices. On the contrary our intelligence lets us identify causes like those in Diamond's book, and deploy them in making good or bad choices that affect our destiny. Unfortunately though there is not, and never will be, a simple formula we can slot these variables into that will pop out the 'correct' answer. Human values don't work that way: they're often incommensurable and force us into difficult and groundless choices despite all available evidence. The Greenland Norse saw themselves as Christian Europeans (who hated the taste of seal meat) and in the end preferred to hang onto that identity rather than assimilate to Inuit ways, even at the cost of all their lives. The most provocative aspect of 'Collapse' is the question it raises whether democracies like the EU and USA can ever be induced to make the horrible choices needed to avoid our own collapse, submitting to very significant decreases in living standard to ensure long-term survival. Diamond's examples of success in impact control - Japan's forestry management, China's one-child policy - were all imposed by despots (enlightened or otherwise). But as he cheerfully observes "... in the long run rich people do not secure their own interests and those of their children if they rule over a collapsing society and merely buy themselves the privilege of being the last to starve..."

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