Falling down

Jared Diamond’s new book, Collapse, offers fantasies about 'ecocide' instead of an understanding of history.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, by geography professor Jared Diamond, could easily have been one of those interesting but quirky ‘brief history’ books that occasionally make the bestseller lists. A Brief History of How Some Societies Have Created the Conditions for Their Own Downfall, would be just as accurate as a title, if a little less catchy.

Diamond provides a survey of civilisations that were once very successful, but then died away rapidly. He focuses on factors such as environmental mismanagement and climate change, compounded by a failure to plan and to maintain good relations with neighbouring societies. Diamond doesn’t discuss all societies in these terms – clearly, it would be difficult to blame the collapse of the Soviet Union on the environment – but he does draw links between the fate of Easter Island, the Mayans of Central America and modern Rwanda.

Above all, Collapse is a book with a moral. ‘The risk of such collapses today is now a matter of increasing concern’, Diamond warns in his introduction. ‘Many people fear that ecocide has now come to overshadow nuclear war and emerging diseases as a threat to global civilisation.’ But he is projecting twenty-first century concerns on to previous societies, in order to make a point about our future.

‘Climate change’ in the past could be devastating because the difference between plenty, survival and famine was so small. Diamond discusses how the Mayans struggled to grow food in mountainous terrain with erratic rainfall. Two or three droughts on the trot could lead to the widespread loss of life, and the disruption of the established social order. There was no world market to turn to if things in one place went badly wrong. Yet today even the most alarmist global warming theorists suggest that climate change will take place over decades, giving us time to adapt if we need to, with all the resources of an increasingly integrated world economy.

Diamond has cherry-picked examples to illustrate the devastating consequences of environmental failure. But his attempts to apply this model to the modern world fail. He lists the countries with population or environmental problems, including Afghanistan, Haiti, Iraq, Pakistan, Rwanda and Somalia, among others. He then lists the world’s trouble spots and finds that the two lists are almost identical. ‘Today, just as in the past, countries that are environmentally stressed, overpopulated, or both, become at risk of becoming politically stressed, and of their governments collapsing’, he suggests.

This turns the problems of developing countries on their head. It beggars belief to imagine that the problems of Iraq, after two wars and years of sanctions, or Afghanistan, a poor country caught in the middle of great power politics for decades, are the result of environmental stress or overpopulation. On the other hand, it is plausible that in times of desperation people are more concerned with immediate survival than environmental conservation.

It’s not as if Diamond doesn’t know the facts. His discussion of Rwanda starts well, describing how the simplistic presentation of a genocide based on ethnic conflict was wrong. The majority Hutu population was in fact divided into a number of rival groups, and much of the violence in 1994 involved Hutus killing Hutus – because they were rivals, or were defending the minority Tutsis.

The big question is why the violence in Rwanda occurred at all. Diamond explains how a dense population was running out of land on which to grow food. Traditional forms of inheritance and social structure became incompatible with the smaller shares of land available to each person, a problem compounded by unproductive agricultural methods which encouraged soil erosion.

Diamond’s conclusion is that this was Malthus in action in modern-day Africa, with terrifying consequences. But given everything he tells us, the problem in Rwanda seems to be not a natural one but a social one: in order to manage a larger population, Rwanda needed to change the way society was organised, and how food was produced. But the country was unable to do that. Why this was the case is a bigger issue, which involves not just the state of Rwanda but also the role of various foreign powers and the world economy.

When Diamond comes to discuss the future, he warns of a panoply of different threats, from resource shortfalls to global warming. His biggest concern is about the viability of the developing world rising to meet the living standards of the developed world. He has yet to hear, he tells us, anyone who seriously believes that the world could stand 12 times the ‘impact’ that human beings currently have on the planet.

But surely he is confusing living standards with resource use. Every successful society over time has learned to use resources more efficiently, or to substitute rare resources for more common ones. Pollution levels in the developed world are much lower than in the fast-developing cities of the third world. How to deal with the side effects of development is a common political problem, but the answer is not to call into question development itself, and the goal of improving living standards for all.

The bottom line is that Diamond overestimates the problems we are likely to face in the future and underestimates the capacity of society to adapt. After all, he himself notes how some oil companies, environmentalists’ bête noir, are learning to change their working methods in ways that have both less impact and may prove to be more efficient in the long run.

It seems that modern societies develop by doing things in the easiest way possible, using whatever is at hand, but learn to do more and more as human control develops. For example, food is initially gathered from the wild. Then agriculture develops and food is grown, but at first without thought to fertilisation or pest control. Increasingly food is grown under cover, so that conditions can be controlled more precisely. The cost of this rising human intervention is offset against the falling expense of crop failures.

There are concerns about the supply of fresh water, but in fact there is no absolute shortage of fresh water, although some settlements are living off local supplies that will eventually run out. Either we move the settlements, we move the water to the settlements, or we become more efficient in our use of water. One or all have been done in the past. There is no absolute problem, just a solvable problem that needs to be managed.

While Diamond claims to be an optimist, ‘solvable’ isn’t a word that seems to come easily to him. Instead, he blurs ‘problem’ with ‘crisis’, and ‘change’ with ‘catastrophe’. In that, he captures the mood of our society. Welcome to the world of ‘popular science’ in the culture of fear.

Ironically, one theme that Diamond ignores is the way in which a profound loss of a wider mission and purpose left civilisations of the distant and more recent past, such as Rome, Greece and the Soviet Union, incapable of dealing with the problems they faced. Could it be that the biggest threat to our civilisation is not environmental damage or overpopulation, but the navel-gazing fearfulness that Diamond so richly exemplifies?

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive by Jared Diamond, is published by Penguin Allen Lane. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA).

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Topics Science & Tech


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