I have been giving _Collapse_ a lot of thought. I have to say that I am not so sure that accept a lot of his ideas. Let me go through this a little bit before I get into the whys. I am definitely someone concerned about environmental problems even though I am of a nominally more conservative bent. Well, that most that I live around at least.
Jared Diamond makes another attempt at being predictive in anthropology and history. He puts together a list of conditions that are predictors for if a society will collapse. The index of made up of the following: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, friendly trade partners, and a society's response to its environmental problems. As he goes forward through the first several sections of the book, he tries to point out where each of the failed or successful societies had each of his indicators tripped (or not). While this does break down later in the chapters - he doesn't talk about some of the indicators at all for some societies - he does make the attempt.
He starts out contrasting two dairy farms. One in Montana in the present day and the other in vanished Norse Greenland. Its a simple introduction that he outlines what he's getting at: that societies collapse through environmental problems and that we need to be really careful because we're headed down that path.
That leads into his discussion of the Bitterroot Valley of Montana in the USA. He started going there again on a regular basis for vacations with his family after having been there some as a boy. He seems to be enough of a regular that the locals have accepted him. He discusses the changes that have taken place in the environment since he went out there as a boy. Here he talks about the environmental problems that Montana, and specifically the Valley faces. He also discusses the changes that the people have seen and not been happy with: frex, the rich out of towners that have bought some of the land for their vaccation homes in closed communities. He presents four different viewpoints and positions through interviews of a fly fishing guide, a local real estate developer, a newcomer/"refugee" from Berkeley in California that is now a Montana state politico, and dairy farmer. He tries to make the case for Montana being a model of the world.
He then launches into discussions of past societies that have imploded, he states, through environmental issues. The first one covered is Easter Island. He does a fairly good job. Unfortunately, my knowledge of EI is rather limited, but it seems to match with what he states here. The EIers deforested the whole island and that pretty much screwed them but good. The next one covered is that of Pitcairn and the Henderson Islands prior to the Bounty's crew 'settling' there. Again, I know very little. It seems plausible enough.
He then launches into a discussion of the Anasazi. Here I have some knowledge. While I am not an anthropologist that specializes in that extinct culture, I lived in New Mexico for 17 years of my life. For 8 of them, I lived in northern New Mexico, specifically in Los Alamos, and walked the grounds of a lot of ruins there. In fact, it was a hobby of mine that I enjoyed. There are a lot
of ruins there and in the surrounding mountains. All of them are Anasazi. The most famous happens to be what is now the Bandelier National Monument. That's the largest single largest concetration of impressive ruins. Its hardly the only one. Chaco's collapse is pretty well understood. Its rather well documented and even though there are some very controversial aspects of it, it is as he said, largely due to an environmental collapse. However, that's not what destroyed Anasazi civilization as a whole. He gives the impression that the center gave way and all was lost when the great droughts that would have destroyed almost any civilization destroyed Chaco. However, based on a lot of research, as I remember it, it was really the droughts that did it the Anasazi, not Chaco's fall. Frex, the environmental damage that he brings up in Chaco didn't take place in other sites (frex Bandelier). However, the drought did. The other places were then abandoned in the same time frame...when the drought crushed Chaco, which was already in bad shape, it did everyone else too. What was interesting in addition to all of this is that he has split societies that I could have sworn were considered Anasazi into multiple ones. The last book I picked up on the Anasazi had sites in the areas he has labeled as 'Mimbres' and 'Kayenta'. Those two are definitely in areas I remember to be traditionally a part of the Anasazi culture. Thena gain, as I said, I am not a Anasazist and I am not up on the latest research so its very possible that I am simply mistaken, but I began to wonder here about Diamond's accuracy and thrust.
The next culture he covered was the Maya. Drought and environmental damage was the collapsing agent for the fall from the so-called Classical Mayan period. I really don't know enough to comment. What he says is plausible. That might be his danger though: what he says is plausible, but not entirely accurate.
He then launches into a discussion of the success or failure of various Norse colonies. The ones covered in passing are the Orkneys, Shetlands, and Faeroes. Iceland is covered in some depth. These were all the sucessful colonies. Vinland is covered in some depth, but not so much since there's not a lot known. The most discussion is given to the Greenland colonies. There were two: the so-called Western and Eastern Settlements that should have been called north and south since they were both on the western side of Greenland. He gives a lot of discussion as what life was like in Norse Greenland. It was fun and interesting. He also gives his theories as to the demise of that society after existing for nearly half a millenium: Inuit hostility, the Crusades destroying the market for their main exports, the Little Ice Age, environmental exhaustion (clearing the forests and destroying pasture), and an inability to adapt to their new circumstances (ie not adopting Inuit techniques for hunting food).
He rounds out his discussion of past societies by a chapter on successful ones. The first is his true love of the New Guinea Highlands. The second is an island called Tikopia. The third was actually Tokugawa Japan.
He then moves on to modern societies and what's happening their. The first one goes through, what he feels, is the root cause of the genocide in Rwanda was that it was really a Malthusian problem. He provides data to back it up in the form of statistics about the decreasing farm sizes. He then goes through the history of Hispanola: Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He then walks through China's current environmental issues. Then he thoroughly thrashing Australia. In none of the cases does he take the stance that you are going to see an Anasazi style collapse. However, he fires off warning flares in a big way.
From there its the so-called practical lessons section. The first chapter is about why societies make bad decisions. Its interesting but nothing earth shattering. It boils down to a lot of 'NMP' (Not My Problem), other values (yes, values) and decisions that are net negatives. An awful lot of it seems like 20/20 hindsight rather than really helpful. He then alunches into a discussion of 'Big Business' and the environment for the next chapter. He goes through the whole discussion of the oil, hardrock mining, coal, logging, and seafood industries. Surprisingly, and a bit delightfully, he actually lays the blame for environmental problems not on big business, but on the public
The next chapter, The World as a Polder: What does it all mean to us today? is a juicy one. He outlines twelve issues that must be fixed or addressed. I'll give very short quotes here:
1. "At an accelerating rate, we are destroying natural habitats or else converting them to human-made habitats, such as cities and villages, farmlands and pastures, roads and golf courses." pg 487
3. "A significant fraction of wild species, populations, and genetic diversity has already been lost, and at present rates a large fraction of what remains will be lost within the next half-century." pg 488
4. "Soils of farmlands used for growing crops are being carried away by water and wind at rates between 10 and 40 times the rates of soil formation, and between 500 and 10,000 times soil erosion rates on forested land." pg 489
5. "The world's major energy sources, especially for industrial societies, are based on fossil fuels: oil, natural gas, and coal." pg 490 These will run out.
6. "Most of the world's freshwater in rivers and lakes is already being utilized for irrgation, domestic or industrial water, and in situ uses such as boat transportation corridors, fisheries, and recreation." pg 490 We're running out of freshwater.
7. Photosynthetic capacity limit. "...we are projected to be utilizing most of the world's terrestrial photosynthetic capacity by the middle of this century. That is, most energy fixed from sunglight will be used for human purposes, and little will be left over to support the growth of natural plant communities, such as natural forests." pg 491
8. "The chemical industry and many other industries manufacture or release into the air, soil, oceans, lakes, and rivers many toxic chemicals..." pg 491.
9. Alien species destroying ecosystems. "The term 'alien species refers to species that we transfer intentionally or inadvertantly, from a place where they are native to another place where they are not native." pg 492
10. Human modification of the atmosphere. Ozone layer, global warming, etc. pg 493
11. Population growth out of hand. pg 494
12. Population's impact on environment. pg 495
He wraps up by saying he's actually cautiously optomistic.
My favourite juicy quote:
"People in the Third World aspire to First World living standards.
They develop that aspiration through watching television, seeing
advertisements for First World consumer products sold in their
countries, and observing First World visitors to their countries.
Even in remote villages and refugee camps today, people know about
the outside world. Third World citizens are encouraged in that
aspiration by First World and United Nations Development agencies,
which hold out to them the prospect of achieving their dram if they
will only adopt the right policies, like balancing their national
budgets, investing in education and infrastructure, and so on.
"But no one at the U.N. or First World governments is willing to
acknowledge the dream's impossibility: the unsustainability of a
world in which the Third World's large population were to reach
and maintain current First World living standards."
The World as a Polder: What does It All Mean to Us Today
Pgs 495 to 496
Okay, some general thoughts.
Throughout the book, he comes across as disliking complex societies. They fail, often, in his view and are thus unsustainable. The adoration that Diamond gives to the New Guinea Highlands society seems to bleed over here. It seems to me that this isn't just his issue, but one that antrhopologists often develop: the society they are studying becomes superior to their own PDQ. I've seen it for those studying Native American cultures, Arab cultures, and others. Alas.
dismissive of new technologies changing the circumstances that lead to this, that or another problem. I can think of one that immediately changed things: the electricity. The air quality in London in the 19th century was, well, killing people through coal burning. Electricity helped change that. In the future, fuel cells could fix one issue PDQ. Another would be the now beginning deployment of phytomining and phytoextraction. These could really change how we mine metals. There are others that will have as much of an impact.
I have to say that I simply don't buy what he's saying. His collapsing societies were always in ecological marginal regions. If he could have picked, say, the Roman Empire and proven it or one of the Chinese Dynasties, then his point would ahve been accepted far better. My favorite juicy quote is another good example. Just doing the math some friends of mine online pointed out there's a lot more capacity out there and that efficiencies can be brought into the current system without too much of a problem that will fix a lot of what he's complaining about in the form of unsustainable resource consumption.
It's not to say that I don't think there are not problems that desperately need fixing - that's putting it mildly!
- but rather that he is panicking too soon and drawing the wrong conclusions from the wrong places. He's extrapolating from a data set that preagrees with his hypothesis rather than a more generalist one. In essence, he's saying the whole of the earth is now an ecologically marginal habitat and I don't buy it since he failed to prove it in my mind.
The book was a good read and I recommend it just for the thought provokingness, but I ask that you cross check and think about it rather than take it as a bible. it might be better to pick it up as a paperback when the time comes. I was lucky and got it as BDay present from my wife. :)