Archive for March 7th, 2011
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond (Viking Adult 2004)
Jared Diamond’s Collapse describes a series of societies that have failed, and attempts to find a common theme among those failures. Easter Island and the Norwegian colony in Greenland; the more recent genocide in Rwanda. Small societies and more complex ones, ancient and modern, he tries to identify common threads.
He also identifies societies with equally limited resources that have adapted to their environment and succeeded. Iceland, Papua New Guinea and Japan. He contrasts those successes with the failed societies to test his hypotheses.
While many reviewers have characterized this book as the “flip-side” of Guns, Germs and Steel, WC thinks it is more accurate to view it as an extension of that book, and examination of what happens to societies who start off with the conditions and natural resources that allow them to succeed, as those resources are consumed.
Some reviewers – and WC is afraid he must question whether they have actually read the book – dismiss Diamond’s hypotheses as “academic trash.” WC thinks they do so at their peril. Diamond’s observations and conclusions should give any thinking Westerner pause. It is inarguable that our present pattern of resource consumption is unsustainable, as Diamond demonstrates. The only issue is the consequences of that reality. In disturbing ways, those who blindly criticize this book precisely demonstrate Diamond’s point.
Diamond has also been criticized for being simplistic. That’s a criticism that is made of every science writer who attempts to write for a wider audience than academia. Diamond’s intended audience is not prepared for von Thunen circles or Spenglerism. It is true that Diamond has simplified matters a bit, but that’s significant only if Diamond, in his attempt to make his writing accessible, distorts the facts. WC suggests that, for the most part, Diamond’s explanations are accurate.
WC has a few minor quibbles: for example, Diamond suggests that post-ice age hunters exterminated North America’s megafauna. Recent research indicates that many of those species were in steep decline long before humankind arrived in North America, and that hunting, at most, accelerated their disappearance. But that’s a quibble.
Diamond describes himself as “cautiously optimistic about our society’s ability to recognize the risks we are undertaking and to react correctly and in time. WC is much more skeptical. Certainly the current U.S. Congress calls to mind the Greenland colony chieftains and the Easter Island tribal chiefs, who ignored the evidence of collapse all around them, and succeeded only in making sure they were the last to starve to death.
This is a book of amazing scope. It is superbly written. It has frightening implications for anyone who can see beyond their own immediate self-gratification. It is folly to dismiss these ideas; it is dangerous to ignore them. Your grandchildren will not thank you.
Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond (W. W. Norton & Company, 1998)
Jared Diamond set out to do two very difficult things in this book: first, by his own admission, to summarize in one book 13,000 years of homo sapiens’ history, and second, to write a popular, entry level book about the complexities of geographical and environmental determinism. To his credit, he brings both off very well.
Diamonds’ thesis is that the triumph of western culture traces in large measure to accidents of geography and environment. In particular, the east-west orientation of Eurasia and the abundance of usable crop species and animal species in Eurasia in general and the Fertile Crescent in particular. The ability to create domestic crops and domestic animals, by his reasoning, led through a series of steps to the development of larger communities, the development of technology, and the triumph of the West.
Diamond’s critics accuse him of political correctness, of over-simplification and determinism. W doesn’t believe any of those criticisms is accurate.
Diamond frankly admits he is challenging the myth of caucasian inherent superiority. The sense of outrage some reviewers express when Diamond states that the most intelligent man he knows is a New Guinean “primitive” more or less proves Diamond’s point. By confusing intelligence with education, and a subsistence culture with technological culture, those critics demonstrate and illustrate the myth Diamond addresses.
Half of his critics accuse Diamond of oversimplification; the other half complain that he repeats points and that the book is hard to read. WC thinks this is mostly reaction to the common problem of a scholarly subject being treated in a popularization. It is a very difficult thing for a scientist to write a popularization of his or her subject that isn’t either condescendingly simplistic or too complex for lay readers. Diamond strikes a nice balance.
Finally, critics claim that Diamond is asserting a kind of determinism that denies free will and understates cultural variables. They point to cultural variables like religion (the aggressiveness of Christianity and Moslem beliefs, for example), social, intellectual and others that are overwhelmingly important today. Those critics are missing Diamond’s key point: it was those geographical and environmental factors he identifies that made the development of those cultural variables possible.
Overall, this book is a very significant contribution to lay understanding of why the West “has more cargo” than other cultures. It is not intended to be a work of pure scholarship; it doesn’t pretend that this is the Complete and Final Answer. It is frank in identifying issues still be be addressed. WC strongly recommends it to any reader who wants to better understand the world we have inherited.