Our World In Focus

October 13, 2011

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive,
New York: Penguin, 2005.

Reviewed by Mike Heald

The title of this book could give the impression of a pessimistic work – yet another catalogue of environmental disasters and impending doom. However, this is not at all the nature of this book. I would say that the primary effect is to invigorate the reader towards positive action, whilst making the scale of the task of repairing the earth’s eco systems very clear. Diamond convincingly, I would say indisputably, invalidates any simple notion of goodies and baddies in the environmental arena, so that we are freed, if we needed to be, from a feeling of being locked in battle with implacable forces of destruction. We are invigorated because Diamond’s analysis is so rational and well-informed that the possibilities of change and strategies for it become evident.

Diamond has the advantage of being a polymath, which means that he can provide many different perspectives on a given situation: he can look at things from a botanical, chemical, geological, economic, or sociological viewpoint, for example. Diamond also, at times, allows other people than himself to speak directly in the book, providing an effect similar to oral history. He does this, for example, to illustrate the diversity of views on environmental problems present in the Bitterroot Valley region of Montana, where he spends his summer vacations. The quite comprehensive picture thus provided gives a powerful sense of the interconnected nature of the earth and human activity. It becomes clear that we cannot take a step on this planet, much less extract resources on a huge scale, without there being a myriad of consequences, and that we can never successfully cover up or escape the impact of these.

Past societies are used as case studies to demonstrate our dependence on the natural base, and the catastrophes which result when this natural base is abused and degraded. There are fascinating analyses, for example, of the Easter Islanders, the ancient American Indian people known as the Anasazi, and the Vikings, among others. These analyses leave no room for the kind of romanticism which says that indigenous peoples were always good custodians of the earth. They were, in fact, subject to the same incompetence, greed and power-plays as other humans, and often did damage to their homelands which was fatal to their societies. The relative destructiveness of low technology peoples as against modern industrial peoples is explored in a clear way. One aspect of this comparison, for example, is to acknowledge that indigenous people were less capable of inflicting rapid damage, but were also often less able to gain and correlate technical information about their environment (for example, soil structure), increasing the chances of misuse. The reverse applies to industrialised peoples with powerful technologies both of resource manipulation and information gathering. The Vikings, for example, upon reaching Iceland, assumed that the soil was similar to that which they were used to in Scandinavia: that is, quite heavy. They proceeded to deforest and cultivate crops, but the soil was actually composed of volcanic ash, and quickly blew away once the forest cover was removed. Iceland remains ‘the most heavily damaged country in Europe’ to this day’ (p197).

A striking point about environmental damage which Diamond illustrates is that human kind’s pursuit of cultural beliefs and practices may actually destroy the very foundations of that culture. Easter Island is a paradigm case of this, where deforestation to provide materials for status-symbolising monuments caused the society’s collapse and drove the population to near extinction. While Diamond does not simplistically apply the term ‘suicidal’ to such behaviour, it is a strong reminder of the human mind’s proclivity to become fatally divorced from the actuality of its circumstances. Furthermore, when a culture is transplanted to unfamiliar ground, as in the case of colonisation, the harmful effects can be extremely severe. In this context, Diamond focuses contemporary Australia in Chapter Thirteen, “Mining Australia”. What Diamond means by the chapter title is that resources in Australia have tended to be exploited faster than they can renew themselves, in the manner of mining, where, say, an ore is extracted until it is used up. Diamond argues that this has been the process for Australia’s ‘renewable’ resources too: its forests, soils and fish, among others. The somewhat grim comment about all this is that, of all the developed nations, Australia, in Diamond’s view, is the one most likely to suffer a catastrophic collapse of its natural systems. This has come about, he says, from the combination of Australia’s peculiarly old and fragile environment, and the extremity of our incompetent actions upon it because of the ‘imported’ nature of our culture. Methods of agriculture and foundations of cultural identity brought from the mainly British mother culture have resulted in massive damage, such as salinity, loss of old growth forests, loss of biodiversity and erosion.

On the subject of forests, Diamond points out that Australia, which apart from Antarctica is the least forested continent on earth, with forest cover of around 20%, clear fells and exports woodchips to Japan, a country with the greatest forest cover of all first world countries at 74% (Japan having decided, during the Tokugowa period, to reverse its deforestation). Australia sells this chipped form of its forests for $7 per ton, whereas Japan sells the paper products for $1,000 per ton. Diamond observes that one ‘expects to encounter that particular type of asymmetry not in the trade relations between two First World countries, but instead when an economically backward, non-industrialized Third World colony unsophisticated at negotiations deals with a First World country sophisticated at exploiting Third World countries…’

However, Diamond is not, finally, pessimistic even about Australia’s clearly chronic problems. He has had a long association with Australia, visiting frequently since1964, and says that he has bonded to an exceptional degree with ‘the eucalyptus woodlands, which continue to fill me with a sense of peace and wonder as do just two other of the world’s habitats, Montana coniferous forest and New Guinea rainforest’ (p380) Apart from this personal connection, the reasons for hope in Australia’s case are, as Diamond sees it, ‘changing attitudes, rethinking by Australia’s farmers, private initiatives, and the beginning of radical government initiatives.’ (p409). Another more general cause for hope which the book identifies lies, perhaps unexpectedly, in market forces, but is also vitally linked to the healthy functioning of democracy and the rule of law. There is statistical evidence, says Diamond, to say that a large company operating in an environmentally responsible, sustainable way, will outperform its irresponsible competitor, when those companies are operating in a vigorous democracy with tight environmental regulation and a high level of education. The opposite is true if the field of operation lacks those socio-political circumstances.

Thus, consumer protest can actually work, because even the largest companies must sell their product, and are therefore always vulnerable at the point of sale. Indeed, one of Diamond’s more controversial propositions in the book is that we the public actually bear the ultimate responsibility for the behaviour of large corporations. His argument points out that it is a legal requirement for company directors to maximise profits for shareholders, then continues as follows:

Our blaming of businesses also ignores the ultimate responsibility of the public for creating the conditions that let a business profit through hurting the public: eg for not requiring mining companies to clean up, or for continuing to buy wood products from non-sustainable logging operations. In the long run, it is the public, either directly or through its politicians, that has the power to make destructive environmental policies unprofitable and illegal, and to make sustainable environmental policies profitable. (p484)

Diamond’s argument here focuses on the part that can be played by the public, and it could be countered that the public’s role, when the big picture is considered, is only one part of a rather complex power-play on an often far from level playing field. However, the point about the potential efficacy of public attitudes and behaviours is, I think, a valid one, and is indeed ‘empowering and hopeful’ (p485), as Diamond claims.

Another economic factor on the side of environmental responsibility is that it almost invariably costs more to clean up after mishaps than it does to put in place strategies and infrastructure to prevent them. Companies are coming to realize this, and also to be acutely conscious of the loss of reputation, and therefore market share, which will follow significant damage. On the other side of the equation, Collapse, despite its clear-headed analyses that yield ways forward, does nevertheless delineate a situation in which the very survival of a natural world capable of providing comfort and good health for humans, rather than misery and disease, is very much in the balance in our time. The present global economy, says Diamond, is radically unsustainable for many reasons, but one clear reason is that, if the ‘developing world’ does indeed achieve the level of consumption now enjoyed by the developed world, as it mostly intends to do, and as the developed world tends to insist that it can, then we would need at least several more planets to supply such demands, and the global warming scenario would almost certainly have become catastrophic. At this point, Diamond recalls a statement by Winston Churchill: ‘It has been said that Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’ (p524) Similarly, Diamond says, our voluntarily cutting back on energy and material consumption to develop a more sustainable global economy ‘is the most impossible scenario for our future – except for all other conceivable scenarios.’ (p524)

Diamond describes himself as ‘a cautious optimist’ (p521) This attitude arises, in part, from a consideration that contemporary societies have effective means at their disposal to assess and reverse environmental damage, and that quantities of present human resource use are often not excessive per se. For example, our present use of timber is not in excess of the earth’s capacity to produce it, if only the resource were managed sustainably. Thus, there are actual solutions to many of our self-inflicted problems, but they lack implementation. And this is the point on which I have a different view to Diamond’s. He lucidly sets out many of the processes which must take place in order for societies to avoid environmental collapse: anticipatory planning, recognition and shedding of counter-productive cultural values, public activism, and so on. However, underlying the analysis, and the basis for ‘cautious optimism’, is Diamond’s belief that people generally try to do the right thing: that we behave well according to our own contexts and goals. Now, I believe that there is some truth in this – in the sense that people can only operate on the information available to them, so that actions can be considered to be more misguided than deliberately harmful – but that the extent to which it is untrue is actually greater. Countering the deliberateness of harmful behaviour in this way doesn’t focus the deeper ways in which human behaviour is formed and motivated. For example, tendencies towards greed and selfishness are deep-rooted, psychologically, even if they are influenced by societal context, and render the notion of general good intention extremely compromised. This is a crucial issue, because if we cannot address the root causes of environmental damage, our approaches and policies will ultimately prove ineffective.

I don’t believe that my perspective here invalidates Diamond’s overall analysis of the existing problems, but it does provide a critical perspective on the possible solutions which he suggests. He says, for example, that the ‘invocation of moral principles is a necessary first step for eliciting virtuous behaviour, but that alone is not a sufficient step.’ (p485). The other necessary step is government regulation: ‘throughout human history, in all politically complex human societies in which people encounter other individuals with whom they have no ties of family or clan relationship, government regulation has arisen precisely because it was found to be necessary for the enforcement of moral principles.’ I would agree whole-heartedly with both of these ideas. However, my point is that neither of them will ensure that harmful behaviours decrease, unless the deeper roots of human culture’s often destructive imbalance with nature are dealt with.

Whatever must now be done, Diamond makes the point strongly that we are all in this together. From his experiences in Holland, a country which has extremely rigorous and successful environmental controls, Diamond develops an analogy for the interconnectedness of present human populations in the face of our global predicament. The Dutch have good reason to be careful: much of their land is below sea level, and mishaps with land management can be fatal, as many past examples testify. A ‘polder’ is an area of land shared by a group of people in Holland, all of whom would suffer if the polder became inundated: rich as well as poor, because there are no mountains for the privileged to perch in safety on. This last factor eliminates one major element in environmental irresponsibility, namely that those profiting from damage can often, through sheer force of wealth, insulate themselves from it, as the elite have a habit of doing. However, due to the transnational nature of many of the problems now confronting us, such as global warming, we are all now well and truly in the same polder.

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