[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'Collapse': How the World Ends

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'Collapse': How the World Ends
New York Times Book Review, 5.1.30

[First chapter appended.]

COLLAPSE: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.
By Jared Diamond.
Illustrated. 575 pp. Viking. $29.95.

    EIGHT years ago Jared Diamond realized what is, for authors,
    increasingly a fantasy -- he published a serious, challenging and
    complex book that became a huge commercial success. ''Guns, Germs, and
    Steel'' won a Pulitzer Prize, then sold a million copies, astonishing
    for a 480-page volume of archeological speculation on how the world
    reached its present ordering of nations. Now he has written a sequel,
    ''Collapse,'' which asks whether present nations can last. Taken
    together, ''Guns, Germs, and Steel'' and ''Collapse'' represent one of
    the most significant projects embarked upon by any intellectual of our
    generation. They are magnificent books: extraordinary in erudition and
    originality, compelling in their ability to relate the digitized
    pandemonium of the present to the hushed agrarian sunrises of the far
    past. I read both thinking what literature might be like if every
    author knew so much, wrote so clearly and formed arguments with such
    care. All of which makes the two books exasperating, because both come
    to conclusions that are probably wrong.

    ''Guns'' asked why the West is atop the food chain of nations. Its
    conclusion, that Western success was a coincidence driven by good
    luck, has proven extremely influential in academia, as the view is
    quintessentially postmodern. Now ''Collapse'' posits that the Western
    way of life is flirting with the sudden ruin that caused past
    societies like the Anasazi and the Mayans to vanish. Because this
    view, too, is exactly what postmodernism longs to hear, ''Collapse''
    may prove influential as well.

    Born in Boston in 1937, Diamond is a professor of geography at the
    University of California, Los Angeles. Initially he specialized in
    conservation biology, studying bird diversity in New Guinea; in 1985
    he won one of the early MacArthur ''genius grants.'' Gradually he
    began to wonder why societies of the western Pacific islands never
    developed the metallurgy, farming techniques or industrial production
    of Eurasia. Diamond also studied the application of natural-selection
    theory to physiology, and in 1999 received a National Medal of Science
    for that work, which is partly reflected in his book ''Why Is Sex
    Fun?'' (Sex is fun; the book is serious.) Today Diamond often returns
    to the Pacific rim, especially Australia, where in the outback one may
    still hear the rustle of distant animal cries just as our forebears
    heard them in the far past.

    ''Collapse'' may be read alone, but begins where ''Guns, Germs, and
    Steel'' ended: essentially the two form a single 1,000-page book. The
    thesis of the first part is that environmental coincidences are the
    principal factor in human history. Diamond contends it was chance, not
    culture or brainpower, that brought industrial power first to Europe;
    Western civilization has nothing to boast about.

    Many arguments in ''Guns'' were dazzling. Diamond showed, for example,
    that as the last ice age ended, by chance Eurasia held many plants
    that could be bred for controlled farming. The Americas had few edible
    plants suitable for cross-breeding, while Africa had poor soil owing
    to the millions of years since it had been glaciated. Thus large-scale
    food production began first in the Fertile Crescent, China and Europe.
    Population in those places rose, and that meant lots of people living
    close together, which accelerated invention; in other locations the
    low-population hunter-gatherer lifestyle of antiquity remained in
    place. ''Guns'' contends the fundamental reason Europe of the middle
    period could send sailing ships to explore the Americas and Africa,
    rather than these areas sending sailing ships to explore Europe, is
    that ancient happenstance involving plants gave Europe a food edge
    that translated into a head start on technology. Then, the moment
    European societies forged steel and fashioned guns, they acquired a
    runaway advantage no hunter-gatherer society could possibly counter.

    Also, as the ice age ended, Eurasia was home to large mammals that
    could be domesticated, while most parts of the globe were not. In
    early history, animals were power: huge advantages were granted by
    having cattle for meat and milk, horses and elephants for war. Horses
    -- snarling devil-monsters to the Inca -- were a reason 169 Spaniards
    could kill thousands of Incas at the battle of Cajamarca in 1532, for
    example. ''Rhino-mounted Bantu shock troops could have overthrown the
    Roman Empire,'' Diamond speculates, but the rhino and other large
    mammals of Africa defied domestication, leaving that continent at a
    competitive disadvantage.

    Large populations and the fact that Eurasians lived among domesticated
    animals meant Europe was rife with sicknesses to which the survivors
    acquired immunity. When Europeans began to explore other lands, their
    microbes wiped out indigenous populations, easing conquest. Almost all
    variations in societies, Diamond concludes, are caused not by
    societies themselves but by ''differences in their environments''; the
    last 500 years of rising power for the West ''has its ultimate roots
    in developments between about 11,000 B.C. and A.D. 1,'' the deck
    always stacked in Europe's favor.

    In this respect, ''Guns, Germs, and Steel'' is pure political
    correctness, and its P.C. quotient was a reason the book won praise.
    But the book must not be dismissed because it is P.C.: sometimes
    politically correct is, after all, correct. The flaws of the work are
    more subtle, and they set the stage for ''Collapse.'' One flaw was
    that Diamond argued mainly from the archaeological record -- a record
    that is a haphazard artifact of items that just happened to survive.
    We know precious little about what was going on in 11,000 B.C., and
    much of what we think we know is inferential. It may be decades or
    centuries until we understand human prehistory, if we ever do.

    Diamond's analysis discounts culture and human thought as forces in
    history; culture, especially, is seen as a side effect of environment.
    The big problem with this view is explaining why China -- which around
    the year 1000 was significantly ahead of Europe in development, and
    possessed similar advantages in animals and plants -- fell behind.
    This happened, Diamond says, because China adopted a single-ruler
    society that banned change. True, but how did environment or animal
    husbandry dictate this? China's embrace of a change-resistant society
    was a cultural phenomenon. During the same period China was adopting
    centrally regimented life, Europe was roiled by the idea of
    individualism. Individualism proved a potent force, a source of power,
    invention and motivation. Yet Diamond considers ideas to be nearly
    irrelevant, compared with microbes and prevailing winds. Supply the
    right environmental conditions, and inevitably there will be a factory
    manufacturing jet engines.

    Many thinkers have attempted single-explanation theories for history.
    Such attempts hold innate appeal -- wouldn't it be great if there were
    a single explanation! -- but have a poor track record. My guess is
    that despite its conspicuous brilliance, ''Guns, Germs, and Steel''
    will eventually be viewed as a drastic oversimplification. Its
    arguments come perilously close to determinism, and it is hard to
    believe that the world is as it is because it had to be that way.

    Diamond ended his 1997 book by supposing, ''The challenge now is to
    develop human history as a science.'' That is what ''Collapse''
    attempts -- to use history as a science to forecast whether the
    current world order will fail. To research his new book, Diamond
    traveled to the scenes of vanished societies like Easter Island, Norse
    Greenland, the Anasazi, the Mayans. He must have put enormous effort
    into ''Collapse,'' and his willingness to do so after achieving wealth
    and literary celebrity -- surely publishers would have taken anything
    he dashed off -- speaks well of his dedication.

    ''Collapse'' spends considerable pages contemplating past life on
    Easter Island, as well as on Pitcairn and Henderson islands, and on
    Greenland, an island. Deforestation, the book shows, was a greater
    factor in the breakdown of societies in these places than commonly
    understood. Because trees take so long to regrow, deforestation has
    more severe consequences than crop failure, and can trigger disastrous
    erosion. Centuries ago, the deforestation of Easter Island allowed
    wind to blow off the island's thin topsoil: ''starvation, a population
    crash and a descent into cannibalism'' followed, leaving those
    haunting statues for Europeans to find. Climate change and
    deforestation that set off soil loss, Diamond shows, were leading
    causes of the Anasazi and Mayan declines. ''Collapse'' reminds us that
    like fossil fuels, soil is a resource that took millions of years to
    accumulate and that humanity now races through: Diamond estimates
    current global soil loss at 10 to 40 times the rate of soil formation.
    Deforestation ''was a or the major factor'' in all the collapsed
    societies he describes, while climate change was a recurring menace.

    How much do Diamond's case studies bear on current events? He writes
    mainly about isolated islands and pretechnology populations. Imagine
    the conditions when Erik the Red founded his colony on frigid
    Greenland in 984 -- if something went wrong, the jig was up. As
    isolated systems, islands are more vulnerable than continents. Most
    dire warnings about species extinction, for example, are estimates
    drawn from studies of island ecologies, where a stressed species may
    have no place to retreat to. ''Collapse'' declares that ''a large
    fraction'' of the world's species may fall extinct in the next 50
    years, which is the kind of conclusion favored by biologists who base
    their research on islands. But most species don't live on islands. The
    International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the leading
    authority on biodiversity, estimates that about 9 percent of the
    world's vertebrate species are imperiled. That's plenty bad enough,
    but does not support the idea that a ''large fraction'' of species are
    poised to vanish. Like most species, most people do not live on
    islands, yet ''Collapse'' tries to generalize from environmental
    failures on isolated islands to environmental threats to society as a

    Diamond rightly warns of alarming trends in biodiversity, soil loss,
    freshwater limits (China is depleting its aquifers at a breakneck
    rate), overfishing (much of the developing world relies on the oceans
    for protein) and climate change (there is a strong scientific
    consensus that future warming could be dangerous). These and other
    trends may lead to a global crash: ''Our world society is presently on
    a nonsustainable course.'' The West, especially, is in peril: ''The
    prosperity that the First World enjoys at present is based on spending
    down its environmental capital.'' Calamity could come quickly: ''A
    society's steep decline may begin only a decade or two after the
    society reaches its peak numbers, wealth and power.''

    Because population pressure played a prominent role in the collapses
    of some past societies, Diamond especially fears population growth.
    Owing to sheer numbers it is an ''impossibility'' that the developing
    world will ever reach Western living standards. Some projections
    suggest the globe's population, now about 6 billion, may peak at about
    8.5 billion. To Diamond, this is a nightmare scenario: defenders of
    population growth ''nonchalantly'' mention ''adding 'only' 2.5 billion
    more people . . . as if that were acceptable.'' Population growth has
    made Los Angeles ''less appealing,'' especially owing to traffic: ''I
    have never met an Angeleno (and very few people anywhere in the world)
    who personally expressed a desire for increased population.'' About
    the only nonaboriginal society Diamond has kind words for is pre-Meiji
    Japan, where population control was strictly enforced. But wait --
    pre-Meiji Japan collapsed!

    If 2.5 billion more people are not ''acceptable,'' how, exactly, would
    Diamond prevent their births? He does not say. Nuclear war, plague, a
    comet strike or coerced mass sterilizations seem the only forces that
    might stop the human population from rising to its predicted peak.
    Everyone dislikes traffic jams and other aspects of population
    density, but people are here and cannot be wished away; the challenge
    is to manage social pressure and create enough jobs until the
    population peak arrives. And is it really an ''impossibility'' for
    developing-world living standards to reach the Western level? A
    century ago, rationalists would have called global consumption of 78
    million barrels per day of petroleum an impossibility, and that's the
    latest figure.

    If trends remain unchanged, the global economy is unsustainable. But
    the Fallacy of Uninterrupted Trends tells us patterns won't remain
    unchanged. For instance, deforestation of the United States, rampant
    in the 19th century, has stopped: forested acreage of the country
    began rising during the 20th century, and is still rising. Why? Wood
    is no longer a primary fuel, while high-yield agriculture allowed
    millions of acres to be retired from farming and returned to trees.
    Today wood is a primary fuel in the developing world, so deforestation
    is acute; but if developing nations move on to other energy sources,
    forest cover will regrow. If the West changes from fossil fuel to
    green power, its worst resource trend will not continue uninterrupted.

    Though Diamond endorses ''cautious optimism,'' ''Collapse'' comes to a
    wary view of the human prospect. Diamond fears our fate was set in
    motion in antiquity -- we're living off the soil and petroleum
    bequeathed by the far past, and unless there are profound changes in
    behavior, all may crash when legacy commodities run out. Oddly, for
    someone with a background in evolutionary theory, he seems not to
    consider society's evolutionary arc. He thinks backward 13,000 years,
    forward only a decade or two. What might human society be like 13,000
    years from now? Above us in the Milky Way are essentially infinite
    resources and living space. If the phase of fossil-driven technology
    leads to discoveries that allow Homo sapiens to move into the galaxy,
    then resources, population pressure and other issues that worry
    Diamond will be forgotten. Most of the earth may even be returned to
    primordial stillness, and the whole thing would have happened in the
    blink of an eye by nature's standards.

    Gregg Easterbrook is an editor of The New Republic, a fellow of the
    Brookings Institution and the author, most recently, of ''The Progress

First Chapter: 'Collapse'

    A few summers ago I visited two dairy farms, Huls Farm and Gardar
    Farm, which despite being located thousands of miles apart were still
    remarkably similar in their strengths and vulnerabilities. Both were
    by far the largest, most prosperous, most technologically advanced
    farms in their respective districts. In particular, each was centered
    around a magnificent state-of-the-art barn for sheltering and milking
    cows. Those structures, both neatly divided into opposite-facing rows
    of cow stalls, dwarfed all other barns in the district. Both farms let
    their cows graze outdoors in lush pastures during the summer, produced
    their own hay to harvest in the late summer for feeding the cows
    through the winter, and increased their production of summer fodder
    and winter hay by irrigating their fields. The two farms were similar
    in area (a few square miles) and in barn size, Huls barn holding
    somewhat more cows than Gardar barn (200 vs. 165 cows, respectively).
    The owners of both farms were viewed as leaders of their respective
    societies. Both owners were deeply religious. Both farms were located
    in gorgeous natural settings that attract tourists from afar, with
    backdrops of high snow-capped mountains drained by streams teaming
    with fish, and sloping down to a famous river (below Huls Farm) or
    3ord (below Gardar Farm).

    Those were the shared strengths of the two farms. As for their shared
    vulnerabilities, both lay in districts economically marginal for
    dairying, because their high northern latitudes meant a short summer
    growing season in which to produce pasture grass and hay. Because the
    climate was thus suboptimal even in good years, compared to dairy
    farms at lower latitudes, both farms were susceptible to being harmed
    by climate change, with drought or cold being the main concerns in the
    districts of Huls Farm or Gardar Farm respectively. Both districts lay
    far from population centers to which they could market their products,
    so that transportation costs and hazards placed them at a competitive
    disadvantage compared to more centrally located districts. The
    economies of both farms were hostage to forces beyond their owners'
    control, such as the changing affluence and tastes of their customers
    and neighbors. On a larger scale, the economies of the countries in
    which both farms lay rose and fell with the waxing and waning of
    threats from distant enemy societies.

    The biggest difference between Huls Farm and Gardar Farm is in their
    current status. Huls Farm, a family enterprise owned by five siblings
    and their spouses in the Bitterroot Valley of the western U.S. state
    of Montana, is currently prospering, while Ravalli County in which
    Huls Farm lies boasts one of the highest population growth rates of
    any American county. Tim, Trudy, and Dan Huls, who are among Huls
    Farm's owners, personally took me on a tour of their high-tech new
    barn, and patiently explained to me the attractions and vicissitudes
    of dairy farming in Montana. It is inconceivable that the United
    States in general, and Huls Farm in particular, will collapse in the
    foreseeable future. But Gardar Farm, the former manor farm of the
    Norse bishop of southwestern Greenland, was abandoned over 500 years
    ago. Greenland Norse society collapsed completely: its thousands of
    inhabitants starved to death, were killed in civil unrest or in war
    against an enemy, or emigrated, until nobody remained alive. While the
    strongly built stone walls of Gardar barn and nearby Gardar Cathedral
    are still standing, so that I was able to count the individual cow
    stalls, there is no owner to tell me today of Gardar's former
    attractions and vicissitudes. Yet when Gardar Farm and Norse Greenland
    were at their peak, their decline seemed as inconceivable as does the
    decline of Huls Farm and the U.S. today.

    Let me make clear: in drawing these parallels between Huls and Gardar
    Farms, I am not claiming that Huls Farm and American society are
    doomed to decline. At present, the truth is quite the opposite: Huls
    Farm is in the process of expanding, its advanced new technology is
    being studied for adoption by neighboring farms, and the United States
    is now the most powerful country in the world. Nor am I claiming that
    farms or societies in general are prone to collapse: while some have
    indeed collapsed like Gardar, others have survived uninterruptedly for
    thousands of years. Instead, my trips to Huls and Gardar Farms,
    thousands of miles apart but visited during the same summer, vividly
    brought home to me the conclusion that even the richest,
    technologically most advanced societies today face growing
    environmental and economic problems that should not be underestimated.
    Many of our problems are broadly similar to those that undermined
    Gardar Farm and Norse Greenland, and that many other past societies
    also struggled to solve. Some of those past societies failed (like the
    Greenland Norse), and others succeeded (like the Japanese and
    Tikopians). The past offers us a rich database from which we can
    learn, in order that we may keep on succeeding.

    Norse Greenland is just one of many past societies that collapsed or
    vanished, leaving behind monumental ruins such as those that Shelley
    imagined in his poem "Ozymandias." By collapse, I mean a drastic
    decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social
    complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time. The
    phenomenon of collapses is thus an extreme form of several milder
    types of decline, and it becomes arbitrary to decide how drastic the
    decline of a society must be before it qualifies to be labeled as a
    collapse. Some of those milder types of decline include the normal
    minor rises and falls of fortune, and minor political/economic/social
    restructurings, of any individual society; one society's conquest by a
    close neighbor, or its decline linked to the neighbor's rise, without
    change in the total population size or complexity of the whole region;
    and the replacement or overthrow of one governing elite by another. By
    those standards, most people would consider the following past
    societies to have been famous victims of full-fledged collapses rather
    than of just minor declines: the Anasazi and Cahokia within the
    boundaries of the modern U.S., the Maya cities in Central America,
    Moche and Tiwanaku societies in South America, Mycenean Greece and
    Minoan Crete in Europe, Great Zimbabwe in Africa, Angkor Wat and the
    Harappan Indus Valley cities in Asia, and Easter Island in the Pacific
    Ocean (map, pp. 4-5).

    The monumental ruins left behind by those past societies hold a
    romantic fascination for all of us. We marvel at them when as children
    we first learn of them through pictures. When we grow up, many of us
    plan vacations in order to experience them at firsthand as tourists.
    We feel drawn to their often spectacular and haunting beauty, and also
    to the mysteries that they pose. The scales of the ruins testify to
    the former wealth and power of their builders-they boast "Look on my
    works, ye mighty, and despair!" in Shelley's words. Yet the builders
    vanished, abandoning the great structures that they had created at
    such effort. How could a society that was once so mighty end up
    collapsing? What were the fates of its individual citizens?-did they
    move away, and (if so) why, or did they die there in some unpleasant
    way? Lurking behind this romantic mystery is the nagging thought:
    might such a fate eventually befall our own wealthy society? Will
    tourists someday stare mystified at the rusting hulks of New York's
    skyscrapers, much as we stare today at the jungle-overgrown ruins of
    Maya cities?

    It has long been suspected that many of those mysterious abandonments
    were at least partly triggered by ecological problems: people
    inadvertently destroying the environmental resources on which their
    societies depended. This suspicion of unintended ecological
    suicide-ecocide-has been confirmed by discoveries made in recent
    decades by archaeologists, climatologists, historians,
    paleontologists, and palynologists (pollen scientists). The processes
    through which past societies have undermined themselves by damaging
    their environments fall into eight categories, whose relative
    importance differs from case to case: deforestation and habitat
    destruction, soil problems (erosion, salinization, and soil fertility
    losses), water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, effects
    of introduced species on native species, human population growth, and
    increased per-capita impact of people.

    Those past collapses tended to follow somewhat similar courses
    constituting variations on a theme. Population growth forced people to
    adopt intensified means of agricultural production (such as
    irrigation, double-cropping, or terracing), and to expand farming from
    the prime lands first chosen onto more marginal land, in order to feed
    the growing number of hungry mouths. Unsustainable practices led to
    environmental damage of one or more of the eight types just listed,
    resulting in agriculturally marginal lands having to be abandoned
    again. Consequences for society included food shortages, starvation,
    wars among too many people fighting for too few resources, and
    overthrows of governing elites by disillusioned masses. Eventually,
    population decreased through starvation, war, or disease, and society
    lost some of the political, economic, and cultural complexity that it
    had developed at its peak. Writers find it tempting to draw analogies
    between those trajectories of human societies and the trajectories of
    individual human lives-to talk of a society's birth, growth, peak,
    senescence, and death-and to assume that the long period of senescence
    that most of us traverse between our peak years and our deaths also
    applies to societies. But that metaphor proves erroneous for many past
    societies (and for the modern Soviet Union): they declined rapidly
    after reaching peak numbers and power, and those rapid declines must
    have come as a surprise and shock to their citizens. In the worst
    cases of complete collapse, everybody in the society emigrated or
    died. Obviously, though, this grim trajectory is not one that all past
    societies followed unvaryingly to completion: different societies
    collapsed to different degrees and in somewhat different ways, while
    many societies didn't collapse at all.

    The risk of such collapses today is now a matter of increasing
    concern; indeed, collapses have already materialized for Somalia,
    Rwanda, and some other Third World countries. Many people fear that
    ecocide has now come to overshadow nuclear war and emerging diseases
    as a threat to global civilization. The environmental problems facing
    us today include the same eight that undermined past societies, plus
    four new ones: human-caused climate change, buildup of toxic chemicals
    in the environment, energy shortages, and full human utilization of
    the Earth's photosynthetic capacity. Most of these 12 threats, it is
    claimed, will become globally critical within the next few decades:
    either we solve the problems by then, or the problems will undermine
    not just Somalia but also First World societies. Much more likely than
    a doomsday scenario involving human extinction or an apocalyptic
    collapse of industrial civilization would be "just" a future of
    significantly lower living standards, chronically higher risks, and
    the undermining of what we now consider some of our key values. Such a
    collapse could assume various forms, such as the worldwide spread of
    diseases or else of wars, triggered ultimately by scarcity of
    environmental resources. If this reasoning is correct, then our
    efforts today will determine the state of the world in which the
    current generation of children and young adults lives out their middle
    and late years. But the seriousness of these current environmental
    problems is vigorously debated. Are the risks greatly exaggerated, or
    conversely are they underestimated? Does it stand to reason that
    today's human population of almost seven billion, with our potent
    modern technology, is causing our environment to crumble globally at a
    much more rapid rate than a mere few million people with stone and
    wooden tools already made it crumble locally in the past? Will modern
    technology solve our problems, or is it creating new problems faster
    than it solves old ones? When we deplete one resource (e.g., wood,
    oil, or ocean fish), can we count on being able to substitute some new
    resource (e.g., plastics, wind and solar energy, or farmed fish)?

    Isn't the rate of human population growth declining, such that we're
    already on course for the world's population to level off at some
    manageable number of people?

    All of these questions illustrate why those famous collapses of past
    civilizations have taken on more meaning than just that of a romantic
    mystery. Perhaps there are some practical lessons that we could learn
    from all those past collapses. We know that some past societies
    collapsed while others didn't: what made certain societies especially
    vulnerable? What, exactly, were the processes by which past societies
    committed ecocide? Why did some past societies fail to see the messes
    that they were getting into, and that (one would think in retrospect)
    must have been obvious? Which were the solutions that succeeded in the
    past? If we could answer these questions, we might be able to identify
    which societies are now most at risk, and what measures could best
    help them, without waiting for more Somalia-like collapses.

    But there are also differences between the modern world and its
    problems, and those past societies and their problems. We shouldn't be
    so naïve as to think that study of the past will yield simple
    solutions, directly transferable to our societies today. We differ
    from past societies in some respects that put us at lower risk than
    them; some of those respects often mentioned include our powerful
    technology (i.e., its beneficial effects), globalization, modern
    medicine, and greater knowledge of past societies and of distant
    modern societies. We also differ from past societies in some respects
    that put us at greater risk than them: mentioned in that connection
    are, again, our potent technology (i.e., its unintended destructive
    effects), globalization (such that now a collapse even in remote
    Somalia affects the U.S. and Europe), the dependence of millions (and,
    soon, billions) of us on modern medicine for our survival, and our
    much larger human population. Perhaps we can still learn from the
    past, but only if we think carefully about its lessons.

    Efforts to understand past collapses have had to confront one major
    controversy and four complications. The controversy involves
    resistance to the idea that past peoples (some of them known to be
    ancestral to peoples currently alive and vocal) did things that
    contributed to their own decline.


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