[Paleopsych] Commentary: Book Review: Jared Diamond: Scorched Earth Collapse

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Tue May 3 22:14:52 UTC 2005

Book Review: Jared Diamond: Scorched Earth Collapse: How Societies Choose to 
Fail or Succeed


Viking. 575 pp. $29.95
Reviewed by Kevin Shapiro

    When the ancient Greeks happened upon ruins whose origins they could
    not fathom, they called them "Hebrews' castles"--a nod to the Hebrew
    Bible as the oldest available source of recorded history. In reality,
    the sites belonged not to the Hebrews but to earlier Aegean societies
    like the Myceneans and the Minoans. Regional powers in their day,
    those societies had disappeared, leaving the Greeks to wonder about
    their fate. Were they conquered or enslaved, stricken by plague or by
    famine, by earthquake or by flood?

    Even today, the desolate places of the world are littered with
    "Hebrews' castles." We gaze in wonder at, among others, the Anasazi
    pueblos of the American Southwest (Anasazi being the Navajo word for
    "the ancients"), the monumental statues of Easter Island, and the
    grand cities of the Maya entombed in the YucatE1n jungle. Aided by the
    tools of modern archaeology, from the analysis of midden heaps and
    pollen grains to radiocarbon dating and even more sophisticated
    physical methods, we often are able to know a good deal about the
    people responsible for these artifacts. In some cases, like that of
    the long-deserted Viking settlement in Greenland, detailed written
    records exist alongside the stone shells of churches, barns, and great

    But none of the records, written or material, speaks directly of the
    final moments of their authors. We are left, like the Greeks, to
    puzzle over the reasons these castles were abandoned, what became of
    their erstwhile inhabitants--and whether a similar fate might one day
    befall us.

    This puzzle is Jared Diamond's subject in Collapse: How Societies
    Choose to Fail or Succeed. In his best-known previous book, Guns,
    Germs, and Steel (1997), Diamond--a physiologist by training and a
    professor of geography at UCLA--sought to explain why the peoples of
    Europe succeeded in outpacing all others in technology and
    exploration, leaving their mark on the entire modern world. In
    Collapse, he turns his attention to the opposite extreme: societies
    that appear to have experienced spectacular crashes. His thesis is
    that collapse is a consequence of "ecocide"--environmental damage
    caused by deforestation, intensive agriculture, and the destruction of
    local flora and fauna.

    Diamond begins by considering the land and people of Montana, often
    regarded as one of the few remaining unspoiled corners of the United
    States. As he tells it, however, Montana is in fact a microcosm of
    collapse, or at least of major social change, driven by environmental
    problems. Logging and mining, the traditional pillars of the economy,
    have declined as the state has become increasingly deforested and
    polluted. Soil that once supported apple orchards is nearly gone, and
    so are the glaciers for which Montana is famous. At the same time, a
    burgeoning population in the Blackroot Valley has put a strain on the
    state's water supply and job market.

    Although environmental damage is a nearly ubiquitous corollary of
    human activity, what makes certain societies vulnerable to ecocide,
    Diamond argues, is the combination of particularly fragile ecosystems
    with particularly destructive land-use practices. Like Montana,
    societies that have collapsed in the past have been situated in areas
    marginal for agriculture, with climates unfavorable to farming and
    tree growth.

    On both Easter Island and Greenland, for example, trees grow slowly
    and topsoil is relatively poor; their former inhabitants cut down the
    available trees without realizing, apparently, that more would not
    soon grow to replace them. Similarly, the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon (in
    present-day New Mexico) prospered in wet years by employing innovative
    methods of irrigation, but they grew so numerous that they could not
    sustain their population in years of drought.

    What might such societies have done differently, and how have
    societies in similar straits managed to survive? The key, Diamond
    finds in each case, is successful adaptation to the fragility of the
    local environment. The Inuit of Greenland subsist on fish, whales, and
    seals, at least some of which are present even in periods of cold. The
    Japanese, who came perilously close to de-forestation in the 17th
    century, instituted a strict system of tree management under the early
    Tokugawa shoguns, regulating the use of literally every tree on the
    main islands of Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku. Most radical of all were
    the measures taken by the inhabitants of Tikopia Island in the
    Pacific, who planted every inch of their land with edible trees and
    roots, eliminated their pigs, and adopted stringent population
    controls, including abortion and infanticide. All of these successful
    societies recognized the dangers they were about to face, Diamond
    argues, and changed their behavior accordingly.

    Collapse provides a series of such vignettes, rendered in meticulous
    detail. Although Diamond admits to having set out with the notion that
    all collapses are brought about by ecocide alone, he recognized early
    on that this was never the whole story. The Easter Islanders, for
    example, may have denuded their homeland of palm trees and depleted
    its fisheries, but their problems were compounded by the rivalries of
    competing tribal chieftains, who sought to outdo each other by
    erecting more and bigger statues, thus consuming enormous quantities
    of wood and food. The Tikopians, by contrast, have a history of weak
    chiefs and little internecine competition.

    Still, despite Diamond's repeated bows to the complex interaction of
    such other factors as history, political economy, and social
    structure, it is clear that, to his mind, the overriding cause of
    social collapse remains ecocide, which he also considers the major
    threat to the survival of civilization on earth today. Indeed,
    contemporary tales of social change brought about by ecological damage
    bracket his discussion of the past and constitute the larger portion
    of the book.

    Diamond portrays the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, for example, as a
    classic Malthusian crisis: too many people, too little food and land.
    Tensions between Hutus and Tutsis were real, to be sure, and were
    exploited by Rwandan politicians for their own purposes. But Diamond
    believes that the scale of the bloodbath can only be explained by the
    inability of Rwandans to support themselves on small farms. Haiti
    offers a similar cautionary story, having long been the basketcase of
    the Western hemisphere because of almost total deforestation and
    agricultural insufficiency.

    Diamond sees the early stages of ecological collapse in two larger
    nations as well--where he also finds signs of hope. China faces
    problems of soil erosion, desertification, urbanization, and rapid
    industrialization, all of which contribute to rapid ecological
    destruction and the overuse of resources. But the Chinese have taken
    steps to preserve their remaining forests and to limit their
    population. In Australia, the government is rethinking its historic
    support for industries like sheep-herding and wheat cultivation--both
    poorly suited to Australia's ecosystem--and is embarking on projects
    to restore the continent's native flora and manage its scarce water
    supplies. Such reforms suggest to Diamond that some of us may yet be
    able to save ourselves from the fate of the Easter Islanders.

    Collapse is not light reading. Each of Diamond's vignettes is laden
    with facts and statistics--in one paragraph, for example, he lists the
    common and scientific names of fourteen different plants harvested by
    the Tikopians, followed by a description of the agronomy of Tikopian
    swamps. Such dry fare is not made easier to digest by the prose style,
    which tends to be ponderous and repetitive. All the same, Collapse is
    an impressively researched and keenly argued book.

    The fatal weakness of Collapse is Diamond's constant overreaching. In
    trying to apply the lessons of the past to the present, he wanders
    down several paths with no obvious connection to the main point of the
    book. His opening section on Montana, for instance, is interesting in
    its own right, but the problems faced by Montanans are similar only
    superficially to the problems that were faced by Easter Islanders or
    Mayans. The fact that Montana's traditional industries have turned out
    to be unprofitable and impractical is perhaps unfortunate for
    long-time residents, but it hardly seems to qualify as a historic

    Other applications of Diamond's thesis to the modern world are even
    more far-fetched. He repeatedly alludes to the dangers of
    globalization, suggesting that it makes the entire planet more
    vulnerable to the collapse of a single nation. This might be a
    reasonable conjecture in the short term, but in the long term it seems
    more likely that globalization would act to insulate the world from
    such collapse, since resources that formerly would have had to be
    provided by a single country could now eventually be supplied by

    The unstated premise of Collapse seems to be that the entire planet is
    headed for a Malthusian crisis, which can be staved off only by
    extreme measures like China's one-child policy. But is this view
    defensible? Diamond takes no note of the extraordinary increases in
    food production achieved in recent decades; nor does he consider the
    likelihood that crises in places like Rwanda owe more to poor land
    management than to a shortage of farmland as such.

    As for the population controls Diamond seems to endorse, he says
    nothing about their unhappy practical consequences--including the sort
    of intensive urban development he decries--let alone their
    questionability on moral grounds. Indeed, as Collapse progresses,
    Diamond's arguments grow increasingly one-sided. The entire final
    chapter is a discursive screed on the need for urgent environmental
    action, accompanied by a series of rather unconvincing potshots at
    those who are skeptical of such measures.

    To his credit, Diamond takes pains to avoid what he rightly calls
    "environmental determinism." But although he recognizes the role
    played by social and cultural factors, he does not seem to appreciate
    how such recognition serves again and again to undermine his emphasis
    on ecocide, making his thesis seem arbitrary, if not ideologically
    motivated. For many of the societies Diamond discusses, it is not even
    clear that environmental damage was a major determinant of collapse.

    Thus, the Vikings certainly were not helped in the long run by the
    rapid deforestation of Greenland, or by their concerted effort to
    maintain cattle in the face of unfavorable local conditions. But they
    were probably hurt even more by their rigid customs, which apparently
    included the avoidance of fish (as Diamond reports, fish bones are
    almost never found in their middens). Diamond himself notes that the
    inhabitants of Iceland, who faced similar problems, managed to survive
    by switching from an agrarian economy to one based on the production
    and export of salted cod. Their brethren on Greenland might have
    survived by similar means, if only they had eaten fish.

    A prominent theme of Collapse, but one which Diamond almost completely
    ignores, is that societies tend to do best if their decision-making is
    open and democratic. Many societies that failed--like Easter Island
    and the Mayan empire--were ruled by elites more concerned with
    self-aggrandizement than with the stewardship of natural resources for
    the common good. The Vikings maintained economically ruinous subsidies
    for cattle farms to serve the needs of rich landlords and foreign-born
    bishops. Societies that succeeded, by contrast, were often governed by
    some form of representative democracy. To this day Iceland has the
    world's oldest legislative body, and the Tikopian "government" (if one
    can call it that) resembles a condo association.

    Diamond cites these as examples of "bottom-up" management, but he also
    praises "top-down" successes, like Tokugawa Japan. Centralized rule,
    however, has been responsible for many of the worst ecological
    disasters of modern times, as in the industrial wastelands of the
    former Soviet Union and Eastern bloc. Judging from Diamond's examples
    of successful bottom-up societies, and of corporations that have found
    it in their financial interest to adopt ecologically friendly
    policies, our best course of action is the one exemplified by the
    state of Montana: governance at the local level based on democratic
    values and economic realities. It is, in other words, the course we
    are already following.

    Kevin Shapiro is a research fellow in neuroscience and a student at
    Harvard Medical School.

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