6.29.2006

what i'm reading

I'm reading Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

I'll start by saying that Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies is one of the most remarkable books I've ever read. It permanently changed the way I see the world and how I view history, and that's quite a big thing to say about a book. I won't go on about it here; I'll just say that I couldn't recommend it more highly.

Collapse is sometimes called the sequel or follow-up to Guns, Germs, but I don't see it that way. You can certainly read one without the other. Collapse has a very different feel from Guns, Germs. In the first book, Diamond is using a huge breadth and scope of research to alter your perception of history, to teach and enlighten. In Collapse, he's adding an additional layer: he's using that research to advocate, to impress people into action. He's drawing specific parallels between ancient societies that did not survive and our modern world. The parallels are chilling, and inescapable.

Those of us who travel great distances to view the ruins of ancient societies may forget, or not realize, that some of them were not conquered. While the Incan empire was destroyed by Pisarro's conquistadors, the Spanish never found the Mayan Empire. It had already crumbled. The Mayan people were still there, of course (as they are to this day) but they were no longer powerful and wealthy. Their gleaming stone cities - technological marvels of their time, centres for trade, art, religion, and culture - had been abandoned. There was no longer an empire. There were only survivors.

There are many examples of this in history. Diamond takes you through several of them, demonstrating how environmental destruction contributed to their collapse. The degree of that contribution varies, but Diamond says he knows of no case of a failed civilization where environmental destruction did not play a significant role. He also gives examples of societies that adapted to new environmental challenges, properly managed scarce resources, and survived.

Diamond claims that he is not a doomsayer, that he aims to demonstrate that we can make proper choices and save our environment, and so, ourselves. Whether this stems from his optimistic nature or the understanding that one cannot write and market a book like this without including a message of hope, I don't know. However, I find it impossible to share his optimism.

I look at history, at the choices people make and have always made - especially at the choices made by powerful people who control scarce resources and whose concerns are profit and power - and I see little reason for hope. Because of this, I'm finding Collapse almost too depressing to read. I continue to read it, because of my fascination with ancient societies and my desire to learn about them. But I can only read a little at a time, before I become too discouraged and need to put down the book. It's not unlike how I felt reading Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. It's great stuff, but the implications are so heavy.

If you don't read Collapse, I highly recommend at least reading Diamond's introductory overview to the book. The book's premise is not a simple equation, and Diamond lays to rest many of the objections to his work, raised by people who haven't read it. For example, in the divisive atmosphere surrounding environmental debate, the pro-growth camp dismisses Diamond as an environmental fear-mongerer, while environmentalists cry that he has sold out to business interests. In reality, Diamond is neither simply pro-environment nor pro-business. He recognizes both the need to use resources - try imagining a world without mining! - and to manage resources wisely, in order to ensure long-term survival. That is, survival of both those resources and ourselves.

In the introduction, Diamond also responds to predictable objections from people who view ancient societies through stereotype - whether that be racism or its opposite, the myth of the idyllic people who lived in perfect balance with nature, before those nasty Europeans came along and ruined it. Neither stereotype is valid.

* * * *

One of the collapsed societies Diamond examines is Easter Island, the home of those famous giant stone statues. Easter was never conquered; it was already uninhabited when Europeans found it. Easter Island civilization was dependent on large palm trees, which the people used to make their sea-going canoes, shade their crops, hold down topsoil, and transport and erect their icons. Despite this, and for complicated reasons, the inhabitants of Easter completely deforested their land, which touched off a chain of events that led to an extreme shortage of resources, and eventually, war, starvation, chaos and collapse.

An often-quoted passage from the chapter on Easter Island:
I have often asked myself, "What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?" Like modern loggers, did he shout "Jobs, not trees!"? Or: "Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we'll find a substitute for wood"? Or: "We don't have proof that there aren't palms somewhere else on Easter, we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering"?
Here's an excellent essay summarizing Collapse Diamond wrote for the New York Times, reprinted by Truthout.

2 comments:

James said...

Be sure to finish the book, in spite of the depressing bits (and there are some really depressing bits in the section on modern crises). He also does have some optimistic bits, including some good examples of how some companies are discovering that sensible environmentally sound policies are actually good businesses. Of course, he's got plenty of examples of the opposite, too, including an interesting contrast between the oil industry (increasingly environmentally responsible) and the mining industry (almost hopeless).

He also does have examples of societies which avoided collapse, as in the contrast between Iceland and the Greenland Vikings.

L-girl said...

I'm certainly going to finish the book. It's fascinating.

He also does have examples of societies which avoided collapse, as in the contrast between Iceland and the Greenland Vikings.

Yes, I mentioned that above. Despite that, I'm not at all optimistic about our civilization's will to emulate them.