The Middle of the Road

Collapse, Jared Diamond, 2005

Butrinti archaeolgical site

Jared Diamond is a scientist and academic. He has also been a senior official in the environmental movement. Diamond is a trained biologist who became an ornithologist and finally a geographer. He has been US regional director of the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Collapse is based on science, but not on Diamond’s original research. Like some of Diamond’s other popular books, such as Guns, Germs and Steel, it is a form of intelligent popularisation; what the French sometimes call haute vulgarisation.

Collapse is one of the popular classics of environmentalism. It should perhaps be read in conjunction Tainter’s remorselessly logical The Collapse of Complex Societies.

Diamond is an optimist. He accepts completely that environmental issues are ‘serious and in need of addressing’. He does not however think that human extinction or an apocalyptic collapse of human civilisation is likely. He sees the future, if we do not address the problems we are facing, as one of ‘significantly lower living standards, chronically higher risks, and the undermining of what we now consider some of our key values’. Bad enough.

Collapse is based on case studies. That is both its strength and – as I shall point out in my conclusion to this review – its weakness.

Some of the case studies are of countries or regions that Diamond knows well. He has for instance known the Bitterroot Valley of Montana since childhood. He has spent much time in the forests of New Guinea watching birds and knows Australia well. He has tramped the Norse archaeological sites in Greenland, and has visited Iceland and Easter Island. In all cases he has made himself thoroughly familiar with the literature. Rather than cluttering the text with footnotes, Diamond has provided a detailed list of further reading at the end of the book. It is what the French call a bibliographie raisonnée.

From this brief and partial list it will be clear that not all the societies which Diamond deals with have in fact collapsed to date. Diamond includes a number of well-known classic cases of collapse from the past. I have mentioned Easter Island and Norse Greenland. The latter is a case which obviously fascinates Diamond, and he devotes a great deal of space to it. He also deals with the Anasazi of the American Southwest, the lowland Maya of the Classic period, and two modern examples of societies which have not been allowed to collapse: Ruanda, where a Tutsi-led rebel army prevented a final meltdown, and Haiti, where the United Nations intervened.

Australia, of course, has not collapsed and neither has China, another of Diamond’s cases. They both however face severe challenges. Diamond also deals with two examples of societies, Tokugawa Japan and the Pacific island of Tikopia, which dealt successfully with environmental challenges.

Diamond does not believe that any society collapses solely for environmental reasons. Diamond believes, I think absolutely reasonably, that ‘A society’s responses [to its environmental problems] depend on its political, economic and social institutions and on its cultural values’. Diamond gives a particularly interesting example of the Greenland Norse, whose collective self-identification as European Christians prevented them from ‘becoming Inuit’, their best chance of survival.

The book is rich in detail. Although I read it several years ago, I had forgotten quite a lot. I had forgotten, for example, that Iceland – because of the application by the original Norse settlers of European farming techniques to light volcanic soils – has the most degraded environment in Europe. I had also forgotten in how many cases – the Anasazi, the Maya, Easter, Pitcairn and Henderson islands in the Pacific – cannibalism can play a role in collapse. In both cases the facts don’t fit my prejudices. That is something I think for me to bear in mind when I am dealing with this kind of material.

Diamond’s treatment of his cases is very full. It is much fuller, for example, than the newspaper or magazine features from which most of us get our information. One of the results of this detailed treatment is to help us realise just how environmentally challenged a modern society that is apparently functioning perfectly well can be. In Montana, for example, the traditional, environmentally damaging industries have declined. They have however left a legacy, which can be very expensive. There are twenty thousand abandoned mines, for example, which have left toxic wastes and in many cases have contaminated the water table. In many case there are no surviving owners, which leaves the state and the federal government arguing about who should pay the very heavy costs of clear-up.

Another example of a challenged society which most of us would think is healthy is Australia, where an over-commitment to English cultural models led to serious environmental degradation caused in particular by sheep-raising. Diamond details the decline of the towns, the flight to the cities and the costs of maintaining an uneconomical agricultural sector.

Diamond’s analysis is also capable of correcting misapprehensions about the collapse of some societies. In the case of Ruanda, for example, Diamond challenges the common Western prejudice that the massacres were a direct and simple result of ethnic tension. He shows that the tensions were to a large extent the legacy of interference by Belgium, the colonial power, and manipulation by various groups of politicians. More importantly, he shows that before the massacres over-population had led to an excessive subdivision of farms leading to non-viable land holdings and a breakdown of community in rural areas.

Two of Diamond’s most interesting cases are Tokugawa Japan and the island of Tikopia. In Japan the Shoguns realised the dangers of deforestation, and set up an elaborate range of measures to combat it. These were successful. On Tikopia the islanders realised the environmental threat. They killed all their pigs, and took measures – some of them drastic, by our standards – to prevent the population rising beyond a viable level.

One solution was top-down, the other was bottom-up, which is the point Diamond wants to illustrate. It is also interesting that neither society was advanced, in our sense, or industrial.

Diamond’s approach makes it clear that the causes of collapse or of an environmental threat are specific, and that many threats have to be dealt with locally, in their context. He shows, with a suitably guarded optimism, that it can be done.

Where Diamond’s approach is weaker is in dealing with global threats: climate disruption, the pollution of the oceans, the loss of the rainforests, the wetlands and the coral reefs, the disappearance of topsoil, the pollution of freshwater. The technical solutions are well understood. What is difficult is the need for international cooperation.

I do not think we are very good at that.

Photo by wallygrom on VisualHunt / CC BY-SA