Saturday, December 30, 2006

Jared Diamond - Collapse; How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive


There are many places on earth, some of them tourist shrines, some of them deserted, covered by the sands of deserts or choked by the surrounding jungle, where mighty (or even, not so mighty) civilisations once stood. Jared Diamond’s book Collapse looks at why some of those civilisations failed and why some of them succeeded. In doing so, he hopes to draw some generalised conclusions about all societies, and perhaps make sure that our society (or at the least the readers of his book) learns some lessons in order to avoid becoming another buried society

As in his previous bestseller, “Guns, Germs and Steel”, Diamond tells a fascinating story. His descriptions of the rise and collapse (often sudden) of various civilisations are at turns amazing and terrifying. In particular, I found his chapters on the rise of the Vikings and their spread across the seas and oceans, as far as the US mainland fantastic. By comparing and contrasting Viking settlements on the Eastern Seaboard, in Iceland, Greenland, The Orkneys and elsewhere, he can tell a tale of how minor aspects of a civilisations setting (in particular, but not exclusively the physical environment) can have major consequences for a societies ultimate fate.

There is a danger when writing history of this type that you simply take the starting natural conditions (poor soil, excellent forests, good fishing) and extrapolate. Diamond avoids doing this, though he perhaps puts too much emphasis on these factors. Certainly the environment in terms of agricultural possibilities and climate changes did ultimately mean the doom of the Viking civilisation in Greenland.

But actions by societies themselves (whether they choose to cut down all the trees, grow unsuitable groups or introduction alien flora and fauna) often is a greater determining factor. Following on from these factors, whether a society adapts to changing circumstances or not is another major factors. The Vikings in Greenland didn’t try to adapt, instead attempting to continue the lives that they would have led in mainland Christian Europe meant that they were doomed. Diamond points out that the leaders of those societies, in blocking change and continuing in the old ways, merely ensured they were the last to starve.

Diamond’s later attempts to look at how these lessons can be applied to modern societies and nations are less convincing. At this point I must make it clear that I side with Diamond’s ambitions. Many of the factors that led to the collapse of Mayan, Viking, some Native American societies are visible around the world – and not just with the global warming that currently obsesses me and many like me. Deforestation, a factor in the failure of many historical civilisations, is a major issue for countries like China, today. Changes to water availability or the erosion of arable land are issues around the globe. But in a modern, globalised, technologically rich world, it’s not enough to point simply to these as the determining factors.

To be fair to Diamond, I’m being slightly crude here, he doesn’t really believe that modern civilisation will collapse overnight, but he is trying to show how in a globalised economy, there are a number of weak links in the economic and political chain that threaten the whole structure.

But the problems with Diamond’s thesis become clear, I think, when you look at some of his solutions. In particular when he looks at how some of the worst environmental criminals have tried to be part of the solution. In a couple of case studies, he shows how companies (such as a Chevron subsidiary) have cleaned up their act to make their oil drilling environmentally sound. Now one word that I didn’t spot in Diamond’s whole book (it’s certainly not in the index) is capitalism.

Capitalism is the latest stage (the highest even – to quote a 20th century writer) of class society. It is a system were productive capacity of human kind has far exceeded that of any previous society. Capitalism’s driving force – the quest for profits, goes to the heart of every aspect of society. Diamond himself points out, how this is not just an economic law, it’s a legal reality as well. In the US, it’s a legal responsibility of a company director to avoid making business decisions that reduce profitability. Under this sort of economic reality, it’s impossible to believe that every company will start to behave in a green way. Even though it is, as the author makes clear, in the interests of society as a whole, and sometimes of an individual company, to operate in a clean, environmentally conscious way, economic competition between companies mean that every advantage one company can get over another will be grabbed with both hands.

So, if a company can get an economic edge by cutting back its environmental policies, dumping waste instead of processing it, releasing more emissions instead of cleaning the gases or indeed cutting back on environmental inspections instead of hiring more inspectors, the directors will authorise it. The price of not seizing such economic advantages will be reduced competitiveness and ultimately bankruptcy.

Of course, as Jared Diamond makes clear there are other factors here. Government legislation, political and consumer pressure and campaigners can force better policies, but these will necessarily be undermined by the underlying economic realities. While we must support such initiatives, the ultimate challenge for us is not simply better legislation or greener company directors; it is changing the whole economic reality of our society.

The subtitle to Diamond’s book is “How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive”. Here again we face a difficulty. Granted some societies in the past did consciously decide to alter their behaviour to avoid collapse. But the economic and political structures of modern capitalism mean that making a decision in the interest of the whole of society is not easy, if it goes against the interests of those who wield the most economic power. The majority of people in the UK believe we need to reduce the use of fossil fuels to stop runaway climate change. But we have a government whose economic interests coincide with those of the oil companies. Those who take decisions about our agriculture, environmental policy or energy strategy are the same who took us to war in Iraq despite the opposition of the vast majority of the population.

Here we should return to the Vikings. To us, with hindsight we can say it was insane and irrational that they attempted to build a society in Greenland based on breeding cows, when the environment and climate was against them. It was further insane that they refused to reap the bounty of the oceans around them and catch fish to provide the protein that would have helped them through the cold winters. But that irrationality was the logical outcome of the position they found themselves in and their desire to continue to live in the way that they had done in their homelands.

Today, we live in a society that has irrationality built into its economic heart. It’s economically sane to plunder the world’s resources even though it condemns millions to death.

The future salvation of human kind will require as Diamond makes clear, ordinary people to become aware of the lessons of history. However, it will not be enough for us to simply tinker with legislation and donate a few pounds to good causes. It will require the fundamental transformation of society - the creation of a society were the use of global resources and the production of material for human consumption is planned in the interests of people and planet, not the profits of the multinationals.

If that seems impossible, remember the people of Easter Island, the Mayan Kingdoms or Viking Greenland who must have argued that nothing can change. Jared Diamond’s work is a major tool to awaken us to the threat we face, but its conclusions are not the manifesto for change that we need.

Related Review

McAnany & Yoffee - Questioning Collapse

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Paul Foot - The Vote


On 15th February 2003 up to two million people marched through the streets of London against the forthcoming war in Iraq. Around the globe millions more protested, demonstrated, expressing their disgust at the seemingly inevitable war. For those of us involved in the anti-war movements there was a strange contradiction; then as now it seemed almost impossible to find anyone who supported the invasion of Iraq. Certainly a majority of people in this country opposed the war yet the so called democracy we lived in, ignored this majority opinion and its parliamentary leaders blithely followed the US administration to war.

Paul Foot’s monumental history of the struggle for the vote (and the subsequent undermining of the votes’ power) tries to address how this contempt for democracy came about. As his starting point he looks at how during obscure debates of the English Revolution the English ruling classes expressed their fear that representative democracy would “threaten their property”. For almost 350 years various propertied minority ruling classes struggled against extending the vote to the unpropertied majority.

And yet when universal suffrage became law the rich didn’t lose their lands, wealth and property. In fact, as Foot points out the main beneficiary of universal suffrage, the British Labour Party has retreated totally from its ambition of reducing capitalism and governing for ordinary people.

But Foot points out that this was not inevitable. In three brilliant chapters – one on the Chartists, one on the Reform Acts and one on the Suffragettes, we see how the struggle for the vote was often part of far more radical demands, demands that would have fundamentally altered the balance of power in favour of the poor. Foot points out that many who entered parliament on the back of universal suffrage learnt to their dismay that simple democracy means nothing, if the power of the rich, the unelected bankers and financiers and the capitalists remains untouched.

Paul Foot was one of the greatest socialists that the British Left ever produced. Here, in his greatest book, we see how his passion for justice was a reflection of his absolute belief that society needs to be transformed by ordinary people.

The Vote: How it was won and How it was undermined has recently been republished by Bookmarks. You can buy it online from their website here.

Related Reviews

Foot - Red Shelley
Vallance - A Radical History of Britain
Thompson - The Making of the English Working Class

Friday, December 08, 2006

Iain M. Banks - Look To Windward


This Iain Banks novel is about war and the consequences of war. In Bank's universe where societies span thousands of solar systems, a war means hundreds of billions of people can be affected.

As in several of these novels, we see how the Culture intervenes subtley into the affairs of other civilisations. Though this time, they get it wrong and the Chelgrian civilisation collapses into civil war - 5 billion loose their lives, and the Culture suffers a sort of collective guilt.

The novel deals with the consequences. We can't comprehend the deaths of 5 billion - rather like the Holocaust is difficult to imagine. So Banks tells us the stories of a few individuals - one in particular who is coaxed into a mission of revenge, because he cannot escape the lose of his lover in the war. The story of attempted revenge, exile, war and religion feels a little thin on the ground - but Bank's wonderful writing makes up for this, and once again I was left breathtaken by the sheer scope of the novel.

As an aside I was surprised to see the novel dedicated to the Gulf War Veterans. Until I remembered a pervious Gulf War and the men who still fight for justice because of the chemicals they were exposed to over 10 years ago. Sometimes Science Fiction can be very close to the truth.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Stephen King – The Dark Tower – The Gunslinger


In the introduction to this, the revised and expanded version of the novel, Stephen King makes it clear that he thinks that the series of novels that starts with “The Gunslinger” is his most important and complex work. His Magnum Opus if you like.

Certainly it’s a very good novel, a blending of fantasy and SF, with influences from all sorts of imaginable genres - King makes clear his debt to “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” for instance.

He also makes clear his debt to “The Lord of the Rings” and here I think is were it starts to unwind. King didn’t want to re-write the “LOTR”, thank God. Nor did he want to steal, borrow or copy the characters, locations and settings. Unlike just about every other fantasy author you can think of. King clearly set about trying to capture the scope and the imagination of Tolkien’s invented lands. But I think he tries to hard.

The tale is of a lone gunslinger (the last of his breed, as a film caption writer will no doubt have it one day) pursuing a mysterious black clad man across a desert. The story moves quickly from its classic western style opening to become more fantastical. With magical goings on and a confusing sense of time for the characters contributing to a tale that’s both readable and confusing. But at every stage you feel King’s setting up a wider mythical back-drop. Rather than the story arising naturally out of events it feels clunky, like things have been bolted on rather than fleshed out.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Stephen King’s a fantastic writer – the novel “IT” is one of the most enjoyable books I have had the pleasure to read and re-read over the years. I just think that in this early book, King spent too long trying to create an epic, rather than telling a story which would naturally pull in the epic around it, purely because of it’s scope.

The fan-sites imply it gets better with volume two. Lets hope so, otherwise it could be a long turgid trip to volume seven.