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 is 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


Beth Roland said...

Great to read an educated punter's review of Collapse! The part of it that struck home most with me was the Easter Island collapse arguably as a result of diverting much needed resources, including time, energy and inspiration, to 'showing off'and reinforcing division.
For me, I think some of the other main contributing factors in our 'Collapse' are the way that shareholding has developed. At first many Social Good projects encouraged shareholders and although a profit was expected, the shareholders were a personally identifiable band of people, who were prepared to wait for their retrun, or could be directly aproached when stability was required. Now each company has a duty to please shareholders who have no bond with the 'project' except the most-money-now, thank you and goodnight. Who will take resonsibility if nobody can be held accountable?
I think about Collapse fairly frequently, especially while there are so many stories of high level corruption and bed-feathering. Twas ever thus I suppose, and at least we get to hear about it now, but it riles that we are given the illusion of inclusion, and encouraged so fervently to believe 'the world is safe in our hands', when we could actually be getting on and doing something about it ourselves. Although which one of us wants to give up our own comfortable life until the last possible moment - when it all collapses around us. Certainly pause for thought!

Colin F said...

Just discovered your really interesting blog so this comment comes rather late.

Diamond's book ('Effondrement') has been reviewed in French by Franck Drici for the review Socialisme International. See here :

A number of other texts reviewed on Resolute Reader have also been translated into French (Hallas, Le marxisme de Trotsky, for example) or reviewed by French comrades.

If anyone is interested, they can check out some of the following sites :