maandag 1 november 2010
Review of Jared Diamond's "Collapse"
In his 2005 book “Collapse”, Jared Diamond provides interesting case studies of (more or less advanced) societies that collapsed under environmental pressures (that were at least to some extent of their own making). The historical case studies are followed by a discussion of some contemporary societies that face important environmental challenges. In the three final chapters of the book, Diamond tries to distill some broad policy conclusions for our present world.
In my opinion, the best part of the book are the chapters on environmental archeology. In these chapters, Diamond discusses first the collapses of the following societies: Easter Island, the Greenland Norse, the Maya, the Anasazi Indians and the Polynesians of Pitcairn Island. This analysis of collapses is complemented by an analysis of societies that have proved able to reverse unfavorable environmental trends (including the Pacific Island of Tikopa, central New Guinea, and Japan under Shogun rule). From a scientific point of view, it is fascinating to learn how archeologists derive their knowledge of illiterate past societies through the reconstruction of past environmental conditions. The book contains for instance a discussion of the “quantitative” analysis of factors predicting the survival of isolated societies that I would count amongst the better uses of statistics in social science.
The facts that are revealed are often baffling. It still remains beyond my understanding how illiterate Polynesians developed navigational skills with a precision close to that of a GPS. Also, why have we never been taught at school that the Norse arrived in Greenland centuries before the Inuit, maintained for centuries a catholic society with close trading ties with Europe but eventually all starved to death with a sea full of food within the reach of their hands? And where else could you learn that Japan is actually a country that is mostly covered by forests, “thanks” to the preservation actions started by the Shogun?
The main interest of these chapters however lies in their clear demonstration of the central theme of the book: there are indeed historical examples of once flourishing societies that have more or less completely disappeared due to environmental factors (mainly the deterioration of soil quality and the overexploitation of renewable resources).
After the discussion of past societies, Diamond moves on to a discussion of modern societies. He covers the recent genocide in Ruanda, the different environmental fates of the two states sharing the Island of Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and finally the environmental challenges faced by China and Australia, respectively. These chapters certainly are chockfull of interesting facts. I was already aware of the work of my fellow countryman Platteau on the economics of the Rwandan genocide. I was still amazed to find out that, in some villages, the killings were purely intra-ethnic. As a democrat fiercely opposed to any sort of authoritarianism, I almost dislike the idea that the forest in the Dominican Republic were saved by an odious strongmen, but I have to accept this fact. The eagerness with which the Australian government has provided incentives for non-sustainable environmental practices looks almost suicidal for an advanced society.
However, a grand unifying theme is missing in these chapters, and one is left with the impression that these case studies were chosen simply because these are the ones that Diamond happens to know, for instance because he lived or worked in these countries. What is also missing is any attempt to put figures in perspective: when one reads the chapters on China and Australia, for instance (these were written in 2004), one wonders why these countries have not already collapsed under their own mismanagement. Surely something is missing in the picture that Diamond has drawn.
Finally, Diamond attempts a general assessment of the 12 main environmental threats this world is facing, and how to face them. I think the list of threats is relatively non-controversial, but it is still worth repeating them over and over again. His discussion of the role played by big business is very balanced, and does not get caught in the trap of left-wing one-liners. However, his general analysis of contemporary policy issues remains very superficial – I suppose the main reason is that Diamond is simply not familiar enough with concrete high-level modern day policy issues. The arguments used to refute “one liners” of those who dismiss the importance of environmental problems are mostly also of the “one liner” type (although I strongly agree with his refusal to just assume that scientific progress will eventually solve all our woes). The discrepancy with the depth of the analysis of past societies makes these chapters a disappointing reading, and one wonders whether the book would not have gained without the last three chapters. Alternatively, Diamond should have invested the same efforts in discussing with high level experts as he has done for the previous chapters. To take just one example from my own field of expertise: it is comforting to see that he has talked with Economics Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom, but Diamond’s grasp of economics remains very superficial (an undergraduate would fail his exams with sentences such as “the price in those markets is not determined by production costs but by demand and supply”).
What is then the overall evaluation of this book?
I suppose that the biggest problem for “Collapse” is simply that it was published after Diamond’s ultimate masterpiece “Guns, germs and steel”, which I regard definitely as one of the most essential books I have read in my life: reading this book was one of those rare occasions in my life where all my existing views on the world have been shaken upside down. In this perspective, “Collapse” is indeed not as revolutionary.
However, I still think that “Collapse” is required reading. Too many people still simply assume that environmental issues are unrelated to our own material welfare. “Collapse” provides a thoroughly documented antidote to this type of thinking – and, in the process, contains a lot of fascinating (if not exactly enlivening) stories. I just fear that most people who will read this book are already convinced of all this.
Maybe just a last words on stile. Diamond is a scholar, and this shows in the book. Although I definitely prefer a thoroughly documented and detailed argument, I think the level of detail in this book might put some people off – some of the details could have been moved to footnotes or a technical annex without affecting the strength of the analysis.