easterislandFor two years I have been anxiously awaiting the arrival of Jared Diamond’s follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs and Steel. The book was due out well over a year ago and was supposed to be called Ecocide. Instead, we have a disappointing and irrationally optimistic rehash of Diamond’s articles over the past three years, entitled Collapse.

This has to be one of the most pre-reviewed books in history. Diamond himself announced it with a very long NYT op-ed ‘reflection’ on New Year’s Day entitled “The Ends of the World as We Know Them” (thanks to Truthout for keeping the archive), in which the author lays out the entire thesis of the book: that a combination of five factors leads to the downfall of human societies:

  • the damage that people have inflicted on their environment;
  • climate change;
  • enemies;
  • changes in friendly trading partners; and
  • the society’s political, economic and social responses to these shifts

The book then goes on to review which combinations of factors were responsible for each collapse in his study, and concludes with a warning that the current state of our civilization exhibits all of these factors, and therefore “we” citizens need to pressure our governments, notably in the US, to heed these warnings and act to prevent collapse.

With respect, Diamond has been saying this for a long time, and it has been well covered. Here’s a transcript of a 2002 speech Diamond gave at Princeton, courtesy of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I was hoping for some new material, new insights and, most important, new solutions. Although the critics seem content to review the book as something new, faithful Diamond readers who were expecting something as astonishing and provocative as his essay The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race will probably be disappointed.

What have the critics said so far? Well, Oliver Broudy in a Salon.com article called Are We Doomed interviews Diamond and asks him some provocative questions: “[Your argument on] the importance of trying to work with big business [is] a notion that I think strikes many environmentalists as alien, if not offensive.” But Diamond won’t bite: “Businesses along with governments are the most potent forces in the world today…it’s the responsibility of the public to pass laws, buy products and boycott products that will encourage businesses to behave better” — who’s he kidding? Diamond is still talking about his meeting with Bill Gates three years ago, when Gates offered his inane opinion that technology would solve all the world’s environmental problems.

Wired Magazine features a review by Stewart Brand called Will We Ever Learn, which is an excellent, and brief, summary of the book, and calls it “a great work of case study [but] without the breakthrough insight [of earlier works]”.

Seed Magazine has an excerpt of the book.

Blogger Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution didn’t like the book because it was too pessimistic, and links to a gaggle of right-wingers who cite the wacko discredited eco-holocaust-denyer Bjorn Lomborg. They, of course, deny that the problem Diamond talks about even exists.

In The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell’s review, called The Vanishing, brilliantly and colourfully digs out the important messages buried in the ‘case study’: “The lesson of Collapse is that societies, as often as not, arenít murdered. They commit suicide: they slit their wrists and then, in the course of many decades, stand by passively and watch themselves bleed to death.” Gladwell gloms on to the fifth and most interesting of Diamond’s ‘five factors’:

Diamondís distinction between social and biological survival is a critical one, because too often we blur the two, or assume that biological survival is contingent on the strength of our civilizational values. That was the lesson taken from the two world wars and the nuclear age that followed: we would survive as a species only if we learned to get along and resolve our disputes peacefully. The fact is, though, that we can be law-abiding and peace-loving and tolerant and inventive and committed to freedom and true to our own values and still behave in ways that are biologically suicidal. The two kinds of survival are separate…Diamond quite convincingly defends himself against the charge of environmental determinism…The real issue is how, in coming to terms with the uncertainties and hostilities of the world, the rest of us have turned ourselves into cultural determinists.

Gladwell goes on to talk about Oregon’s Measure 37. “Specifically, Measure 37 said that anyone who could show that the value of his land was affected by regulations implemented since its purchase was entitled to compensation from the state. If the state declined to pay, the property owner would be exempted from the regulations.” This carefully hashed-out political and cultural compromise was designed to balance the need to protect land-owners’ constitutional rights against the need for governments to manage land use for development in a cohesive manner:

The thing that got lost in the debate, however, was the land. In a rapidly growing state like Oregon, what, precisely, are the stateís ecological strengths and vulnerabilities? What impact will changed land-use priorities have on water and soil and cropland and forest? … Rivers and streams and forests and soil are a biological resource. They are a tangible, finite thing, and societies collapse when they get so consumed with addressing the fine points of their history and culture and deeply held beliefs…that they forget that the pastureland is shrinking and the forest cover is gone.

This is the most important lesson of the book, and it belies Diamond’s optimism by showing that, exactly as was done with Measure 37, we are doomed to stay loyal to our culture to the bitter end, against all reason, and contrary to our instincts. Cultures just change too slowly, and our current one has 30,000 years of baggage attached to it, way too much acquisition-and-population momentum and I-can’t-hear-you-la-la-la inertia to respond to Diamond’s urgings for quick, citizen-driven action, even if that action is, some day, forthcoming. So in the end, Diamond re-presents the problem he’s been talking about for years, and then raises foolish expectations that the counter-cultural solution he proposes will work — despite the evidence in his own cases that counter-cultural solutions don’t work.

And if there was any doubt, the fact that most of the criticism of Collapse is coming from those who say there’s no problem to solve, kind of makes the point.

If you want a more engaging, brutally candid, and thoroughly supported analysis of the mess our civilization has got us into, read instead John Zerzan’s extraordinary Future Primitive. You can find it on activist Oneida Kincaid’s wonderful Earth Crash/Earth Spirit website.

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  1. Kevin says:

    “Cultures just change too slowly, and our current one has 30,000 years of baggage attached to it, way too much acquisition-and-population momentum and I-can’t-hear-you-la-la-la inertia to respond to Diamond’s urgings for quick, citizen-driven action,”

    When I read Guns, Germs and Steel, Ishmael, Original Wisdom, articles like these, etc… I have begun to see them not as proof that we all have to change everyone, because I think it is impossible, but rather as proof that some of us (as many as possible) have to learn the ways of a culture *knows how to live on the earth*, and we have to start practicing it, getting ready for when all the “la-la-la- I can’t hear you” people sink the boat. And hopefully, that culture that knows how to survive is strong enough that it wont get sucked down in the wake.Perhaps calling for citizen action will not create enough of a force to change the course, but it may create enough of a force to strengthen the counter-culture just enough to survive…. But then again, maybe that’s just something I tell my self to make me feel better at night.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, Kevin. I’m with you, except that I’m not very hopeful the counter-culture will survive either. My hope now is that we’ll have come up with some designs, some models, of an alternative way to live, that perhaps will be of use to those that survive, even if they have to be taken with more than a grain of salt.

  3. Bjorn Lomborg really pisses me off. Just sayin’.

  4. Stefka says:

    There is more to the book – we are actually producing an exhibition inspired by “Collapse…” that opens May 1 in LA.

  5. Franz-Albert Heimer says:

    Hi there! You are lucky, you already have the possibility to read Diamonds new book. I will wait for the german translation. By now, i read the comments of Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker, of David Brin and Dave Pollard. Three interesting points of view – i hope you will pardon my school english. Gladwell concentrates on Diamonds main message about the ecological risks, Brin on the lack of solutions the pursue HIM (he is simply too optimistic about technology in general) and you, Dave on the same lack of solutions (in your point of view, that seems less optimistic about mainstream technological progress). I guess, i am near your position. I would like to suggest an interdisciplinary approach. Guns, germs and steel, with the Third Chimanzee, were some of the most important books i ever read. Nevertheless i see blind spots there – as everyone has blind spots. Diamonds brilliant analysis is supported by an approach that is orientated primary on natural siences. It is impressive, in which degree Diamond integrates results of diverse natural and some social sciences. But his concentration on natural sciences remain clear. Example: even he has a certain tendency to project patterns of industrialized way of life in previous times, see e.g. the anachronistic things he says about privacy of sexual acts; there is evidence that only some hundred years ago people had very different behaviour. Other example: Diamonds helplessness to explain WHY in the last some hundred years developed a mentality that stands against mass murder and genocide.This Helplessness is the result of the concentration on natural science. Only if we integrate the results of social scientists we will one day achieve the goal of an deep analysis of what happened in human history, and what we can do to prevent ecological suicide.With population numbers and technological progress rates increasing, and threatening our survival as race, i think we can not afford any more the over-specialization of sciences. We must find a way to let all the creativity of the people working in the different scientific disciplines work together, instead of simply not know about the results of the neighbour.Hm… my post grew longer than i intended. OK, let me stop here. A last hint: i tink, one of the interesting approaches of social siences we will find helpful is the theory about the civilizational process of Norbert Elias. He worked about the structure of the human competition-process, about the mechanisms that gradually led to more cooperation, civilisation (“taming of aggressive impulses”), solidarity and democratization. Also Elias has his blind spots, and the results of Diamond are a good help to fill them. Other works i found interesting are the ones of world historicians, such us McNeill, Bentley or Geiss.What we need is a synthesis.

  6. Myron Paine says:

    Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse sustains an erroneous mental model of the Norse in Greenland during the Little Ice Age. The better evidence shows that the Norse in Greenland walked across the frozen Davis Strait to become ancestors of many tribes. Multiple evidence to support this statement is presented in http://www.frozentrail.org.For example: The Old Norse and the Algonquin-speaking people had over 15,000 phrases with similar sounds and meanings. Historical documents on two continents record the Greenland migration story. Three Walam Olum verses describe how the Norse, using a republican government, made the decision to walk across the frozen sea. The Norse in Greenland had a working mental model based on first hand knowledge of the evidence. It saved their lives. Survival, even today, requires a workable mental model supported by evidence

  7. At BookTalk we are reading and discussing Collapse during the 2nd quarter of 2005. We expect to have Professor Diamond as our guest in the BookTalk chat room near the end of June, and you and your Blog readers are now invited.

  8. Gringo Goiano says:

    ** Rabbits, kudzu, and the rise of civilization **Mr. Jared Diamond (author of that interesting “Collapse” book) suffers from a lack of imagination. He should be wildly optimistic about the future of humanity.Mr. Diamond shows in his book that the Norwegians in Greenland never ate fish even though they were plentiful. Had they maintained this cultural habit from the homeland, or re-learned it from the competing Inuit, they might have survived a few hundred more years till the Little Ice Age retreated and then I’d be writing this in some Norwegian dialect. Their stupid taboo has doomed me to write this in English instead.Mr. Diamond also talks about the current drought in Australia, and the continuing devastation wrought by those pesky wabbits the colonists introduced hundreds of years ago that take the precious pasture from that most favorite of all Australian animals, the sheep. When full-time drought and famine strike Australia and the rest of the world, and the Americans, Chinese, Australians, Indians, and sheep all eat each otherand die, the aboriginal population will survive on those wonderful rabbits and come in time to dominate the world. They’ll spread out from their current base of Australia and the highlands of New Guinea, reclaim Southeast Asia, spread west andnorth into Eurasia, Africa, make it to the New New World, and dominate.In the mean time, the last copy of Mr. Diamond’s book will burn along with many others in a Parisian library in some riot over confiscated cheese, and much of Western Thought and Civilization will then be lost forever…. and so it goes, the chasing after the wind, nothingness in newness under the sun. Introduced foreign species have a role, and kudzu and rabbits will be pivotal in the next surge of civilization. Count on it. The future belongs to the aborigines , New Guineans, and the East Timorese.

  9. Intelligent analysis and intelligent comments you have, at any rate on this subject (haven’t read any of your other threads, interesting as it might be – lack of time).This being so, I’m a little reluctant to add my own remarks, particularly since I haven’t read the book itself. I did, however, read a good many reviews and of Diamond’s own texts whatever I could get hold of in the web. Also, I attended the speech that Prof. Diamond gave in Frankfurt a. M. on Nov. 2nd (I did jot down a comment in my blog, but in German – http://beltwild.blogspot.com/2005/11/keine-jungfrau-zhmt-dieses-zweihorn.html).I share Mr. Pollards pessimism about the course of our civilization, and, as opposed to Prof. Diamond, I cannot imagine how we could change directions.Whatever “we” (i. e. the Western Civilization) have reached (and are rightfully proud of), is eventually based on the use of non-renewable resources. This is the one an central distinction that Mr. fails to make between the failures of historical societies which he is analyzing and our own society.The Easter-Islanders could have spared some trees, or started forest science (something like that), like the Europeans did (“had to do”, some cultural materialist might say, but then again: the Easter Islanders also “had” to cultivate trees – but they just didn’t do it). We cannot do without oil. Even if we reduce, somehow or other, the world population, we may curb resource depletion, but cannot possibly (with our current and realistically foreseeable technology) stop it.Therefore, whatever lesson we can take from history: it won’t save us. Because there is no parallel to our civilization in the past.Much as I admire Prof. Diamond’s broad scope of knowledge (he held his speech in Frankfurt in perfect German!) I’m afraid he is well-meaning, but overly optimistic. Even more so, since he doesn’t even rely onnew technology, like resourcists of the Simon- and Lomborg-tribe. (In his article “The Ends of the World as We Know Them” – thanks for the link to that text! – he says: “To save ourselves, we don’t need new technology: we just need the political will to face up to our problems of population and the environment.”)However, with all my pessimism I’m not advising any “back-to-nature” lifestyle. I think we should accept our destiny (we don’t have a choice, anyway), and try to fight (by developping as much new technology as we can) the invitable. (Is that what “transhumanism” is all about?)Canabbaia

  10. Dean Richardson says:

    I’ve finally gotten the chance to dig into Diamond’s new book. I think you paint too bleak and negative a picture. You fall into the same trap that the right-wing “No there’s nothing wrong with the environment…” people do, in that it’s either “Your way or the highway…” except you are on the other side of the coin, but NO LESS extreme! As an aggressively “middle of the road” moderate, I can deal with the cultural changes I need to go through, and in fact, I already have, looking to reduce my ecological footprint (smaller house, dramatic reduction in use of car, fuel efficient vehicle, etc) plus I can support initiatives that try to help other people see the need to change, without resorting to calling everyone who disagrees with me a fascist or an “eco-holocaust-denier”, or paraphrasing someone (like Diamond) who talks about the role big business has in contributing to the solution as a “sell-out”. If you are not part of the solution (in the broader context, characterized by constructive dialogue between stakeholders in this important debate) then I suggest you are part of the problem.

  11. Susan Kennon says:

    Well, sorry I cannot say a long deal worth of comments. I am merely here to say thank you, I was wading around in information to my armpits about what critics had said about Collapse (doing a 7 page paper on what critics say about it, for my univeristy Envi. Ethic Final) But, I have to just say your blog has been much help (and will be sited) Thanks again.

  12. Ted Kneebone says:

    I think that “Collapse” is a great book and clearly lays out that what we are seeing now is a gentle sample of what the future will be and, as Mr Diamond says, it is probably only 2-3 decades before we see the full blooded version. Human nature seems prone to believe that the condition that exists now will continue for ever. I have just read the history of the Boxer Rebellion in China and one of the diplomats who was penned up in Peking defended their lack of preparation for trouble by saying something like this. It is easy to recognise the Before and After with the hind sight of history but when one is in the Before and the prophets of change are vague about any timing of change then one tends to live as if the Before will be maintained indefinitely.I think this is the mood that is prevailing now and is being aided and abetted by our dumb politicians, the bulk of whom have had training in law and not in science so are unable to grasp what is happening in a polluted and over populated world running short of oil, potable water, clean air and productive agricultural land.

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