|For 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 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.