Jared Diamond's "Collapse", part one
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Jared Diamond's "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail
or Succeed" is currently listed at #7 on Amazon.com. It is of some
interest that such a book has become a best-seller since it explicitly
addresses the question of whether the
To a large extent, we can assume that people are buying "Collapse" because it is in many ways a follow-up to his best-selling "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies." Although I have not read this book, I am fairly confident that my late cyber-friend Jim Blaut had an accurate assessment of it in "Eight Eurocentric Historians" (http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/Blaut/diamond.htm.)
From all appearances, "Collapse" is an extension of ideas put forward in "Guns, Germs and Steel," which in my view can be described as environmental determinism. As Jim Blaut puts it:
molds history," says Jared Diamond in "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The
Fates of Human Societies" (p. 352). Everything important that has happened
to humans since the Paleolithic is due to environmental influences. More
precisely: all of the important differences between human societies, all of the
differences that led some societies to prosper and progress and others to fail,
are due to the nature of each society's local environment and to its
geographical location. History as a whole reflects these environmental
differences and forces. Culture is largely irrelevant: the environment explains
all of the main tendencies of history; cultural factors affect the minor
details. Diamond proceeds systematically through the main phases of history in
all parts of the world and tries to show, with detailed arguments, how each
phase, in each major region, is explainable largely by environmental forces.
The final outcome of these environmentally caused processes is the rise and
Diamond's methodology is a challenge to ecosocialists for obvious reasons. On the surface, Diamond's approach seems similar to John Bellamy Foster's "The Vulnerable Planet" or Mike Davis's "Ecology of Fear." It would also appear that Diamond might be on the side of the angels for at least warning humanity that the clock is ticking even if a satisfactory answer to the question of what is to be done is lacking.
Jared Diamond's academic discipline is evolutionary biology. His early research consisted of studying animals, especially birds, in their natural habitat. More recently, he has turned his attention to primates, including homo sapiens. "The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal" and "Why Is Sex Fun?: The Evolution of Human Sexuality" predate "Guns, Germs and Steel."
For an evolutionary biologist examining the rise and fall of
civilizations great and small, temptations to adopt a kind of social Darwinism
are inevitable. In the 19th century social Darwinism was used to justify the
If Diamond is anxious to separate the ascendancy of the West from any sort of innate cultural superiority, he is just as anxious to debunk the notion of a Golden Age that existed before colonialism. In the 1992 "The Third Chimpanzee," he has a chapter titled "The Golden Age That Never Was," which according to a Washington Post article, "disposes of another myth: that until industrial societies started to rape the environment, our forebears were careful stewards of our world." This theme is obviously amplified in "Collapse," which depicts Mayans and other precapitalist societies as being as obtuse as the George W. Bush White House when it comes to environmental challenges.
Turning now to Part One of "Collapse," we are
presented with a depressing view of what the state of
Beneath the pristine surface,
Diamond accepts the excuse of such "rich
companies" that cleaning up after themselves is an "excessive"
cost. Since a capitalist firm can be expected to do whatever is necessary to
return a profit, it is up to the taxpayers to assume the financial burden. But
since the taxpayers of
The prospects for water, forests and wildlife are just as daunting. This leads Diamond to practically throw up his hands in helplessness. He writes:
"We have previously seen in this chapter how
It is really too bad that in the 50 pages Diamond devotes to
Since Jared Diamond is so anxious to show how precapitalist societies were just as negligent as their successors on environmental questions, you'd think he'd have at least mentioned how the Blackfoot and other indigenous peoples fared.
My own travels to Indian country in
For somebody so anxious to look at
For George Catlin, the artist who
chronicled the lives of the American Indian in paint and word, the contrast
between the Blackfoot and the modern rulers of
"The Blackfeet [sic] are,
perhaps, the most powerful tribe of Indians on the Continent; and being
sensible of their strength, have stubbornly resisted the Traders in their
country, who have been gradually forming an acquaintance with them, and endeavouring to establish a permanent and profitable system
of trade. Their country abounds in beaver and bison, and most of the
fur-bearing animals of
That dreary and solitary waste are
words that exactly describe Jared Diamond's
John C. Ewers' "The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains" contains the most thorough examination of the role of the bison in Blackfoot society. Ewers was the first curator of the Museum of the Plains Indian on the Blackfoot reservation, which is in Browning. Later he served as Senior Ethnologist in the Smithsonian Institution.
Because the Blackfoot warriors held the upper hand until relatively late in the 19th century, the bison remained plentiful in their territory. In the first instance the animal provided excellent nutritional value. Practically every part was edible, including the brains, liver, kidneys, soft nose gristle and bone marrow. The meat itself was either roasted or boiled. Care was taken to prepare pemmican, a preserved dried meat, in advance of the long, harsh winter. Pemmican was made by taking layers of dried meat and separating them with back fat, wild peppermint and berries. The pemmican bags themselves were made of the skins of unborn bison calves and could themselves be eaten in lean times.
They also made their clothing from bison skins. Making use of steel knives obtained through the fur trade, the Blackfoot made beautiful, long-wearing, waterproof clothing. All of the horsegear was made from bison hides as well: including saddles, bridles and shoes for sore-footed horses. Arms were also made from rawhide, including the strong shields constructed from the bull's neck. Warclubs were held together by thongs made of rawhide.
In addition to providing food and clothing, the Blackfoot transformed bison skins into lodging and furniture as well. Soft-dressed bison skins without the hair were used for lodges (tipis). The bison-hide covering for a lodge weighed about one hundred pounds. Each day when a village moved to a new hunting ground, the lodge covering was packed up and stowed in a travois that was also made of rawhide, along with the rawhide bedding.
While I am not prepared at this point to challenge what Jared Diamond has written about the Mayan or other peoples who allegedly destroyed the environmental basis for their own reproduction, I am prepared to say that the Blackfoot peoples have something to say about "recycling" in the deepest sense of the word. With their light footprint on the Plains and their skill at using every single fiber of nature's bounty for food, lodging, transportation, etc., they certainly present an alternative to the current wasteful system.
In my view, socialism will synthesize the best of
hunting-and-gathering societies and the technology that capitalism has
fostered. As bleak as the picture Jared Diamond draws of