Jared Diamond's "Collapse", part one


posted to www.marxmail.org on March 1, 2005


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 USA might eventually fail, just as Rome or other empires did in the past. Paul Kennedy's 1989 "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" was another such book.  While Kennedy's doom-and-gloom scenario revolved around the relationship between economic and military power, Diamond's focus is on ecology. In either case, the interest in such books is certainly driven by the perception of the American public that all is not well. It is hard to imagine such books becoming best sellers, or for that matter written, in the immediate post-WWII period. Things are obviously changing.


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:


"Environment 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 dominance of Europe.


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 dominance of Europe over the colonial world in terms of the survival of the fittest. The White European was more fit than the Black African just as some species were fitter than others. In the 20th century, such explanations are obviously too racist for polite society. Instead, you get "value-free" explanations that account for the death of 90 percent of American Indians through germs rather than genocidal intentions. The rise of Europe should not be interpreted as a vindication of capitalism or Protestant values but merely as the dispassionate working out of the iron laws of environmentalism.


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 Montana has become in environmental terms. Diamond selects Montana for personal and methodological reasons. He has taken fly-fishing vacations there over the years and owns a home. Montana also serves as a microcosm of all societies faced with the prospects of success or failure. Since he cannot conceive of a different framework than that defined by geographical borders (he teaches geography as well as physiology at UCLA), Montana becomes a useful test case. Moreover, the focus is on Bitterroot Valley in Southwest Montana, an area that is favored by the super-rich like Charles Schwab who take private jets in for a weekend of hiking, fishing or golf as well as the blue collar workers who work 2 or 3 jobs just to subsist.


Beneath the pristine surface, Montana is a toxic dump. There are 20,000 abandoned mines in Montana and they all leach arsenic, cadmium, sulfuric acid and other poisonous byproducts into the rivers and streams. Diamond warns about becoming "indignant at mining companies" since the "moral issue is more complex." Specifically, he cites an environmental consultant named David Stiller who wrote, "ASARCO [American Smelting and Refining Company, a giant mining and smelting company] can hardly be blamed [for not cleaning up an especially toxic mine that it owned.] American businesses exist to make money for their owners; it is the modus operandi of American capitalism."


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 Montana tend to be rugged individualists either of the big bourgeoisie type like Charles Schwab or loggers and ranchers who have often turned to the militias in their hatred of Big Government, not much can be expected from those quarters as well.


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 Montana is experiencing many environmental problems that translate into economic problems. Application of these different values and goals that we have just seen illustrated would result in different approaches to these environmental problems, presumably associated with different probabilities of succeeding or failing at solving them. At present, there is honest and wide difference of opinion about the best approaches. We don't know which approaches the citizens of Montana will ultimately choose, and we don't know whether Montana's problems will get better or worse."


It is really too bad that in the 50 pages Diamond devotes to Montana, the American Indian does not enter the picture. It as if one decided to write about the environmental crisis facing Alaska and failed to mention the Inuit. This omission is particularly egregious since the Indians had a different relationship to nature than those who conquered them.


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 Montana and my readings in Blackfoot history provide a different perspective than that laid out by Jared Diamond. In a visit to the Blackfoot reservation in Browning a few years ago, I met Alfred Young Man, a professor in the Native American Studies Department at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. (The Blackfoot people are divided by the US-Canadian border, although traditionally their territory extended from north of Alberta down into Missouri.) He was allowing native vegetation to return to the land allotted to him as a Blackfoot and hoped to raise bison at some point.


For somebody so anxious to look at Montana as an environmental microcosm, you'd think that Diamond would be interested to see how Alfred Young Man and his ancestors related to nature.


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 Montana could not be starker:


"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 North America; and the American Fur Company, with an unconquerable spirit of trade and enterprize, has pushed its establishments into country; and the numerous parties of trappers are tracking up streams and rivers, rapidly destroying the beavers which dwell therein. The Blackfeet have repeatedly informed the Traders of the company, that if their men persisted in trapping beavers in their country, they should kill them whenever they met them. They have executed their threats in many instances, and the Company lose some fifteen or twenty men annually, who fall by the hands of these people, in defence of what they deem their property and their rights. Trinkets and whiskey, however, will soon spread their charms amongst as they have amongst other tribes; and white man's voracity sweep the prairies and the streams of their wealth, to the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean; leaving the Indians to inhabit, and at last to starve upon, a dreary and solitary waste."


That dreary and solitary waste are words that exactly describe Jared Diamond's Montana of today.


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 Montana, it would seem that the only realistic solution is one that is rooted both in the primeval past and the revolutionary future.