Jared Diamond's Collapse, part two
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After completing Part 2 ("Past Societies") of Jared Diamond's "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," I am beginning to understand why his books have become best-sellers. They afford the same kind of middle-brow pleasure that you get on PBS television or the National Geographic magazine. When these outlets treat ancient civilizations, they love to feature a white expert in a pith helmet strolling around some ruins in the hinterlands. He can be seen holding up a skull or a pottery shard and musing about what made the Aztecs, etc. tick.
In fact there is a PBS press release about a series based on Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel" that is still on the planning board:
"PBS and National Geographic Television & Film will bring author and scholar Jared Diamond's sometimes controversial theories about the course of human civilization to the screen in, a new three-part television series produced exclusively for PBS. Diamond's Pulitzer Prize-winning work offers a revealing look at the rise and fall of societies through the lens of geography, technology, biology and economics - forces symbolized by the power of guns, germs and steel.
"The production spans five continents and uses epic historical reenactments to illustrate Diamond's theories, explaining why societies developed differently in different parts of the world - why some became conquerors and others the conquered."
Of course, the National Geographic has been the preferred
spyglass to view the exotic native for the longest time. In Catharine Lutz and
Jane L. Collins's "Reading National Geographic" one discovers that
the magazine has stressed two themes since its founding in 1888: a faith in
progress and a belief in social Darwinism. They also argue that the magazine
"erased the colonizer" by removing images of Westerners from the
photographs. Such erasure allows the
Since Diamond's book deals mostly with the collapse of such countries and since part two (and part three, titled "Present Societies") does not give a *single instance* of Europe acting in a predatory fashion in the Third World, one can well understand why National Geographic would be eager to produce a PBS series based on his first blockbuster, a book that by all accounts that anticipates his latest.
If "Collapse" fits neatly into PBS programming, it also resonates with another TV product that has had mass appeal in recent years. I speak of "Survivor," which is not only obsessed with identifying "winners" and "losers" in the social Darwinian sense, but has a preference for pitting contestants against each other on remote tropical islands. In part two of "Collapse," nearly every case study is involved with people living on such islands. What attracts Diamond to such places? It is not too hard to figure out. With islands, you can adopt a methodology that puts its emphasis on the resourcefulness of the isolated inhabitant rather than on global economic forces that brought the majority of humanity into contact with each other. In its essence, it has the same appeal as Robinson Crusoe had for neoclassical economics--it highlights the atomized economic actor. The clear implication of Diamond's book is that the same kind of ingenuity that allowed Crusoe to create a replica of civilized English life on an isolated island is what was necessary in the past and today. He is wrong, of course.
After following Diamond through his odyssey across the
For example, the Pitcairn and
It strikes me that the only lesson one can draw from such an
obscure and atypical case study is that it is a mistake to live in such
inhospitable conditions in the first place. Of course, there were other islands
that were much more endowed with natural resources but that also collapsed. I
speak of course of the
There is one island that manages to "succeed" in
Diamond's terms. Although it does not make much sense to group it with the
We learn that
"Those measures began already in the 1600s with
Without betraying any understanding of the underlying *ecological* problem, Diamond allows that silviculture and what is commonly known as old-growth forests have nothing in common. "While the mantle superficially resembles a primeval forest, in fact most of Japan's accessible original forests were cut by 300 years ago and became replaced with regrowth forest and plantations as tightly micromanaged as those of Germany and Tikopia [a tiny, isolated, tropical island that also replaced its original trees with cultivated ones--also to Diamond's satisfaction.]"
It is disturbing that somebody on the board of World Wildlife
Fund can regard the replacement of original forests with tree plantations as a
success. Is he not aware that the
Apparently Diamond has no problem serving on the same board
with two top Morgan Chase executives, a company deeply implicated in wasteful
exploitation of old-growth forests. This is a bank that has provided critical
financing for Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), an outfit responsible for destroying
a large area of
Well, if they run out of indigenous trees, I suppose that they can replace them with fast-growing pine or something else like that. Not much for an orangutan there, but maybe they can be sent off to zoos for their own protection.
Thrown in with the mostly hapless islands in part two of
Jared Diamond's "Collapse" are the Mayans and Anasazis
who inhabited the
Perhaps the most outrageous exponent of this point of view is Shepherd Krech, a Brown professor who wrote "The Ecological Indian: Myth and History" to show that indigenous people were fond of driving bison off of cliffs, hunting saber-tooth tigers to extinction, etc.
Diamond showed his sympathy for this trend with the
publication of "The Third Chimpanzee" in 1993. This exercise in
sociobiology (an updated version of the 19th century social Darwinism) includes
a chapter titled "The Golden Age That Never Was" containing the same
sorts of observations found in Krech's work. Diamond
has many other interesting things to say about any number of subjects. He
argues that since animals have an evolutionary imperative to pass on their
genes, art must be a clever stratagem by men to lure women into bed. This led
Tom Wilkie to drolly observe in the
For Diamond, the yardstick to measure Mayan and Anasazi
failure is basically the same as that for Japanese success: the extent of
deforestation. Referring to the ancient Mayan city
"By the year A.D. 650, people started to occupy the
hill slopes, but those hill sites were cultivated only for about a century. The
"The reason for that erosion of the hillsides is clear: the forests that formerly covered them and protected their soils were being cut down. Dated pollen samples show that the pine forests originally covering the upper elevations of the hill slopes were eventually all cleared. Calculation suggests that most of those felled pine trees were being burned for fuel, while the rest were used for construction or for making plaster."
In other words, deforestation was as big a problem in 7th
Missing entirely from Diamond's discussion is any
consideration of what *drove* the stripping of pine trees. We know that in the
21st century that it is the profit drive that explains such activity.
Multinationals come to places like
"During that time the human population was growing, but there was not yet occupation of the hills. Hence that increased population must have been accommodated by intensifying production in the bottomland pockets by some combination of shorter fallow periods, double-cropping, and possibly some irrigation."
Just to drive the point home, Diamond writes that the problem was one of "population growth outstripping available resources: a dilemma similar to the one foreseen by Thomas Malthus in 1798 and being played out today in Rwanda (Chapter 10), Haiti (Chapter 11), and elsewhere." He quotes archaeologist David Webster: "Too many farmers grew too many crops on too much of the landscape."
To begin with in replying to Diamond, it should be understood
that Mayan collapse has to be put into some kind of historical context. Even
those who agree with Diamond's skewed analysis have to concede that the
collapse was preceded by ten centuries of economic and social viability, marked
as it was by feudal oppression. As Mayan scholar Robert Sharer wrote me a
couple of weeks ago, every society might strive for such longevity regardless
of the ultimate outcome. By contrast, the
To start with, the Mayan territory was inimical to agriculture. It is a testimony to their ingenuity that they made it so productive for one thousand years. While Sharer believes that it was based on slash-and-burn (swidden) cultivation, scholars adduced by Diamond claim that Mayan population density could have only been allowed through more advanced--and more risky--technology including irrigation and hill slope terracing. Of course, it is highly speculative to estimate population density from over one thousand years ago, but taking Diamond at face value, there is still no question that the underlying soil fertility was poor at best.
Although Mayan society had endured drought over its thousand year history, there is evidence that the most severe drought coincides with the collapse. Although Diamond acknowledges that such droughts occurred, he thinks that they were only critical insofar as they coincided with "too many people" in a confined space.
What is missing from Diamond's analysis, however, is the *cause* of drought. One would think that an environmentalist would want to address this question. To discover the answer, you have to turn elsewhere. In particular, the work of anthropologist Brian Fagan is most instructive. In a series of books on ancient societies, he focuses on the role of El Niño-Southern California (ENSO) events in their collapse.
In his latest, titled "The Long Summer: How Climate
Changed Civilization," Fagan points to the research done by climatologist David Hodell. By
examining titanium traces in the waters off of
Studying the evidence of Mayan ruins from this period, archaeologist Peter Harrison discovered evidence of cannibalism--a sure sign of a society driven to desperation. Another group of indigenous peoples, the Anasazi, whose social structures were similar to the Mayans, have also been connected to cannibalism. In their case, the findings have taken on a sensational aspect, especially when they are divorced from the climatological and economic circumstances that may explain them. In other words, cannibalism is not seen in the same terms as what happened to the Donner party, but rather as an expression of what Diamond termed "The Golden Age That Never Was."
The scholar most identified with this topic is Christy Turner II whose study "Man Corn" tries to explain Anasazi cannibalism as an early form of totalitarian control:
"Terrorizing, mutilating, and murdering might be evolutionarily useful behaviors when directed against unrelated competitors. And what better way to amplify opponents' fear than to reduce victims to the subhuman level of cooked meat, especially when they include infants and children from whom no power or prestige could be derived but whose consumption would surely further terrorize, demean, and insult their helpless parents or community? ... The benefits would be threefold: community control, control of reproductive behavior (that is, dominating access to women), and food. From the standpoint of sociobiology, then, cannibalism could well represent useful behavior done by well-adjusted, normal adults acting out their ultimate, evolutionarily channelled behavior. On the other hand, one can easily look upon violence and cannibalism as socially pathological."
Once again we find sociobiology trumping more useful forms of analysis based on objective economic factors. If you reduce humanity to being a "Third Chimpanzee" or "Naked Ape," naturally you will look for genetic dispositions to violence and subjugation instead of extreme distress brought on by climate or other socio-economic factors.
At least Diamond does not resort to such essentialist nonsense when trying to understand Anasazi collapse. Once again the main culprit is deforestation and unwise farming practices, but exacerbated by a drought that just seems to come and go with the seasons.
Once again you have to turn to Brian Fagan for a more
satisfactory explanation of why such a devastating drought occurred. He states
that the same ENSO events that struck the
For the environmentalist, El Niño
is obviously an important factor, especially with the rise of global warming.
Although it is impossible to quantify exactly the effect of global warming on
the frequency and intensity of El Niños, it seems
fairly clear that they are becoming stronger and more common. The
"El Niño, 'the little boy', has just thrown his longest recorded tantrum, and is probably gearing up to throw even longer ones, according to two American climatologists. They have also produced the strongest indication yet that human interference in the global climate is to blame.
"El Nino events, characterised
by a warming in the eastern tropical Pacific, are driven by a combination of
waning trade winds and a reversal of surface ocean currents. They produce
violent storms in the eastern Pacific, and can even cause severe drought in
"The latest El Nino, which ended in June 1995, lasted
for five years, making it the longest over the past century. Kevin Trenberth and Timothy Hoar of the
Since modern science has conclusively demonstrated a link between greenhouse gases and global warming, one might think that Jared Diamond would be particularly vigilant about energy companies, the number one malefactor. However, in an interview with Salon Magazine (http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2005/01/08/jared_diamond/index1.html), Diamond practically falls over himself praising Chevron for its environmental sensitivity. This is earned by their supposed commitment to avoiding spills, etc. What Diamond does not seem to grasp is how the problem of global warming is tied up intrinsically with the nature of industrial capitalism. In this sense, he is in much more of a state of denial than any high priest of the Mayan period. If one is grounded in modern science and can understand that severe climate change might be a function of CO2 emissions rather than the wrath of the gods, then one has an obligation to take a clear stand against the capitalist system. That is something that Diamond is unwilling to do and the political reasons for this will become clearer as my critique of "Collapse" progresses.