Jared Diamond's "Collapse", part 3


Posted to www.marxmail.org on April 12, 2005


Part three of Jared Diamond's "Collapse" is titled "Modern Societies" and might just as well be titled "Less babies, more trees." Over the years I have become accustomed to being described as a "neo-Malthusian" in debates over the Internet. This term was also applied to my late and great co-thinker Mark Jones since both of us were rather insistent that many valuable resources are finite and should not be wasted.


But when you run into the real thing as in Jared Diamond's discussion of Rwanda and other third world countries in Part Three of "Collapse," it really makes your hair stand on end. It really drives home how much of the mainstream environmentalist movement embodies certain racist assumptions about people and resources. If only "they" would stop having so many children, they would not be so poor.


Part three is devoted to an examination of Rwanda, a side-by-side comparison of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, China and Australia. Most of my comments will be directed to the Caribbean nations since they encapsulate Diamond's inability to think in class terms.


Chapter ten in Part Three is titled "Malthus in Africa: Rwanda's Genocide." It is about as unapologetic a defense of population control theory to be found anywhere. Diamond writes:


"East Africa's people also overwhelmed us, with their friendliness, warmth to our children, colorful clothes­and their sheer numbers. To read m the abstract about 'the population explosion' is one thing; it is quite another thing to encounter, day after day, lines of African children along the roadside, many of them about the same size and age as my sons, calling out to passing tourist vehicles for a pencil that they could use in school. The impact of those numbers of people on the landscape is visible even along stretches of road where the people are off doing something else. In pastures the grass is sparse and grazed closely by herds of cattle, sheep, and goats. One sees fresh erosion gullies, in whose bottoms run streams brown with mud washed down from the denuded pastures."


Turning his attention to Malthus, Diamond refers to the argument that "human population growth would tend to outrun the growth of food production." While recognizing that some countries--including China--have drastically reduced their population growth, others like Rwanda insist on having too many babies. He writes, "…modern Rwanda illustrates a case where Malthus's worst-case scenario does seem to have been right."


While accepting the role of Belgian colonialism in creating artificial divisions between Hutu and Tutsi, and the role of the IMF and other lending institutions in creating a desperate economic climate, the main problem appears to be overpopulation. He calls attention to the fact that "Rwanda's average population density is triple even that of Africa's third most densely populated country (Nigeria), and 10 times that of neighboring Tanzania."


Diamond openly acknowledges that Rwanda's population density (760 per square mile) is less than Holland's (950) and not that much greater than the UK (610). So why don't the Dutch and the Brits hack each other up with machetes? The answer is that the European nations have a "highly efficient mechanized agriculture, such that only a few percent of the population working as farmers can produce food for everyone else. Rwandan agriculture is much less efficient and unmechanized; farmers depend on handheld hoes, picks, and machetes; and most people have to remain farmers, producing little or no surplus that could support others."


So perhaps the only conclusion that one can draw from all this is that the Hutus and the Tutsis were at fault for not sending their navy over to Europe in the 19th century and colonizing Belgium. If they had imposed a system of super-exploitation on the unlucky Belgians, then they could have accumulated the capital necessary to develop industrial farming techniques. Such are the vicissitudes of history that this did not take place. Of course, "Guns, Germs and Steel" was written in order to explain why this did not happen and why history has a cold Hegelian logic.


If one looks at population density in third world countries that share technological backwardness, low capital accumulation rates and a low productivity, one finds exception to the pattern of brutal civil wars or genocide. For example, Rwanda's population density is nearly 3 times as great as Uganda's, but having all that lebensraum did not spare the country 300,000 deaths under Idi Amin. Obviously something else was and is still going on. Rwanda's suffering is simply a more egregious case of the internecine warfare that has plagued the continent over the past 50 years or so. It is incubated by economic hardship, ethnic rivalries exacerbated by the artificial states bequeathed by colonialism and cold war meddling.


Furthermore, having a high population density in the third world is by no means a death sentence. Kerala's population density is two and one half times as great as Rwanda's but Keralans enjoy peace and relatively productive lives nonetheless. In an article titled "The Population Puzzle" that appeared in the Spring 1989 "In Context" magazine, Francis Frances Moore Lappé and Rachel Schurrnan write:


"Kerala is three times more densely populated than the average for all of India, yet commonly used indicators of hunger and poverty - infant mortality, life expectancy, and death rate - are all considerably better in Kerala than in most low-income countries as well as in India as a whole. Its infant mortality is less than one-third the national average.


"Other indicators also reveal the relatively better position of the poor in Kerala. Eleven thousand government-run 'Fair Price' shops keep the cost of rice and other essentials like kerosene within their reach - a subsidy that accounts for as much as one-half of the total income of Kerala's poorer families. Land reform, social security payments, pension and unemployment benefits transfer resources to the poorest groups. Expenditures on public health in Kerala, critical to any effort to reduce fertility, have historically been high. Health facilities are spread evenly throughout the state, not concentrated in the capital as in most third world countries.


"Why is Kerala so different? From the 1950s onward, political organization among the poor led to their greater self-confidence. The poor came to see health care, access to land, decent wages, and old-age pensions as their right, not a gift bestowed upon them. And centrally important to our thesis, women's status and power in Kerala are greatly enhanced compared to other Indian states. The female literacy rate in Kerala is two-and-a-half times the all-India average."


Of course, Kerala has also benefited from Communist-led governments for the better part of 50 years. In light of this, one might turn to Karl Marx rather than Thomas Malthus as a solution to the problems of countries like Rwanda. Needless to say, this is not in Jared Diamond's political vocabulary.


In the next chapter Diamond offers a side-by-side comparison of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, two countries that occupy the same Caribbean island that was "discovered" by Columbus in 1492. They are meant to serve as cautionary tales as to what happens when you don't follow strict rules about population control and resource husbandry, most especially timber.


In comparison to poor benighted Haiti, the Dominican Republic is a virtual paradise. Diamond writes:


"The Dominican Republic is also a developing country sharing Haiti's problems, but it is more developed and the problems are less acute, per capita income is five times higher, and the population density and population growth rates are lower. For the past 38 years the Dominican Republic has been at least nominally a democracy without any military coup, and with some presidential elections from 1978 onwards resulting in the defeat of the incumbent and the inauguration of a challenger, along with others marred by fraud and intimidation. Within the booming economy, industries earning foreign exchange include an iron and nickel mine, until recently a gold mine, and formerly a bauxite mine; industrial free trade zones that employ 200,000 workers and export overseas; agricultural exports that include coffee, cacao, tobacco, cigars, fresh flowers, and avocados (the Dominican Republic is the world's third largest exporter of avocados); telecommunications; and a large tourist industry. Several dozen dams generate hydroelectric power. As American sports fans know, the Dominican Republic also produces and exports great baseball players."


So why did these two countries, almost like twins separated at birth, turn out so differently?


Haiti's revolution seems to be to blame.


"Not surprisingly, French Hispaniola's former slaves, who renamed their country Haiti (the original Taino Indian name for the island), killed many of Haiti's whites, destroyed the plantations and their infrastructure in order to make it impossible to rebuild the plantation slave system, and divided the plantations into small family farms. While that was what the former slaves wanted for themselves as individuals, it proved in the long run disastrous for Haiti's agricultural productivity, exports, and economy when the farmers received little help from subsequent Haitian governments in their efforts to develop cash crops. Haiti also lost human resources with the killing of much of its white population and the emigration of the remainder."


While the rest of the 19th century world was sensibly embarking on an early version of globalization, the Haitian elites were unaccountably maintaining a kind of aloofness from foreign trade that almost seems like a bargain basement version of the Japanese Shogunate. "Haiti's experience and fear of slavery led to the adoption of a constitution forbidding foreigners to own land or to control means of production through investments."


Diamond's account of Haiti is lifted entirely from the work of development economist Mats Lundahl, who has a long record of defending free markets and liberalized trade. In some ways he can be described as a Swedish version of Jagdish Baghwati. In the 1980s he took the position that economic sanctions against South Africa would harm Blacks. He has also described the period of 1870 to 1914 as a kind of Golden Age for the world economy. In other words, he might be grouped with Niall Ferguson and other intellectuals nostalgic for the good old days of Imperialism.


Leftists like Alex Dupuy and Paul Farmer, who have a completely different take on the relationship between 19th century Haitian elites and global capital, are apparently of no interest to Diamond. In "The Use of Haiti," Farmer writes:


"The new pariah republic, desperately seeking trading partners, became the source of advantageous trade deals, particularly for the British. Shortly after the October 1806 assassination of Dessalines, his successor published, in London, a decree entitled Adresse du Gouvemement d'Haiti au Commerce des Nations Neutres. Henry Christophe, an anglophile autocrat who ruled the northern part of the then-divided country, demanded that his subjects turn all of their efforts to producing goods for export. Less than a decade after Christophe's proclamation, most of the foreign houses of commerce in Haiti were British, and Haiti was soon one of England's three most significant trading partners in Latin America."


The British had simply joined in the plundering that had already been started by France, who had extracted punitive reparations for plantations seized during the revolution. When Aristide had the temerity to demand that France pay Haiti back for such extortion, he found himself under a gun held by US and French together. Although the two countries had been represented as bitter rivals over control of Iraq, they managed to mend fences when it came to Haiti.


The USA would not let itself be outdone by France and Great Britain. Farmer notes, "During the first two years of Haiti's unrecognized sovereignty, however, the United States quickly consolidated its position as her chief trading partner. Within a decade of Haitian independence, many North American merchants had built up a Haitian trade. By 1821, almost 45 percent of imports to Haiti came from the United States; 30 percent were of British origin, and 21 percent were French."


In other words, Haiti could be little regarded as autarchic in the 19th century. It suffered from that century's version of globalization and has never stopped suffering. Perhaps if the nations that had pillaged Haiti for the past 200 years or so simply made amends for their past crimes, then Haiti would not be the basket case that it is today.


For Diamond, the Dominican Republic is also to be recommended for its conservation of natural resources, especially its forests. Although Joaquin Balaguer is widely regarded as a brutal dictator and US puppet, Diamond admires his willingness to stand up for the Dominican Republic's trees. Diamond writes:


"Balaguer recognized the country's urgent need for maintaining forested watersheds in order to meet the Republic's energy requirements through hydroelectric power, and to ensure a supply of water sufficient for industrial and domestic needs. Soon after becoming president, he took drastic action by banning all commercial logging in the country, and by closing all of the country's sawmills. That action provoked strong resistance by rich powerful families, who responded by pulling back their logging operations out of public view into more remote areas of forests, and by operating their sawmills at night. Balaguer reacted with the even more drastic step of taking responsibility for enforcing forest protection away from the Department of Agriculture, turning it over to the armed forces, and declaring illegal logging to be a crime against state security."


If Balaguer had only show half the interest in people that he had in trees, perhaps Diamond's enthusiasm would be a bit more tempered. During Balaguer's presidency (dictatorship actually), half the country lived in poverty. When leftists organized labor unions or social movements to improve the conditions of working people, they were met with death squads.


Diamond does not mention how Balaguer became the president of the Dominican Republic. It must be understood that he was put in power by the United States which feared "another Cuba" in the Western Hemisphere, even though Juan Bosch was hardly a Fidel Castro.


If Diamond had been as concerned with people as he was with natural resources, perhaps he would have found Cuba worth considering in Part Three of "Collapse". As it turns out, Cubans live 12 years longer, on average, than Dominicans. Infant mortality is four times higher in Santo Domingo than in Cuba. Literacy is 98 percent in Cuba (higher than the U.S.!) but below 77 percent in the Dominican Republic. Cuba has twice as many doctors per capita as the Dominican Republic, and 8.5 times as many nurses.


Furthermore, Cuba has a lot more going for itself than social welfare. When it comes to environmentalism, Cuba is a virtual showcase. In 2001, Project Censored included "Cuba Leads the World in Organic Farming" as one of its top stories. It reported that Cuba had been successful with its "transformation from conventional, high input, mono-crop intensive agriculture" to a Greener farming system. In June 2000, a group of Iowa farmers, professors, and students traveled to Cuba. They discovered that Cuba was moving toward organic farming, using compost and worms to fertilize soil, and away from chemicals. Richard Wrage, of Boone County Iowa Extension Office, said, "in many ways they're ahead of us." Lorna Michael Butler, Chair of Iowa State University's sustainable agriculture department said, "more students should study Cuba's growing system." (AP 6/5/00)


One imagines that Jared Diamond would blanch at the suggestion that Fidel Castro has more to say about the topics of interest to him than Joaquin Balaguer, it would be hard to imagine a public official more attuned to the problems addressed (but not truly understood) in "Collapse" than the Cuban Communist leader who is on record as stating:


"Only 30 years ago humanity was not in the least aware of this great tragedy. At that time people believed that the only danger of extinction lay in the colossal number of nuclear weapons waiting to be fired at a moment’s notice. Although threats of that nature have by no means disappeared, an additional terrifying, Dantesque danger is lying in wait for us. I do not hesitate to use this strong, seemingly melodramatic language. The real drama lies in the ignorance of those risks we have lived with for so long.


"Twenty-five years after the end of the Second World War nobody capable of thought and able to read and write had ever heard a single word about humanity’s blind, inexorable and accelerated march towards the destruction of the natural bases of its own life. Not one of the thousands of generations that preceded this one knew about such a dire threat nor did such an enormous responsibility fall upon any of them.


"These are facts: the fruit of humankind’s little-known history, a result of the evolution of human society over five or six thousand years when that society did not have, nor could have, any clear idea of where it came from nor where it was going. This amazing and distressing fact is now the deeply held conviction of an educated and concerned, growing and forceful minority of humanity.


"Today we know what is happening. Everyone here has access to the horrifying data and the irrefutable arguments serenely presented and analyzed in the conferences that preceded this one.


"From my point of view there is no more urgent task than that of building a universal awareness, of taking the problem to the billions of men and women of all ages, including children, who inhabit this planet. The objective conditions and the sufferings of the overwhelming majority of them create the subjective conditions for this awareness-raising task.


"Everything is connected. Illiteracy, unemployment, poverty, hunger, disease; lack of drinking water, of housing, of electricity; desertification, climatic variations, deforestation, floods, droughts, soil erosion, biodegradation, pests and other well known tragedies are inseparable."


Full: http://www.granma.cu/documento/ingles03/020.html


Louis Proyect

Marxism list: www.marxmail.org