“Collapse – How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” by Jared Diamond, 2005
Jared Diamond has written a wonderful anthropological story about the failure of certain societies based on environmental collapse. His political approach, however, reminds me of a scientist who has just discovered that God did not create the world – yet still believes in ‘him.’ The “him” in this instance is the inevitable ‘shareholder-centered’ capitalist corporation.
Diamond, the author of “Guns, Germs & Steel,” is a professor and officer of the World Wildlife Fund ("WWF"), which some Greens call one of the “Big Green” organizations. Big Green organizations live on donations, but have no members or membership meetings, only a group of bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. who seek to influence policy. Diamond mars his telling of the collapse of societies in Easter Island, Pitcairn Island, the Anasazi, the Maya, and the Greenland Norse (and by implication Ankor Wat, pre-Incan civilizations and others) by having, like Christian Parenti (see review of ‘Tropic of Chaos,’ below) a weak solution to societal collapse. His is ‘consumer power’ - it’s almost laughable actually. The real meat of this book, however, is his very careful dissection of environmental catastrophe and problems, past and present. And here he knows what he is talking about.
Diamond maintains that there are 5 main issues that impact the environment and destroy societies. 1. Damage societies inflict on the environment, intentionally or otherwise. 2. Climate change due to various causes. 3. Hostile neighbors. 4. Lack of support by formerly friendly neighbors. 5. The society’s response to their problems. Here, he highlights the role that social elites play in squandering the environment and labor, or in refusing to change course or learn from mistakes.
Diamond starts the book in Montana, USA, a place he is personally familiar with. He explains the multiple environmental problems of a state that most people think is quite perfect – including the poisonous legacy of gold and copper mining in Butte. (Also covered by Jeffrey St. Clair in “Born Under a Bad Sky,” reviewed below) His most shocking point is that more money comes into Montana from outside the state (via government / private monies) than are generated within Montana by various agricultural, tourist or mining concerns. Essentially, Montana is on welfare.
Diamond moves on to study the effects of deforestation, monument building, erosion, over-fishing, reef-destruction, over-population, internal war and extinction on Easter Island in the Pacific. He considers this an almost pure example of ecological social collapse. He links this to another study of Polynesia – at Pitcairn and Henderson islands far to the west of Easter. Then Diamond moves to the Southwest and the Anasazi societies of Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, and their failed response to deforestation, drought and over-population. The Maya of Guatemala, Honduras, and several states of Mexico figure in the next story. The Maya were an advanced society that developed a calendar, writing and an intricate social structure. However, they failed to adjust to population increases, climate change, deforestation and violence caused by their own rigid society. Like Easter Island, environmental and social goods were squandered in temple-building and war by Mayan rulers, leading to social collapse.
Diamond’s history of the Greenland Norse, who for 400 years occupied two areas in southern Greenland, is very detailed. First settled by Eric the Red, the Norse came to Greenland as pagans, converted to Christianity, and attempted to live an economic and social life similar to their former life in Norway and Iceland. Eric was kicked out of Iceland (which faced its own serious environmental degradation that still exists to this day…) and after discovering this land mass, called it ‘Greenland’ to get fellow Norwegians to join him. It is not for the most part green! Diamond shows how the effort spent on maintaining Christian churches was actually counter-productive to the survival of the society; how the Norse chiefs gradually pauperized segments of the former Viking community; how the Norse refused to learn anything from the Inuit people, like kayak making, and instead only killed them. And, incredibly, never ate fish, which teamed in abundance right off shore, because they were focused on cows, sheep, pigs, goats and seals, as in the old country. This from a society that eventually starved to death due to environmental damage in the fjords where they lived. As Diamond put it, the chiefs gained the right to starve last.
Diamond reviews recent ecological situations in China, Australia, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Rwanda that are repeating the deadly patterns of prior systemic failure or prove to be successful attempts to counter it. He illustrates how one Pacific island, Tikopia, successfully banned pigs because they were eating the undergrowth and denuding the land, and this decision saved the soil that the agriculture of Tikopia was based on. The pigs in Tikopia were a valued food, obviously, so this shows the kind of foresight the society had – to deny themselves something in order to save something more important. (Note to carnivores...)
His history of recent events in Rwanda is enlightening, as he links the ‘genocide’ and violence there to over-population, deforestation, drought, erosion, and not just ethnic/class antagonisms. In one study of the Kanama area, he describes how landed Hutus killed other, poorer Hutus because there was not enough land to go around. Rwanda is one of the most populous places on earth, and as he quotes Rwandans themselves, it was no secret that ‘killing’ was a way to reduce that population, and allow the survivors to raise enough crops to live.
Diamond finishes his book with a panegyric to Shell Oil / Chevron Oil, and an oil field they built in Kutubu in Papau New Guinea. Diamond worked with the WWF and Chevron to certify this oil field as ‘green’ – one which did not damage the environment. And from his description, the immediate impression is that this is the best way to build a well field, if you have to do so. Chevron was reacting to pressure from the government and surrounding people of Papua New Guinea, who might have closed the wells if they did damage the environment. Diamond believes that profit-making companies will build ‘clean’ wells in order to make more profits, if consumers and governments pressure them.
However, this oil field seems to be somewhat of a Potemkin Village, if we look at Shell/Chevron’s other oil fields. Shell is involved in pumping oil out of the Arctic to Prudoe Bay on the continually leaking pipeline, has negotiated a concession to drill in the Arctic in Inuit lands when the ice melts; is involved in the destructive Alberta Tar Sands project, and is part of the massive oil spills and police state in Nigeria. Shell also has its refineries on Cancer Alley in Louisiana. Chevron is invested in the corrupt Azerbijan government with BP, and the polluting Azeri oil fields, and is a defendant in the lawsuit brought by native peoples in Ecuador against the massive oil spills there. Chevron helped fire the head of the Louisiana Hurricane center at LSU, as he recommended restoring wetlands south of New Orleans to stop hurricanes. There will be more next week, as I finish Greg Palast's book, "Vultures Picnic."
Will ‘consumer’ choices change the bloodthirsty, corrupt and environmentally destructive policies of various societies? Will capital be restrained if I buy from Chevron (or Citgo) instead of BP or Koch? Or from the handful of certified wood providers over the rest? Or from organic foods over factory-farmed food? Well, a bit. But, again, if we face ‘collapse’ on a global scale – then obviously the slow, incremental changes that this method involves (and that is assuming enough “consumers” will do so) is insufficient to finally stop self-destruction. Something more is needed – eco-socialism.
A final good word from Diamond, showing how travel informs political views. He wrote this book as another warning to the global North. In response to critics who think environmentalism is a ‘luxury’ only for upscale yuppies, I quote: “This view is one I have heard mainly from affluent First World yuppies lacking experience of the Third World. In all my experience in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, East Africa, Peru and others …I have been impressed that their people know very well how they are being harmed by population growth, deforestation, overfishing and other problems. They know it because they immediately pay the penalty…”
In a sense, understanding the environment is essential to survival - quite clearly the intellectual workings of Darwinism on the human social scale. Political and cultural ideas that are maladaptive are incompatible with the continued existence of the human species, which is why even in the realm of ideas, the battle for survival continues.
And I bought it at Cheapo Books, now down in the basement of Cheapo Records.
February 19, 2012