Share This on Facebook

BOOK REVIEW: Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking Penguin, 2005), 575 pp., $29.95.

April 2005 -- Consider two farms.
One is a one-quarter-acre plot in Rwanda. The other is a thousand-acre wheat farm in Australia. Both are failing. In Rwanda, the impoverished peasant farmer has neither the technological skill nor sufficient land to produce enough food to feed his family, and he has no other job prospects. In Australia, the farmer cannot afford the interest payments on equipment and the cost of fuel and fertilizer; wheat prices don't reflect his costs, but rather the costs of hugely productive, lower-cost producers in Kansas and Alberta. There are plenty of other jobs for him, and all told he would probably make more money outside of farming altogether.
When the Rwandan farm fails, its owners will die. When the Australian farm fails, the farmer will get another job. If no one else feeds the Rwandan farmer, he will die. If no one else feeds the Australian farmer, he will…start that farm up again, happily pay the extra cost of the fertilizer and fuel, and enjoy a standard of living little different from what had been the case. In one case—collapse. In the other—market adjustment.
I drew these two farms from chapters in Jared Diamond's Collapse that focus on the environmental problems of Rwanda and Australia. And I drew them in imitation, for Diamond begins with a similar tale of two farms: a flourishing, modern dairy farm in Montana, and the Gardar-cathedral dairy farm in Greenland, abandoned when the Norse Greenlanders died out around 1450 A.D. Diamond's book is written as a warning: the fate of Greenland could well visit Montana; the fate of Rwanda, where land-hungry neighbor butchered neighbor, could well visit Australia.

Sustaining Eden

Surveying a series of historical societal collapses, Diamond integrates fascinating archeological research and details of environmental science to show how different societies succeeded or failed, arguing in each case that ecological collapse preceded and contributed substantially to the fall of civilization.

On Easter Island, Polynesian colonists arrived around 900 A.D. In time, their flourishing society built massive sculptures of ancestors. But in the process the inhabitants deforested the island, leaving them without canoes to go fish in the deep sea and eroding the terrain so that their agriculture declined sharply. Civil war, revolution, and cannibalism followed.
In Central America, Mayan peoples built great temples and flourished as a civilization while Europe was mired in its Dark Ages. But deforestation, erosion, relative overpopulation, drought, and warfare brought on a precipitous fall. The great cities of the Mayan heartland lay totally abandoned within fifty years of reaching their greatest heights.
By contrast, Diamond recounts the experience of some societies that have avoided grave environmental problems. Tokugawa Japan stopped a process of deforestation in the late 1700s and began to farm timber on a wide scale. The Dominican Republic shares the mountainous island of Hispaniola with Haiti, the New World's number-one basket case. But, unlike Haiti, the Dominican Republic has kept its population density relatively low and has carefully prevented wholesale deforestation; the Dominican Republic is now far richer, per capita, than is Haiti, and its politics, while tumultuous, have not devolved into the anarchy of its sister nation. The obscure people of Tikopia converted their little Pacific island into a unique artificial rainforest in which every ecological niche was filled with plants and animals useful to humans. To sustain this Eden, they avoided overpopulation by practicing infanticide and by sending excess people out to sea to die.

The Vikings and Social Choice

Diamond is an ornithologist and environmental geographer at the University of California, Los Angeles, who achieved national fame with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel. In that book, he surveyed world history to argue that the fate of civilizations has depended on environmental and geographical factors. The Spanish conquered the Aztecs, Mayas, and Incas, for example, because the Eurasian environment had led to the development of guns, cannons, infectious diseases like smallpox, and plentiful steel—and had provided tractable draft animals like horses—none of which the American civilizations could have been expected to develop, whatever the choices and industry of their peoples. It is ironic, then, that the central feature of Diamond's new book is a demonstration of how resistant to the environment human culture can be, and the central thesis is that what we choose and how industriously we face our problems are the keys to sustaining civilization.
The centerpiece of Guns, Germs, and Steel was an account of the Polynesian colonization of the Pacific Ocean, and Diamond draws on that material here, too. It is an interesting natural experiment, because the Polynesians carried with them a standard set of Stone Age technologies, domesticated animals, and agricultural techniques, on the basis of which they adapted to islands that differed in latitude, rainfall, availability of shallow-water fish, soil quality, and many other factors. Here they formed kingships, there an egalitarian society. Here they erected impressive monuments, there simple huts.
In Collapse, a different colonizing people holds center stage: the Norse Vikings. From roughly 750 to 1050 A.D., the Norse ranged out from Scandinavia in all directions, pillaging, conquering, settling, and trading. While the dreaded Vikings were sacking England, they also were discovering and colonizing unknown lands. They reached the Orkney Islands by 800 A.D, Iceland by 870, Greenland by 980, and "Markland" (Labrador) and "Vinland" (Nova Scotia) by 1000. They brought their own mode of life, focused on dairy farming and herding sheep. Colonies in the Orkney and Faroe Islands thrived. In Iceland, the Norse hung on, barely surviving severe erosion problems and the cold climate of the "Little Ice Age" (1400-1800). In "Vinland," they retreated in the face of superior numbers of angry natives. In Greenland, they settled, lived for nearly 500 years, but died in the Little Ice Age, cut off from Europe by sea ice and probably slaughtered by the Inuit people who expanded southward with the spreading cold.
Diamond focuses on Greenland in part because it offers a scene of white Europeans failing and dying for mostly environmental reasons. But the Greenland Norse also exemplify the power of culture and human choices. Like the Norse in Iceland, the Greenland Norse overgrazed and deforested the few areas that were not beneath glaciers. The differences in their fates were due to several factors that Diamond recounts: Iceland was closer to Norway, so it received much more trade from Europe. When the Little Ice Age came, sea ice prevented ships from reaching or leaving Greenland, cutting it off from its main source of timber, Labrador. Diamond rightly criticizes the Greenlanders for attacking the Inuits rather than learning from them how to hunt seals under the ice, build igloos, and otherwise survive in the cold.
But the real key to their fate, the real difference between Greenland and Iceland, was that, for unknown reasons, the Greenlanders refused to eat fish. Fish there were in plenty, and the Icelanders lived off the fisheries and sold dried fish to Europe. But the Norse Greenlanders appear to have starved when they could no longer raise enough hay to feed their cows, while fish abounded all around them. The Greenlanders, Diamond tells us, failed "to reconsider core values" (p. 522) when the going got tough.

The World as Easter Island

These tales of societal collapses matter because Diamond is worried that world civilization as a whole is headed for disaster. Like the Easter Islanders, we have no other people to trade with and no other planet to flee to if things go bad here on Earth. We modern humans are like the Haitians and Rwandans because, well, Haiti and Rwanda are modern countries. We are like the Australians, whom Diamond charges with "mining" their environment, extracting non-renewable resources such as copper, petroleum, and topsoil nutrients at unsustainable rates. When these resources run out, even the First World could well face a Malthusian collapse. We may, like the Greenlanders, soon find that our old mode of life can no longer be sustained—will we adapt? Americans, he argues, should reconsider core values like freedom; for the sake of collective action, we need "to subordinate [our] individual rights to group interests" (p. 524).
"Sustainability" is a key, if frustratingly elusive, concept in Diamond's arguments. In today's political discourse, it is the buzzword of the enemies of modern industry, modern wealth, and many modern freedoms. Yet Diamond declares he is "writing this book from a middle of the road perspective, with experience of both environmental problems and business realities" (p. 17). And his grim examples of societies that destroyed their resource-base give a real punch to the idea of unsustainability.
Yet what is it for a society to be sustainable, beyond not suffering a collapse in population? Is it to live as primitively as the Australian aborigines, who Diamond says "had worked out successful sustainable solutions to the continent's daunting environmental problems" (p. 389)? Diamond also calls traditional Indian caste-based society and the Tikopian native lifestyle "sustainable." Later, discussing modern Australia, he states that "the best estimate of population sustainable at the present standard of living is 8 million people, less than half of the present population" (p. 398).
Here is the crux of the matter. Do we face collapse if the world population doesn't drop by more than half? Drawing selectively on environmentalist treatises and on doomsayers like Lester Hunt and Paul Ehrlich, Diamond states as fact that fossil fuel supplies will start to crash within a generation. He takes it for granted that limits on resources will prevent big Third World countries like China and India from ever attaining First World living standards. Today, when the news reports commonly blame demand from China for dramatic rises in energy prices and popular magazines proclaim "The End of Cheap Oil," these worries seem especially plausible. Are the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the Anglo-American invasion of a major oil-producing state (Iraq) symptoms of resource-driven social conflict, conflict that can only grow and grow as poverty and shortages increase?

Environmentalism vs. Economic Argument

Of course, we cannot be certain that these fears are misplaced. In the first place, there are real environmental problems, though most are in underdeveloped countries. Diamond notes the toxic pollution of watersheds by mining operations. He decries the "tragedy of the commons" on the high seas, where the lack of government control and property rights has led to the exhaustion of major oceanic fisheries. Furthermore, industrial civilization depends on the production of relatively inexpensive energy—if obtaining it in the future will require technologies that do not yet exist, we cannot blithely assume such technologies will appear as a matter of course. Lastly, we cannot assume that people, and especially rulers, will behave rationally. Indeed, as Ayn Rand emphasized, rationality is a virtue precisely because thinking is a choice we can fail to make. In one chapter, Diamond provides a tour through human folly, highlighting the ways in which individuals and societies make irrational choices and discussing cases where the near-term interests of individuals clash with the long-term interests of their societies. The aforementioned "tragedy of the commons" is a classic example of this. Diamond charges that such conflicts are rife throughout the mining industry—where shadowy companies use bankruptcy to escape their clean-up obligations once the best ore has been extracted—and in many other extractive industries as well.
Radical environmentalists begin with a set of premises opposed to human life and civilization. They praise the intrinsic value of nature. They simply stand opposed to people like me who value their own lives and the fruits of civilization. With them, rational debate, lacking any common ground, is impossible. Diamond, however, is at pains to place his argument within the realm of reason. "I'm more interested in environmental issues because of…their consequences for people than because of their consequences for birds," he writes (p. 16).
In the abstract, the acid test for this commitment lies in how Diamond handles the arguments of figures like Julian Simon and Bjørn Lomborg who, in books like The Ultimate Resource and The Skeptical Environmentalist, have criticized doomsaying like Diamond's and have integrated economic arguments and an appreciation for technology into a thoughtful optimism about the future. Diamond's only response, besides asserting the contrary, is a concluding chapter in which he reduces his critics' arguments to "simplistic 'one-liners'" (p. 503). The effect is that Diamond's responses themselves are often embarrassingly simple-minded. For example, any discussion of the future of energy production must consider nuclear power seriously, yet Diamond dismisses the entire subject like so: "nuclear power…poses potentially the biggest 'toxic' problem of all in case of an accident" (p. 496). That is neither well-founded nor an argument.
And so it goes with the broader issue of the dangers of increased population. Diamond blames population growth for the traffic problems in Los Angeles. But political restrictions on building new highways and toll-roads are the real cause. He seems to think the following is convincing evidence: "I have never met an Angeleno (and very few people anywhere in the world) who personally expressed a desire for increased population in the area where he or she personally lived" (p. 500). This made me wonder if he lived on the same planet that I do. For the last twenty years, I have lived in or near cities where neighbors and civic leaders regularly yearn for population growth; these include Atlanta, Detroit, Cleveland, and Albany. Sloppy, sketchy claims like these made me doubt that Diamond has a sound grasp of the current state of the world.

China and the Fate of the World

In the concrete, the future fate of the world can be read as well in China as anywhere. China is, after all, the world's most populous country. China has also been one of the world's great civilizations, and it provides a wonderful example of how a sophisticated society can continue to thrive over the millennia despite using its land and resources intensively. But alas, though Diamond devotes a chapter to China, he skips over millennia of sustained Chinese civilization to focus on the current situation there.
Since the economic reforms of the 1980s, China's economic growth has been among the fastest in the world. During that same period, the Communist Party government there has sought to employ technology to exploit the country's resources for the sake of economic growth. China's environmental problems are massive, on a scale far beyond anything seen in North America. Thick coal smoke and dust pollution in major Chinese cities cause millions of respiratory ailments each year. Deforestation and erosion have degraded scarce cropland. Toxic pollution of drinking water is a common and growing problem. The Chinese government is aggressively rearranging the landscape, building immense dams and canals that could change water abundance and soil fertility over large regions. And, as we hear, China is gobbling up all that oil and building all those new cars.
In discussing China, Diamond insists that he wants to "distinguish…between consequences for animals and plants by themselves and consequences for people" (p. 367). But he fails to answer the basic questions that would follow from this purpose: How has life expectancy changed as pollution has grown? (In fact, it has increased.) What has happened to total food production? (In fact, per capita production has risen.) Instead, he is reduced to bemoaning high blood levels of lead (which is serious but is not an intrinsic problem of industrial civilization as such). And in a shameful passage, he treats the health effects of smoking in China as evidence of the costs of industrial air pollution.

Don't Expect an Ecologist to Understand Capitalism

In the end, Diamond's understanding of the modern economy is weak. He does not account for the ongoing increase in the amount of real economic output that the advanced economies extract from each unit of energy. He does not account for the ability of market prices to provide incentives for people to use resources efficiently and find innovative means of producing them. He uses the term "value" more often to refer to nature and wilderness areas than to human goods like transportation, food, shelter, and entertainment. For example, he declares a remote nature park in Australia "an especially valuable area" (p. 400). Ayn Rand would ask: "of value to whom, and for what?" By the measure of the market, i.e., the measure of people, it is land in the densely populated, intensely technological heart of a great city that is "especially valuable."
The world could end up, as Diamond fears, a denuded and impoverished wreck, Easter Island writ large. But that day will not come as long as free people are able and willing to employ science and technology to solve their problems. The greatest danger to the world is that a lack of freedom—and, hence, a lack of capitalism—will lead to more suffering and social collapses like those we see today in much of Africa. But with his ecologist's blinders on, Diamond fails to grasp this crucial truth.

This article first appeared in the April/May 2005 issue of The New Individualist, a publication of The Atlas Society.


William R Thomas

About The Author:

William R Thomas is Director of Progams and Senior Scholar at The Atlas Society.

Donate to The Atlas Society

Did you enjoy this article? If so, please consider making a donation. Our digital channels garner over 1 million views per year. Your contribution will help us to achieve and maintain this impact.