Winter 2005 - Volume 8 Number 1
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
Toronto: Viking, 2005
For more than a decade, Jared Diamond has been one of the most popular of the popularizers of science. Unlike others who stick pretty much within their professional fields and explain what is going on in cosmology, biology or particle physics, however, Diamond has tended to stray from his principal areas of scientific expertise into the role of social critic.
He first came to international attention in 1992 with a commendable volume, The Third Chimpanzee. In it, he explained a good deal about the evolution of human beings, but he was already dabbling in the dark areas of possible disaster. In his final chapter, he worried some about a "nuclear holocaust [that] may or may not happen," and he worried more about an environmental holocaust that was "already well underway." Various ominous warnings, records of doom and Jeremiads have been written since Spengler, since Gibbon, and, well … since Jeremiah. Indeed, the notion of cyclical history with inescapable periods of birth, growth, flourishing and crash were more familiar to the ancients and to the followers of the Hindu god, Shiva than they are to us. So, nothing new there; the threat of nuclear arms and catastrophic ecological degradation are simply modern variants on an antique theme.
Especially disturbing in Diamond's account, however, was a phrase that emerged in his Epilogue. He quoted (though not approvingly) the last line of a book about the disastrous exploration and occupation of the island of New Guinea. This is what its author, the Dutch explorer Arthur Wichmann, said about relentless human stupidity: "Nothing learned, and everything forgotten!" No matter how much Diamond tried to distance himself from such pessimism, that line stood out. It belied the magnificent modern myth, the myth of progress.
In 1997, the commercial success of The Third Chimpanzee was followed by an authentic publishing triumph. Guns, Germs and Steel won immense critical acclaim (and much sneering dissent as well); it also made a ton or money. It sought nothing less than an explanation of how diversethough largely environmentalfactors led some societies toward technological innovation, surplus economies, military conquest and eventual global hegemony, while others not only lagged behind but were ultimately crushed by European imperialism. Some (mainly American) critics reviled Diamond as a single-minded materialist and (horrors!) a determinist. In fact, though it did attempt to sweep an almost unmanageable slice of human history into a scant 480 pages, I found the book compelling. To me, it was in no way reductionist. True, he explained that different societies were dealt different hands by accidents of geographical location (Europe being especially privileged), but he allowed that each had played their cards in their own waysome successfully, and some not. Freedom was there for those with the courage to exercise it and the wit to do so wisely. Diamond was not, as one commentator prickled, in thrall to "political correctness"; he did merely seek a deft way to account for global domination over the past half millennium by enterprising rascals from places such as Spain, France and Britain without allowing gun-toting Europeans all the credit for their exploits. Diamond understood that the environment matters but he knew that the human capacity to exploit that environment matters too.
In 1999, Jared Diamond followed Guns, Germs and Steel with a fine little book on the application of natural selection theory to somatic and social change in human reproductive mechanisms and customs. It was entitled Why Is Sex Fun? Plainly intended to reach a wider audience than most scholarly volumes, it was both a modest commercial success and a serious scientific contribution to our species' understanding of itself.
The best, however, was yet to come. Diamond has recently published the sequel to Guns, Germs and Steel. The first part tried to explain how some societies coped with germs, killed with weapons that fired horrific projectiles and prevailed over others with massive, intrusive technological innovations that are increasingly putting us all at risk. The second part speaks to the possibility of "collapse." The Whig version of history attests to the irresistible force of historical development. It insists that affairs such as the downfall of ancient Egypt or even the Roman Empire, while possibly setbacks in the parade of progress, were nonetheless ashes from which emerged (eventually) ever more spectacular models of human achievement.
One flaw in this torrid tale of indomitable human enterprise is the fact that we are disinclined to think that we are destined to crash as well. Diamond's ambition is to fix this flaw. More than in the past, Jared Diamond wants to put forward a comprehensive pathology and a plan of action. Unlike cultural triumphalists who insist that there is no challenge that cannot be met with a little grit, entrepreneurship and technological innovation, Diamond understands the gravity of the threats to what passes for contemporary civilization. He knows they are real and that our perception of proximate dangers is fundamentally inadequate when not wholly wrong-headed. Survival demands that we become clear-headed, vigilant and active in our own defence.
To show us the multiple errors of our ways, he holds up a series of mirrors. I commented in the last issue of The College Quarterly on a small article Diamond had published in The New York Review of Books. It was an appetizer. In Collapse, we have the complete meal.
Combining a consideration of the material base of societies in their physical environments, the political economies of societies in their enduring cultural habits and the choices that societies must make in order to preserve and improve their quality of life, Diamond shows how previous human systems have systematically messed up. His examples provoke barely concealed contempt from his detractors. He illustrates universal problems with reference to communities that are far removed from us temporally and spatially. What, wonder his critics, can the failures of Viking settlements in Greenland, the self-destruction of a few Polynesian islanders or the vanishing of Mayan civilization tell us about postmodern 21st century problems? Even the success stories (which is to say the stories of societies such as the shogunate of Tokugawa Japan that pulled back from the brink of disaster at what seemed to be the last moment) are at least minimally exotic.
The answer, of course, is that for, all the talk about human diversity, our species shares some fairly common problems and, no matter how fancy our alleged solutions, it remains that elementary social functions are parallel and so are the structural relationships between our cultures and our circumstances. The isolation of ruling elitesboth ideologically and economicallyfrom the mass of ordinary people was apparently devastating for the Mayans and is increasingly in evidence in our society as well. The reckless ecological devastation of the Pitcairn Islanders is nothing if not a "prequel," an anticipatory object lesson in microcosm, to our equally rapacious spoliation of the entire planet.
Western civilization, deafened by the thunder of self-applause, resists not only the message but also the medium. We do not like to be told that we are in for trouble and that it is our fault. We do not enjoy being told parables from afar. We can deal with disaster, of course, as long as we do not feel implicated in its creation. Compare, for instance, the generosity that is ongoing for the victims of the "natural" tsunami to the indifference to the equal number of children who die from perfectly preventable illnesses resulting from drinking polluted water each and every week. We do not want to be held accountable, to be implicated in our own demiseespecially if guilt comes with expense and we are forced, one day, to abandon our SUVs.
For this reason, Diamond sugar-coats his medicine. He remains "cautiously optimistic." He gives human ingenuity and good sense more than its due. He tells us that we must heed his advice if we are to avert the fate of other failed social experiments. His message is shocking, but not overwhelmingly so. We still have time to save ourselves if we choose to do so and, he insists, we retain the freedom to choose.
I hope he is right, but reading a recent review of his book in The New York Times, my confidence took quite a dip. There, in black and white, was the neoliberal chimera in all its ghastly trappings. As an argument against Diamond's sober warning, New Republic editor and Brookings Institution fellow Gregg Easterbrook offered the following: "Above us in the Milky Way are essentially infinite resources and living space. If the phase of fossil-driven technology leads to discoveries that allow Homo sapiens to move into the galaxy, then resources, population pressure and other issues that worry Diamond will be forgotten."
Heaven help us!
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, King City. He can be reached at email@example.com or 416-491-5050, ext. 5195.
• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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