Friday, 04 February, 2005

Collapse

I've been letting my thoughts on Jared Diamond's excellent new book Collapse filter through my brain for the last 10 days or so since I finished it.  The book attempts to explain why some societies collapse and other somewhat similar societies don't.  He examines civilizations such as Easter Island, the Anasazi of the American Southwest, the Maya, Norse Greenland, modern Rawanda, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and others.  The last part of the book then attempts to apply those lessons to the modern world.  He concludes with some very strong evidence that our current civilization is using up the Earth's resources at an unsustainable rate.  Whether or not he's right, I really can't say without more study.  But he makes a pretty convincing argument.

Not everybody agrees with Diamond's conclusions in either book.  One dissenting view was published in the New York Times Sunday Book Review.  In his review 'Collapse': How the World Ends (free registration required), Gregg Easterbrook praises Diamond for his in-depth research, well-formed arguments, and clear writing.  Then he says that both Collapse and Guns, Germs, and Steel (Diamond's earlier, Pulitzer Prize winning book) are "exasperating, because both come to conclusions that are probably wrong."

I would be more inclined to take Easterbrook's opinion seriously if he presented either a good argument for why the books are wrong, or presented an alternative view that was plausible.  Most of the review is just a summation of the two books and an over simplification of Diamond's conclusions.  His criticism of Guns, Germs, and Steel is limited to half a paragraph in which he tells us that Diamond's reliance on inference based on the archaeological record ("a haphazard artifact of items that just happened to survive") is just plain wrong.  I'll grant that we don't know what happened, but Diamond's arguments make more sense than any other explanation I've seen.

Easterbrook's arguments against the conclusions reached in Collapse revolve around Diamond's use of island-based and pre-technological societies in his study.  He's on firmer ground here, although he conveniently fails to mention the in-depth study of the Maya and Anasazi societies, and also of the modern societies that he examined.  It's obvious that continents typically are more diverse and present more opportunities than do islands.  However, Easterbrook's arguments do not convince me that the differences in scale could prevent the kinds of collapses that Diamond documents.

Easterbrook apparently accepts some of Diamond's points ("Diamond rightly warns of alarming trends in biodiversity..."), but rather than presenting alternate conclusions or offering ways to limit the effects of the trends that Diamond identifies, he argues that because we don't have a good solution to the problem, then either the problem doesn't exist or some unknown new technology will save us.  The last three paragraphs are full of so much misguided technology worship that it's impossible to take the rest of the review  seriously.  As an example, consider Easterbrook's parting thought:

Oddly, for someone with a background in evolutionary theory, he [Diamond] seems not to consider society's evolutionary arc. He thinks backward 13,000 years, forward only a decade or two. What might human society be like 13,000 years from now? 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.

Are you kidding me?  If he actually read and understood enough of the book to write a review, he should understand two things.  First, blind reliance on unforseen technological advances is folly.  More importantly, if you accept the contention that our current patterns of use are unsustainable (and Easterbrook does, at least in part), then we have to reduce the population and resource taxation pressures.  "Moving to the stars" is a great idea, but it's not a viable option for reducing the population unless there are some huge technological advances in the very near future.  We don't currently have the technology to send even a small number of people off world permanently, much less the 60,000,000 per year that we'd have to relocate in order to stablize the population.

Do yourself a favor and read Diamond's books.  Decide for yourself.  Even if you ultimately disagree, you will gain the benefit of Diamond's extensive research and will have enjoyed the way that he formulates and presents arguments.

Ignore Easterbrook's review.  He obviously wasn't qualified to write it.