Monday, 15 February 2010

'Collapse', by Jared Diamond

‘Collapse’ is sub-titled ‘How societies choose to fail or survive’. This reflects his ultimate message, where he gives an optimistic message about how society can save itself from a global collapse, tipped over by the multiple environmental catastrophes that accelerate abound us. It is also a wake-up call: our human society can survive only if it perceives the threats and changes its actions. If we go on as we are, however, our society will collapse, possibly quite soon and possibly catastrophically.

It is a chunky book, running to 560 pages and crammed with impressive detail. The author is a polymath, having had three distinct careers as a physiologist, a zoologlist and an environmental historian. Apparently he is learning his twelfth language. So evidently clever and wide-ranging his he that one reviewer has amusingly commented “ ‘Jared Diamond’ is suspected of actually being the pseudonym for a committee of experts.” So we are in good hands.

Diamond looks are case studies of where societies have failed in the past, drawing on all historical, archaeological and ecological sources. These are Easter Island, Pitcairn Island, Henderson Island, Anasazi native Americans, the Mayan civilizations and the Greenland Viking settlements. These were clearly catastrophes and left nothing or only a fragment of its population behind, with their artefacts and buildings for scientists to dig up. The causes are various and the individual stories different, but common threads are identified in a systematic and wholly convincing way. The common thread can be summarised as environmental degradation (caused or speeded up by human activity), and the failure of people to adapt to the changes or to prevent them.

These stories are somewhat comforting, like what the Japanese call ‘a fire on the other side of the river’. We can shake our head at the wrong-headedness and the limited technology they had, assuming that we are above and beyond all that. They are also relatively small and exotic stories. However, Diamond shows how they did the best in the circumstances, within their mind-set. The limitations of their cultural mind-set are especially keenly felt in the case of the Norse Vikings eking out and increasingly desperate existence in two settlements in Western Greenland. While they died out, starving to death in poignant, isolated circumstances, the native Inuit were going about their business around them with success, surviving the colder climate with superior technology (e.g. kayaks) and adaptability.

Maybe to cheer us up, the author throws in a few examples of historical success, including the maintenance of their environment by the Papua New Guineans and the reforestation of Japan in the Tokugawa era. This is only one chapter, but enlightening.

Then he moves on to describe modern societies which have/are collapsed/collapsing. His case studies are Rwanda, Haiti, China and Australia. The genocide in Rwanda is clearly linked to the extreme overpopulation of this land and the extreme tensions arising from the need to have enough resources to survive. Haiti is just about the world’s worst basket-case (maybe Somalia runs it close), and its desperately poor society is described as surviving on the edge, limping along with international aid. More than 95% of the land has been deforested and the soil is degrading rapidly with every rainstorm and hurricane.

China is necessarily described in broad brush terms, but the scale and variety of the environmental problems there are deeply depressing: climate change, sandstorms, desertification, soil erosion, salinisation, water shortages, floods, sediment discharge, acid rain, smog, chemical pollution of water, air and soil, wetland destruction, over-fishing, loss of native species, infestation by alien species, importation of garbage and so forth.

Australia? Yes, he points out that Australia is the first world country with the most severe environmental degradation. Nearly all the problems listed for China are present in Australia, if not proportionally worse. Australia is one of the driest countries in the world, with some of the least robust soils. The problems have been exacerbated by government policies over the decades, for instance requiring leasehold farmers to clear native vegetation as a condition of their lease. As it happens, my National Geographic magazine for this month also had an extensive article on the drying and salinisation of the Murray/Darling basin, so Diamond’s assertions are powerfully corroborated.

Diamond describes the country’s renewable resources as being ‘mined’ – i.e. extracted at such a fast rate that they will never recover to their former level. Most stunning of all, the author cites an environmentalist’s estimate that Australia can only sustain a long-term population of 8 million people. That puts paid to some politicians’ dreams of a 50 million population, and, given that the present population is 20 million, one can envisage some catastrophic and pitiful shrinkage of the number of people left alive.

He by no means predicts an immediate collapse, and he is keen to demonstrate that policies and attitudes are already changing. However he does not need to spell it out – having just read about the complete deforestation of Easter Island, the reader can make the obvious connections, but on a much larger scale.

John Vernon

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