A Vague Attempt to Review Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”

I’ve just finished reading Jared Diamond’s Collapse.

Unlike many of my peers, I’ve long avoided many authors, such as Diamond, Dawkins etc. Instead I focused on the classics, like Wells, Orwell, Fitzgerald etc. In truth, I fell prey to the misinformation about such writers engineered by those whom dislike their fantasies being thoroughly discredited.

Of course, I should have read their work for myself before buying into such assumptions or concerning myself about judgement by association. Both men are far from the stigma created around them and both passionate, honest and interesting writers.

In the final chapter of Collapse, I found myself thinking, “Andrew Bolt should be made to read this.”

Ever since I stumbled upon one of Bolt’s more moronic writes, excusing species extinction, even the role of Hathos has been killed for me; I simply cannot read his dribble anymore. I spent a fair amount of effort attempting to retort with various arguments as to why not only biodiversity, but also genetic diversity within a species is fundamental to the success of our species as well. Diamond puts it even better;

“[B]iodiversity losses of small inedible species often provoke the response, “Who cares? Do you really care less for humans than for some lousy useless little fish or weed, like the the snail darter or Furbish lousewort?” This response misses the point that the entire natural world is made up of wild species providing us for free with services that can be very expensive, and in many cases impossible, for us to supply ourselves. Elimination of lots of lousy little species regularly causes big harmful consequences for humans, just as does randomly knocking out many of the lousy little rivets holding together an airplane.”

Throughout the book, Diamond provides many compelling examples of successes and failures in the survival of societies. In that respect I really should have read his work earlier, even more so than Dawkins as it’s the same perspective that first drew me to the blogosphere with MothIncarnate.

Unlike many environmentally inclined that actively engage on the subject (generally outside of academia) I’m very much pro-industrialisation, in the respect that I believe it will be through innovation (ie. social and technological) that we stand the best possibility of discovering solutions to the myriad of problems facing our future. I’m also in favour of a form of free-market, however based on a stable state economy. We require innovative and inventive market enterprise within thriving societies based on technologically advances and a strong sense of capped resources and waste management (ideally leading to zero waste; in other words, cyclic processes).

The way forward is not the way back to the humble peasant and some illusion of egalitarianism. Like Diamond, I prefer to rely on historical evidence and all the evidence I’m aware of leads me to the conclusion that sophisticated societies are never egalitarian – we should instead ask how to avoid gaping disparity through other means within societal structures that foster good environmental management; that is, societies that have a core understanding that real societal wealth starts with a thriving surrounding environment.

This line of thinking has often lead me to pointless circular debates, where I ask for evidence to the contrary and instead am continually supplied with the response that the other just doesn’t like my argument.

In the same way, another loud point made in Collapse is not very popular (and has led to much of the stigma around Diamond). He doesn’t see business as the big greedy monster that many people probably inclined to pick up his book do. Rather than labelling business as a shameless profiteer at the expense of people and the environment he accurately defines is as… well, a business. He goes on the provide examples of free-market entities whom we would consider to be doing the right thing as well as providing societies that collectively do the wrong thing. It’s not so black and white as the humble peasants of yesteryear and the greedy capitalistic machine of today.

It equally seems too easy to forget that in many democratic countries, not only can we vote out a bad leadership, but we can also ruin the profits of many industry leaders if we’re significantly motivated to do so. Business only works on what they can get away with in chasing money. A fast food joint will only add a salad option (often smothered in dressing as oily as their deep fried chips) if it’s enough to satisfy their customers. Providers of wood products will create some pleasant green logo of a tree with the word “sustainable” if it’s what we want to hear and are gullible enough to fall for it. White or green washing only happens because of the society that supports it.

If it ends up being more profitable to take measures to ensure environments are sustained or that waste and pollution are minimised (ie. it’s what the consumers demand and will only buy) then that is what business will do. It is of course more expensive to do so, but how often do you trust the quality of the cheapest item on the shelf anyway? Doing things right sometimes incur additional costs (although taking Diamond’s examples of the Forest Stewardship Council and the Marine Stewardship Council, additional costs are small to the consumer and can ensure indefinite resource supply in return).

Personally, I feel we should all claim ownership of blame rather than seek out scapegoats, such as poor leadership or corporate governance. If we truly are stewards of the Earth, then none of us are blameless. In owning a share of the mess, we feel more obliged to do something about it, sparking a much needed cultural change – probably the most important innovation required.

Another important point made in Collapse is that part of the reason for the more modern successes mentioned in the book have occurred due to displacement. When one area exhausts its local resources, it has been easy to source these from other (often poorer and more corrupt) regions. In this way, we have a strong sense of immunity from collapse in wealthier western societies that is undeserved and makes such essential cultural changes even more difficult to catch on.

For this reason, even though I still feel that the Andrew Bolt’s of the world should read this book, I’m not convinced it would make the required impact to their reasoning.

That all said, it’s a great book, beautifully constructed and compelling with its evidence. I agree with Diamond that the story shouldn’t be seen as a depressing one, but rather an amazing collection of survivors. Not only have many societies survived, but progressed to the point that highly sophisticated machines now allow us to converse to one another regardless of distance. The range for ideas is limitless. It’s not intuitive to comprehend just how powerful and revolutionary that truly is. In this way, I am remain hopeful in innovation regardless of the tireless juggernauts leading us along the road of degradation.

Diamond’s book sits among the best of these ideas and has something for any reader as it does for every society whom wishes to avoid collapse.


3 thoughts on “A Vague Attempt to Review Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”

  1. Thanks, Moth for this thoughtful review. I must confess having the same aversion; yet did take a rapid peak at various sections of Collapse. Let me comment on the role of business and free enterprise. As you know I view ecosystems as thriving entrepreneurial systems; there is lots of competition and every bit of energy is spent on self interest. Local small scale free enterprise at its best. However, there are several critical differences between what we now have globalized, “financialized” corporatism. There are many checks and balances present in ecosystems — i.e. much of it having to do with diversity intra- and inter species diversity; there is also a great deal of mutualism. Thirdly, the systems are bottom up and local (well tuned to the local physical and chemical environment). Ecosystems (those that survive) are resilient for these reasons. The dominant human economies violate all of these principles. Competition and local economies are stifled by the sapping of capital into financial markets that are speculative, destructive and that have no connection to the needs of people and communities. There is also an important feedback system that affects the ability of government to protect the commons including nature’s free services. Corporate money flows into the political system, the political system favors interests of corporations and the wealthy, the economic and political gaps be the 1% and 99% continues to grow, and so forth. There may be many causes of collapse including drought, wars, etc. but I think what I fear the most is that this cycle will continue to feed on itself creating increasing destabilization of economies and societies. What can we say about the resilience of a global economy that could collapse as a result of a failure of a small country like Greece to pay its sovereign debt to speculators?

    Good night and have a good week. Signing off. Hank (Ekos-Squared) Cole, http://ecosquared.wordpress.com/


    1. Great points Hank! In our case, the parasites are in charge. Looking at history, leadership has been essential for large complicated societies, but it often leads to disparity. I agree with you, the bottom up approach is best and I know you’ve had first hand experience with this approach. Education is fundamental to the success of this.
      I really recommend reading Collapse and would be really interested in your feedback on it!


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