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April 1, 2006


(how societies choose to fail or succeed)
Jared Diamond – ISBN 0143036556

This book is brilliant. Collapse is a comprehensive, provocative, well researched book, and very readable. Diamond reviews carefully selected cultures which best make the points he wishes to emphasize. Included are the ancient Mayans, the Greenland and Iceland Norse (and Inuits), the Easter and several other Pacific Islanders, the American desert southwest, and perhaps more interestingly, contemporary Australia, China and the Southeast Asians who are moving toward first world culture. Along the way he includes Rwanda, Hispaniola, and others as examples of specific problems.

Unlike Guns, Germs & Steel, he barely reveals his liberal, anti-capitalist, religion avoiding assessments wherein culture and nurture were largely eliminated from consideration. Collapse simply avoids these subjects: more easily done than in “Guns.”

He reviews in appropriate detail the failures and successes as measured by societal survival, and is specific about the causes of same, using voluminous data, much of it recently mined from historic and archaeologic materials, as well as in depth interviews on personal visits, which he has conducted over decades.

From deforestation to salinization of soils, thru over fishing and farming to ritual excesses he details the problems as best they are interpretable. He explores population density, population controls, necessary enlightenment as regards resource management and generally what it will take to achieve sustainability. In this he does a masterfully balanced job of presenting the facts, and in so doing is very persuasive as regards the difficulties, and is generally hopeful about the future.

I found his wide-ranging discussion of contemporary Australia to be of particular interest because it is contemporary, and Western as well. While time and space prevent encyclopedic dialogue, he does detail the environmental calamity which is modern Australia, and masterfully uses it as an example of its cultural values being opposed to environmental reality. In this, Australia is “the canary in the mine shaft” for Western culture, and in no small measure the emerging 1st world cultures of India, China and the Asian “tigers.”

Primitive “slash and burn” cultures, along with modern “rape and run” proclivities are appropriately discussed. Surprisingly, he emphasizes that only the people (meaning all of us) can exert controls and demand the change of attitudes. In this he is particular emphatic. Simply bemoaning the realities of modern environmental catastrophes is not enough. He gives numerous and explicit examples of how an environmental consciousness can be imposed upon industry thru public activism. What needs be done is to become informed and involved in these activities.

While one can’t materially influence the local lumber yard regarding poor harvesting and replenishing techniques, the “Big Guys”--Home Depot and Lowe’s--can be pressured into insisting that they will not market products cultivated in environmentally unfriendly ways. Whereas tuna fishermen formerly noted that it wasn’t possible to deliver the product without killing turtles, dolphins, and myriad other fish species, it is now established that they can and must, or “we” won’t buy their product. And so it goes with oil, coal, and increasingly with metals, by influencing corporations like DuPont. While not specifically mining the metals, DuPont provides them to industry and can ill afford to be tarred by the bad reputation of the “hard mining” industries.

People can make a difference. They must! Indeed it is the only practical answer. Interestingly, while discussing these factors he never uses the term “market forces,” presumably because it is a capitalist term. Capitalism works. The problem with it is selected “capitalists” (Ken Lay and his ilk come to mind.) They must be hoist on their own petard, avoided and/or disciplined by the market (and the courts.) Even Diamond disallows government as the answer . . . thus leaving only the market.

Churchill once observed: Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. It is clear to me, if not to Diamond, that so it is with Capitalism. Hernando DeSoto stated that it is the only system capable of “providing us with the tools required to create massive surplus value.” Without that massive surplus one cannot hope to address environmental concerns, human welfare, and all the rest, not excluding human survival.

People need to get involved. The future is in our hands. With that I can agree!

Posted by respeto at April 1, 2006 4:11 PM