2008/11/11

Cautionary tales & historical theory: 2 by Diamond

Having been greatly stimulated by Jared Diamond's earlier book, Guns, Germs and Steel (see below), I was eager to read this newer one -- Diamond, Jared. Collapse. How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. London: Penguin Books, 2005. But, as you'll see from my notes, I found it disappointing .

In Collapse, Diamond relates cautionary tales of societies that thrived and then collapsed, contrasted to some that still survive, to identify recurrent causes of collapse. In all the cases selected, the main cause (according to him) was the society's misuse and exhaustion of material resources, esp. forests, aggravated in some cases by aggression from other societies -- which is hardly surprising. And he warns us of comparable dangers (but are they really comparable?) to our new, global ecosystem. Stories include Easter Island, the contrasting experiences of 3 dissimilar S. Pacific islands, the Anasazi, Maya, Viking settlements (Greenland, a failure; Iceland still going strong), Japan (Tokugawa success in forest management), Rwanda (Diamond blames environmental stress more than ancient enmities for the genocide of 1994), Haiti's poverty v. the Dominican Republic's much better management of resources (he credits Joaquín Balaguer especially), China, and Australia (still functioning, but precarious because overexploiting poor soil and little water). These tales are all more or less interesting (China less, Greenland more, because the information is less well known), but they don't add up to anything much beyond a reminder that the prosperity of global society requires much better husbanding of resources.

After his "Guns, Germs and Steel," which presented a coherent and audacious theory explaining Europe's rise to preeminence, this is a pious hodgepodge. Here are my notes on the earlier, stronger book:

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: Random House, 1997. 1999 Norton paperback.

The reasons why European whites acquired the "guns, germs and steel" with which they decimated and subdued all other peoples are (according to Diamond) due entirely to accidental geographical advantages: a wider variety of minerals in Eurasia, including the rocks necessary for an efficient stone-age technology necessary as a first stage of development; the availability of easy-to domesticate, highly productive plants and animals enabling people in Mesopotamia to become farmers and produce enough of a surplus to build cities, long before anybody else; and the east-west orientation of the Eurasian continent, with a wide swath in the same latitude with a long growing season and plenty of rain, so that crops developed in Mesopotamia could also be grown as far as western India, all across northern Africa and across southern Europe to its western edge; the absence of major physical barriers also facilitated transfers of inventions (whether in agriculture or devices such as the wheel, practices such as weaving, etc.).

The book's great success ("over 1 million copies sold," the cover proclaims) is mainly because Diamond weaves a coherent story through a huge subject, all human history, that is a plausible alternative to the naïve race theories still current. The problem for many scholars is that the coherence seems too facile, neglecting the complexities of many developments over the millennia and (according to some of those scholars) getting many particulars wrong.

The other reason for both the book's popularity and many scholars' impatience is that Diamond repeats his essential points over and over. This makes it hard to miss them, which must be convenient for the distracted undergraduate, but is wearisome for the attentive reader, especially one who is already familiar with many of the arguments.

3 comments:

gef said...

Actually, Iceland is not "still going strong," though the reasons have less to do with deforestation than with financial speculation. Which just goes to show: With a different selection of cases, we could make a very different argument about the causes of a civilization's "collapse": the fall of Rome (v. Gibbon), later of the Eastern Roman ("Byzantine") empire, the Hapsburgs, etc.

Dirk said...

The Neolithic agricultural revolution brought with it, among other things, the replacment of egalitarian society with class society, worse nutrition for most people, more diseases, and perhaps shorter life spans (see for a brief summary (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neolithic_Revolution#Consequences_of_the_Neolithic_Revolution). Does Diamond consider these drawbacks when he describes the results of development of Mesopotamian civilization as “success”?

gef said...

No, Diamond does not mention any of those drawbacks. But if we're looking for first causes of the decline of human happiness, I'd propose the invention of writing. Hitherto, people heard voices and communicated directly with their gods, and they exercised much more their memories. Also, they were free of atomic weapons, nerve gas, hedge fund mania and, of course, blogs. But then again, most were enthusiastic deforesters, so ultimately their cultures were unsustainable (as ours may turn out to be).