Wednesday, June 08, 2005

'Collapse' collapses

If there is one thing to say about Jared Diamond, it's that he's ambitious. The ecobiologist evolutionary pscyologist what-have-you with the Pennsylvania Dutch beard thinks big. And, in this life, you either go big or go home, baby.

I have to wonder whether Diamond should have just stayed home rather than dedicating so much time and travel to his most recent doorstop, Collapse. Below is a description taken from its NY Times book review; as good as any for this tome:

Accordingly, he sets out, in differing degrees and depth of detail and in no particular order of importance, a wide variety of particular cases, opportunistically chosen: archaic societies like Easter Island, the ancient Maya, and the Greenland Vikings, which long ago collapsed into self-produced ecological disaster; third-world emergent states like Rwanda, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic that, disorganized, mismanaged, backward, and overpopulated, are well along toward producing such an outcome for themselves; modern or modernizing civilizations, like China, Australia, and the United States, that appear at the moment to be dynamic and flourishing, but in whom the first premonitory signs of overreach, waste, decline, and ruin are beginning to appear. Then, from the evidence of these cases, he constructs a short and miscellaneous checklist of factors that together and separately "contribute" to a society's fate: the inherent fragility of its habitat, the stability of its climate, the friendliness or hostility of its neighbors and trading partners, and, most important of all, the conclusive and decisive determinate force, "the society's responses to its environmental problems." Within the bounds of chance and circumstance, peoples, like individuals, make their own destiny. Choosing well or badly among policies and possibilities, they determine themselves what ultimately becomes of them.

The basic message of Diamond's work is that civilizations have control over their sustainability or demise based on the choices they make, primarily in regard to environmental practices. To sum that up, however, he needed 560 pages of excruciating detail about societies past and present that fell apart, are in the midst of crumbling, or are strong yet showing signs of potential danger.

Honestly, for the first 250 pages or so, I didn't mind the excrutiating detail. I had never learned much about the mysterious disappearance of the Easter Island inhabitants, nor had I even heard of the Greenland Norse. It made for an interesting study in previous cultures, their successes and their mistakes, and eventually their defeat. I read his chapter on Rwanda and watched Hotel Rwanda in conjunction, which, if anything, pushed me to further explore the causes and potential solutions to genocide. As I began rounding the final bend, though, I started wondering how this was all going to be tied up.

But Diamond never ties it up. That would be impossible. The scope is simply too large. The book begins with his generalized comments on the environment and how it lead to the ruin of past societies and could possibly lead to the ruin of present or future societies; and the book ends with the same generalizations. Everything in the middle felt like filler. It felt like he needed an excuse to go off to exotic desitinations to do research.

I certainly don't fault his research. It's fascinating and informative. Unfortunately, I never felt connected to it. I never felt like because Easter Islanders died off wholly and completely, that we as a global society are in imminent danger of doing the same. Rather than reaching back to his original premise within his discussions of different civilizations from yesterday and today, each section is just a thread hanging in the air. When Diamond decides to apply a particular idea to another, he pulls one of the threads, but the rest are still just hanging there.

The most obvious contention against the book is why choose to highlight the falls of some of the most isolated societies in the history of the world in order to illustrate why our present situation leaves us in danger of collapse without corrective action. Diamond explains, for example, that because Easter Island was so isolated, each person on every part of the island relied on others in different parts of the island to make a sustainable society. Due to the fact that (presumably) some people on the island were not carrying on sustainable livelihoods, the society's collapse obviously affected all. In our increasingly connected world, Diamond goes on to say, globalization is making each locality reliant on one another - not merely for economic reasons - but rather for several other reasons, including the environment. A gigantic river dam in China will not only affect the Chinese, but also India and other countries in Southeast Asia. Until we make a concerted effort as a global civilization to improve our enviromental policies and practices, we are doomed to a potentially fatal demise.

I agree with this premise. The world is interconnected in ways now that have never before been possible. As time goes on, we will see more and more of how actions in one corner of the globe create reactions in an opposite corner of the globe. Diamond, however, never delivers on his overinflated premise.

Early in the book, Diamond shares a question one of his students asked when he was teaching a course in preparation for Collapse: What was the person on Easter Island thinking when he cut down the last tree? I have a better question, though: What was Jared Diamond thinking when he finished page 560?

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