Sunday, September 19, 2010

Book Review: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Recently I have been reading the book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond. It is a follow up to his other book Guns, Germs, and Steel [editor's note: I will provide a review of that book when I finish writing it. I have read the book, but I have not finished writing the review], which won the Pulitzer Prize.

If you are interested in a more comprehensive review of the book then I am sure that you can find a link to a good review from the Wikipedia page on the book, or a review on Amazon. This review is just my own personal take on the book.

First off, the book is well written and full of details, but it is not technical and can be read by any high school graduate (or anyone still in high school for that matter). He makes some excellent points in the book, and it is obvious that his motivations for writing the book are sincere. He truly hopes that by writing this book he will inspire us to take action and to prevent the collapse of our modern societies. I think that this book would be useful for people to get an idea of the sheer scale of our impact on the environment, and how that impact can have some serious consequences on us and our ability to survive.

While Diamond tries to express the complex nature of what causes certain societies to collapse, by the end of the book what I was getting out of it was that the entirety of the book could be summed up in one word, "Deforestation". In every chapter, no matter how complex the situation or society, or how many factors went into the decline (or not) of a society, the clincher...every...single...time, was deforestation. If a society cut down too many trees, they collapsed, if they managed to preserve their forests they succeeded. So while he talked about other causes and the complexity of the situation he, either knowingly or unknowingly, wrote the book so that deforestation was the prime cause of the collapse of a society. In every...single...example that he gives, the final straw that broke the backs of the societies was deforestation. So if you read the book, don't be surprised that you feel like going out and saving every last tree in sight, and don't be surprised if you suddenly become overly concerned about forest management. While he does have a point, and being concerned about proper forest management is very important, I think there are some more severe root causes to societal collapse that he only hints at in the book. While he also mentions soil erosion and soil fertility along with water management and introduction of "noxious weeds" and other ecologically destructive species, eventually it all comes down to deforestation.

But in all of his complex analysis Diamond falls victim in this book, just like in Guns, Germs, and Steel, to what I refer to as the Observational Astronomer Syndrome (OAS) [editor's note: I will explain this in more detail in my review of Guns, Germs and Steel, which I still have to finish writing. When I finish that review I will provide a link here to that review]. To briefly explain OAS you need to understand a little about astronomy. Astronomers spend most of their time looking at data gathered from telescopes (they spend most of their time looking at the data, and not looking through a telescope) and from that data they find correlations between different things. Such as the observe that galaxies that have an overall red color are generally older than galaxies with a more blue color. Also the red galaxies tend to be bigger. Thus an astronomer may spend much of their time taking observational data and plotting it on a graph to see if they can find any trends or correlations between seemingly unrelated things, such as the presence of iron and age, or the presence of magnetic fields and rotation (or a star or galaxy). In his book Diamond does something similar. He looks at historical data and says, "Look, when people cut down all their trees, a short time later their society collapses." And then he proceeds to look at many different societies that apparently were in different situations and says, "Look, for every society in different parts of the world, when they began to cut down too many trees they started to fall apart and die off." So in this way he is like an observational astronomer that looks through a telescope, takes a survey of many different things and finds out what each one had in common right before something bad happened to them. In this case the common thread was apparently deforestation.

While this is not a bad thing to do it does fall victim to the OAS, which is a tendency to look at the correlations and to ignore the underlying causes of the problem. One of the things I learned in astronomy is that there are two types of plots that we can make of astronomical data. The first is simply correlational plots which plot one thing against another and (hopefully) produce a useful trend that can then tell us something about other stars or galaxies that we might look at. It is kind of like looking out your window and noting what kinds of trees you see and from that you can figure out what kinds of trees you ought to see if you go outside and look at places that you can't see from your window. But in astronomy there is a second type of plot that astronomers make and these are arguable more useful. The second type of plots that astronomers make are ones that show or reveal what we call "the underlying physics", that is, it tells us something about the laws of physics that govern everything down to individual atoms. These plots are more interesting because they are more than "happy coincidences" that can be used to find trends and correlations, they tell us something about the universe, about how it works and why we see what we see. If we understand the underlying physics then we can determine the final effects that we should observe in all cases. The problem with most observational astronomers is that they get caught up in finding the interesting correlations, and while the correlations may be useful for further observations and surveys, don't really tell us much about how the universe works. Thus the Observational Astronomer Syndrome is a tendency to look at the correlations and to become fixated on them and to ignore the reasons why the universe (or history) unfolds as it does. Someone with OAS fails to look for the underlying causes to what we observe. They look at interesting correlations, and even correlations that contribute to the end result, but fail to consider the causes that are effective on the small, and smallest, scales, which ultimately determine the whole.

The reason why I say that Diamond falls victim to OAS is that even though he spends an inordinate amount of the book describing how environmental degradation contributes to societal collapse he writes disproportionately less about what factors in society contributed to either the success or collapse of the society. While he focuses a lot on how the practices and customs of the society contribute to the environmental degradation, he does not spend as much time considering just what is it about the society (i.e. the particular practices of the society) that lead directly to the triggering of environmental and consequently societal collapse. Diamond only briefly mentions possible causes, such as mentioning that selfish actions taken by politicians contributed to the genocide in Rwanda, or that the inordinate pride of chiefs lead to excessive monument building that caused the deforestation on Easter Island. Nor does Diamond adequately consider which societal practices would contribute to a successful society, other than good forest management and environmental protections, such as in his example with Japan. Thus at the end of the book the reader is left with a sense that we must do something and that we must practice better forest management and enact better environmental controls, but beyond that there is no clear idea of how a society must be organized so that those practices and controls are effective in accomplishing anything. Diamond briefly mentions in his example with Japan that the Shogun only felt the need or the desire to promote better forest management when the Shogun could ensure that the practices would last for more than a generation. In other words, it would not matter how advanced or how organized the Japanese were with the forest management skills, or how well intentioned they were if they could not transmit that organization and dedication on to the next generation. He notes that it was only when the island was united to the point that large scale warfare was practically nonexistent that the Shogunate could practice good forest management that would last for more than a few years. Without that level of stability any forest management would ultimately be pointless and impossible to enforce, and thus would be unable to prevent the societal collapse that Diamond is warning us about.

So while I agree with Diamond that poor forest management, poor farming practices, and poor environmental controls can and will cause problems for societies, the presence of these dangerous conditions are predicated on societal traits that are necessarily prior to the environmental conditions. These societal traits that either allow good environmental management or prevent it are only mentioned briefly and indirectly in Collapse, and this is why I say Diamond falls victim to OAS. While he does a good job at demonstrating how fragile, or overly exploited environmental conditions contribute to societal collapse, he does not explore to any great depth why particular societies failed to adopt either positive or at least minimal practices that would allow for their success.

He does mention how selfishness of political leaders played a role in Rwanda, and how excessive monument building contributed to the collapse of Easter Island culture and the Maya. He also notes how failure to adopt innovations contributed to the disappearance of Greenland's Norse, and how excessive violent tendencies created problems for the Norse, Maya and Rwanda. He also notes how an extreme distrust in foreigners contributed to the disappearance of the Norse in Greenland and is at the root of the current problems in Haiti. In all of his examples he notes that there was an extreme disparity in resources and that the disparities reached their highest levels right before the collapse. In some cases the disparity caused the collapse (i.e. through excessive monument building on Easter Island and with the Maya), and in others the disparity resulted when the society experienced a drastic change in their fortunes and the "rich and powerful" attempted to maintain their wealth and lifestyle at the expense of the poor until the poor forced a redistribution and thereby triggered a collapse (as was the case with the Greenland Norse, the Anasazi and Rwanda).

Thus if we take as the premise that excessive environmental damage precedes a society's collapse then we might justifiable ask, "What is it about certain societies that cause them to cause so much damage to their environment?" From Diamond's book we can immediately pick out a few obvious ones, and even a few not so obvious ones.

First, selfishness. As is evident in his example of Rwanda, the selfishness of a few political leaders who wished to maintain their power at any cost, cost the country many, many lives. While selfishness played a decisive role in other societies, it was in Rwanda that its effects were most evident (at least as explained by Diamond). Selfish tendencies undermine any attempts at regulation are restraint that may help preserve the environment. Selfish tendencies contribute to over exploitation through the mindset of "if I don't get the [resources, i.e. fish, wood, sheep, grass etc.] for myself then somebody else will just go get it". The concept of restraint and preservation are lacking in a selfish society.

Second, Diamond referred to it as excessive monument building, but other people would use a different word to describe it, namely, pride, or hubris. The drive to make someone's monument bigger, better, taller, or more extravagant than anyone else's is something that ultimately causes harm and contributes to a decline in resources. This pride, though Diamond never uses that word, is what caused the Easter Islanders to build more, and more massive monuments until they literally ran out of trees. It is what caused Mayan kings to continue to build massive monuments until the people rebelled and overthrew the kings.

Third, violence. Diamond notes that one of the main reasons why the Norse in Greenland never established good relations with the Inuit was because their first meeting consisted of the Norse killing eight of the nine Inuit that they met. All other meeting generally followed a similar style for the next 450 years until the surviving Norse at the Greenland settlements were killed off. Now I chose to use the word violence because there are more types of violence than just murder and warfare. Violence can also be oppression, segregation, intolerance and ridicule.

Fourth, disintegration of the family. This does not refer to changing societal expectations or gender roles, or even to a decrease in family size. This refers to family relations becoming broken, strained or resulting in conflict. Essentially when family ties get to the point where husbands and wives do not care for each other, and where parents do not care for children, and siblings for each other. In looking at why Rwanda happened, Diamond noted that many people were killed by family because they had a grudge or felt that they had inherited less than they felt they should have received. On the other hand Japan was able to achieve stability when families felt that they could pass down their inheritance/land/business to their children. They began managing their forests when they felt that their children would be around in 20 or 30 or 40 years to harvest the trees from the forest. Thus the preservation of family ties directly affected the peoples ability to act unselfishly and to enact good environmental controls, thus preserving their society.

Fifth, greed. While this could be lumped with selfishness or pride, greed is distinct enough to warrant mentioning. While selfishness can be characterized by short-sighted decisions, greed is characterized by poor, negative or irrational decisions. These are actions taken with no regard for the result or consequences. Diamond frequently mentions the greed of major corporations (though he does mention how some of them feel and act responsibly), in that they mine, dig, or cut not caring what gets damaged and then when they are done they go away and leave the mess for someone else to clean up (and pay for).

Sixth, failure to adopt innovations. Diamond lists this as the principle reason for the demise of the Norse in Greenland. Another way of putting this is it is a failure to think critically and to accept novel idea. To be fair, in retrospect it is easy for us to say, "If they had just done ______, then they would not have died.", but to look at our own situation and determine what we should do, or what aspects of our society we need to change in order to preserve our society is not so clear. But this is precisely Diamond's reason for writing Collapse in the first place. What sets this societal trait apart from the first five that I mentioned is that a failure to adopt innovation is often unintentional, or in some cases due to other pressures that to those involved consider benign. For example, in the US we use either paper of plastic shopping bags to hold our groceries when we buy food (and other things). The reason why more people do not switch over to using reusable cloth bags is not because they don't want to or have a particular desire to use plastic shopping bags, but because to make the switch is too much effort for the perceived benefit. So it is not a result of ill intention or irrational thought but rather the inertia of human societies, a desire to continue doing what we have always been doing.

This is by no means a complete or comprehensive list of societal traits that are found in collapsed societies, these are just the most obvious ones. Of the six traits that I have mentioned here four are explicitly mentioned by Diamond in Collapse; selfishness, greed, violence, and failure to adopt innovations, and two of them are mentioned indirectly or are referred to by other phrases, namely, pride and the disintegration of the family.

In considering these six things that contribute to the demise of society it might be said that these traits come about because of environmental pressures, but there is also sufficient evidence that these traits are prior to the environmental damage done by a society, and that the reason why a particular society fails to adopt good environmental controls is because of societal traits like the six listed above. This might be a prime candidate for a chicken vs. egg debate but instead a better way of looking at it is as a positive feedback mechanism. This means that there is nothing specific that starts the process, but that natural perturbations will augment the problem and cause it to grow. The societal problems prevent the society from adopting good environmental controls, and in turn the lack of environmental controls contributes to ecological damage which destabilizes the society and creates more societal pressure which augments the problem. This approach gives the impression that societal collapse is somewhat fatalistic because once the process starts it is nearly impossible to stop. The only way to prevent the collapse would be to prevent the problems (either environmental or societal) from growing beyond a manageable level.

In the end, the environmental concerns that Diamond raises are important and require action, but the environmental concerns are of little consequence if our society is not stable enough to follow through with the environmental controls. Thus it should be of greater concern to fix society so that we can then be effective in controlling our impact on the environment. While the book is very well written and Diamond gets his point across, because he gets caught up in the Observational Astronomer Syndrome in that he focuses too much on what is happening in the environment around a particular society and not what the society is specifically doing, other than damaging the environment, that leads to the precarious environmental situation in which the society finds itself. This means that he shows that societies that damage their environment too much will ultimately collapse, but I think the important question to consider here is what is it specifically about the society that prevented them from adopting good environmental controls. This is why I pointed out the six societal traits mentioned directly or indirectly by Diamond, that seem to prevent societies from adopting good environmental controls. The six that I mentioned are definitely not the only societal traits that may contribute to collapse, but they are a good starting point. If someone were to extend the investigation into societal collapse started by Diamond in Collapse then these traits would be a good place to start.

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