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Book Review
Last Updated: 04/13/2005
Survival? Your choice
Simon Stander

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed , Viking 2005


The subtitle tells it all. Diamond argues that we have the choice. Survival of the planet one way or the other is a matter of choice. We can do it. Look at the past. Some societies choose to go headlong into destruction, others not. He has a five point framework for analysis of his comparative approach which places environmental concerns in context.

 

First, he refers to damage that people inadvertently do to the environment . The second consideration is climate change, for better or worse. A third package of factors is related to hostile neighbours , which he admits are interrelated to environmental and/or climate changes as with the case of the Romans and the barbarian invasions. The fourth set of issues relate to the converse: decreased support by neighbours as a result, for instance, of the weakening of your main trading partner. The final point is how people respond to all of the above. Not all sets of factors may come into play and environmental factors may be of no or little significance, as with the fall of Carthage (as far as we know).

 

Diamond then runs through a number of societies: Easter Island, Pitcairn, Mayans, Greenland Tokugawa Japan, Haiti, Dominica, China, Montana, Los Angeles and presents us with answers, or, at least, his answers to the issue posed in his subtitle, how societies choose to fail and succeed.

 

It is absolutely true that much of our environment has been irreparably damaged. There is no question that vast numbers of species have been lost and much land degraded beyond repair. But, in a few cases, good riddance to some species: do you want smallpox back? It is absolutely true that the environment has been substantially improved in the interests of the comfort of very large numbers of human beings. Better food diversity, quality, and nutrition, all have been undeniably provided. We know a little iodine in salt goes a long away to cure hideous human malformation and so on. The list of benefits would be long indeed, and, possibly, at least as long as the harm done.

 

On the plus side, too, there is the noticeable potential for a slowing population in many parts of the world: Diamond admits this but argues that the populations of the world are increasingly high impact, thus offsetting any benefits that might accrue from arresting population growth. The biggest threat to the planet is that people in the Third World aspire to First World living standards even in the most remote villages and refugee camps today, people know about the outside world. That is of course absolutely true, but while they know about advertisements for consumer goods and clothes and cosmetics, they have many benefits too. I live in a remote village on the Caribbean at weekends. Recently, I asked my neighbour, in what I thought was an unguarded moment if he knew what the sex of his child to be born was. He responded immediately and said that his wife had not been for her ultra sound yet. The village is in touch with advertisements for the latest cosmetics but it is also in touch with up to date medical technology, too.

 

To Diamond, the real enemy for the future of the planet is, then, environmental impact per person. It is hard to disagree with this fundamental issue that impact per person will increase through the persistent drive of modern capitalism to produce commodities for profit. I was taken especially by the Easter Island chapter and in how that society contained an unstoppable drive to denude the island of its giant life-giving palms. Hence the cocktail party question: what did the man (assuming it was a man and not a woman) think when he was cutting down the last tree on Easter Island? The great thing about a cocktail party question is you are not meant to spend more than thirty seconds answering it. We must blame religious belief, I suppose. Doubtless it was believed that one day the huge stone legless torsos, would bring salvation. The more the society and its tribes and clans produced, the more likely salvation would come. That same religion pervades the First World and is being spilled over to the Third World. Our producers are determined to convey to us that it is our sacred duty to consume commodities. That is the real religion, not some branch of Islam or some branch of Christianity or Hinduism or Buddhism.

 

Unhappily, it is not so easy to break down religious belief. Yet it is hard to see Easter Island as a microcosm of the planet. There are limits to the applicability of comparative studies (as Diamond admits). It is now impossible to know what drove the Easter Islanders to destruction. The answer for us is to explore the dynamics of modern capitalism, since it is the capitalist drive that has brought both the benefits and the damage to the planet. What is missing, therefore, from Diamond s book is an analysis of what is happening at a deep level to capitalist dynamic. What would have saved Easter Island culture? One possibility (utter guesswork) would have been a reformist movement in society that challenged the chiefs and the priesthood with an alternative form of sacrifice to the gods. To-day, we have to ask the question: is there a collective human sensibility that can be turned into a reform movement to mitigate the harm and maximise the benefit? Bookshops are full of volumes of analysis, pleas, descriptions, rhetoric, and polemic on behalf of environmental protection. Some governments even pay increasing lip-service to these arguments. The capitalist system is not a static system; historically we have gone from primitive accumulation to commercial capitalism to industrial capitalism to finance capitalism: it s possible to suppose that the system contains elements that guarantee its survival rather than its demise. Apart from anything lese, the world, to give capitalism some credit, is becoming increasingly literate. That literacy and education generally may well lead to the generation of genuine social movements for grand modifications of the dominant economic system. I am pretty certain that people will come out on the streets en masse and stop the last tree being cut down. It is something to work toward .

Simon Stander is editor-in-chief of the Peace and Conflict Monitor and Associate Professor of Peace Studies at the University for Peace


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