Sunday, September 17, 2006

We’re Fucked

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond, Read by Michael Prichard, Books on Tape, 2005

How can something so dry be so terrifying?

Polymath evolutionary scientist, physiologist, and environmental historian Jared Diamond, who came to greater prominence with his Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, sought to answer the question of how Eurasian societies came to be the dominant cultural powers on the planet. While researching those questions, he noticed a disturbing trend toward societal suicide which lead to his follow-up work, Collapse. While the subtitle suggests a possibility of optimism, the book’s one word title/sentence is frighteningly persuasive as to the direction of at least one major western nation.

The case laid out in this thick work is both straightforward, powerful, and overwhelming, though at times it feels as though Diamond’s editors were unable to bring themselves to convince him to rein things in a bit. A tome that focuses much of its space to advocating healthy forest management should probably run slightly less than 600 pages, and at times it’s hard not to find yourself being buried under what seem like data that isn’t among the most necessary.

Diamond’s primary thesis is a good one and simply stated it might read: when the shit hits the fan, agile cultures/societies adapt and issue correctives while clumsy ones are doomed. For our own particular nation, the last six years (and nearly every election of my adult life) have gone a long way toward convincing me that the kind of mental and societal dexterity necessary to avoid catastrophe just simply aren’t in saving abundance in the U.S. of A.

Discussing no less than thirteen differing societies and how they either did collapse or did not or how they are on the verge of collapse, Diamond’s book is a bracing jolt of dark information, though to be fair, the author does seek out those cultures who stared extinction in the eye and turned from that pessimistic path. The bulk of the work focuses on Easter Island and the Greenland Norse societies, while Pitcairn Island, the Anasazi, and the Mayan Empire come in for short consideration.

Both intensely considered island societies allow Diamond to look at them as elements (mostly) in isolation, as well as to draw parallels between the earth and these islands. Just as Easter Island was over 1000 miles from the nearest inhabited place (for most intents and purposes, an infinity if fleeing a collapsing society), Earth itself is merely a speck in the middle of nowhere, an infinity away from any other options.

At any rate, we learn of a number of geological shifts that cause problems of such a nature that famines occur which are nearly impossible to resolve no matter how clever your populace. A good example would be 1816, also known, frighteningly, as the Year Without a Summer. An volcanic eruption at Mount Tambora spewed so much ash into the environment and so much sunlight was suppressed planetarily that even in North America there were cold snaps all through the best growing months. Pennsylvania saw river ice in August. How do you fight that?

While Diamond’s portraits of each society are often interesting, he seems to get distracted in his description and wastes time he could be using for more detail on the actual causes of collapse. So when he spins his wheels on Easter Island’s moai head statues and how they were made and transported, we take more than enough time to get to the facts. While most research concludes that that particularly irrelevant industry did impact the rates of deforestation, Diamond here goes lingeringly into detail already well established elsewhere about the statues’ make up and carving histories.

Likewise, when we consider that the deforestation of Easter’s palm trees can be explained better by considering all the various alternate non-reusable needs for trees (for heating fuel, canoes, homes, etc.) and on other contributing factors to their decline (such as disease and rat infestation limiting seed spreads) than by dwelling on the (admittedly) more fascinating stone heads, it seems Diamond here seeks more to fascinate than illuminate.

Later Diamond spends equally as much time dwelling on the many, many points of contact between populations on various relatively close islands (Pitcairn, Henderson, and Mangareva) which could have been rather summarily trotted on stage. Because this chapter does dwell on how island civilizations can die out due to lack of resources from a trading partner, the material carries importance but only to a certain degree and after a certain fashion. After all the groundwork laid, Diamond winds up with “well, no one quite knows how it happened, but this could be a likely explanation.” Which seems somewhat of a letdown, even if it is sound scientific method.

While Diamond is just as exhaustingly exhaustive when discussing the failure of the Norse colonies in Greenland (despite Inuit survival in the same locale), there are salted throughout fascinating tidbits of information modern minds might not readily and easily conjure. (Easter Island being an oral culture, much of their history is lost, while what is retained towards toward the fantastically mythological, while the Norse Greenlanders proved an unimaginative if well-documented culture.)

When we learn of how the trees of Greenland were not particularly suited for building, being smallish types but were essential for firewood, we also learn that deforestation of the island could lead to a variety of diseases. Milk, in pre-pasteurized times, would infest milking buckets with a plethora of bacteria and germs unless the buckets were regularly (sometimes twice daily) scrubbed and cleaned using boiling water. Skip that boiling fire process and the wood in milk buckets merely acts as a giant bacterial sponge, sucking up death and disease. Such bacteriological infection would find the undernourished Greenlanders easy pickings after they’ve severely damaged their crop fields.

As we see later, when wood became scarce for fuel, the Greenlanders began burning turf which they also used as a building material for the roof and walls of homes. This then aggravated problems as topsoil was sliced off and the rocky sandy soil underneath was not only a poor soil for agriculture but also more vulnerable to soil erosion which could spread into non-deturfed land and reduces grazing fields as well. Here Diamond clearly demonstrates well the cascading effect one deficiency can produce as its effects splash over into other concerns, deforested lands allowing floods to wash away what little decent soil wasn’t sliced off for peat fuel while fuel shortages lead to less bucket sanitation providing breeding grounds for further death and disease.

With more available archeological and documented evidence, here is where Diamond can most conclusively show how an inflexible society unwilling to embrace new ideas, unwilling to issue course corrections, can founder in its own ignorance. What most cripples these Scandinavian settlers is that, locked in a European moral and social mindset, they strive to keep up a Norse lifestyle unsuited for the island while eschewing Inuit innovations as the devilish temptations of pagans. Their iron-poverty (that is the incredible scarcity of iron for swords, armor, nails, helmets, axes, etc.) also erased any technological advances the Greenland colonists might have had over the Inuit allowing the natives to make short work of the Norse in any conflict.

When later, we get a portrait of a few of the societies that do not collapse and manage to sustain themselves for hundreds/thousands of years, we find they are ones that work on population control, resource management, environmentally sound farming techniques, and simply learning from your mistakes and from the world around you. (We are so fucked as a nation, eh?) Tacopia, another Pacific island, proves to be a good example of an island culture that figures it out and sucks it up and makes wise choices. When it becomes clear, circa 1600, that pigs were a merely luxury food for chiefs, that they were expensive to maintain foodwise, and that they tended to ruin other farm lands, the islanders wisely chose to kill them all and up their protein intake with fish to replace it in their diet. What’s so surprising about this is how simple a solution it is, how paintstakingly obvious after a while, and how few cultures manage to make such elementary choices in the short time they have.

As a curious note, near the book’s end, in chapter fourteen, Diamond himself admits to how pessimistic the book is and how sometimes he changes his mind after he sees something that gives him hope but that pessimism is the overwhelming sensation. On the optimistic note, Diamond tells of, and this is remarkably surprising, an oil field in Papa New Guinea managed as a kind of national park environmental refuge. Diamond, in his capacity as observer for the NWF (and personally a birder), is stunned to discover more wildlife on the oil field which lacks any large roads or sign of its existence. Certainly Chevron, the caretaker, is here demonstrating self-interest as a corporation (not as human beings) in order to prevent spills and accidents to help maximize profits and avoid costly litigation, and also a strong environmental record helped Chevron score contracts with Norway, a very environmentally conscious country.

Yet here is clearly a way environmental groups who choose to work with corporations for everyone’s benefit can make the argument that it is long-run cheaper to operate cleanly (rather than retrofit when environmental standards tighten — which is more or less the general direction all over the world), and that being good stewards of the land can help them make money and gain more access. While governmental regulation will always be a necessity, it will be of increasing importance in the coming years to find ways to partner with corporations toward sustainability rather than being locked perpetually in adversarial roles. Diamond’s late pages optimism might seem a little too late after all the doomsday scenarios preceding it, but it is a case for hope.

Reader Michael Prichard has the kind of authoritative sound that lends him an instant credibility on the nonfiction front. I had to forcibly remind myself at times that I was not, in fact, listening to Diamond himself. Prichard’s voice does strain through the reading, growing considerably more nasal and sharp, though this is only jarringly noticeable where recording sessions have been stitched together. There the vocal tones change so abruptly from a higher treble to a smoother bass that you might think a new reader has joined in. Perhaps shorter reading bursts might make the sound more consistent, but otherwise, Prichard is well up to the task.


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