Posted on Sun, Jan. 16, 2005
Fate of the planet
Subject: Earth's success, failure depends on interconnected societies
Reviewed by Robert D. Kaplan
In a world that celebrates live journalism, we are increasingly in need of big-picture authors like Jared Diamond, who think historically and spatially – across an array of disciplines – to make sense of events that journalists may seem to be covering in depth, but in fact aren't.
He did this so well in "Guns, Germs, and Steel," which has been a huge best seller since its publication in 1997, that one might think Diamond would have little more to say about the vast sweep of human history. Think again. In his extraordinarily panoramic "Collapse," he moves his wide lens to yet another telling phenomenon: failed nations, of both the distant and the recent past.
Take the 1994 slaughter in Rwanda, which produced the third-largest body count of any genocide since the 1950s, topped only by Bangladesh in 1971 and Cambodia in the mid-'70s. According to the media, liberal intellectuals and Hollywood, the Hutu militias' mass murder of Tutsi civilians was the consequence of evil men manipulating ethnic hatreds, while the United Nations and the United States stood by and did nothing.
As "Collapse" indicates, that interpretation is accurate and places the moral responsibility squarely where it belongs. Nevertheless, it is far from complete.
In perhaps the wisest and most all-encompassing short summary of why genocide occurred in Rwanda, Diamond observes that pre-genocide Rwanda had a population density approaching that of Holland, supported by Stone Age agriculture: In the years preceding the genocide, Rwanda suffered a precipitous decline in per capita food production because of drought and overworked soil, which in turn caused massive deforestation. The upshot was dramatically rising levels of theft and violence perpetrated by landless and hungry young men.
Diamond quotes a French scholar on East Africa, Gerard Prunier: "The decision to kill was of course made by politicians, for political reasons. But at least part of the reason why it was carried out so thoroughly by the ordinary rank-and-file peasants ... was feeling that there were too many people on too little land, and that with a reduction in their numbers, there would be more for the survivors."
Diamond adds that such a partial explanation should be respected as such and not dismissed out of hand as an excuse for genocide, as moralists have been wont to do. By not reducing Rwanda to a cut-and-dried morality tale, and by including environmental factors that can be usefully employed as early warning systems to prevent future genocides, Diamond has provided a truly enlightened vision of what happened there. He has the intellectual bravery to say that, in this case, the much-abused late 18th-century philosopher Thomas Malthus was right: "population and environmental problems created by non-sustainable resource use will ultimately get solved ... if not by pleasant means ... then by unpleasant" ones.
Rwanda forms but a strand in Diamond's complex historical web of how human communities either master their environments or become victims of them.
A professor of geography at UCLA, Diamond rightly states that his book "doesn't preach environmental determinism." Still, he extracts a plethora of environmental explanations for why things have turned out as they have. "Collapse," like "Guns, Germs, and Steel" – which was about how Western civilizations developed the technologies and immunities that allowed them to dominate the world – is the work of an academic superstar in the mode of Samuel P. Huntington and David S. Landes. He takes a lifetime of research and, in normal English, leads the reader painstakingly where the media and intellectual journals often have refused to go.
For example, while recent media reports correctly describe a decline in the rate of world population growth, the more crucial short-term truth is that there will be a continued rise in the population of poor young males in some of the most politically unstable countries, as children born in the last decade reach their teens and 20s. Diamond's book makes one think of connections like these.
Or take the December 2004 tsunami that devastated parts of South Asia. Because humans are living in environmentally fragile zones where they have never before been in such concentrated numbers, the normal occurrence of earthquakes and other natural events the environment has faced since time immemorial is poised to wreak havoc in the new century. While the urban elite intelligentsia focus on abstract ideas, nature and demography will be driving history.
In an exploration of why medieval societies such as the Mayans in Central America, the Anasazis in the American Southwest, the Polynesians on Easter Island and the Norse in Greenland all ultimately became extinct, of why the Inuit in the Arctic and Polynesians on Tikopia managed to survive, and of why places such as Montana's Bitterroot Valley and the Dominican Republic have had happier destinies than Rwanda and Haiti, Diamond brings balance to a debate that went from one extreme at the beginning of the 20th century to another at that century's end.
Partly because of the corruption of Darwin's theory of evolution by Nazi eugenics, post-Holocaust intellectuals have tended to avoid explanations of human behavior rooted in environmental, ethnic, cultural or demographic causes. By avoiding both extremes, Diamond sheds light on what the media have often left in darkness.
Of all the countries surveyed in "Collapse," China is the most pivotal. Its goal of achieving a First World lifestyle for its 1.3 billion people will double the world's human resource use, but as Diamond tells us, "it is doubtful whether even the world's current human resource use ... can be sustained. Something has to give way."
Raising the stakes is what the author calls China's pattern of unified lurches. China's geographical unity – unlike Great Britain, it lacks major islands, and unlike Italy, it lacks large peninsulas – has given it a political and linguistic homogeneity that Europe never had. Thus China's leaders have had the organizational capacity to create gargantuan tragedies such as the Great Leap Forward, when 20 million people were killed between 1958 and 1962, or to take positive steps on a similarly grand level, as when they instituted a national ban on logging in 1998.
Diamond's cautious optimism about the fate of the Earth is conditioned on vigilance. He defends the false alarms about resource scarcity issued in the 1970s and '80s by the demographer Paul Ehrlich, suggesting that Ehrlich's larger, implied point about surging populations and diminishing resources is true: While these trends do not necessarily lead to global cataclysm, they certainly have been a factor encouraging warfare and civil unrest across the underdeveloped world.
That's the reason why Diamond expends so much detail on the failure of such obscure civilizations as Easter Island and western Greenland. On Easter Island, the felling of trees for high-altitude gardens, the cremation of bodies, the building of canoes and scaffolding for statues led to massive deforestation and decreased crop yields. As for the Greenland Norse, they were a fiercely communal and hierarchical society, whose strict adherence to European Christianity may have accounted for their conservatism and consequent failure to learn from the indigenous Inuits, who burned whale and sea blubber for fuel and used sealskins in their kayaks in order to conserve wood.
But as Diamond notes, we shouldn't be dismissive of these failed civilizations. The parallels between an interconnected Earth, in which each continent increasingly affects the other, and the dozen clans of Easter Island are, in the author's words, "chillingly obvious."
Like them, we would have no place to flee if something fundamentally goes wrong: not just suddenly wrong but gradually wrong, so that the danger remains deniable until it's too late. Thus false alarms like Ehrlich's and Malthus' will continue to be made in a good cause. Thank heavens there is someone of the stature of Diamond willing to say so.
"Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail
or Succeed" by Jared Diamond. (Viking)
575 pages, $29.95
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Robert D. Kaplan, a correspondent for Atlantic Monthly, is the author of "The Ends of the Earth" and "The Coming Anarchy." His latest book, "Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground," will be published in August. He wrote this for Washington Post Book World.