Posted to www.marxmail.org on March 22, 2005
After completing Part 2 (“Past Societies”) of Jared Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” I am beginning to understand why his books have become best-sellers. They afford the same kind of middle-brow pleasure that you get on PBS television or the National Geographic magazine. When these outlets treat ancient civilizations, they love to feature a white expert in a pith helmet strolling around some ruins in the hinterlands. He can be seen holding up a skull or a pottery shard and musing about what made the Aztecs, etc. tick.
In fact there is a PBS press release about a series based on Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” that is still on the planning board:
“PBS and National Geographic Television & Film will bring author and scholar Jared Diamond’s sometimes controversial theories about the course of human civilization to the screen in, a new three-part television series produced exclusively for PBS. Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work offers a revealing look at the rise and fall of societies through the lens of geography, technology, biology and economics – forces symbolized by the power of guns, germs and steel.
“The production spans five continents and uses epic historical reenactments to illustrate Diamond’s theories, explaining why societies developed differently in different parts of the world – why some became conquerors and others the conquered.”
Of course, the National Geographic has been the preferred spyglass to view the exotic native for the longest time. In Catharine Lutz and Jane L. Collins’s “Reading National Geographic” one discovers that the magazine has stressed two themes since its founding in 1888: a faith in progress and a belief in social Darwinism. They also argue that the magazine “erased the colonizer” by removing images of Westerners from the photographs. Such erasure allows the Third World country to appear hermetically sealed while giving the impression that colonialism or imperialism has little to do with their downfall.
Since Diamond’s book deals mostly with the collapse of such countries and since part two (and part three, titled “Present Societies”) does not give a *single instance* of Europe acting in a predatory fashion in the Third World, one can well understand why National Geographic would be eager to produce a PBS series based on his first blockbuster, a book that by all accounts that anticipates his latest.
If “Collapse” fits neatly into PBS programming, it also resonates with another TV product that has had mass appeal in recent years. I speak of “Survivor,” which is not only obsessed with identifying “winners” and “losers” in the social Darwinian sense, but has a preference for pitting contestants against each other on remote tropical islands. In part two of “Collapse,” nearly every case study is involved with people living on such islands. What attracts Diamond to such places? It is not too hard to figure out. With islands, you can adopt a methodology that puts its emphasis on the resourcefulness of the isolated inhabitant rather than on global economic forces that brought the majority of humanity into contact with each other. In its essence, it has the same appeal as Robinson Crusoe had for neoclassical economics–it highlights the atomized economic actor. The clear implication of Diamond’s book is that the same kind of ingenuity that allowed Crusoe to create a replica of civilized English life on an isolated island is what was necessary in the past and today. He is wrong, of course.
After following Diamond through his odyssey across the Easter Islands, the Pitcairn and Henderson Islands, Greenland and Iceland, the main conclusion one reaches is to avoid such places no matter how clever you are.
For example, the Pitcairn and Henderson Islands numbered no more than 5000 inhabitants at their peak. The Polynesians who settled there had already explored and built villages on virtually every other island in the Pacific. Pitcairn Island is only 2 ½ square miles and lacked the level ground necessary for agriculture. Henderson Island was covered mostly by limestone and had stunted forests. Diamond writes that the inhabitants survived in ways that struck him as a “mixture of ingenuous, desperate and pathetic.” Eventually soil erosion and deforestation led to civil war, hunger and eventual collapse.
It strikes me that the only lesson one can draw from such an obscure and atypical case study is that it is a mistake to live in such inhospitable conditions in the first place. Of course, there were other islands that were much more endowed with natural resources but that also collapsed. I speak of course of the Caribbean Islands that were a virtual Garden of Eden for its inhabitants. That Christopher Columbus and other such figures helped them to collapse is of not much interest to Jared Diamond, although he will take up the fate of 19th century Haiti in part three. Although I have not gotten to that chapter yet, I have a keen sense that he will get that story wrong as well.
There is one island that manages to “succeed” in Diamond’s terms. Although it does not make much sense to group it with the Easter Islands or with other extremely primitive cultures, Shogun Japan gets Diamond’s nod of approval because it did not succumb to the fate of the others under consideration.
We learn that Japan avoided deforestation by introducing “silviculture” (tree plantations) in the 1600s. Specifically:
“Those measures began already in the 1600s with Japan’s development of a detailed body of scientific knowledge about silviculture. Foresters employed both by the government and by private merchants observed, experimented, and published their findings in an outpouring of silvicultural journals and manuals, exemplified by the first of Japan’s great silvicultural treatises, the Nogyo zensho of 1697 by Miyazaki Antei. There, you will find instructions for how best to gather, extract, dry, store, and prepare seeds; how to prepare a seedbed by cleaning, fertilizing, pulverizing) and stirring it; how to soak seeds before sowing them; how to protect sown seeds by spreading straw over them; how to weed the seedbed; how to transplant and space seedlings; how to replace failed seedlings over the next four years; how to thin out the resulting saplings; and how to trim branches the growing trunk in order that it yield a log of the desired shape. As alternative to thus growing trees from seed, some tree species were grown by planting cuttings or shoots, and others by the technique known as coppicing (leaving live stumps or roots in the ground to sprout).”
Without betraying any understanding of the underlying *ecological* problem, Diamond allows that silviculture and what is commonly known as old-growth forests have nothing in common. “While the mantle superficially resembles a primeval forest, in fact most of Japan’s accessible original forests were cut by 300 years ago and became replaced with regrowth forest and plantations as tightly micromanaged as those of Germany and Tikopia [a tiny, isolated, tropical island that also replaced its original trees with cultivated ones–also to Diamond’s satisfaction.]”
It is disturbing that somebody on the board of World Wildlife Fund can regard the replacement of original forests with tree plantations as a success. Is he not aware that the Pacific Northwest and the Amazon and Borneo rainforests are all being chopped down right now and replaced with plantation trees, if at all? However, with the disappearance of the original trees, you get the disappearance of the animals who nest in them or who rely on them for food. This also threatens the extinction of herbs that have medicinal values. The loss of old-growth forests ultimately undermines the survival of all humanity, even if it is of immediate economic benefit in supplying plywood for suburban housing, etc.
Apparently Diamond has no problem serving on the same board with two top Morgan Chase executives, a company deeply implicated in wasteful exploitation of old-growth forests. This is a bank that has provided critical financing for Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), an outfit responsible for destroying a large area of Indonesia’s rainforest. According to the Rainforest Action Network, another Morgan Chase client BlueLinx, (America’s largest building products distributor) “is smuggling legally disputed, undocumented timber out of Indonesia’s critically endangered rainforests and flooding the U.S. marketplace with artificially cheap lauan plywood.”
Well, if they run out of indigenous trees, I suppose that they can replace them with fast-growing pine or something else like that. Not much for an orangutan there, but maybe they can be sent off to zoos for their own protection.
Thrown in with the mostly hapless islands in part two of Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” are the Mayans and Anasazis who inhabited the Yucatan peninsula and the territory that became New Mexico respectively. These peoples have figured heavily in debates about the “ecological Indian” and are dragged in to demonstrate that indigenous peoples squandered natural resources just as wantonly as the multinational corporations operating in Indonesia today.
Perhaps the most outrageous exponent of this point of view is Shepherd Krech, a Brown professor who wrote “The Ecological Indian: Myth and History” to show that indigenous people were fond of driving bison off of cliffs, hunting saber-tooth tigers to extinction, etc.
Diamond showed his sympathy for this trend with the publication of “The Third Chimpanzee” in 1993. This exercise in sociobiology (an updated version of the 19th century social Darwinism) includes a chapter titled “The Golden Age That Never Was” containing the same sorts of observations found in Krech’s work. Diamond has many other interesting things to say about any number of subjects. He argues that since animals have an evolutionary imperative to pass on their genes, art must be a clever stratagem by men to lure women into bed. This led Tom Wilkie to drolly observe in the May 22, 1991 Independent that this lesson must have been lost on Tchaikovsky, Andy Warhol and other homosexual artists. Diamond also believes that sexual jealousy is an important cause of war: ”It was the seduction (abduction, rape) by Paris of Menelaus’s wife Helen that provoked the Trojan War”. In light of the fact that the Iliad also claims that gods and goddesses took part in the fighting, Wilkie wonders how reliable a guide to history it is.
For Diamond, the yardstick to measure Mayan and Anasazi failure is basically the same as that for Japanese success: the extent of deforestation. Referring to the ancient Mayan city Copan, whose ruins are in present-day Honduras, he writes:
“By the year A.D. 650, people started to occupy the hill slopes, but those hill sites were cultivated only for about a century. The percentage of Copan’s total population that was in the hills, rather than in the valleys, reached a maximum of 41%, then declined until the population again became concentrated in the valley pockets. What caused that pullback of population from the hills? Excavation of the foundations of buildings in the valley floor showed that they became covered with sediment during the 8th century, meaning that the hill slopes were getting eroded and probably also leached of nutrients. Those acidic infertile hill soils were being carried down into the valley and blanketing the more fertile valley soils, where they would have reduced agricultural yields. This ancient quick abandonment of hillsides coincides with modern Maya experience that fields in the hills have low fertility and that their soils become rapidly exhausted.
“The reason for that erosion of the hillsides is clear: the forests that formerly covered them and protected their soils were being cut down. Dated pollen samples show that the pine forests originally covering the upper elevations of the hill slopes were eventually all cleared. Calculation suggests that most of those felled pine trees were being burned for fuel, while the rest were used for construction or for making plaster.”
In other words, deforestation was as big a problem in 7th century Honduras as it is in the 21st century when multinational corporations are stripping the forests for timber exports to the industrialized countries.
Missing entirely from Diamond’s discussion is any consideration of what *drove* the stripping of pine trees. We know that in the 21st century that it is the profit drive that explains such activity. Multinationals come to places like Honduras because they know that the government will help them throw peasants off the land and guarantee low taxes and a non-union environment. But in static, feudal 7th century Mayan, what is the source of such super-exploitation of natural resources? The answer is population growth:
“During that time the human population was growing, but there was not yet occupation of the hills. Hence that increased population must have been accommodated by intensifying production in the bottomland pockets by some combination of shorter fallow periods, double-cropping, and possibly some irrigation.”
Just to drive the point home, Diamond writes that the problem was one of “population growth outstripping available resources: a dilemma similar to the one foreseen by Thomas Malthus in 1798 and being played out today in Rwanda (Chapter 10), Haiti (Chapter 11), and elsewhere.” He quotes archaeologist David Webster: “Too many farmers grew too many crops on too much of the landscape.”
To begin with in replying to Diamond, it should be understood that Mayan collapse has to be put into some kind of historical context. Even those who agree with Diamond’s skewed analysis have to concede that the collapse was preceded by ten centuries of economic and social viability, marked as it was by feudal oppression. As Mayan scholar Robert Sharer wrote me a couple of weeks ago, every society might strive for such longevity regardless of the ultimate outcome. By contrast, the USA has been existence for less than 250 years but it is already threatening to destroy itself and the rest of the planet.
To start with, the Mayan territory was inimical to agriculture. It is a testimony to their ingenuity that they made it so productive for one thousand years. While Sharer believes that it was based on slash-and-burn (swidden) cultivation, scholars adduced by Diamond claim that Mayan population density could have only been allowed through more advanced–and more risky–technology including irrigation and hill slope terracing. Of course, it is highly speculative to estimate population density from over one thousand years ago, but taking Diamond at face value, there is still no question that the underlying soil fertility was poor at best.
Although Mayan society had endured drought over its thousand year history, there is evidence that the most severe drought coincides with the collapse. Although Diamond acknowledges that such droughts occurred, he thinks that they were only critical insofar as they coincided with “too many people” in a confined space.
What is missing from Diamond’s analysis, however, is the *cause* of drought. One would think that an environmentalist would want to address this question. To discover the answer, you have to turn elsewhere. In particular, the work of anthropologist Brian Fagan is most instructive. In a series of books on ancient societies, he focuses on the role of El Niño-Southern California (ENSO) events in their collapse.
In his latest, titled “The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization,” Fagan points to the research done by climatologist David Hodell. By examining titanium traces in the waters off of Venezuela (a very precise way to measure droughts), Hodell concluded that a major ENSO event coincided with Mayan collapse. Archaeologist Dick Gill studied Swedish tree rings and came to similar conclusions.
Studying the evidence of Mayan ruins from this period, archaeologist Peter Harrison discovered evidence of cannibalism–a sure sign of a society driven to desperation. Another group of indigenous peoples, the Anasazi, whose social structures were similar to the Mayans, have also been connected to cannibalism. In their case, the findings have taken on a sensational aspect, especially when they are divorced from the climatological and economic circumstances that may explain them. In other words, cannibalism is not seen in the same terms as what happened to the Donner party, but rather as an expression of what Diamond termed “The Golden Age That Never Was.”
The scholar most identified with this topic is Christy Turner II whose study “Man Corn” tries to explain Anasazi cannibalism as an early form of totalitarian control:
“Terrorizing, mutilating, and murdering might be evolutionarily useful behaviors when directed against unrelated competitors. And what better way to amplify opponents’ fear than to reduce victims to the subhuman level of cooked meat, especially when they include infants and children from whom no power or prestige could be derived but whose consumption would surely further terrorize, demean, and insult their helpless parents or community? … The benefits would be threefold: community control, control of reproductive behavior (that is, dominating access to women), and food. From the standpoint of sociobiology, then, cannibalism could well represent useful behavior done by well-adjusted, normal adults acting out their ultimate, evolutionarily channelled behavior. On the other hand, one can easily look upon violence and cannibalism as socially pathological.”
Once again we find sociobiology trumping more useful forms of analysis based on objective economic factors. If you reduce humanity to being a “Third Chimpanzee” or “Naked Ape,” naturally you will look for genetic dispositions to violence and subjugation instead of extreme distress brought on by climate or other socio-economic factors.
At least Diamond does not resort to such essentialist nonsense when trying to understand Anasazi collapse. Once again the main culprit is deforestation and unwise farming practices, but exacerbated by a drought that just seems to come and go with the seasons.
Once again you have to turn to Brian Fagan for a more satisfactory explanation of why such a devastating drought occurred. He states that the same ENSO events that struck the Yucatan peninsula also struck the American southwest. When crops failed and water disappeared, cannibalism did occur–although the exact extent is difficult to establish.
For the environmentalist, El Niño is obviously an important factor, especially with the rise of global warming. Although it is impossible to quantify exactly the effect of global warming on the frequency and intensity of El Niños, it seems fairly clear that they are becoming stronger and more common. The January 20, 1996 New Scientist reports:
“El Niño, ‘the little boy’, has just thrown his longest recorded tantrum, and is probably gearing up to throw even longer ones, according to two American climatologists. They have also produced the strongest indication yet that human interference in the global climate is to blame.
“El Nino events, characterised by a warming in the eastern tropical Pacific, are driven by a combination of waning trade winds and a reversal of surface ocean currents. They produce violent storms in the eastern Pacific, and can even cause severe drought in East Africa.
“The latest El Nino, which ended in June 1995, lasted for five years, making it the longest over the past century. Kevin Trenberth and Timothy Hoar of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, suggest that it is the longest in about 2000 years.”
Since modern science has conclusively demonstrated a link between greenhouse gases and global warming, one might think that Jared Diamond would be particularly vigilant about energy companies, the number one malefactor. However, in an interview with Salon Magazine (http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2005/01/08/jared_diamond/index1.html), Diamond practically falls over himself praising Chevron for its environmental sensitivity. This is earned by their supposed commitment to avoiding spills, etc. What Diamond does not seem to grasp is how the problem of global warming is tied up intrinsically with the nature of industrial capitalism. In this sense, he is in much more of a state of denial than any high priest of the Mayan period. If one is grounded in modern science and can understand that severe climate change might be a function of CO2 emissions rather than the wrath of the gods, then one has an obligation to take a clear stand against the capitalist system. That is something that Diamond is unwilling to do and the political reasons for this will become clearer as my critique of “Collapse” progresses.