Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 19, 2010

The Collapse Of Jared Diamond

Filed under: Ecology,Jared Diamond — louisproyect @ 2:12 pm

The Collapse Of Jared Diamond

by Louis Proyect

Book Review

Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire, Edited by Patricia A. McAnany and Norman Yoffee, Cambridge University Press, 2010, ISBN 978-0-521-73366-3, 372 pages.

(Swans – April 19, 2010) There are few professors with a higher profile than Jared Diamond, whose 1997 Guns, Germs and Steel (referred to hereafter as G, G & S) enjoyed blockbuster bestseller status and whose appearances on PBS have made him an instantly recognizable figure. With his avuncular beard, Diamond is the perfect figure to explain to middle-class television audiences why some people are on top and others are on the bottom. As the PBS Web site on G, G & S puts it, he will answer “Why were Europeans the ones to conquer so much of our planet?”

The way he answers this question has convinced some people on the left that he is “one of us” since it rejects the kind of racism that 19th century defenders of Empire espoused. Diamond says that it is not in the white man’s genes that he rules over people of color. Instead it is only a geographical accident that Europe and the United States became hegemons. If, for example, the Incas had access to horses rather than the llama, they might have become major world powers. While it is arguably a mark of progress that the intelligentsia no longer considers people of color to be closer to the apes than to homo sapiens, the net effect of Diamond’s grand narrative is to relieve the privileged men and women of the imperialist societies of any sense of responsibility for the suffering of the system’s victims. After reading G, G & S, they might say to themselves: There, but for the grace of geography, go I.

In 2005, Diamond came out with Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, another ambitious book geared to a mass audience. Long associated with the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, Diamond was finally getting around to answering another Big Question now that he had settled the issue of why the U.S. and Western Europe ruled the world. This time he would analyze why some societies suffered ecological collapse, a problem that is also very much on the mind of the PBS audience and all other solid middle-class people worrying about their future. After all, what good would it do to sit on top of the world when it was facing environmental destruction?

As was the case with G, G & S, Collapse was universally regarded as a prophetic and progressive manifesto. But unlike the earlier book, this one was less deterministic. Geography had little to do with, for example, the failure of the Haitians to succeed as the Dominicans did on the very same island of Hispaniola. How could one part of the island be an ecological disaster while the other half was a virtual Garden of Eden? The answer could be found in the choices made by the people themselves. While the Incas could not be blamed for lacking horses, the Haitians could be blamed for deforestation — or so it would seem.

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  1. I know very little about Diamond besides having read GGS. But you’re comment about Diamond having “falsified” research doesn’t sit well with me. I know nothing about the case in question, but as a journalist, I must say that sometimes you get burned by your sources. It happens to everybody; that’s what attribution is for.

    So, might Diamond have done more fact-checking, but to accuse him of falsification seems decidedly unfair. Again, I have no knowledge of the case, I’m just basing my comments on the way your description.

    Comment by Jon — April 19, 2010 @ 7:36 pm

  2. Pardon me, I misread what you wrote. You wrote his article was “filled with falsehoods,” not that it was deliberately “falsified.” My bad.

    Comment by Jon — April 19, 2010 @ 7:39 pm

  3. One example of the situation of indigenous tribes in the Philippines in this article

    Yes, capitalism brings its civilization – by wiping others off the face of the planet. Diamond is pathological; Guns Germs and Steel Bill Gates’ favorite book.

    Also, his characterization of the D Republic as a ‘success’ would come as a surprise to most of the inhabitants of that country.

    Comment by purple — April 20, 2010 @ 3:50 am

  4. Great piece.

    Comment by Zack — April 20, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

  5. There were accusations of racism over GG&S, among other questions.

    I was quite impressed with both books, but when reading the conclusions in Collapse, that a one size fits all solution was impossible and sometimes it was private ownership that would protect the environment, he was pushing his own belief without adequate support.

    Comment by skidmarx — April 21, 2010 @ 11:39 am

  6. I think there are big differences between Collapse, which is a very weak book, and GG&S, which has much of value in it. It is an important historical questions why certain societies became more technologically advanced than others and why a handful of European nations were eventually able to conquer and exploit much of the globe. Diamond’s emphasis on geographical and ecological factors throws a lot of light on these questions. The problem with GG&S is that it’s materialism is too limited—it focuses on the important ways in which the physical environment has shaped human history, but it tends to ignore the role of the social relations of production, which have become more important over time as class divisions emerged and modes of production changed. You can’t explain the European conquest of the New World, for example, without reference to the social dynamic of late feudalism and the rise of capitalism. But you also can’t explain the conquest of the New World without explaining how Europe had become more technologically advanced than much of the rest of the world, given that its inhabitants are on average no smarter than people elsewhere. That’s the question that GG&S helps to explain.

    The criticism that “the net effect of Diamond’s grand narrative is to relieve the privileged men and women of the imperialist societies of any sense of responsibility for the suffering of the system’s victims,” is one that has been raised by a variety of liberal/post-modernist anthropologists (including on the Savage Minds website). But Diamond explicitly rejects this conclusion, arguing—rightly in my view—that to explain everything is not to forgive everything, and it seems a strange criticism for an unrepentant Marxist to make. Historical materialists don’t generally think that the moral depravity of privileged classes is an adequate explanation for important historical developments and, in any case, there is no incompatibility between offering a materialist explanation for major historical developments and also holding that the key actors can be held responsible for their behavior.

    In recent years, Diamond has behaved like a first-rate jerk, and GG&S certainly has weaknesses as well as strengths. But that’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    Comment by Phil Gasper — April 27, 2010 @ 10:15 pm

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